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Emotion Myths

Updated: Nov 9, 2022

In this article I aim to address some common myths about emotions and help to shine a light on why are held by people and what alternative implications there may be by challening them.

“Emotions are for babies”

An obvious way of interpreting and re-formulating this statement is “Only babies are allowed to experience and/or express specific negative or uncomfortable emotions”, such as sadness, fear, or feeling low. One response is, who gets to decide or is an authority on whether someone of any age is allowed to experience or express negative emotions (or any emotions, for that matter)? People have their reasons for either believing the statement to be true or adopting it in their life, and many of these reasons have probably helped them cope or survive challenging situations. Indeed, living in this way may have had adaptive survival value. However, statements about what one should or ought to do are necessarily subjective or personal, and do not imply any generalised objective standard or expectation for all future situations or for all people. In fact, perpetuating this kind of belief may cause further difficulties in one’s life, even if holding the belief in the past served a useful purpose.

Another response to this statement is that emotions evolved to ensure our survival, especially the uncomfortable or negative ones! Imagine not having the fight or flight response when a real threat is near. To dismiss or invalidate emotions entirely would be to put oneself at a disadvantage, a life-or-death risk, in some cases. For example, imagine if you ignored or minimised serious physical injuries--in other words, pain--throughout your life, that is, you wouldn’t ask for any help or treatment or you wouldn’t try to heal the injury. This could eventually cause further harm or worse.

In fact, it’s not (uncomfortable/negative) emotions that are bad or unhelpful, even if they are unpleasant or incredibly distressing at times. Rather, it’s our relationship to those emotions that lead to helpful or unhelpful consequences and importantly, lead to a helpful or unhelpful relationship with ourselves and others.

“If I had the right feelings, I wouldn’t have so much trouble.”

There are two ways of addressing this statement. Firstly, this statement seems to imply that there are such things as “right” or “wrong” feelings, but upon closer inspection, what would that mean? Well, it would mean that there are correct or incorrect feelings in a factual or objective sense (by “objective” I mean any non-mental thing, and complimentarily, by “subjective”, I mean any mental thing, e.g., thoughts). Can feelings be objectively correct? What are feelings, exactly? For the sake of simplicity, let’s equate feelings with emotions. The idea of what emotions are scientifically and philosophically has been historically controversial, and many scientists have described them in a variety of ways, with some overlap amongst them. Broadly, though, emotions/feelings are considered to be mental (of the mind/conscious) experiences—if you aren’t consciously experiencing stuff, then you’re not experiencing feelings/emotions. So, in light of this, it would be incoherent to say that feelings/emotions are the sorts of things that you can be right/wrong or correct/incorrect about. Rather, whatever we feel or however we emote is coming from a genuine place in our bodies and minds. Now, you could say that in some situations it’s either helpful or unhelpful to feel particular emotions instead of others, but that’s not the same claim that the original statement is making.

Secondly, the statement seems to be implying that particular emotions are influencing or causing trouble, and that if only those emotions stopped or were replaced with different emotions, there would be no more or less trouble. It’s difficult to know how to address this statement due to the general vagueness being claimed. However, if we were to create a thought experiment to try and add some meaningful context to it, this might help. Let’s say that someone was feeling sad about losing something or someone, and this sadness was making it difficult for this person to concentrate or function. Despite these difficulties, the person tried hard to ignore or dismiss their sadness. And yet, the sadness kept returning, waiting to remind the person of its presence when the person became less active, and things became quieter. In this scenario, the person may have the type of thought “If I felt happy, then I wouldn’t have so much trouble”. In theory, this sounds reasonable. But in practise, one of the reasons that they may be having so much trouble (and is actually often the case) is because they are avoiding the sad feelings that are calling out for help, for release, for processing. In the short-term, avoiding the sadness seems to work: the person can function and be successful during the day. But in the long-term, the sadness remains and is continually re-activated or triggered, only to be avoided yet again, and so perpetuating an endless cycle. To conclude, then, in this scenario, eliminating sadness and replacing it with happiness is unrealistic and impractical as a way of lessening the trouble. Rather, allowing oneself to feel the sadness and release what’s needed (whether independently or with social support) can increase the chances that the sadness may diminish in the long-term. This doesn’t mean it will be easy or fast, of course, but it may allow for some significant long-term change and growth.

“If I had no feelings, I wouldn’t have so much trouble.”

Having no feelings may be a short-term answer to reducing trouble, but in the long-term, it may in fact cause more trouble! Let’s equate feelings with physical pain (as in, feeling pain as a result of a physical injury). Now, if you didn’t have any pain receptors at all to tell your brain and body that you had been injured, how long might you last? You would be going about your day with little awareness of the many injuries you may be sustaining or inflicting on yourself, unless you’re able to visually spot them when they occur, which would be very taxing. The same can be said for feelings: feelings, like pain receptors, have evolved because they have survival value. Without the things that give us survival value, we wouldn’t be as robust or resilient to manage life’s challenges. So, to conclude, in my view, if you had no feelings, you would have MORE trouble!

“Happy people don’t have negative emotions.”

To be happy does not mean that you only feel happiness or positive emotions. Negative or uncomfortable emotions, like positive or comfortable emotions, have survival value. Emotions communicate to us how we are in different contexts. Some emotions are incredibly distressing and can be unhelpful in many situations, of course, but they are always communicating something about our internal states. Happy people may listen well to their negative emotions and address the concerns those emotions have. This could be one reason why happy people (and by “happy people” I’m generalising to those people who tend to have more positive emotional and cognitive states than negative ones) are more generally happier. Either way, happy people and unhappy people both have positive and negative emotions, even if the balance is skewed in one direction more than the other for each.

“I have to be in total control of my emotions all the time.”

Is it possible to be in total control of anything? Wouldn’t that imply omnipotence, like a god? In fact, when we consider the factors involved in any one situation, we apparently only have a small amount of control. For example, we’re not in control of our automatic, nonconscious functions like breathing, our heartbeat, balance, or our automatic thoughts and sensations, although we can certainly influence those things. We are not in control of many things happening around us, like what people are thinking, or what’s going on outside, in other countries, or in the wider universe. Although this may seem stark and terrifying to some,

we do have some control of ourselves. In light of this, it’s not possible to be in control of your emotions "all the time," and trying to be, I imagine, would only make you feel more anxious or sad. It’s a battle you won’t win, like fighting against the raging seas. So, if that’s all true, what can you do about uncomfortable emotions? Well some ways include,

· You can learn more about why you’re feeling certain emotions, e.g., stop and think, "what emotion(s) am I feeling?", "what's causing me to feel this way?", "is there anything I can do about it?".

· You can process your emotions, e.g., talking to someone you trust and feel safe with, either a friend or family, or a professional, writing your thoughts and feelings down in a journal, or expressing your feelings more regularly.

· You can learn ways to regulate/manage the intensity of your emotions, e.g., breathing exercises, mindfulness meditation, physical hygiene (diet and exercise), and other ways to ground yourself in the here-and-now.

One key thing to add is that doing these things once or twice may be helpful, but they may be even more helpful if they become a regular habit, since then the change you make is sustained or more long-lived.

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