The role of emotions and why we have them.

Most people who come to skills training are looking for ways to increase positive emotions, and decrease the negative ones. Human beings, by design, want to feel good, and get rid of emotions that feel bad. But here's the deal, our system did not develop so that we can say, "Yeah, I don't really do shame, anger, sadness, guilt. But, I would like a bunch of joy, love, connectedness, and vitality!" And there are very particular reasons we need all of our emotions.

Your own experience has shown you that the emotional mind is hot, fast, and automatic, while logical thinking mind tends to be cool, slow, and deliberative. Depending on the situation (facts on the road), more of one, versus the other is needed to be most effective. But both are needed. This fact, that we need our emotions is important to understand, because much of the time, our culture has taught us that emotions are “bad.” Or, more accurately said, the uncomfortable, “negative” emotions, like anger, fear and sadness, should be suppressed, contained, gotten rid of, while “positive” emotions like joy, happiness, and love are “good.” What is proposed here is that emotions are neither “good” or “bad” but serve a critical function in our mind-body vehicles, without which, we will have significant difficulties getting where we want to go (just as if we had no engine in our car).

The three communication functions of emotions:

Let’s start by looking at our most primitive emotional drives, and how they have been essential to our survival as a species. Think about it for just a moment. What would happen if early humans did not have fear, for example? Say, you are an early human, out hunting for the day. You hear a snap of a branch behind you, and then feel hot breadth on your neck and hear a growling sound. What would happen if you were purely logical, had no emotion, as you contemplated your next move? YOU WOULD DIE. When our ancestors were struggling to stay alive so that they could live long enough to pass on their genes to the next generation, they had to act quickly to not get killed by a saber tooth tiger or some other dire threat. Right? This is the basic premise of evolution, stay alive, and pass on your genes, “survival of the fittest,” right?

The point is, emotions are hardwired and essential to our survival. Specifically, our emotions serve a vital communication function. The first and most powerful of these is directly to the body to “take action.”  Emotions send automatic, fast communicating messages to our body to take defensive or assertive action to protect our physical well being. They are wired to bypass thinking and get your butt in gear! Think about the last time something scared you. Maybe you had a near miss in a car accident, or almost dropping something precious, or had to give a speech. What do you normally notice in your body? Probably the sensation of your pounding in your chest, sweating, shortness of breath. These are all related to what is commonly called the “fight or flight”  response: the hardwired mechanism in all of us to activate fast action.

Strong emotions compel us humans (as all animals) to take a needed action to stay alive. It works the same way with all emotions. Fear tells us “danger, run away!” Anger says “someone or something is taking advantage” and indicates the need for assertive action (e.g. boundary drawing). Sadness, says, “their has been a loss,” and indicates the need to slow down and heal. Disgust, says “don’t eat that!” But this does not just apply to the difficult or uncomfortable emotions. What do you think would happen to all of the, helpless, screaming, pooping little people if we did not have love? It takes a lot of love to keep the little ones alive long enough to pass on their genes!

A second purpose of emotions is to communicate to others in the group. Because they are hardwired, emotions do not need to be learned. Across cultures and regardless of experience, all humans understand that certain facial expressions and body language indicates a certain emotion is present in our self or others. Early humans needed this communication system as a fast way to send a message to others in the group of the current situation. A smile sends the message “all is well” “there is no threat.” An angry or fearful expression, meant the opposite. So, as you can see, the fundamental purpose of emotions is to motivate a need for essential action or communicate something to our fellow humans.

Lastly, and very importantly, this communication function of emotions is also essential to inform ourselves. When we experience an emotion it tells us what we need, so that we can go about getting it. Remember, emotions feed into both the action and the thinking mechanism. If we suppress this aspect of our experience, we are cutting ourselves off from an important piece of information. We can no longer hear what our emotions are telling us we need.  In a nutshell, we need both logical thinking and emotions to inform Wise decision-making. Table 1 shows the relationship between some of the more common emotions and their respective communication functions. Learning to listen to the messages of our emotions can reconnect us to what is truly important in our life.

Table I: Purpose of Emotions
Emotion                 Action Tendency                            Meaning Communicated                        Need Indicated
Sadness                  Slow down, withdraw                               “There has been a loss”                           Healing
Fear/Anxiety           Get away! Avoid                                        Danger” “Threat”                                      Safety
Anger                      Attack, Assert                                                 “Not Fair!”                                 Protection/Boundary
Shame                   Hide, Cover up                             “There is something wrong with me”          Social acceptance
Guilt              Make amends, solve the problem          “I have done something wrong to you”              Self respect
Love             Care for, nurture, kindness                             The recipient “is worthy.”                  Connection/relationship

But, at this point, some readers may be thinking, “What is she talking about? It is my emotions (anxiety, anger, sadness) that get in the way of my making good decisions!” And I believe you. If you would, just stick with me for a bit longer, as I explain how this system can get out of whack, due to the emotion-action tendency mechanism. 

Secondary Emotions

Sometimes emotions can feel out of control or even “wrong,” for a given situation. (However, usually we do not come to this conclusion until long after the emotion has subsided). Emotions become extra confusing when we have secondary emotions, or an emotion about an emotion. For example, when we become ashamed of feeling angry, or angry because a situation is causing us to feel anxious, or guilty for feeling lustful feelings. There is just about any number of combinations. The important thing to remember is that the secondary emotion is like a red haring. It serves, in a way, to protect us from feeling the first emotions. But ultimately leads us astray. For example, imagine someone cuts you off in trafic, and almost causes you to get into an accident. Because the near accident scared you, you immediately become angry at the other driver. Taking action on the primary emotion, fear, and thus avoiding collision, is the effective thing to do. Acting on the anger, by, for example chasing down the other motorist, is not likely to be helpful, and very likely to lead to some additional problems in your life. Some authors refer to these secondary emotions as “dirty emotions.” They do not hold the same clean communication value as the authentic primary emotion. The more experiences we have with these red haring secondary emotions, the more threatening emotions feel and seem, because acting on emotions has gotten you into trouble. The more threatening emotions begin to feel, the less capable we are of listening to the information containing primary emotions (because of these negative past experiences). We can quite literally become "emotion phobic," and round and round the downward spiral goes. This is why it can feel, very convincingly, like emotions are something to be gotten rid of. The question is, are you fighting the right emotions?


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