As I have discussed before, the most adaptive way to conceptualize and think about your feelings is to view them as tools. This metaphor not only accurately describes the way emotions “work” (as tools to accomplish a specific task) in your brain and body but also allows you to demystify emotions in general. When you view emotions as tools, it is easier for you to realize both that the tool (your feeling) doesn’t control you and that you can learn to master the tool to get the most out of what it was “designed” (by evolution) to do.
Emotions are experienced as happening very quickly and, therefore, seem to have a life of their own. This is how you would want emotions to work if your life depended on an emotional reaction to a survival threat. A good example is the emotion of fear (not anxiety).
Based on this experience, however, many people tend to (incorrectly) believe that their emotions control them.
But, think about it. While you may have some challenges getting your smart phone or TV remote to do what you want, you never complain that the phone “made” you upset, controlled you in any way, or acted upon you in some autonomous manner. The phone or remote is just a tool. You control (or not) it and not vice versa.
You have, however, probably said (or heard someone say) “You made me angry.”(Someone else has absolute power over you.) or “I wouldn’t have (fill in the blank) if I hadn’t been so angry.”(Your anger has absolute control over you.)
Your emotions were “designed” by evolution as tools to do a specific task. My goal, with my books and posts, is to help you learn what the task of each emotion is and how to master each emotion as a tool.
That being said, let’s carry the analogy another step forward.
And, by the way, while it may be applied differently, the information in this post is useful to both men and women
If you are like me, you have a tool kit, tool bag, or some collection of familiar tools in your shop, your car, your kitchen, or some other easily accessible place. While the specific tools you have in your kit will vary with the job your set of tools is designed to help you do, let’s look at a standard household tool kit.
The kit probably contains a hammer, a pair of standard pliers, two screw drivers (both Flathead and Phillips), a tape measure and so forth. These are basic tools which will allow you to do most of the repair jobs that come up. You may also have some “specialized” tools like different size screw drivers (tiny for your glasses or small parts of your sewing machine) a rubber mallet,needle nose pliers, power tools and so forth.
You set up your toolkit to be there for you when something requires your attention because it needs to be fixed.
Have you ever been faced with a job that required a tool you didn’t have and you either tried to use the tools you did have to do the job or you gave up?
For instance, you needed to fix the side of a piece of furniture or cabinet and, where you should have used a rubber mallet (which you didn’t have), you used your regular hammer and left a dent. Or, you tried to use a Flathead screwdriver and stripped the Phillips head screw.
Or, you couldn’t get your cell phone or TV remote to do what you wanted and just gave up.
Now, while the analogy isn’t perfect, it can be informative. So, please, allow me a bit of leeway here.
You also have a “standard” emotional tool kit which would include all the basic emotions you are used to experiencing including anger, sad, happy, anxiety, surprise, vulnerability, fear, and disgust.
Unlike the physical toolkit we spoke about above, all the emotions are somewhere in your emotional toolkit. However, while they are all there and you can learn to access them, you may not experience most of them. For example, you might not experience Guilt, Envy or Jealousy but they are there. And, the emotion of Shadenfreude (feeling pleasure about the discomfort of another) is also in there but would be invisible to you unless you spoke German as there is no English equivalent.
Let’s look at some of your basic emotional tools and what they do.
Anger, as a tool alerts you to a threat you believe you can eliminate if you throw enough force at it.
The proper use of this tool is to assess the nature of the threat your anger has alerted you to and, if it is a valid threat, use the energy of the tool to motivate you to make a plan and eliminate the threat. This may be the tool you use the most.
Anger prepares you to go to war.
There are three main issues with anger.
You might deploy your anger when no real threat exists as that you might have misjudged the threat. You have misunderstood what tool is needed and just grabbed a familiar one from your tool kit.
You might not be able to use your anger directly because the environment in which the threat occurred either does not tolerate the expression of anger in general or specifically denies you the expression of anger because of your gender, status, or color. You have a hammer but you can’t use it because it is too heavy, too big, or not the right material for the situation.
You are deploying your anger as a secondary emotion. In this case, it is the wrong tool for the job but it is the only tool you feel comfortable using.
Anxiety is a future based emotion the message of which is that there MAY be a threat out there that MAY harm you.
The proper use of this emotional tool is to check out how valid the future threat is and use the energy of the tool to motivate you to prepare for what is out there. This is anxiety as “eustress”. When you use the energy of your anxiety about an upcoming speech you have to give to prepare yourself, this is using your anxiety as a tool to move you forward.
Many people, however, experience anxiety as distress and get stuck. This is a misuse of this emotion. Anxiety, as distress, reacts as if the perceived (possible) threat is both inevitable and that there is no way to avoid being harmed by it. I’ve discussed the process of catastrophising as a worst case anxiety scenario in a previous post.
The message of vulnerability is that a weakness of yours may be exposed.
The proper use of vulnerability as a tool depends on the circumstances. Being vulnerable in a relationship and sharing your concerns can enhance the relationship. Women, in general, may be better at using vulnerability as a tool.
Men, in general, tend to misuse the feeling of vulnerability because of a belief that weakness is to be avoided. Instead of examining the perceived weakness and whether it has any merit, men will tend to express anger to cover up feeling of vulnerability. This is anger as a secondary emotion.
The next step is to look at your emotional toolkit.
- Are you familiar with the emotions you typically use, the information they provide, and the best way to master them?
- Do you have the right tools to match the interactions you have with others?
- What information do you need to get in order to make you better at mastering your emotional tools?
I welcome your comments.