Critical thinking skills for your emotions

The new Language of Emotions book coverWhen I go out to speak about The Language of Emotions, I often have the audience call out the things they’ve learned about emotions. I start off by saying “Big girls don’t cry, There’s nothing to be afraid of, You should be ashamed of yourself …” and then the audience adds their own versions of the messages we all get as other people attempt to manage our emotions for us (or shame us about them). We ingest a huge number of messages about the inherent wrongness of emotions, which is one of the major reasons we grow up and learn about everything but emotions. I say in the book that humans are “intellectually brilliant, physically resourceful, spiritually imaginative, but emotionally underdeveloped.”

Our ignorance about emotional development has unfortunate consequences in each of our personal lives, but it also has societal repercussions, in that the understanding of emotions has been medicalized (many emotions such as shame, fear, anxiety, and anger are treated as problems in and of themselves) and professionalized. So if you’re having trouble with your emotions, you often have to pay someone to help you figure them out (if you have the money, or if your insurance covers mental and behavioral health). If you don’t have the money, you’re kind of on your own, so maybe you fill up on the junk food of pop psychology books, or try to ignore the issues and hope they’ll go away.

Developing emotional skills isn’t something we generally do out in the open, or in a logical, step-by-step manner. We often have to get our emotional education by hook or by crook, and in many cases, we don’t even realize that we are getting emotional education, because we call it anything but that (Are you a Skilled Emotionologist?). We just don’t think clearly about emotional skills, and we don’t identify them properly when we see them, because emotions have been so thoroughly demonized.  This is deeply saddening, because emotional skills are absolutely necessary for our thinking processes, for learning, for attaching value to data, for our decision-making, for our communication and relationships, and for our capacity to survive and thrive in the social world.  Therefore, even though we’re not taught to respect or even properly identify emotions, we’ve all found secret and roundabout ways to develop emotional awareness. Some of us work with emotions better than others do, but we all work with them in every second of every day. We have to.

Another stumbling block I see (especially among highly educated people, who should know better) is a simple-minded, black-and-white approach to emotions and rationality, where emotions are characterized as lower than, less intelligent than, less trustworthy than, and just plain less than rationality. At my talks, audience members will often call out messages like, “I can’t talk to you if you’re gonna be emotional, Can’t we be rational?, Your feelings will lead you astray!” The endlessly repetitive messages we get are that you should always trust your rational faculties over your feelings and emotions, because rationality is just … better somehow.

Irrationally attached to myths about rationality

optical illusion
Count the black dots and get back to me.

But in truth, rationality is not any better, higher, or less prone to error than emotionality is, and we know it. We know that our rational faculties are easily fooled, which is why we love books filled with optical illusions and tricks that take advantage of the huge holes that exist in our perceptual faculties. An entire field of study called critical thinking exists to help us steer our way around our multiple cognitive blunders, which invade all areas of our thought processes, including our memory, our understanding of probability and statistics, our vision, our hearing, our sense of touch, our capacity to identify change (see this fun perceptual blindness test on Youtube), and so forth. Our rational brains are not perfect recorders of the events we witness; they make things up and screw things up all the time. The idea that we can trust our rational faculties over our emotional faculties is just wishful thinking (which is yet another cognitive error). Both faculties (and I truly hesitate to separate emotions and rationality, since they’re not separate in thinking, in feeling, in cognition, in neural structures, or in reality) have their strong points, and both faculties have their weaknesses. However, both are crucial to everything we do. We really have to understand and work with (and sometimes in spite of) our rational blunders and our emotional blunders if we want to get anywhere interesting, and if we want to live worthwhile lives.

What’s interesting to me is that — even though both areas of cognition are very fallible and mistake-prone — the correction of our rational blunders has not been professionalized or medicalized in the way emotional correction has been. You can pick up any number of books on cognitive fallacies, or you can join a skeptical group of equal amateurs, and you can go about understanding and managing all of the rational blunders humans have identified. I mean, unless you have a true neurological disorder that, for instance, makes you think your hand is controlled by alien entities, you don’t need medical or professional help to approach the endless ways your rational faculties screw things up.

I don’t see this same approach in regard to emotions. Instead, emotional blunders tend to be characterized as more serious, less fun, and less interesting than logical blunders are. I’m not sure I have this exactly right, but it seems that emotions really scare and confound us. It’s almost as if we assume we can’t trust them, because, you know, they’ll get you!

Of course, there are plenty of cognitive blunders that involve our emotions and feelings, such as the blunders we make in obediently following people in our political party, or people who agree with us. However, cognitive blunders are not caused by emotions. Emotions are simply one aspect of thinking, and while they are as fallible as any other area of cognition, they really don’t need to be the whipping boy of the human experience.

