Four ideas that lead directly to emotional confusion

The Wonderful World of Emotions!

As we study emotions empathically, we’ll look at each emotion in terms of what it does, what gifts it brings you, and how you can work with it — but before we look at emotions individually, I’d like to focus on four ideas that are widely shared, completely accepted — and absolutely problematic.

Neuroscientist Antonio Damasio’s ground-breaking reframing of emotions as action-requiring neurological programs is wonderfully helpful, but there’s so much trouble in the emotional realm that I want to clear away four ideas that create endless emotional confusion. Before we can empathically explore the specific actions your emotions require, we need to take a look at some commonly accepted ideas that actually prevent you from being able to approach your emotions — or anyone else’s — intelligently.

  1. The problem with valencing (imagining that there are positive or negative emotions, or pro-social or anti-social emotions)
  2. The problem with expression and repression (having only two options for working with your emotions, both of which can be unhelpful)
  3. The problem of nuance (not understanding that emotions arise in a multitude of intensities, and are present in your every waking moment)
  4. The problem of quantity (not realizing that it is completely normal for emotions to arise in pairs, groups, or clusters)

In this excerpt from my new book The Art of Empathy, let’s look at the problem of valencing.


Valencing is a way to separate things into specific categories, and emotions are valenced in two ways: they’re categorized as either positive or negative, or they’re framed as either pro-social or anti-social. So instead of being viewed as a constellation of important, action-requiring programs that are reliable parts of your cognitive abilities, emotions are separated into categories that have come to mean good versus bad, wanted versus unwanted, or nice versus mean.

Here’s the problem: If you believe that emotions are positive or negative, you’ll tend to focus on the allegedly positive ones and avoid the allegedly negative ones – and you won’t develop a full range of emotional or empathic skills. You might be able to work skillfully with the emotions you identify as positive, but you might be clueless about the emotions you identify as negative.

And if you believe that emotions are pro-social or anti-social, you’ll think that only a few emotions are acceptable in your relationships; therefore, when supposedly anti-social emotions arise, you may become shocked or destabilized, and you may view yourself and others in ways that actually reduce your social and emotional intelligence. You may think, for instance, that people are trustworthy only when they display emotions that you approve of; but that people who display emotions you don’t like should be avoided, shamed, or changed.

If you valence emotions, you’ll also lose awareness of and access to a great number of the skills your emotions bring to you. If you look at the three emotions I described here in terms of the skills and gifts they bring you (fear, anger, and shame), you’ll notice that they would all be valenced into the negative or anti-social categories – they would be typecast as emotions that cause trouble, don’t feel good, and don’t look good to others.

However, without them, you would have no instincts or intuition (fear), no capacity to set boundaries or protect your (or others’) voice, standpoint, or sense of self (anger), no capacity to manage your behavior (shame). When any of these emotions are necessary – when any of these actions are required – then each of these emotions is the most positive emotion possible. When any emotion is necessary and appropriate, it’s always positive (if you really need to use that word).

If you had inserted one of the allegedly positive emotions – such as happiness – into the place of these three emotions, you’d see something very negative indeed, because happiness was not required in the situations I referred to. Happiness is a very specific emotion that arises to help you look forward to the future with delight and amusement, and it’s wonderful! But so are anger, fear, shame, grief, sadness, jealousy, envy … all emotions are wonderful and necessary when you need them, and all emotions are a problem if they arise at the wrong time.

For instance, if you’re at a funeral, happiness is completely inappropriate – you need your grief to help you mourn your losses. At a funeral, grief is the positive and pro-social emotion, and happiness is negative and anti-social. Of course, emotions move and change during a funeral, and it’s normal to cry, and then laugh, and then smile, and then cry again – but pasting an unchangeably happy smile on your face during a funeral is not pro-social.

Or let’s look at fear – if a car is veering directly toward you on the freeway, happiness would probably lead to injury, because you need the lightning-fast instincts and intuitive actions of fear to get yourself to safety. In a situation of immediate physical danger where fear is required to save your life, happiness is a ridiculous emotion – it’s completely inappropriate.

So instead of valencing emotions into simple-minded either/or categories, the empathic approach is to observe all emotions as reliable and evolutionarily evolved responses that are uniquely appropriate to specific situations.

When you stop valencing, you’ll learn to empathically respond to what’s actually going on – and you’ll learn how to observe emotions without demonizing them or glorifying them.

When you can understand emotions as action-requiring neurological programs, you can ask whether the program is appropriate for the situation? If it is, you can support it, and if it’s not, you can help yourself or others take a look at why that program got activated, or why that emotion is so prominent that it steps into situations where another emotion would be more suitable (see the post How much emotion is too much?).

