The Wonderful World of Emotional Choice!
As we enter into an empathic study of emotions over the next weeks and months, I’m starting out by focusing on four ideas that are widely shared, completely accepted — and absolutely problematic. These four commonly accepted ideas actually prevent you from being able to approach your emotions — or anyone else’s — intelligently. They are:
- The problem with valencing (imagining that there are positive or negative emotions, or pro-social or anti-social emotions)
- The problem with expression and repression (having only two options for working with your emotions, both of which can be unhelpful)
- The problem of nuance (not understanding that emotions arise in a multitude of intensities, and are present in your every waking moment)
- The problem of quantity (not realizing that it is completely normal for emotions to arise in pairs, groups, and clusters)
Last week, we looked at the problem of valencing. This week, in this excerpt from my new book The Art of Empathy (Sounds True, October 2013), let’s look at the problem of having only two (often unhelpful) options available to you when you need to work with your emotions.
Expression, repression, and channeling
When an emotion arises and requires an action, many of us fall into a simple binary world where we can only express the emotion outwardly or repress it inwardly. It’s as if we have an on/off switch with no middle ground. This situation is almost a form of valencing in itself, in that we’re given two simple-minded choices that actually obscure our intelligence and reduce our options when emotions arise. And of course, this in turn reduces our Emotion Regulation skills (see the Six Essential Aspects of Empathy) and our empathic awareness.
In many instances, expression and repression are good choices. If you’re happy, sometimes it’s awesome to express it – yay! But sometimes, it’s a really good idea to repress your happiness if it’s not shared (say, when you’re happy that you didn’t get picked for a team at work, but you don’t want to offend everyone). Expression and repression aren’t problems in and of themselves. They’re fine in many instances; they’re only problems when they’re the only choices you have.
For instance, when an intense or socially unacceptable emotion arises and requires an action from you, both expression and repression can be deeply problematic. I’ll give you an example:
Let’s say that you’re at a party, and a friend does something deeply offensive in public: Let’s say that he makes a sarcastic joke about your clothing that’s funny but also really cruel.
Now, because your self and your standpoint have been offended against (and shockingly so), your anger will need to arise, and it will probably be accompanied by some shame and maybe even fear. This is an intensely embarrassing attack that came out of nowhere!
If you express your intense anger, you might score some points against your friend, but you might also injure him and come off looking like a jerk yourself – like someone who’s so uncool that they can’t even take a joke. Also (and your shame and fear might alert you to this), you might not know how your friend will respond to a counter-attack. He could become even meaner, and then the whole evening would be ruined for everyone.
So, if expression is dangerous, you might take the other option in our restricted either/or scenario: you’d repress your anger and your shame and your fear. You might laugh and pretend not to be offended, or you might make an even uglier joke about your own clothing. Ha hah, you’re a good sport – you can take a joke!
But. When you repress an emotion, you interfere with the basic operation of your emotional and neurological functioning. In this instance, your anger arose for a very specific reason. It required that you perform a specific action to restore your voice, standpoint, and sense of self. You chose not to do that, and it was probably a good idea, socially speaking, because exploding at your friend might have ruined the party for everyone.
But by merely repressing your appropriate anger, you’ve interfered with its natural progression, and because you didn’t perform any appropriate action, your anger will remain activated. You might paste a smile on your face and go get a drink and a snack, but for the rest of the night, you’ll repeat the situation in your head, and you’ll think of what you should have said, what you should have done, oh! Your repressed anger won’t relieve itself; in fact, it might become more intense, and your fear might increase, and your shame might become hyperactivated, and yow!
Repressing your emotions – when they’re intense and immediate – can really cause trouble inside you.
Taking the middle path
Luckily, there is another option. There’s a middle path between repression and repression. I call it channeling your emotions, and by that, I mean completing the actions your emotions require so that they can recede naturally and gracefully.
In the situation above, expression and repression were both problematic. Your anger was very intense, and it was accompanied by two other strong emotions. As we all know, that can be a powder-keg situation. But if you have access to an empathic view of the gifts your emotions contain – if you know anger as the Honorable Sentry, and you know fear as Intuition and Action, and you know that shame is about Restoring Integrity, then you can take actions with all three of these emotions that are respectful toward yourself, toward your mouthy friend, toward onlookers, and toward your own emotions.
I don’t have a simple, step-by-step process for dealing with the situation above, and I am really suspicious of people who do, because interaction is so incredibly situation-specific. However, I do have a simple approach, which is this: Listen to your emotions and work with each of them empathically, interact with others honestly, and then you’ll know what to do.
If you make a mistake, you can apologize, and then you can try something different. The trick to this isn’t any kind of trick at all: You simply listen to your emotions and pay attention to others and to their responses. This empathic and interactive approach will actually give you untold resources, because your emotions have evolved over millions of years to help you become a socially successful member of an intensely social species.
Emotions are millions of years older than spoken language, and simply put, they’re smarter than words, they’re deeper than any technique, and they can help you in ways you cannot imagine (if all you’ve ever done with emotions is to express or repress them).