Emotions are just as important as any other aspect of cognition. In fact, I’d say — because the information most of us have about emotions is so ludicrous (it is not real; it is reified) — that understanding emotions (and knowing how to work with them — not demonize or ignore them) might be the single most important thing we can do to improve our capacity to think rationally, to function coherently, and to live meaningful lives.

I wrote The Language of Emotions because my feeling is (ooh, I said feeling!) that where we reliably fall down is in the area of emotion. I spent a great deal of my life in the spiritual community, where the idea is that if we could all be more spiritual (and therefore less emotional), then everything would be fantastic and all of the problems inherent to humanity could be fixed. I didn’t see that idea play out, though many of my spiritual friends are truly wonderful people. What I saw is that no matter how many spiritual teachings you ingest, you still have to deal with emotions. Sadly, many spiritual and religious teachings (Taoism is one notable exception) really distrust and demonize emotions — which means that they can make spiritual people less functional in the presence of normal human emotions. That’s really a shame, and an unnecessary waste of human potential.

Silly cat emotionsBut it’s not a problem unique to the spiritual community. For the past ten years, I’ve been closely observing and carefully participating in the skeptical and rationalist communities, where the idea is that if we could all be more rational (and of course less emotional), then everything would be fantastic and all of the problems inherent to humanity could be fixed. I am not seeing that idea play out, though many of my skeptical friends are truly wonderful people. Frustratingly (because it’s not at all rational), many rationalist and skeptical teachings distrust and demonize emotions, which means that they can make skeptical people less functional in presence of normal human emotions. What I am seeing in these two dichotomous communities, and everywhere really, is that no matter how much time you spend trying to be rational, or spiritual, or physically fit, or artistically talented (etc.), if you don’t understand emotions, you’re gonna fall on your butt.

Emotional skills make every other area of your life work better

No matter who you are or what your chosen skill set is, your life will work better if you understand emotions and how to work with them. When you understand that anger exists to help you set boundaries, you’ll be able to reframe your behavior when you feel angry so that you can act in honorable ways. You’ll also know how to behave when other people feel angry. When you know that fear exists to help you identify change and alert you to possible hazards, you’ll learn to listen to it rather than fight it. When you know that sadness exists to help you let go of things that aren’t working anyway, you’ll be able to let go and make room for things that do work.

When you understand that shame and guilt are important behavioral brakes that keep you and other people safe from your potentially bad behavior — which will in turn protect your relationships and your place in the social world — you’ll learn to pay close attention rather than demonize these vital social emotions. You’ll also learn that shaming other people can only work in very specific instances, and then, only in very small and expertly applied doses (the point is to help misbehaving people connect to their own shame, not yours). And when you understand the purpose of happiness, contentment, and joy, you’ll be able to live more gracefully with them, rather than chase after them in a futile and ultimately joyless way.

Every one of your emotions has evolved over millions of years to help you survive and thrive as a member of an intensely social species. Yes, emotions can be troublesome, but not any more so than any other aspect of cognition or humanity can be. The trick is not to imagine emotions as the worst things that ever happened — the trick is to understand them. If you know what they’re for, how to work with them, how much is too much, and which specific skills they bring you, your emotions can help you live more rationally, more spiritually, more artistically, and more humanely.

This being human … it’s a work in progress. But it’s good work if you can get it.

34 Responses

  1. michelle emanuel
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  2. Katrina
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    I encountered this very concept (valuing rationality, demonizing emotions) last week on Facebook. In a discussion with one of my Facebook friends, I wrote, “One of the greatest gifts that people can offer each other as friends is a ‘safe space’ in which to grow into our authenticity.”

    My friend liked that sentence so much that she posted it on her wall. Well, that one sentence sparked a huge discussion amongst her friends … including one person who apparently believes that if people provide a “safe space” for you, they’re really being “enablers,” allowing you to keep “lying” to yourself.

    This person became so argumentative and negative in his comments that my friend asked him, politely, to take his ramblings back to his own Facebook page.

    This person then said my friend was choosing to be a “victim,” and he insisted that “words can’t hurt you” and that you can choose how you feel about anything that anyone says to you.

    “No,” I thought to myself. “You don’t choose how to feel. You can choose what to do with your feelings, but saying ‘You can choose what to feel’ is basically just denying the emotions instead of accepting them as valid.”

    But I didn’t post that to the discussion; I figured it would be like throwing water on a grease fire.

    Still … because it took me so many years to learn to value and become comfortable with my emotions — ALL my emotions — I get more than a little hot under the collar when someone suggests that I am less rational or less intelligent or less of a person because I have emotions.

    • Karla
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      Yow! Was he a skeptic? Because I see comments like that on a lot of really verbally abusive skep threads, where someone will say that you can’t abuse someone with words and blah blah blah. I’m gonna go ask my skeptical friends (none of whom are verbally abusive) what that’s about.

