When covering the topic of emotions in my therapy groups I would first ask my participants to contemplate the main functions and benefits of emotions. In ‘What are emotions and what do they do?’ I discussed how according to one model, emotions represent the output from our appraisal of a situation, and create impetus for us to act in ways appropriate to our appraisal. But people don’t generally come to therapy with fully functioning emotional systems, so we would then discuss ways in which emotions can malfunction and cause us trouble. Here are the some of the ways we worked out together…
Short-term gain for long-term pain
Until comparatively recently humans lived pretty much hand to mouth. No wonder then that our emotions often display a short-term bias; that is, they generally provide impetus to act for short-term gain, but don’t always guide use towards better outcomes in the longer term.
For example, I once worked with a small business owner who was afraid of public speaking, and this fear had discouraged her from pitching her business to customers. By avoiding these sales presentations she spared herself the potential for embarrassment, but it eventually cost her the business, and by the time I met her she felt ashamed at letting herself and her family down.
Positive emotions may also promote this short term focus. For example, addictions of all kinds involve short term gratification at the expense of long term physical, mental or financial health.
Emotions are not warranted
Many situations in life are ambiguous, and so can be interpreted in different ways. If we misinterpret a situation then we create a mix of emotions that will provide impetus to some potentially unhelpful responses. I remember when I was travelling in Japan one time I was sitting alone in the breakfast room of a traditional inn, opposite a stern looking Japanese man. It looked to me as though he might not like foreigners, so my anxiety caused me to stay quiet and carry on eating. Soon though he struck up a conversation, and to cut a long story short we ended up hiking together, and he helped me out finding accommodation on a day I thought everything was booked. If it was left to me and my emotions I would have missed out on all of that, and I realised with hindsight his facial expression might have been nerves at the prospect of speaking in English to me, (or else he might just have had what is known technically as a ‘resting bitch face’ 🙂 ).
Emotions are too strong
Strong emotions can be caused by misinterpreting a situation, as we have considered, but some people just experience emotions more strongly than others. This might result from a genetic predisposition, or from significant life experiences, such as child abuse, and can be experienced during episodes of mental illness, as in the highs and lows of bipolar depression. And of course we may become more emotional when under the influence of drugs like alcohol.
This is clearly unpleasant when those emotions are negative, but will also stimulate a proportionally strong reaction; in other words we overreact. So, perhaps anger is appropriate in a situation, but our aggressive response is over the top and damages relationships. Or we make a mistake and the strength of shame and regret that we feel stops us from moving on and learning from that mistake. Positive emotions are also unhelpful if experienced too strongly: we might feel over-confident and end up taking dangerous risks, including social and financial risks.
Emotions are numbed
Some people regulate their emotions by purposefully or subconsciously suppressing them, and dampened emotional experience can be a side effect of some psychiatric medications. Many clients I’ve worked with suffering from depression say the absence of feeling is one of the worst aspects of this condition.
One of the problems with emotional numbing is that we can’t selectively numb only the negative emotions, so we lose the positives also, disconnecting us from all that life has to offer. And without a significant portion of our emotional ‘metadata’ we have little guidance or impetus, leaving us stranded in the doldrums like a sailing ship with no sails.
Emotions are complex
Complex emotions are sometimes unavoidable, especially in complex situations. One of the functions of the arts, be it music, film, literature, fine arts, or weird contemporary art installations, is to represent this complexity in life, and help guide us through the associated cocktail of emotions without too much of a hangover. It’s possible to feel two or more quite conflicting emotions about the same situation, such as when a parent feels happy-sad about their child leaving home, or a musician feels both anxious and excited about their upcoming performance. When there’s a lot of ‘noise’ in our heads it’s hard to recognise what distinct emotions we are feeling, and so it’s difficult to know what we can do to resolve them.
Emotions are erratic
Emotions can also be erratic: changing, unpredictable, unstable. It is like living in a city with notoriously unpredictable weather. You would be tempted to just stay at home rather than leave and get caught in a hailstorm, and a lot of my clients said that they never know how they’re going to feel on a particular day, making it hard to commit to anything.
When malfunctioning emotions are an isolated occurrence then perhaps nothing too bad will come of it. However, when unhelpful emotions lead to unhelpful responses, these negatively impact on our circumstances, amplifying our negative emotions. And so begins many a vicious cycle leading to mental ill health.