This article was published in The Startup.
Emotions, as Dylan Evans puts it in Emotions: A Very Short Introduction, have two purposes: to communicate and to motivate.
To communicate to others how we feel, and to motivate us to take action.
Does that sound really fucking obvious? Is your mouse already moving to click away and find a brotivational listicle that will teach you how to CONQUER and CONTROL your emotions in 7 easy steps?
It’s not. And please don’t. It’s not obvious at all, nor is it how we generally think about our emotions.
We view them in a lopsided way, with way too much focus on the communication part.
Most of us are really, really good at communicating how we feel.
Within 0.3 seconds of popping out into the world, we start expressing our emotions. As tiny humans, we master this skill with ease because of the surrounding feedback loop:
Feel negative emotion → express negative emotion → have someone else resolve whatever is causing the emotions (i.e. hunger, discomfort, illness) → feel positive emotion.
That loop reinforces the notion that the way to resolve a bad feeling is to communicate it to others, who will then be motivated to take action and solve whatever is wrong.
For a few years, this works. We become master manipulators, effortlessly skilled at getting other people to do what we want. This is necessary- we can’t take care of the action part ourselves.
But this doesn’t work forever. At some point, expressing our emotions ceases to be enough.
Other people stop stumbling over themselves to help us out and start expecting us to do more and more for ourselves.
Sure, we all get good at handling our basic needs by the time we’re adults. We wouldn’t survive otherwise.
Yet most us continue through life still with too much emphasis on communicating our emotions, and too little of understanding what they are intended to motivate us to do, and why.
We live in the golden age of emotional expression.
We care so much about externalising them, about letting the world know how we feel, about sharing it all online so others will commiserate with us, and about feeling like our emotions are validated.
But it all stops there. We get our feelings out, then we move on. Or rather, we don’t.
They say that the definition of madness is doing the same things repeatedly and expecting different results, which means this culture of constant emotional expression devoid of action is pretty damn mad.
Think of it this way. If one of our ancestors had eaten a bad tasting berry, then screwed up their face in disgust, their buddies would have gotten the message: okay dude, let’s not eat those berries again.
What they would not have done is loudly expressed their disgust, been comforted by their buddies, then gone and done the same thing the next day. Or at least, those who survived wouldn’t.
The expression of disgust would have communicated to their pals not to eat those berries.
The actual feeling of disgust would have motivated them to also not eat the berries again.
Emotions are meant to teach us to do things differently.
They are meant to show us what to embrace and what to avoid. They are meant to prompt us to run, fight, hide, hunt, reproduce, socialise, eat, sleep, whatever.
Except, somehow, part of that equation has gotten lost.
The whole crux of civilised society is that we’re meant to suppress and trample down many of our natural instincts.
We are meant to be clean, dress nicely, be polite and non-violent, tolerate people we dislike, raise sane children, work when we’d rather be asleep, follow complex social codes, and generally not act on our feelings.
And then, I’d argue with my limited knowledge of sociology, the last two centuries or so have been a move away from emotional repression and towards an overwhelming emphasis on externalising everything. Aided by the Romantic movement and Freudian psychology.
With infinite opportunities to express and legitimise how we feel, we’ve also grown obsessed with labelling it.
The history of psychology is all about finding labels and categorising how people feel through the lens of the extremes, rather than a march towards understanding why.
Think of the person you know (and we all know one) who never stops talking about their miserable relationship.
Every time you bump into them, or call, or hang out, it’s the first thing they talk about. How frustrated they are. How angry they are. How upset they are. How everything is wrong and its all their partner’s fault.
So you console them. You offer helpful suggestions. But nothing ever changes. Maybe they leave that particular partner, only to repeat the whole thing with the next. And the one after that. Or perhaps they don’t- they stay in the exact same situation.
Look, I don’t know shit about relationships. They are on the long list of things that I used to do and understand the benefits of, but just don’t get round to doing any more (like meditating, being vegan, going to the gym, and wearing earrings.)
I do, however, think they are the perfect example of this. Any relationship is going to have issues and discussing them with other people is obviously a good idea.
The problem is when someone thinks that’s enough and won’t look beyond it to anything that might improve things:
Actually discussing stuff with their partner instead of expecting them to be a mind reader, going to couples’ therapy, evaluating their expectations, reframing how they view relationships, or leave it if that’s needed- or, heck, only being in a relationship if it makes them happy, not because they’re scared of being alone.
For the last year and a half, I’ve been in a situation where I rarely have the option to express my emotions to another human in an honest way.
If I get home after a bad day at work, I can’t blow off steam by recounting it to someone, who will then reassure me that tomorrow will be better. If I have some exciting good news, I can’t celebrate or tell someone about it, unless I call a family member who won’t really care.
If I feel oppressed by my own mortality, confused about my direction in life, in need of a hug, enraged by the energy company, downtrodden, or elated, my main option is to tell my cat about it. The few people I do speak to get sick of hearing from me and I try not to annoy them too much.
The result has been a very strange shift in the way I regard my emotions.
I feel them. I swallow them. I act on them. What I don’t do is visibly express them in a meaningful way that often. Maybe once a week I cry (a lot.)
It’s not socially acceptable to show strong emotions if you’re alone. Crying or laughing in the street is considered a sign of madness. Because we’re so used to the idea that our emotions are for other people, rather than for our own benefit.
But they should be. That’s the thing — you don’t always need to share everything. It’s perfectly possible to just sit with a feeling and feel it, then figure out what’s its trying to motivate you to do.
What I’ve also realised is that we’re perfectly capable of taking care of many of our own needs. We don’t always need to depend on other people.
We can be independent in a way that is not a rejection of other people, but an acceptance of ourselves.
In March, I walked across a frozen lake in Copenhagen and it taught me something important.
I had just arrived in the city for the first time. My Airbnb host casually mentioned that the lake nearby was frozen solid. So I dropped my bags and raced off to see it.
Arriving there, the sight of a slate grey expanse of ice, dusted with snow, greeted me. I am otherwise a sensible and cautious person — I never put milk in my coffee without sniffing it first — but I didn’t think twice. Without even bothering to google if it was safe, I stepped onto the ice and walked from one bank to the other. Here’s the view from the middle:
The whole experience was like an extended trust fall: an intermingling of adrenaline, fear, and awareness of my own solidity, as I fell backwards and hoped nature would catch me.
Yes, it was an irresponsible thing to do. But it was also an exhilarating moment of strange magic. In a way, I wished there was someone there to share the moment with me. One of the pitfalls of solo travel is having no one to share beautiful moments with.
But it passed. I absorbed the feeling, held all of it inside, then walked on with a sense of ownership over the experience. It was mine alone. As nice as it would have been to communicate the trepidation and elation with someone else, to turn it into a shared memory, I let that beauty spur me on.
All in all, this extended period of isolation has made me better at acting on my emotions and trying to solve things. Expression may feel good and offer a moment of connection, but it doesn’t resolve negative emotions. It just replaces them, briefly.
It would be ludicrous to suggest that expressing and sharing our emotions is a waste of time.
Of course it’s valuable. Of course it’s unhealthy to suppress how you feel. That’s not what I’m talking about.
Sometimes it’s hard to even know what we feel until we externalise it. A lot of the time, we need someone else to mediate our reactions and help us figure out how to act.
Nor am I suggesting that the degree of isolation I’ve dealt with for a while now is aspirational, fun or even healthy.
But it has taught my a lot, namely that expression alone, particularly when it comes to strong feelings that are meant to act like cattle prods, isn’t enough. Especially when we never confront their cause.