      Were people like that abused verbally as kids, so that they’re sort of dead to the topic? Or maybe physically abused, and so they think verbal abuse isn’t so bad? I really don’t know, but I DO know that they’ve got something really strange going on. Jeez.

      Just for the record, verbal abuse is a really serious offense against the rights and dignity of others. It can also be a gateway to physical abuse in troubled relationships, but even if no one ever raises a hand, verbal abuse is plenty bad enough.

      Oh, and emotions and rationality are equal partners in cognition. Anyone who still thinks otherwise really needs to catch up!

  3. Katrina
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    Karla, I discovered Patricia Evans’ books on verbal abuse a few years ago — and suddenly, I had a term for what I’d been witnessing in my parents’ marriage my entire life.

    As for the person who insisted that words cannot hurt you; I wonder if he experienced verbal or physical abuse himself, because in one of his comments, he said, “Since this topic is very close to my heart, I am writing a book on it, I wanted to share with those who were hurting just how to get out of the cycle of abuse.”

    I’m guessing, from his other comments, that his “solution” for being abused is to refuse to let the abuse hurt you, that he believes that you can simply choose not to feel hurt. He wrote, “By taking responsibility you take your power back. By blaming others you give your power away. Which would you rather be, a powerful person or a victim?”

    It sounds to me like he’s saying, “If you blame the person who is saying things that hurt you, you are a ‘victim.’ If you take responsibility for your feelings and refuse to let the words hurt you, you are empowered.”

    To which I wanted to reply (but didn’t), “But if someone stands up to you and tells you that the way you are treating them is unacceptable, you label them as a victim. If they let you run all over them, then they are empowered.” Which makes no sense to me.

    In fact, the husband of my friend responded, on the same thread, “Wow. I have a feeling there’s a whole new definition of ‘victim’ here that doesn’t typically appear in Webster’s. Maybe the entry reads something like this: Victim (n): An audacious person who has the gall to set personal boundaries, stand up to and even disagree with a forceful individual’s point of view; on occasion even having the nerve to (politely) ask that person to stop and/or call that person on their own issues.”

    The word “boundaries” leapt out at me when I read that. Karla, one of the most valuable lessons I took away from your writing and audio recordings (I read “Emotional Genius” years ago and listened to the “Energetic Boundaries” audio series, then eagerly bought and read “The Language of Emotions” when it came out) was the concept of healthy boundaries — permeable enough to let in good things but strong enough to keep out bad things, just like our skin or the surface of a leaf.

    Up to that point in my life, I either kept out everyone so I wouldn’t get hurt, or I let people run all over me. Now I do a much better job of figuring out what to let in and what to keep out. I still make mistakes (don’t we all?), but most of the time I get it right.

    For me, keeping myself in balance — mind, body, spirit, emotions — is invaluable … as an actor and as a human being. I’m not a “victim” because I have emotions or because I choose not to stay in the company of someone who tries to define me or to tell me what kind of person I should be. I draw strong boundaries; I take care of myself. And my real friends are the ones who provide that “safe space” in which I can be my authentic self.

    • Karla
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      I prefer what you’re doing to what he’s doing. You know, I’ve seen that “myth of victim-hood and power” behavior a lot, and it’s really prevalent among people in the very early stages of dealing with their abuse. The idea that you can tough your way through, ignore your emotions, engage your hyper-rationality, control the world with your impenetrability … OMG, it’s me as a teenager!!!

      I wrote the piece on anger and forgiveness as a reminder to my past self, but I also wrote it to guys like this. Until you can accept that you were hurt, and place blame appropriately, you’re still cycling between the first two stages of trauma. And we know how that goes!

      I love what your friends’ husband wrote, and I think it’s really great that it came from another male. That whole Mars/Venus, women are emotional while men are rational thing makes me want to vomit! Go click “like” on his comment from me!!

  4. Katrina
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    Karla, I’ve met so many men in the arts (e.g., theatre and dance) and through groups such as the HSP group where I met my friend’s husband (I met him first; he then encouraged me to be Facebook friends with his wife) who do not fall neatly into the “box” of “stereotypical male.”

    Then again, I don’t exactly fall neatly into the “box” of “stereotypical female,” either, which is probably why, over the course of my life, I’ve become friends with a number of atypical men. They can be themselves with me; I can be myself with them. So we enjoy a friendship based on acceptance and authenticity.

    To some extent, I do understand the impulse not to blame others if you’re trying to heal from abuse — but I see that as a stage of the healing process, not as an end result, because I’m just now coming out of that stage myself.

    My father blames everyone around him for the all the wrongs in the world — including those in his own life — because to admit his own fault would be, in his eyes, confirming the awful messages he got from his mother as a child: “You’re no good. You’ll never amount to anything. You’re just like your father, and he was an s.o.b.”

