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.
Emotions help paint the picture of our lives. They are our first clue about whether an experience is positive or negative. When the events in our life carry lots of meaning, emotions get intense and physiology is revved up. If too intense, we don’t think as clearly and we don’t perform as well. But no matter how intense, emotions cannot guarantee the reality of what we experience. That’s because emotions are subjective.
You and I can experience the same event and not feel the same way about it. It’s also possible for both of us to misperceive what just happened. As I mentioned in Fact #1, emotions contain information but that information is rarely complete or perfectly accurate. That’s why we should never act on emotions alone.
Emotions are also temporary. That’s why they’re called emotional states. We might move in and out of a state of sadness just as we might move into and through the state of Iowa. Of course, entering an emotional state is less direct or deliberate. Emotions can show up for any number of reasons: an image crosses our mind, we see an old friend, we witness a heated exchange in a checkout line, or we recall a special family event from long ago.
Many of us try to create conditions that will lead to positive emotions. In fact, it’s a big business in this country. Millions of dollars are spent each year on what is called the experiential economy: activities or vacations that promise yield excitement, joy, love, or some other emotional high.
Positive emotions don’t always cost money. Some of the most powerful and positive emotional experiences actually cost very little: a sincere apology, an affirming statement, or a heartfelt thanks. Research has shown that these not-so-random acts of kindness can lead reliably to positive emotions and important health outcomes.
We can also create conditions that give rise to negative emotions. This is good to know because sometimes we need to visit tough feelings or negative emotions if we’re to move psychologically.
The best example is grief over a loved one. There are times in our life when grief should be on our schedule, when we should consider surrounding ourselves with reminders of a person lost (e.g., photographs, letters), when we would be wise to wait openly for the sadness of grief to arrive. This is often how unresolved grief is addressed in therapy.
There are some who run from negative emotions. They tend to avoid memories, conversations, and activities that might lead to feeling scared or sad or ashamed. It’s a strategy that can actually undermine one’s health and wellbeing; it also has downside of limiting access to rich, positive emotional experiences.
But with practice (see Fact #7), we can learn to ride the wave of our emotions, feeling them rise up and up, before eventually fading away. And they will fade, if we are open to feeling. Even when we grieve, surrounded with photos of a lost loved one, we can’t sustain the sadness of grief for long. We can sustain a posture of grief, we can deny our loss, and we can replay in our minds regretful acts committed or omitted, but we can’t sustain the emotion of sadness when it’s fully and earnestly felt.
Of course, many of us “can’t stand” to feel scared, sad, or ashamed. We routinely turn away from bad feelings; we don’t learn that emotions rise and fall. I say to my patients that recurring bad feelings are like ghosts that can only settle when we help them find a place in our heart. When we try to keep them out, they continue to haunt us.
Extreme unwillingness to experience bad feelings increases our risk for psychological problems. Repeated attempts to avoid feeling anxious could lead to panic disorder or generalized anxiety disorder. Denying loss and sadness can lead to mood disorders such as clinical depression. Fortunately, anxiety and depression are conditions that can be effectively treated (see http://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/).