Channeling three intense emotions at once
So let me put myself into the situation above, and let’s say that my friend said something cruel about my clothing in front of other people. I feel the power of anger filling me, and I’ve got some fear activating me as well – this tells me that, sure, my boundaries have been crossed, but also that there could be some further hazard here: I’ve got to utilize my intuition and stay focused.
My shame also arises, and I know that its function is to help me moderate my behavior if I’m about to do something unwise. I’m pretty good friends with shame, so I listen carefully to its warning.
With the power anger gives me, I stand up a little straighter, I ground myself (this practice is in my books, audios, and online courses), and I make eye contact with my mouthy friend. I know that I could attack him if I need to, but my fear and shame are warning me: Don’t. There’s further danger here.
I also know that if I don’t say something (if I repress my anger), I’ll be telling all of the people surrounding us that I can be attacked without any repercussions. My shame and fear know that this is not a good approach to my social survival, so I ask myself the questions for anger: What must be protected, and what must be restored?
Certainly, my fashion sense isn’t that important, but this direct attack cannot go unaddressed. Ignoring this situation would leave me vulnerable, but equally important, it would train my friend to be obnoxious and verbally abusive without consequence, which would severely reduce his social viability. Anger is the Honorable Sentry, remember, and if you channel it honorably, it will protect everyone — not just you.
However, I know from past experience that people who verbally attack others have trouble with their own anger and shame, and trouble with their own boundaries; therefore, one of the things that needs to be protected in this situation is my mouthy friend’s already damaged sense of self. Wow, that’s a tremendous amount of social information that my emotions brought to me.
Okay, anger helps me feel empowered and energized; therefore, I have third option: I have the strength I need to be vulnerable without too much danger. I lean over and say something very direct and slightly humorous, but nonthreatening, like, “Whoa, I like your sense of humor, but man, that stings! Why you gotta be like that?” I tell him that I see the fun and that I appreciate him, but that he went too far.
When I channel my anger appropriately, I have the strength I need to say, “Hey, that hurt” in a way that is not brutal. I don’t pretend to be invulnerable, because that’s not a position of strength – that’s just a lie. No one is invulnerable.
When I can complete the action my anger requires – which is to re-set my boundaries honorably – then my anger will recede naturally. In this situation, my shame will also recede, because I managed my behavior respectfully, and my fear will recede, because I oriented myself effectively in regard to the possible dangers, and I acted appropriately to protect myself and my friend from excessive harm.
Where we go from here is completely individual. My friend might hear me and apologize, and this might set him onto a path of wondering why he finds it so easy to be obnoxious and cruel. Or he might escalate and get more pointed, at which time I can identify the new emotions that will arise, and work with each of them to figure out what the heck to do next. But whatever he decides, we’ll be in a new place, and I’ll have new information about who my friend is in the presence of honesty and vulnerability.
By responding empathically to the true emotions that arose, I helped my friend understand exactly who I am and exactly how his behavior affected me. What he does with that information is up to him – but his subsequent behavior will show me true and pertinent things about who he really is.
Strength within, not strength over
With anger, the problem of expression (which often damages others) and repression (which often damages us) is a function of the ways we’ve all been trained to use anger as strength over others instead of strength within ourselves.
When emotions have been thrown onto the trash heap of negative and antisocial valencing, we’re almost forced to take a moral stance for or against the emotions instead of learning how to work with them intelligently. This happens with a great many emotions, but it’s most obvious in regard to anger — because, if anger is about cruelty, then you’ve got to take a moral stand: will you express anger and be cruel when people deserve it, or will you repress all anger and never defend yourself? These simple-minded either/or options flow naturally and tragically from simple-minded, either/or valencing and simplistic either/or expression and repression.
Had I used only emotional expression of my anger in an attempt to dishonor my friend – or had I used only emotional repression to essentially dishonor myself, our interaction would have been very different, and he would have learned very different things about me.
When I only know how to repress or express my emotions, and a difficult or socially uncomfortable emotion arises – people will become acquainted with whatever emotional training I’ve ingested in my life. They won’t meet me as an individual; they won’t meet my true self, my hopes, my dreams, my preferences, my intelligence, my humor, my challenges, and my strengths – no. When my emotional skills are poor, people will meet my emotional reactivity and my problems with whichever emotion has arisen – but they won’t meet me.
In a situation where I’ve only got two rigid choices about how to work with my emotions, a fully empathic exchange is very unlikely (because I’m not even being empathic with my own emotions!). But when I can channel my emotions and interact with more suppleness and authenticity, people can meet and interact with me as a unique individual — and if they feel able to, they can interact in a more authentic and empathic way with me as well.
Expression and repression are fine in many cases!
As I wrote above, expression and repression aren’t bad in and of themselves; they’re fine in many situations! When a snake crosses your path, express your fear and jump and yell a little! Or when someone trips on the sidewalk and you think it’s funny, repress your laughter so you won’t hurt the person’s feelings. When you drop your phone, express your shock and anger and swear! When you feel like crying but you know that the person with you cannot handle it, repress your tears until you’re in a safer place.
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.