by Sarah Alexander, LCSW
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.
McLaren (2010, 2013, 2020) has developed specific questions 17 individual emotions pose in order to help us collaborate with them on the path of an embodied and relational life. Although these questions may (at times) be very uncomfortable to face, attending to them (and acting upon the information they provide) ultimately builds self-esteem, confidence, and trust in ourselves and our own capabilities. Once we have acted upon them, emotions recede (they have, after all, completed their task and no longer need to prompt us to action), leaving us in a better place than we were when they first arrived.
We need the whole range of our emotions (happiness, contentment, and joy as well as anger, fear, and sadness) in order to navigate the various relationships and situations we find ourselves faced with over the course of a lifetime. We may sometimes wish that we could get rid of some of our more uncomfortable emotions, but they are just as necessary for surviving and thriving as the pleasurable ones. Emotions color life experiences and give those experiences depth and flavor. Emotions give meaning to events. The Disney movie Inside Out presents a fun depiction of the importance of utilizing our whole family of emotions (I recommend you check it out if you haven’t already). As Rumi puts it in this poem:
The Guest House
This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.
Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.
- Damasio, A. (2010). Self comes to mind: Constructing the conscious brain. 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.