The phrase “Don’t get emotional” implies that we normally aren’t.
Most of our news headlines can be interpreted as emotional responses gone overboard, becoming crime, scandal, corruption, greed, and bad policy.
The fact that these reactions are newsworthy seems to reinforce the idea that emotions are sporadic and exceptional, little whirlwinds that appear around significant events, making the odd day or week wonderful or awful.
But if you pay attention to your emotions as you read these headlines, it becomes obvious that even in our most mundane moments — reading the paper on a Monday morning — we are always feeling some way or another. Even a casual glance at a newspaper will begin to stir up familiar feelings like fear, amazement, disgust, admiration or annoyance. We’re never really in “neutral.”
We’re living through emotional reactions all day long, even to events as tiny as hearing a text message arrive, or noticing a fly in the room. Our emotions aren’t always overwhelming us, but they are always affecting us, coloring our perceptions and opinions about ourselves and our world.
This is the “fish in water” effect at work — because we are immersed in our emotions’ effects every moment of our lives, we tend to talk about them only when they’re exceptionally strong.
Even when it’s not obvious, though, emotions are the force behind almost everything we do. They’re the only reason our experiences matter at all. If every event triggered the same emotion, it wouldn’t matter to us whether we got out of bed or not, whether we were sick or healthy, or whether we thrived or starved. All of our values and morals, all of the meaning we perceive in life, stem from our knowledge that there are some very different ways a person can feel.
Wandering in dark places without a map
What might be surprising is that there aren’t that many basic emotions, and that virtually all of us have experienced every one of them, many times. Each one has fairly predictable effects on us, and these effects are responsible for a huge proportion of our quality of life: whether we live a life of confidence or worry, whether we’re good with people or bad with people, or whether we believe the world is a good place or a vile place.
Yet we don’t make much of a point of understanding and adjusting for our emotional states. We even overlook the simple fact that we’re always in the middle of one, however subtle.
For example, if you’re aware that fear is prominent in you right now, you can remind yourself that the future is likely going to be easier than it currently seems, regardless of how strongly you might feel your impending doom. If you’re aware that anger is prominent, you can remind yourself that when you feel this way you tend to be highly critical of others, that you’re temporarily unable to experience gratitude, and that you may be taking your friends and supporters for granted.
Even a child could be taught this concept: that when we’re sad, for example, it’s hard to remember that the world itself hasn’t become a sad place, even though that’s exactly what it feels like. We’re just being visited by some feelings that make it seem that way.
Think of what a help it would be for any kid to understand — not just to be told, but to really understand — that the reason they want to say mean things to another student is because they’re feeling temporarily angry towards them, and not because the other student necessarily deserves to have mean things said to them.
Strong feelings pass, but while they’re here, they color and warp our vision, sometimes severely. So much hinges on this simple fact, and its implications, that it should be as fundamental a part of our education as learning language.
And it’s not that complicated. There aren’t that many different emotions, and we can learn their properties rather quickly if we make a habit of paying attention. Essentially, we spend our whole lives navigating a limited patch of emotional terrain, which contains magnificent peaks and well-known pitfalls, yet we don’t bother making use of a map. We have a sense of whether or not we want to be where we are, but we don’t think much about the name of the region, how we got to it, and what we know about it.
In the 1980s, psychologist Robert Plutchik identified 8 basic emotions, and expressed their basic relationships in a wheel:
He then expanded the wheel to show the emotions at different levels of intensity, and some of their combinations.
I don’t think it’s a perfect map, and there are some well-known criticisms. Anticipation and surprise do seem like direct opposites, but fear and anger don’t. Pride should probably also have a place somewhere.
What’s most valuable about it, however, isn’t the relationship between the emotions, but the fact that it gives us a small and reasonably complete list of them. If we could know, at least sometimes, roughly where we are in this well-trodden territory, we could mitigate a lot of the distorting and self-defeating effects our emotions have on us, just by remembering what those effects tend to be.
There are, as in a color wheel, infinite shades and tints. While you’re watching a whale swim beneath your tour boat, you might be feeling amazement, but also a tinge of apprehension. These shades bring a lot of richness to life. We aren’t simply stuck in one of eight emotional parking stalls at any given time.
But the point is that we are always somewhere in the realm of well-known human emotions, and that it can be extremely helpful to know where. Which general region, at least. Each region is hospitable to certain qualities, and hostile to others. In the region of anger, for example, compassion might have a hard time being present at all, but alertness is given a boost.
Look for the lens too
When we can identify the most prominent emotion right now, we’re less likely to project that emotion’s characteristics on the situation itself, or on the world at large. If you’re feeling annoyed, but not really aware of it, other people might appear more insensitive and apathetic than they usually do, and you might blame them for that, even though it’s you who changed, not them.
Most of this adjusting amounts to simply knowing which emotion is happening, and what each one usually does to your experience. The more often you reflect on your current state, the more you learn their tendencies.
When anger is present, I tend to get cynical. I become preoccupied with the apparent selfishness of others, and my mind is looking for reasons to condemn them. I become hyper-vigilant about my beliefs and it becomes almost impossible to consider new viewpoints.
When sadness is present, I tend to see adversity as more permanent than it really is. It seems like the world itself is what’s sad. I downplay my freedom to alter the circumstances, and sometimes I forget that I have any freedom at all. Gratitude seems impossible, even when I know what I should feel grateful for.
When fear is present, I tend to get preoccupied with the potential downsides of every upcoming event. I exaggerate the chances of failure, to the point where I forget that success is even a real possibility. My mind tends to look for excuses to hesitate instead of acting.
Emotions really do work like sets of spectacles. Your “fear goggles” might sharpen and magnify images of future trouble and pain, while images of future joy and relief become faint, or don’t appear at all. Your “admiration goggles” might give a particular person and their ideas a blinding glow, and obscure the appearance of their faults.
It is a huge help to know which lens you’re seeing the world through, at any given moment. This way you can know, intellectually, what you’re not seeing, and what’s being exaggerated. If you recognize fear, you can remind yourself to reconsider the rewarding side of doing the thing you’re afraid of. If you recognize ecstasy, you can remind yourself that the feeling is temporary, and that the thing you’re ecstatic about might not be worth basing your whole life around.
What I’m advocating for is the learning and teaching of a kind of basic emotional literacy. What do these eight or ten basic emotions do to us? Which one is prominent, and what do you need to be reminding yourself of right now?
Human emotions have a defining effect on the quality of our lives, and the kind of world we live in. A little bit of insight of this kind goes a long way, and applies to almost everything we do. If I had known in high school how to identify and respond to annoyance and apprehension, for example, I probably would have gotten better grades in Math, and English, and Phys Ed, and everything else.