Tami Simon and I got a chance to talk about empathy last year when I was in Colorado recording the audio workshop for The Language of Emotions. She’s a wonderful interviewer, and I want to expand on a few things we covered in this short interview (here’s the the original empath: Gem from Star Trek).
Why are emotions so hard to understand?
They’re not. The problem is that we’re not taught about them directly. We tend to be taught very simple rules about which emotions are right and which emotions are wrong. Sadly, we’re not openly taught about emotions themselves; instead, we’re taught about behaviors that arise from emotions.
For instance, we don’t learn that anger exits to protect our sense of self, our position, our standpoint, and our voice. We don’t learn what the different levels of anger are, how to moderate anger, or when to use it. Instead, many of us were told as children what not to do: No fighting, no biting, no pinching, no punching, no kicking, no swearing, no talking back, and no dirty looks. Some parents say, “Use your words,” which is better than letting a kid drop into a tantrum, but how can a child talk clearly about an emotion she hasn’t been allowed to understand?
With this kind of backward emotional training, kids end up filled with rules but not with understanding. So each time a child feels anger, she won’t gain a greater understanding of it. Instead, she’ll recall a list of things she cannot do (no fighting, biting, etc.), and she’ll have the option to use words, but she’ll develop very little understanding of what anger is about.
Anger has a great deal of motive force behind it; it fills you with a lot of intensity, because one of its jobs is to strengthen you when you’ve been disrespected or threatened socially. If you don’t understand why anger arises and what its intensity is for, you may merely use its intensity against others. You may wield anger as a weapon instead of internalizing the strength it gives you. This is often a terrible choice, because it disrupts the security and self-image of the people you attack, which will bring forth their anger. Acting out in anger can easily get you into trouble. It can be socially unwise and endangering. Therefore, the “no fighting, no biting…” rule has its purpose.
However, anger itself has a purpose, which is to give you the strength you need to set boundaries and protect your position (or the position of others, if your anger is empathetic). Though it’s not a great idea to attack people with your anger, if all you know how to do is not fight and bite with your anger, you will have missed anger’s central purpose. If you repress your anger and refuse to protect yourself from attack, you’ll actually endanger yourself. You’ll become less strong, and less socially viable.
This either/or conundrum traps a lot of people. If they express their anger unwisely, they can get into trouble, but if they repress their anger, they can endanger themselves. Both options seem fraught with danger, so it’s very easy to see why people throw anger onto the trash heap; they have no idea what it’s for, and they have no idea how to work with it.
However, when you know what anger is for, you can work with it fairly easily. You can identify it, question it, articulate it, and make decisions based on your understanding of its real purpose. When you know your anger, you won’t need to work against it with repression, and you won’t need to work for it as its unwitting and volatile puppet. When you know your anger, you can work with it and set your boundaries in honorable and respectable ways. When you know your anger, you’ll become safer, calmer, and more socially viable. Anger rocks!
Every emotion rocks when you know how to work with it. Every emotion has a purpose and a place in the maintenance of your life and your livelihood. Each one is important, and each one brings you specific gifts, skills, and abilities. Emotions have been left out of our deliberations for a very long time, but that’s changing. We’re challenging the old, tired idea that emotions are the opposite of rationality, and we’re learning to look at emotions and empathy as viable subjects of study.
We’re catching up to our friend Rumi, who understood emotions over 800 years ago. Emotional awareness and intelligence are a part of your ancestry, and empathy is your native language. Once you know what your emotions are for, working with them is actually quite easy!