Are we placing too much emphasis on emotions?
Lets first talk about emotions:
Talking about emotions is one certain way of feeling better. Of lightening up. This depends, of course, on the reaction of the listener.
An accepting ear is required.
We all have experience of the discomfort when you share something personal and the other person responds by a) disagreeing/dismissing or criticising (“I feel as if my whole life has been a waste.” “Oh, that’s not true”, “Don’t be ridiculous” b) giving a lecture and solving your problem cheaply c) retorting with their own worse version and d) misinterpreting what you are saying.
I used to say about my own mother (she has long passed, bless her), that if I had problem, I could not share it with her, because then two of us would have a problem (which adds e) to above….Becoming highly upset themselves).
From my practice it is clear that a frequent problem in depression is the not talking about things that really matter. This is a habit that can run in families, from generation to generation, and through villages and cultures.
Not being able to identify our own emotions as well as those of others, is a significant social handicap.
So, I am all for emotions – after all my profession depends on the ability to listen closely, on being attuned to a myriad of possibilities within a conversation.
The role of Emotions
- Not being able to name emotions or to acknowledge them, is probably thé hallmark of ineffective emotion regulation. If I were to write an essay on “how not to be able to soothe yourself or others”, I will probably write , “ignore emotions” as no1.
- The current emphasis on Mindfulness, is exactly the practice of experiencing an emotion and not running away from it, nor being overwhelmed by it. (We run away because we fear that we will be overwhelmed by it). Developing mindfulness is the building of the capacity to stay with an emotion and to remain calm at the same time.
- It is about not being judgmental about what you or others are experiencing (a big one this).
- Not being judgmental about your own emotions, is one capacity that we all need to build, critically so when you have experienced trauma or have a tendency to overreact.
- It is not for nothing that Mindfulness is trending currently: In the times of great turbulence and uncertainty that we are living in, it is a logical and healthy response to threatening universal stress.
To find out more, check out: https://www.mindful.org/what-is-mindfulness/
Examples of how mindfulness helps us to remain calm, even when we are dealing with our own emotions: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/fulfillment-any-age/201707/research-suggests-cure-neuroticism
Yes, it is important to be able to name an emotion appropriately. After all, this is what therapists do. Sensitive parents and partners do it naturally. The deeper the distress, the greater the significance. In my previous blog on Emotion Regulation, I describe this development in greater details.
Being able to air an emotion is good, and occasionally all that is required,. However, it is a first step, and certainly not a necessary condition for feeling better. It is insufficient when you have to solve a real problem.
As a matter of fact, an over-emphasis on emotions is one of the “symptoms” of a neurotic person. As is an overuse of the word “I”. (More about this later in this blog)
First some anecdotes
I overhear a mother on a playground responding to her son, “But if you don’t tell me how you feel, I can’t help you.”
How I wished I that I could respond like a tennis umpire: “Off!”
My daughter, aged 16, went off to boarding-school. She was a weekly boarder, meaning that she spent weekends at home. In the first six weeks of her stay, she would complain bitterly in the car on the way home. On one such Friday, after listening to her, I replied, “If you are really unhappy, we can make a plan.”
“But I am not unhappy!”
“Then why do you complain so much?”
“I can’t help it, you listen so well.”
The son of a school friend, who was rather awkward and nerdish, struggled to find a date for his final year high school dance. My friend felt really sorry for her son. How dejected he must feel. His 15 year old sister, who later became a successful occupational therapist (for a good reason as we shall see) had a better plan:
“Let us go for dancing lessons. I will go with you. And if nobody else want to go with you to the dance, I will.”
His sister is not only inventive, she is also very good-looking.
It turned out that the young man had talent. He and his sister dressed up to the nines for the dance, and captivated their peers. Ever since, he is a popular choice for dances, and sought after by girls, who incline towards good rhythm anyway.
The roots of the emphasis on Emotions
Carl Rogers (1902-1987), an American humanist, is the father of modern Psychology (post Freud and Jung). His emphasis on empathic listening as the central tool in therapy is still valid. After all, research shows that the experience, “My therapist understands exactly how I feel”, remains the best indicator of a successful therapy.
In the 1980’s a book arrived on the scene, How to listen so kids will talk, and how to talk so kids will listen. It was a bestseller.
It gave the following advice: 1. Firstly, name the emotion that the child is experiencing in an accepting way (“I can see that you are upset/angry/sad/shocked….).
The best part about this advice, is that it helps you to focus on the child before you focus on the behaviour. The same goes for you: When you are experiencing a strong emotion, take a moment to ask yourself, “What is it?”
You may be surprised. Once you hit the right emotion, you will feel it, AND you will experience some relief. Be careful of stereotypical labels:
“I am depressed.”
Yes, but what does that mean?”
“OK. I am sad.”
Sad about what?
