Emotions are tools that you can learn to master.
A friend of mine who worked in construction once told me, “You know, you can’t have too many tools. With the right tools, you can do any job.”
The same is true for emotions as tools. The more familiar you are with your emotions and the more adept you are at mastering those emotions, the more flexible you are in dealing with any situation you encounter.
In other words, the world should be more emotional (master more emotions) not less (restricting or controlling emotions).
To be clear, emotional mastery includes managing or controlling your arousal level so that you can assess what it going on around you.
The issue, for me, is that controlling one’s emotions is presented as the endpoint not the starting point. And, if the emotion is strong enough, control won’t be considered as an option.
In the absence of emotional mastery, you may only experience anger, assume that there is a threat (see below), and act as if that threat is real. It may not occur to you that what really is going on is that you are disappointed, hurt, frustrated, or misinformed. In any of these cases, it will not be anger that is appropriate.
A physical analogy is that, if you only have a hammer, you need to hang a picture and you can only find a screw, you pound the screw into the wall. Yes, it works. But, a screw driver would be both more efficient and more effective.
Let’s introduce you to your emotional tools.
Emotions and Evolution
Our emotions have evolved over the millennia to both inform us about how we perceive our surroundings and motivate us to take effective action.
These are two independent functions of emotions: inform and motivate.
Emotions as Information
Each emotion provides you with useful (although not always accurate) information about how you perceive the world around you. This is the message of the emotion.
The message of positive emotions such as glad (or happy) is that you perceive what you are doing as a situation in which you want to stay.
The message of negative emotions is that you perceive some sort of “threat” that could harm you.
Anxiety is an example of a (so-called) negative emotion because it doesn’t feel good when we are anxious.
I got anxious when my wife went into labor with our first child.
Anxiety is a future based emotion, the message of which is that there may be a threat out there which could be harmful.
For me, the message was that my wife needed to be in a hospital before the baby arrived just in case.
Understanding the emotion.
Anxiety is an interesting emotion in that it has two faces and a flip side.
The two faces of anxiety are eustress and distress.
Distress is the most common form of anxiety. The message of distress is that the possible threat is real, it will harm me, and I must avoid it.
There is always the possibility that the perceived threat isn’t as disastrous as it appears.
Have you ever anticipated a response from another person about some subject only to be surprised when that individual either didn’t react the way you expected or wasn’t even aware that a problem existed.
There is a commercial for Discover credit card in which the customer practices refusing to pay any fees and anticipates a negative response from the credit card “operator”only to find out, when he contacts Discover Cards, that no fees are ever charged. In other words, the customer in the ad was nervous about, and over-prepared himself to handle, a situation that never existed.
Or, think about the time you may have gotten all nervous about asking someone out on a date, or your boss for a raise, and prepared yourself for all the things that could go wrong only to be surprised when she said “yes”.
Eustress is the other face of anxiety. The message of eustress is that the possible threat is real and that action must be taken to prepare for the threat so that it can be eliminated.
Eustress motivates you to prepare for possible “threats” that do exist. An example is studying for an upcoming exam so you don’t “fail” it.
In the language of positive and negative emotions, anxiety would be a negative emotion because it feels uncomfortable and anticipation would be a positive emotion because it feels great. Both anxiety and anticipation are adaptive in that they help us improve our lives.
The emotion of anger can be understood in the same way.
As an emotion, anger is very powerful. It is a tool just like a car that you can learn to master. The message of anger is that you perceive a threat you believe you can eliminate if you throw enough force at it.
Rage looks like anger on steroids but is more like travelling too fast on an icy road.
Anger can help you make better decisions. Rage is out of control.
Different, and often less potent, faces of anger include irritation, annoyance, frustration, resentment, exasperated, indignation.
So, let’s go back to construction tools. If you see a screw with a “slot” in it, you know you need a Flathead screwdriver. If the screw has a “+” on it, you need a Phillips head screw driver.
Similarly, if you are angry, you know that you perceive a threat that you believe you can eliminate if you throw enough force at it.
This doesn’t mean, however, that the threat actually exists, only that you perceive it to exist.
