We see it in movies and people express this belief as if it is a proven fact of life….
You(or the character in the movie) are attempting to deal with a difficult situation and
- you believe you need to “get your head in the game” so
- you want to get rid of your emotions because you experience them as messy and distracting.
In other words, you want to be totally rational and not emotional so that you can use your head to develop solutions to the problems you are facing.
While there is some truth to this widely held belief, it doesn’t tell the whole story.
While you may not be a StarTrek fan, you probably are familiar with the character of Mr. Spock.
Mr. Spock is a Vulcan and the Vulcans pride themselves on their ability to eliminate emotions and only use their rational intellects to solve problems and interact with others. Emotions and intellect are mutually exclusive because emotions are imprecise and distracting, and can elicit actions which can worsen the issues that need to be resolved.
In one episode, Mr. Spock is in command of a small team that is stranded on a hostile planet. In order to save his crew, he makes all the right decisions but gets all the wrong responses from his team who are dealing with emotional issues.
While you could argue about what transpires between Mr. Spock and his crew, the point of the episode is that many situations require an interaction between emotions and intellect.
I will explore this interaction in this post.
The statement that you must think about a situation and remain unemotional implies that being rational and being emotional are mutually exclusive and that one may be better than the other.
This gives a false impression.
Yes, there are situations where emotions are not productive and a purely rational decision is both necessary and appropriate.
War and just about any crisis situation including emergencies which require immediate and decisive action are examples.
However, in most of the situations in which you find yourself (especially those which involve other people) emotionality and rationality are complimentary.
Think about the concept of pain as a metaphor for emotions.
Noone likes to hurt but pain informs you that you need to take action. It doesn’t tell you what action to take.
This depends on circumstances and involve:
- The meaning you assign to your pain
- What actions you decide to take regarding your pain.
- The role your pain plays in your life.
Pain as a Variable
As an exampe: The phrase “no pain no gain” informs you that if you don’t feel the burn when exercising, your muscles are not growing. However, too much pain should tell you that you may have damaged yourself in some way and you need to stop and recover.
The Inability to Feel Pain
I know of someone who has Spina Bifida. He has no nerves below his waist. On one occasion, when he was younger, he got too close to a campfire and his pants caught fire. He only became aware that he was in danger when he smelled the burning pants.
He has no sensation of pain in his legs to warn him that he is in danger and that he needs to take evasive action.
Pain as a “threat detector”
In many ways, your pain receptors are threat detectors that alert you to the possibility that future damage may negatively impact your body. In other words, they are threat detectors which give you an opportunity to take effective preventative action.
The experience of pain tells you very emphatically..
- that something is wrong
- what you are doing has the capacity to damage you in some way
- that you need to stop what you are doing and evaluate your situation.
As I described in my book Emotions as Tools: Control Your Life not Your Feelings, the US is protected by a system which electronically sets up a perimeter around our country. The purpose of this electronic perimeter is to alert us to any incoming threat such as a missile early enough to allow us to take protective action and eliminate the threat. This electronic perimeter is a technological threat detector.
Many of your emotions are primitive threat detectors.
Your emotions are also an early warning system that alerts you to a situation that may warrant your attention.
Your emotions also prepare your body to take some action.
Emotions alert you to possible threat. Your intellect will tell you what actions to take.
Here is how the emotional system works:
You are hard wired to subconsciously scan your surroundings for threat.
When the emotional center in your brain (the Amygdala) detects a threat, it sends a fast track message to an alert center in your brain (the Thalamus) which prepares your body for a quick reaction. This is the Fight/Flight/Freeze behavior you’ve heard about.
This is the emotion that you experience.
The specific reaction you are primed to take is related to the nature of the threat you perceive and is reflected in the emotion that you experience. This is the “message” of the emotion.
Anger: The threat is both eminent and is such that I can eliminate it by throwing enough force at it. Anger prepares you for war.
Anxiety: There is uncertainty regarding the threat which may or may not exist in the future. Anxiety either motivates you to take some action to prepare for the threat or it leaves you powerless and feeling overwhelmed.
Disgust: The threat is something that turns your stomach and that must be avoided. Disgust motivates you to remove yourself from the threat or to remove the threat from you.
Sad: The threat is that you have lost someone or something that was very important to you. Sadness motivates you to withdraw, mourn, and recover from the loss.
Happy: The situation you are facing is interesting, exciting, and engaging. Happiness motivates you to engage with and want more of whatever is going on.
Fear: The threat you are facing is both eminent and dangerous. Fear prepares you to move away from and get out of the situation. Sometimes, fear can immobilize you. The nature of the threat is the same.
I think you get the idea.
Emotions and logic as complimentary.
While always reflective of how you perceive the situation and, therefore, valid and worthy of consideration, the emotion you experience is not always accurate or indicative of what is actually taking place.
Huh, you say, what does this mean?
Well, if your understanding, interpretation or perception of the event is inaccurate, the emotion you feel will not be accurate.
Have you ever worried about what someone is thinking about you only to find out later that they were not thinking about you at all?
There was a study that was done many years ago in which volunteers were asked to go into a bar wearing T-shirts with slogans which were designed to be provacative to the people who normally frequented the bar. (For example derogative country music slogans in a country music bar). When they left the bar, all the subjects thought that they had been the center of attention. Most of the patrons in the bar, when questioned, indicated that they didn’t even notice. This is called the spotlight effect.
Or, perhaps, you were really worried about some future situation only to find out that, when it did occur or if it didn’t take place at all, that your worry was excessive or even unnecessary?
So, your emotion gives you the heads-up that something needs your attention.
Your logical analysis then assesses the nature of the threat and chooses a response that is commensurate with and that will help you effectively deal with the actual threat that you are facing.
The Covid 19 virus.
As I am writing this, the US and the World are facing a viral pandemic.
People are getting sick and dying.
If you listen to the news, you can easily get overwhelmed. This is both fear because the threat is real and anxiety because the threat you are actually facing is uncertain.
The way to effectively deal with the cover-19 pandemic is to acknowledge that a threat does exist (validate the anxiety) and then to rationally decide to take effective action including social distancing, wearing a mask, not touching your face, sanitizing anything that you touch or bring into your home and being cautious. If you take these actions, you dramatically reduce the possibility that you will get the virus.
And, you will be able to maintain your relationships with others (via technology) and sleep at night.
Your emotions have informed you and your intellect (logic) has helped you create an effective response.