This matters, because the correct naming of the emotion, helps with the correct action (the change in your behaviour) that has to follow if you want to feel any better
This book by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish (still in print), was hugely popular, and paved the way for a more cooperative form of parenting. Much of the advice remains useful. Like all new developments, it carried within it seeds of a new set of problems. (An over-emphasis on emotions, the idea of a forced choice has limited potential, and my pet-gripe: another brick on the wall of artificial parenting).
A short cartoon on you tube provides an effective summary of the book
I think I have covered myself…
An overemphasis on Emotions
To return to the examples that I gave at the beginning of this blog: The effective intervention (the teenage sister empowering her brother through dance) does not place the emphasis on the deflating emotions – as opposed to the negative example where I was being over empathic to the negative experiences of my daughter, resulting in an increase in her telling of these tales.
It is certainly not necessary to always name feelings. Especially in the normal course of everyday life. Hopefully it is clear from the anecdotes that a good solution redresses an implicit problem. Being able to identify the underlying problem, is as important as accepting feelings. A very good solution, empowers. If a child is not selected on a team, and is upset, it is appropriate to reflect on their disappointment and possible feelings of “being left out”. (Please note: this is not a catastrophe. I forgot to write about not inflaming emotions.) If the underlying reason is insufficient skills, you have to decide: is this something that can be achieved and thus can be directly addressed, or should you find another activity that will suit your child’s aptitude better. A trip to the theme park to make them feel better, is no solution.
Having trouble making friends? Feeling side-lined and rejected? Being bullied? One of the advantages of search engines, is that you can google why this could be so, and what you can do about it. (In later blogs I will write about grief and trauma.)
Because we tend to respond to negative feelings more often than to positive ones, this leads to an imbalance of focus, which leads to neurosis (unhappiness).
An emphasis on “I” plus an emphasis on feelings, is a feature of a “neurotic” person Which may be why teenagers have such a propensity for being unhappy and why we all need outside interests to keep us sane.
Here are two consequences of an over-emphasis on emotions that you want to avoid
- Self-pity. A nearly natural response to bad things happening to you. Why me? (Would it be better if it was someone else? “Yes, someone deserving. I don’t deserve this.” ) Self-pity, even when it is realistic, is unfortunately a non-helpful coping mechanism. Taking on this identity is to take a shovel and to dig yourself in deeper.
- Victimhood. This is what you become if you indulge in “me” talk. When you believe yourself to be the unfortunate victim of others. Even to the extent that this might be true, I have learnt over the years that this is never entirely true after the age of 12. And the older you get, the less true it is. Best is to accept from an early age that you are co-author of your own life story. This is good news! Much better than the alternative.
Here is a somewhat wordy extract from recent research:
Depressive symptomatology is manifested in greater first-person singular pronoun use (i.e., I-talk), but when and for whom this effect is most apparent, and the extent to which it is specific to depression or part of a broader association between negative emotionality and I-talk, remains unclear. Using pooled data from N = 4,754 participants from 6 labs across 2 countries, we examined, in a preregistered analysis, how the depression–I-talk effect varied by (a) first-person singular pronoun type (i.e., subjective, objective, and possessive), (b) the communication context in which language was generated (i.e., personal, momentary thought, identity-related, and impersonal), and (c) gender. Overall, there was a small but reliable positive correlation between depression and I-talk (r = .10, 95% CI [.07, .13]). The effect was present for all first-person singular pronouns except the possessive type, in all communication contexts except the impersonal one, and for both females and males with little evidence of gender differences. Importantly, a similar pattern of results emerged for negative emotionality….. These results suggest that the robust empirical link between depression and I-talk largely reflects a broader association between negative emotionality and I-talk. Self-referential language using first-person singular pronouns may therefore be better construed as a linguistic marker of general distress proneness or negative emotionality rather than as a specific marker of depression.
Tackman, A. M., Sbarra, D. A., Carey, A. L., Donnellan, M. B., Horn, A. B., Holtzman, N. S., Mehl, M. R. (2018). Depression, negative emotionality, and self-referential language: A multi-lab, multi-measure, and multi-language-task research synthesis. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Advance online publication.http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/pspp0000187
A final short anecdote:
A grandchild was jealous at the arrival of a new sibling. She tells my husband, with some hint of anger, “I do not like my sister!. He replies, with a hint of compassion“ Oh dear, I have bad news for you: One cannot choose your family, you just have to learn to live with them.”
I still like this reply as it neither denies nor opposes her experience. There is an implicit acceptance of her experience, but it is placed within a practical, universal frame that helps her to contain and guide her feelings.
- Emotions are good things. Being able to correctly name what you are feeling is a sign of positive mental health. Just don’t overdo it.
- To soothe yourself or another, accept the emotion calmly and with curiosity. It is the beginning of regulation.
- Keep a check on that inner barometer that veers towards measuring feelings every hour.
- Go slow on the use of “I”, You should not be the main object of your own interest. (Is a sure way of losing friends as well)
- Make a plan that can redress the underlying imbalance. The more ingenious the plan, the more power and joy you will reap.
 Neurosis, a slightly old-fashioned term, is one of the big 5 personality traits. To read about them, you can look up: