When I talk about The Language of Emotions, one of the central ideas I try to get across is that all emotions are useful. If you can approach them with care and ask them the right questions, there aren’t any “bad” emotions. Every emotion has a specific function, and all of them are important and instructive. Some very intense emotions (such as hatred and panic), which I call the “raging rapids” emotions, need to be handled with care, but in most normal cases, you can understand and work with your emotions on your own.
However, there are times when you’ll need assistance with your emotions. The way to know when you need help is simple: When your emotions repeat continually and do not resolve, or when they overwhelm you or the people in your life, it’s time to find out what’s going on.
When things are going well, all of your emotions (even the raging rapids ones) will respond to you and will resolve when you’ve paid attention to them and made whatever corrective actions they require. As the neuroscientist Antonio Damasio says, “emotions are action-requiring neurological programs.”
From that post: So, for instance, fear requires that you take action to orient to change and novelty, or to avoid physical harm. Anger requires that you take action to protect or restore your sense of self or your standpoint (or the selves and standpoints of others, if your anger is related to social justice). Shame requires that you take action to avoid injuring others or yourself (if the shame is authentic to you. It’s important to first identify whether the shame has been applied as a control mechanism from the outside). Sadness requires that you take action to let go of something that isn’t working anyway, and grief (which has a very different purpose from sadness) requires that you actively mourn something that is lost irretrievably. And so forth.
Each emotion is an action-requiring neurological program, and in The Language of Emotions, I explain what each emotion is for and how to work with it as itself (rather than trying to pretend it’s something else, or that you don’t have it).
With this action-requiring construct, we can be a bit more precise in our understanding of how much emotion is too much: If you’ve got an emotion that repeats continually and will not resolve itself, no matter how many times you try to perform the action for that emotion, that’s a clear sign that you could use some intervention. Let’s look at two of the emotions above so you’ll know what I mean.
The importance of Fear
From its healthy, flowing state (where it is your instincts and your intuition), your fear is evoked into what I call its mood state (this is when most of us can feel it) by change, novelty, and the possibility of physical danger. The actions fear requires are uncountable, because fear is the emotion of instinct and intuition. When your fear signals you, you might need to hold your breath, freeze, run, laugh, recoil, move forward, orient yourself, strike out quickly to avoid an incoming hazard, lower your head and studiously ignore something, or any of a hundred other actions.
When you and your instincts choose the right action, you’ll resolve the reasons for your fear, and your fear will recede naturally.
Your fear should never go away, because fear brings you the instincts you need to prepare for any eventuality. However, you shouldn’t be in a fear mood state every minute of every day (this would be terrible for your health). If everything in your environment knocks your fear from its flowing, nearly imperceptible, intuitive state into its full-on, adrenaline-pumping, action-requiring state, something is going on! In this situation, you’ve got an anxiety disorder that needs to be addressed (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is great for anxiety disorders, and so are specific antidepressants and beta blockers). We’ve also got a mindfulness technique for anxiety here.
It’s really important to address an anxiety disorder, because fear’s job is to prepare you to orient, identify change, fight, flee, freeze, and save your life. You don’t want to be doing that all day long (unless you’re in a war, and then I take it back)! But even for a very competent warrior, running mood-state fear all the time is very hard on the body. PTSD is a very real possibility when you live at the mood-state level of fear for long stretches of time.
The point with fear (and every other emotion) is that it has a very specific purpose. Fear needs you to take action — to orient to change, novelty, and danger. When you properly identify the change or danger, and when you take an action to ensure your safety (or the safety of others, if your fear was evoked on their behalf), then fear’s work is done.
When you complete the correct action, your fear will revert to its healthy, flowing state, and you won’t consciously feel afraid. Fear will still be there, but it won’t be in a mood state, and it won’t require any more actions from you. You will have completed the actions your fear required from you. Yay!
As I say in the book, the problem isn’t the emotion itself — even when the emotion is way out of whack. The presence of an anxiety disorder doesn’t mean that fear is bad. Fear is irreplaceable; fear will literally save your life. So you want fear. But you want it in its proper place, doing its proper work with the proper intensity.
For instance: If a child’s ball rolls into your field of vision, you want fear to help you notice it, orient to it, and then realize it’s not a threat. Excellent fear, thank you.
If a car swerves toward you suddenly, you want your fear to orient you, make a split-second decision, and get your car out of harm’s way. Whew! Adrenaline rush! Excellent fear, thank you.
All of your emotions have very important jobs; you need all of them. But if something chemical, psychological, or neurological is impeding or inflating those emotions, you can easily tumble into confusion, exhaustion, and disorder. So it’s very important that you reach out. Don’t tough it out when you’ve got an emotion that’s out of whack.
Here’s why: Emotions are very powerful, and their nature is to move quickly, address an issue succinctly, and then move on. Your job as the owner and friend of your emotions is to maintain an inner life that makes room for your emotions to do their proper work.
The importance of Anger
From its healthy, flowing state (where it quietly maintains your self-image and your social skills), your anger is evoked into its mood state when you sense threats to your self image, your standpoint, your voice, or your position (I call these, collectively, your boundaries). When someone tries to disrespect you, your anger should come forward to protect your boundaries honorably. With that anger, you can set the person straight (or laugh, or raise your eyebrows, or deepen your voice, or any of a hundred non-violent but self-strengthening and boundary-setting options), and then your anger will recede and your boundary will be reset. Bing. It’s done. No one gets hurt.
If you and your anger don’t have a good relationship, or you don’t know that anger is the correct emotion for the situation (so many people pathologize anger), you might try to ignore it and be polite to the disrespecting person. You might laugh nervously or your face might redden, and you’ll avoid any conflict.
Here’s the problem: the person will have gotten away with poor behavior, and they’ll now know that you are a perfect target for them. You’ll teach them that they can attack you with no consequences. Whoops. This is not just bad for you; it’s bad for them, because they’ll become less socially aware and less socially viable. And you will develop an anger problem because you don’t know how to take actions when your anger asks you to.
When you don’t complete the self-protecting actions your anger requires, you might second-guess yourself a dozen times or replay the incident all day. You might think of a hundred things you “should have said.” Your anger will still be activated, but you won’t have used it properly, so it will zing around inside you like a pinball. Soon enough, you’ll probably have to deal with an influx of shame (anger at yourself), because you failed to utilize your anger when it was necessary. Doh!
In this instance, this problem with repetitive anger is one you created yourself, not because you’re clueless, but because most of us aren’t taught what anger is for — or how to use it. We’ve got two terrible options: Ignore the anger and act passively, or intensify the anger and destroy the other person. With those two pathetic options, it’s no wonder most of us just fall apart when anger arises. We don’t know what actions to take!
You can get help with this from a friend or counselor who can help you become more assertive (instead of aggressive), or you can ask the questions for anger that I suggest in the book: “What must be protected? and What must be restored?” If you ask your anger these questions, it will give you many honorable options.
The trick is to remember that you’re not allowed to break the boundaries of your opponent. If you do attack, you’ll injure the other person’s boundaries, and their anger will have to move into a mood state. And here’s the thing; you don’t know how they’ve learned to use their anger. They could be childhood abuse survivors; you could really injure them, or they could come out swinging, and then where are you? Now you’ve got two people in an escalating anger state, and … yeah, that’s not smart.
I call anger The Honorable Sentry because when you understand the importance of boundaries, you’re going to honor them in other people as well. Your anger will not be a weapon; it will be a tool. In a healthy conflict, you both should be protected by healthy anger, and you both should be restored. Anger is the Honorable Sentry.
If you ignore your anger, you’re teaching the other person that it’s totally okay to be unkind and insensitive, and you’re helping them become less skilled, less socially aware, and less valuable in the social world. You’re not doing them any favors; you’re actually dishonoring them.
The other side of the coin: Too much anger
Now, let’s say you feel anger all the time. Politics inflame you, advertising inflames you, other people’s behavior inflames you, and you wake up every morning with your fists raised, yelling, “Why, there oughtta be a law!” Also, you lash out at people whenever you feel anger, sometimes without meaning to. This is a situation where you’ve got too much anger, and it’s being activated by absolutely everything in your environment.
This is a very precarious situation for your social viability. If you ratchet up your anger every time it appears, and you attack consistently, you’re teaching people that you are 1) Not a safe person to be around, and 2) Not emotionally skilled. You might think that your anger outbursts make you look strong, like some action figure. But if you’re using your anger to destroy the boundaries and the self image of others, you haven’t learned a thing about the purpose of anger. Sorry. Learn to welcome and work with (not against, and certainly not for) your anger, and you’ll learn to create and define an honorable and healthy sense of self … for everyone.
Too much of any one emotion is not healthy for you, for your social viability, for your brain, and for your endocrine system (not to mention your heart!). There’s work you can do on your own, such as asking yourself why you are so completely boundary-impaired that absolutely everything gets to you? However, you might also need some help from a counselor or your doctor, because repetitive anger that never resolves is simply not good for you.
If your anger goes to 11 every time it appears (or even every other time it appears), you’ve got a rage disorder, and it can knock you out. Repetitive rage can also be a sign of untreated major depression, so don’t fool around with a rage disorder; reach out for help.
It’s not the anger itself that isn’t good for you; you absolutely need your anger. Besides, you can get into a repetitive state with any number of emotions (like depression, fear, sadness, or shame), and they’ll all destabilize you in their own particular ways.
The problem in a rage disorder isn’t the fact that anger exists. The problem is that the anger is stuck in a feedback loop that needs to be resolved so that the anger can get back to its regular work!
What I notice about raging people is that their boundaries are totally permeable; absolutely everything gets to them. Therefore, their anger, which exists to help them strengthen their boundaries, is continually evoked. Their anger constantly, regularly, and dependably arises, but because they don’t understand how to complete the actions anger requests of them, their anger will become trapped in a feedback loop.
We all require healthy boundaries. Healthy anger will help us create and restore those boundaries. But in the case of a rage disorder, the feedback problem has to be dealt with first.
The answer is pretty simple, really
So the answer to the question How much emotion is too much? is the same for any of the emotions: If the emotion appears constantly or repetitively, and you can’t get it to resolve, that’s too much. That emotion is out of balance, and you need to attend to it so that your emotions can get back to their regular work!
Because emotions are so powerful, a repetitive state can throw your chemistry out of whack, so attending to that emotion may require therapy, antidepressants (in cases of repetitive rage, anxiety, or depression), anti-anxiety meds, or a change in your lifestyle so that you can work your way back to health.
You can also study the emotion that got out of balance in you, and wow, it will tell you amazing things about yourself, your family, and the world around you.
But first, take care of yourself and get any repetitive emotions back into balance within your entire emotional realm. Emotions are irreplaceable, necessary, and powerful things, but if they’re out of balance, every single one of them can be too much!