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10 Common Myths About Emotions (and Why They’re Wrong)

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How well do you understand your own emotions? Nietzsche (link is external)once said that we are often most clueless about what is closest to us. Nothing is closer to us than our own emotions; nevertheless, we do not understand them.

Following is a list of some common misunderstanding about emotions:

1. You can’t help how you feel.

Emotions are forms of judgment . A person’s emotional experience typically results from a subjective interpretation (appraisal) of an event rather than the event itself, even though the appraisal (beliefs) involved may not be accurate. Different individuals can interpret the same event differently: For example, grief about someone’s death represents a judgment about that person’s importance to the person. For a joke to be funny, it has to be perceived as such by someone. When there is no appraisal, there is no emotion. The appraisal is like discovering the black box of a plane crash that recorded flight data just before the crash. Without a “psychological autopsy” into someone’s interpretation we are in the dark. Cognitive therapy is based on the idea that much of the emotional pain is caused by distorted (irrational) thinking.

2. Emotions cannot be expressed in words.

It is true that our language is not developed for “inner experience.”  But it does not follow that emotions are indescribable. As noted above, emotions are judgment—describable and analyzable in considerable details. Parents and teachers frequently ask young children to “use their words” when they are upset and emotional, and research shows that describing anger and fear would be helpful to self-control.  The simple act of putting feelings into words activates the brain’s control system (inhibition) and diminishes emotional reactions.

3. Emotions are feelings.

Neuroscientist Damasio writes that feelings are a bodily experience provoked by an emotional response. Feelings require some element of awareness. In other words, they register in consciousness and they are not merely intellectual (like thinking). If we were to think of an emotion as a simple bodily feeling, there would be no obvious role for reflection. We can tolerate the feeling like an itch or a headache (or diminish it with booze). What we feel is just a small piece of the picture.

4. “The hydraulic metaphor.”

As the name suggests, if emotions are denied expression, they will leak somewhere else. And we need to express our emotions to feel better. For example, we often talk about anger in terms of “heating up,” “simmering,” or “boiling over.” The metaphor represents passivity, against the view that emotions can be cultivated and educated. Research in emotion regulation  has shown that there are a variety of ways that inappropriate emotional reactions and experiences can be disrupted by making use of our human ability—reinterpretation and distraction. For example, we often use humor to block anger or fear to resolve tension.

5. “I know exactly what you did to upset me.”

People are often mistaken about their own emotions. They misread and misname them. And, of course, they misread other people’s emotions, particularly when their perception is colored by their own preferences or prejudices. Consider the emotionally complex situation of divorce. Experts note that husbands’ reactions are often dominated by anger, an emotion that allows them to maintain confident and dominant position. A therapeutic goal is to help men recognize that some of their negative affect may come from sadness, hurt feelings, and fear, emotions that are more painful and scary and that they may be motivated to avoid. Misattributions usually disappear when people are made aware of the true source of their affective states.


6. Emotions are stupid.

Emotion and reason are not competing forces but complementary processes that interact and influence each other. Accumulated evidence  shows that emotion is part of the mechanism of reasoning, and so a lack of it is detrimental to decision-making. For example, children with autism  lack the emotional capacity to grasp other human beings’ feelings or motivations. People rely to some extent on their feelings and hunches in order to make successful decisions. Emotional reactions provides a critical summary of our past experiences with a situation or event, and this summary is experienced as “gut” feeling that can make decision-making process more efficient. It is not enough to know what should be done; it is also necessary to feel it.

7. Emotions are irrational.

Rationality is maximizing our well-being. Our emotions are rational insofar as they further our collective as well as personal well-being. For example, envy is an irrational emotion. At the heart of envy is a resentful comparison (“he has it, I don’t”). Grief at the loss of love one is rational. Guilt is seen as one of the moral emotions, linked to the interests of other people and motivating concerns for others. Love is irrational, when one knowingly goes after what one cannot have, driving oneself insane in the hopeless pursuit of the impossible (e.g., dating a married person).

8. Emotions happen to us.

Most of our emotions, most of the time, are not entirely beyond our control. It is a pattern of behavior chosen and practiced over time. Some discover, for example, that anger is an effective way of intimidating people, and so they allow themselves to get angry at the slightest provocation. Some cultivate sadness, perhaps because they earn sympathy that way, or because feeling sorry for themselves allows them to withdraw and be irresponsible. Love is a process of willful escalation we work our way into.

9. “I will always feel this way.”

Typical emotions are essentially transient. What comes up often comes down. As Socrates remarked, “The hottest love has the coldest end.” A typical emotional response involves a quick rise lasting for a few minutes, followed by a relatively slow decay. For example, anger usually lasts for more than a few minutes, but rarely more than a few hours. However, people tend to mis-predict the short duration of emotional response. For example, after a romantic breakup, heartbroken people are unable to anticipate the decay of their emotions. One of the reasons for adolescents’ high risk for suicide is because when they feel pain, they lack the life experience to know it is temporary. After a while the change becomes a normal and stable situation.

10. Moods are hard to reverse.

A variety of studies have demonstrated that adopting facial expressions of emotion can lead to the corresponding emotional feelings. In other words, “Fake it till you make it.” An expression of pride produces determination. Projecting pride motivates people to try harder in problem solving. We feel sad if we sit in a slumped posture or talk in a slow and low voice. For anger management, Buddhism advises us that we should force ourselves to relax our face and soften our voice, that our internal state will soon come to resemble our external state, and that our anger will dissipate. It’s reported that the late fashion designer Oscar de la Renta believed in beauty, not for beauty’s sake, but because he understood that elevating the outside could help elevate the inside.

The take-away: If we look into our emotional lives with the idea that our emotions are forces beyond our control that happen to us, we are inclined to accept bad behavior that otherwise might be controlled. By taking responsibility instead, we will no longer feel like the victim of our own emotions.

Oct. 16, 2015       Shahram Heshmat Ph.D.

Shahram Heshmat, Ph.D., is an associate professor emeritus of health economics of addiction
at the University of Illinois at Springfield.

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