THE FUNCTION OF EMOTIONS
Emotions are a crucial aspect of psychology and, thus, mental health. Unfortunately, families and society tend to pass judgement on emotions rather than teach or honor their function. To give you an idea of just how very emotion-phobic our culture is, even professional therapists (social workers, psychologists, psychiatrists) are not educated as to the function of emotions in their formal training. As a result, even therapists tend to offer only suggestions on how to regulate or control emotions.
Emotions are usually seen in one of two ways in our culture: 1) overwhelming or 2) suppressed. We also tend to separate emotions into negative and positive, based on how comfortable they are. Since we aren’t educated as to the function of the emotions, when they inevitably become overwhelming (thus uncomfortable to ourselves and/or others), we tend to try to suppress them. Depending on how narrow our window of tolerance is for experiencing emotions, sometimes all we do is vacillate between these overwhelmed and suppressed states.
In her book “The Language of Emotions” (2010), Karla McLaren teaches us that in addition to expressing and repressing emotions, we have a third option: channeling emotions. “Expression and repression are excellent options in many instances, but this third path – this middle path of channeling your emotions – gives you infinite options when repression isn’t healthy and expression isn’t wise” (McLaren, 2013, p. 71). Here are a few reasons that it is important to learn how to channel emotions:
1. Emotions Provide Information. McLaren sees emotions as allies and encourages us to think of them as messengers.
When they are on the scene, they bring with them packets of information that alert us to the presence of important data that requires our attention. The more aware we are of our emotions, the better able we are to hear what they have to say and collaborate with them.
2. Emotions Prompt Action. Neuroscientist Antonio Damasio succinctly states that “emotions are action-requiring programs” (Damasio, 2010). “What Damasio discovered as he worked with many emotion-impaired patients throughout his career is that each emotion has a specific role in the maintenance of essential social and cognitive functions. If you take emotions away from people, they don’t become smarter; instead, they become less able to function independently, they lose many of their interactional skills, and they often require direct assistance to care for and protect themselves” (McLaren, 2013, p. 59). Emotions allow us to respond quickly and provide important information about our relationship to our environment in order to help us move to appropriate action.
Where I Am Now ⟶ Emotion ⟶ Cognitive Assistance ⟶ Action ⟶ Where I Am Next
When we don’t know (or ignore) what our emotions are trying to help us do, we stay stuck, repeating the same behavior over and over and over again, expecting a different outcome despite the fact that we’re not doing anything different. Instead, we’re relying on someone (other than us) to do something different or we’re relying on the emotion inside of us to just give up and go away. “When we express our emotions, we hand them over to the outside world, where we hope they’ll be noticed, honored, and transformed. Emotional expression relies on the outer world to decipher our emotions.” However, “when we repress our emotions, we hand them off to the inner world, where we hope they’ll disappear, transform themselves, or maybe come up again at a better time (whenever that may be)” (McLaren, 2010, p. 30). Our emotions help gives us clues as to what we can do with the information they highlight.
In order to access this information, it helps to know the language of emotions so we can hear what they are trying to say. “If we could move consciously into … emotions rather than into distractions, we would learn brilliant things about ourselves and our situations. The key to bringing ourselves out of our avoidance-distraction trance is to know what emotions are, what [emotions do], and which emotions we’re avoiding and why” (McLaren, 2010, p. 79).
3. Emotions Deepen the Experience of Life. Life would be stagnant without emotions (ask any kid). Emotions help us live an embodied and relational life.
- Damasio, A. (2010). Self comes to mind: Constructing the conscious brain. New York, NY: Pantheon.
- McLaren, K. (2010). The language of emotions: What your feelings are trying to tell you. Boulder, CO: Sounds True.
- McLaren, K. (2013). The art of empathy: A complete guide to life’s most essential skill. Boulder, CO: Sounds True.
- McLaren, K. (2020). Embracing anxiety: How to access the genius of this vital emotion. Boulder, CO: Sounds True.