Today’s post is the eighth in a series that I call “The 10 Most Useful Facts about Emotions”. I wrote this for a forthcoming book about parenting. I was trying to find a way to help parents appreciate what I call the emotional hazards of parenting. So, the 10 most useful emotion facts are applied to parenting but they can be used to better understand the emotional hazards of any relationship.
Fact #8: Emotions are Subjective and Temporary
Emotions are a by-product of our experiences and our interpretations of those experiences. Emotions are how we first register the impact and valence (good vs. bad) of an event. When events are really big and carry a lot of meaning, our emotions can become very intense: Our physiology is turned up, we don’t think clearly, and we struggle to perform even the most familiar of behaviors. All of this is very real, and yet the reality of our emotions, even if very intense, cannot guarantee the reality of what we perceive.
Emotions are subjective. That means you and I can experience the same event and not feel the same way about it. There’s also room for error; we could both misperceive what just happened. So when we wisely search for information in our feelings (see Fact #1), we should remember that emotion information is rarely complete or wholly accurate. We should never act on it alone.
Emotions are also temporary. That’s why we refer to them as states of arousal. They are not permanent. We move in and out of emotional states just as we might enter Michigan or leave Montana. Of course, entering an emotional state is less direct or deliberate. Emotions can follow an image that crosses our mind, an event just experienced, or the memory of an event experienced long ago.
We can also create conditions that might give rise to certain emotions. We often do that with positive emotions. In fact, searching for conditions that give rise to positive emotional experiences is big business. Millions of dollars are spent each year on what has been called the experiential economy: activities or vacations designed to yield excitement, adventure, romantic love, or some other emotional high. But not all conditions that give rise to positive emotions are so expensive. Some of the most powerful, especially in terms of added health benefits, actually cost very little: a sincere apology, an affirming statement, or a heartfelt thank you. Research has shown that these not-so-random acts of kindness actually produce positive, health-promoting emotions.
We can also create conditions that give rise to negative emotions. This is useful to know, and not because it allows us to avoid bad feelings but because it’s sometimes useful to visit bad feelings.
The best example of this is grief. Grieving the loss of a loved one can add to our health and can help us move on with our lives. There will be times in our life when we should put grief on our schedule, setting aside time to surround ourselves with vivid reminders of the person lost (e.g., photographs, letters) and waiting openly for the sadness of grief to arrive. This strategy is commonly used therapeutically to help those patients who are mired in unresolved grief.
Some folks don’t want negative emotions to arrive—ever. They avoid conditions that might lead to bad feelings. They try to cut out of their lives memories, activities, and people who might engender such feelings. It’s not a strategy that works in the long run, and it has the downside of limiting opportunities for other, potentially rich emotional experiences, good or bad. As noted in Fact #7, the strategy of emotional avoidance is also unnecessary. When we lean into an emotion, when we feel it and let it sit with us, it eventually fades. Even the grieving person, surrounded with photos and letters, cannot sustain the sadness of grief for very long. They can certainly sustain the posture of grief, refusing to accept the reality of death, refusing to go on with their lives, replaying in their minds regretful acts committed or omitted, but they cannot sustain the emotion of sadness fully and earnestly felt.
Many don’t believe they can survive the time and discomfort while waiting for negative emotional states to come and go. They’re convinced—by their own claims—that they “can’t stand it” when they feel frightened, sad, or ashamed. Past experience has taught them that bad feelings won’t pass and won’t fade; they’ve developed ways to escape momentarily from bad feelings, which means they’ve had no opportunity to learn otherwise. This pattern only serves to keep bad feelings around, stirring their hearts and haunting their minds.
An extreme reluctance to experience bad feelings could lead to a diagnosable disorder. For some, a tendency to feel anxious is met with repeated attempts at avoidance; with practice, these individuals can develop panic disorder or generalized anxiety disorder. For others, avoidance of bad feelings can lead to a mood disorder such as clinical depression. Feeling sad is not the same thing as depression; depression is a multi-faceted syndrome that affects how we feel, how we think, how we sleep and eat, and how much energy we have. The line between emotions and moods is not entirely clear, but moods are more pervasive and more stable than emotions. People who suffer from depression tend to experience it as an inescapable weight they carry everywhere they go. Clinical depression typically lasts for six months and can return episodically. Fortunately, anxiety and depression are conditions that can be effectively treated, and there are a number of effective treatment options that don’t involve medication (see http://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/).