What you do with the anger depends on how familiar you are with anger as a tool. Is it anger or one of anger’s cousins such as annoyance, resentment, etc?
The more emotional tools you have, the more specific you can be in how you use your tools to interact with your surroundings.
Positive and Negative Emotions ( a clarification)
I’ve referred to positive and negative emotions above because that is how most people view emotions. However, I don’t like to label emotions as positive or negative because these labels imply that some emotions (the negative ones) should be eliminated (think negative evaluation at work) and others (the positive ones) should be pursued.
In fact, there are no positive or negative emotions as all emotions are adaptive (useful when understood) as sources of information and motivation. There are, however, emotions that feel good (the so-called “positive” ones) and emotions that do not feel good (the so-called “negative” ones).
The labels of positive and negative describe the hedonic quality of the emotion not its value or importance.
Emotions as Motivation
Anxiety, as distress, motivates us to avoid public speaking, leads us to avoid asking someone out on a date, keeps us in situations we don’t like because we might not do any better, and can lead us to procrastinate.
Anxiety as eustress motivated me to take my wife to the hospital and gives my students the motivation they need to study for their exams.
Anger prepares you for battle.
Positive emotions motivate us to continue doing what we are doing.
The main point here is that emotions alert us to our surroundings and motivate us to take action.
Motivation is not the same as coercion.
While our emotions move or lead us in a certain direction, we have a choice about what action we will take.
It is at the intersection between emotions and logic that all the benefits of emotions come out.
Learning to master this interaction could be very useful and is the basis for my recommendation that we need more (well mastered) emotions.
Think about any important decision you’ve recently made. If the decision required background information to help you draw a conclusion, the more accurate information you had, the better would be the resultant decision.
Two words are important here: more and accurate.
Your emotions give you a lot of information about how you perceive your surroundings. You may perceive a threat you want to eliminate or prepare for. Or, you perceive a situation you want to experience more of.
Emotions inform and motivate.
They do not choose.
The more information you have about a situation in which you find yourself, the more opportunities you have to evaluate and assess the information and choose how you want to respond.
Emotions inform logic.
It is logic that evaluates and chooses a response.
Think about the above discussion regarding anxiety.
My anxiety informed me about a possible future event that needed my attention. Had my wife been experiencing some mild discomfort, I would not have been anxious. I got anxious and I was motivated to take some action. The action I took was to (safely) run a red light. When I did this, a cop pulled me over. I informed him about my wife and told him that he could follow me to the hospital (about 3 blocks away) and, once my wife was taken care of, I would comply with whatever decision he chose to make. By the way, he followed me to the hospital, checked my licence, registration and insurance and wished me good luck. I would not have gone through the red light or put off the cop without my anxiety.
An alternative approach could have involved my getting angry with the cop for pulling me over and “preventing” me from getting to the hospital.
Had I been angry, my interaction with the cop would have been very different.
With people facing an upcoming interview, a test, or a project about which they have some concern, their anxiety may motivate them to procrastinate and avoid the future event.
Whether we choose to avoid the event or prepare to effectively deal with it is always a choice.
So, given my belief that more relevant information is better than less, I am recommending a world in which we both validate and acknowledge all of our emotions so that we are open to the information they provide us about our surroundings.
More emotions lead to more involvement and possibly more effective interactions with others.
In addition, I am recommending that we more effectively use our logic or intellect to help us choose the best course of action to improve our lives and our relationships.
Using my emotions and my intellect together allows me to inform you that I don’t like what you are doing and to interact with you so that we, together, can come up with a way to resolve whatever issue has come up between us.
I am not saying that more emotions and logical evaluations will end the types of behaviors we have recently witnessed. If a perpetrator of an undeniably bad event is “perfectly sane”and has chosen to both give in to his emotion and use his logic to justify what he is feeling, emotion is not the issue. His belief systems and model of the world need to be explored.
For others, however, using their emotions as a source of information to be logically evaluated could lead to better decisions and less negative behavior. It is these people that I believe would benefit from more emotions.
I welcome your comments.