Photo of multicolored waterIn this empathic approach to emotions, you’ll learn to welcome all of your emotions (and the emotions of others) as valid and legitimate action-requiring aspects of social skills, empathy, cognition, and intelligence, because all emotions are necessary.

Unvalencing emotions is a crucial first step to working with the first three aspects of empathy (see Six Essential Aspects of Empathy). When you can approach emotions empathically and welcome their gifts and skills, you’ll be more able to manage your Emotion Contagion, increase your Empathic Accuracy, and gain extensive Emotion Regulation skills. Unvalencing emotions will help you understand them, welcome them, and work with them empathically. Win!

In the next post: The problem with expression and repression


8 Responses

  1. Kate Riley
    | Reply

    As always, wonderful explanation(s) Karla! Many years ago, I did a series of workshops, and part of what we did was to randomly choose words representing “positive” and “negative” emotions. The task was to then find positive in the negative and vice versa. It was a very good exploration into how we can/need to use all of our emotions.

    • Karla
      | Reply

      Yeah Kate! Awesome point. The emotions are so wondrous, deep, and brilliant that I’m continually astonished that people are so distrustful and avoidant of them. People are funny!

  2. Kaitlyn
    | Reply

    Another amazing blog post. This is really brilliant. Thank you!

  3. Lorraine Faehndrich
    | Reply

    Hi Karla. I LOVE this post. Thank you for writing it! In my work with women who have pelvic pain, in order for them to relieve their pain they have to learn how to start allowing and feeling all of their emotions. Before I can help them do that, we inevitably have to get past all the beliefs they have about their emotions (as I did.). I really appreciate how clearly you’ve laid out these ideas and the explanation you’ve given of valencing. This article is a fantastic resource (As is your book. It is required reading for all of my clients). I am looking forward to reading your next posts. Thank you for all the amazing work you do!!!! Warmly, Lorraine

  4. kevin
    | Reply

    Hey Karla-

    can you by any chance tell me if I handled this situation well? I like how you say that knowing exactly what emotions people are going through is only half the equation, that the other half is what to Do about it. Action!

    Here’s what happened:

    At Wal Mart, a guy dropped a cheap toothbrush in the self checkout aisle and I only saw it after he had paid and was walking out. So i thought if i told him about it that would be a little passive aggressive because it might put him in an awkward position (does he wait in line again? or does he go in front of me and feel rushed….etc).

    So i bought the toothbrush for him (literally like 79 cents), and right when I was about to tell him what happened, i realized I’d made a mistake…

    Now he’s gonna feel ridiculously in debt to me because of the whole reciprocation heuristic thingy (even though it’s a cheap toothbrush, people can easily blow it way out of proportion and he’d feel like he owes me a car lol).

    So I simply told him he dropped this on his way out! BAM! Applied Empathy!

    I’m getting your book as soon as it comes out, but is this the kind of thing you do in your every day life as an empath? I feel like your first book definitely had a few examples and I’m hoping your next one is like that too!

    • Karla
      | Reply

      BAM! I like it! You read so much in the situation, and you acted so decisively to make another person’s life work, yay! The only change I’d make is to ask the guy what he wanted to do, though with this situation, where he was leaving the store, I don’t think you would have had the time.

      I’ve done something similar in grocery lines when someone has overbought and is going through their wallet in a panic, counting pennies into the hand of the angry checker and trying to figure out what to put back. I’ll throw some bills on the floor and say, “Oh, I think you dropped this.” Because paying outright would be kind, but totally unempathic, because it would embarrass the hell out of the person. Sometimes, we empaths have to be totally sneaky!

  5. Karly Randolph Pitman
    | Reply

    Hi Karla,

    Thank you for your work and insight here. We’re sharing your articles and books in my classes (I help men and women outgrow eating disorders and disordered eating with an emotion based approach.) Your approach to emotions is helpful.

    Interestingly enough, my teacher in developmental psychology, Dr. Gordon Neufeld, says that “emotions are the engine of maturation,” and that children (and adults!) need to have access to and to feel the wide range of emotion to grow, mature and to reach their full human potential. This includes “negative” emotions.

    His theory on anxiety (what he calls alarm) actually specifies that there are times we need to feel and heed the feeling of alarm, because it moves us to caution. I thought that might interest you, to know there are others in other circles who are teaching similar ideas.

    Warmly, Karly

    • Karla
      | Reply

      Hello Karly and thank you for the work you do! And thanks for letting me know about Dr. Neufeld’s work. I was just reading something about emotional maturation in adults that mirrors what Neufeld is saying (I think it was Damasio) — essentially that the capacity to feel more emotions relates to social and emotional maturity. Excellent!

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