Part Two: Are We Overemphasizing Emotions?


Possible consequences of an over-emphasis on emotions:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.

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.


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”. 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 [1] (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.


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.


An 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 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 (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

[1] Neurosis, a slightly old-fashioned term, is one of the big 5 personality traits. To read about them, you can look up:

https://www.verywellmind.com/the-big-five-personality-dimensions-2795422


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