    I didn’t want to be a blamer like him, so I overcompensated by trying not to blame anyone for anything … which meant taking responsibility for everything, including things that weren’t my fault. It’s only been within the last year or two that I have finally(!) begun learning that it’s okay to say that someone else is at fault — if it’s the truth. I can’t control everything. I can’t fix everything. Sometimes, what’s wrong is wrong because someone else did the wrong thing or didn’t do the right thing, and there’s nothing I can do about that, and I shouldn’t take responsibility for something I had no control over.

    In my view, life is a balancing act. Sometimes it’s good to take responsibility; sometimes it’s good to refuse to take responsibility. Sometimes you can let words roll off your back; sometimes you need to stand up and say, “It is not okay with me for you to treat me that way.” With some people, it’s safe to be tender, open, and vulnerable; with some people, it’s safer to hide your feelings and not reveal too much about yourself.

    When you balance on one foot, you aren’t static; you make thousands of tiny adjustments to maintain your balance. It’s the same in life. Staying balanced in life isn’t achieved by finding one static position; it’s a lifetime of continual adjustments. More like walking a high-wire, actually. With good friends to be your safety net when you fall.

  5. michael e. stumpf
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    Hi Karla. I find this article very timely, I was reading a piece in shambhalasun coming out in March about Fear. It’s always been a little off to me when they describe “Fear is a protective reaction of ego”, as I do practice forms of Buddhists meditation & Centering Prayer it seems their language is petty much saying what you are trying to call into question????? I like your approach to this critical issue & the practice of meditation in being widely-open with who I am, then playing with others. Does this seem on your page. Thanks, Michael

    • Karla
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      Hi Michael,
      You’re right. I don’t agree that any emotion is just a reaction of the ego. That’s a pathologizing way to approach emotions, and it doesn’t really work. Better to learn what they are and how to work with them!

  6. Michael Stumpf
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    Hi,Karla I’ve been working on your grounding skills,I’ve found myself using food as a grounding it seems,I guess my question is where you have spoken of grounding in the mist of a flow-state & of the sense of (not sure how to name this skill?).Thank You for any feedback,hopefully I’ve been clear as a light shade of mud?Peace Be Upon You,Mike

    • Karla
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      Hi Michael, in the book, I suggest relaxation as a grounding tool. Food can be relaxing, and you can feel very anxious and un-relaxed if you’re hungry. Are you saying that you’re over-eating to calm yourself down?

  7. Michael Stumpf
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    Hi,Karla that maybe what is happening,not checking into the anxious & un-relaxed nature of my hunger.Thanks,Mike

  8. Jill Rosen
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    Hi Karla, I was working with anger last night and made an intuitive leap last night – why couldn’t anger draw on generations and generations of ancestral history, just as you say fear does? Why couldn’t we have this open moment when we say to all that past experience locked in our DNA – “all right, let’s have it, give me some ideas what to do here” and receive some ideas that we haven’t tried before?

    And why couldn’t that happen for any situation – not just the ones involving fear, but also those involving anger or shame or sadness. Because our ancestors used all their emotions, not just fear, and we are the outcome of their use of all their emotions.

    Next I need to figure out how to let that information in when anger arises. But it seems like allowing an opening, opening yourself up to a wider range of answers, is a general process that would be good to do no matter what specific emotion is arising right now. The emotion points out a question, and if we can learn to open up to entertain more answers than the ones we habitually use, we’d be leading far more resourceful and creative lives!

  9. Stephanie
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    I am reading Language of Emotions. Wow. I have never read anything so helpful on so many levels. I am a Licensed Massage Therapist and work with many trauma victims. People with a life time of / or experience trauma have told me that this book is the only valuable resource. Anyway, I wanted to comment on the Happiness Section:

    Hafiz, Sufi poet c;1300… “I am Happy before I have a reason.”

    Meher Baba, Avatar, 1894-1969..”Don’t Worry, Be Happy.” (A song was written from these words.) Also, that 90% of human suffering in self induced. Worrying is spiritually binding, free up the bindings and put it into love and helping others. That is where one will find true happiness.

    • Karla
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      Hi Stephanie, thanks for checking in. Here’s a post about anxiety (worry) that you might like!

  10. Emma
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    Karla, “the piece on anger and forgiveness”, is there a link to that?


    • Karla
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      Hello Emma!

      It’s in my book, The Language of Emotions on pages 117-122. I’ll see if it’s anywhere on this site.

      • Karla
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        Nope, it’s only in the book. I referred to it with Katrina because I knew that she had read it. I connect anger very strongly to the process of true forgiveness, and that’s the opposite of what some people suggest. You kind of have to approach it from within the context of the book, and then it makes sense. I remember wondering whether it could work here, but blogs are really a different writing form — you have to present subjects more quickly! In books, you can build a case over many pages or chapters, but in blogs, if a lolcat or a photo of nature can’t do a lot of the work, you sorta have to let it go! Hah!

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