Dear Dr. Donna - Advice on Emotions

Dr. Donna L. Roberts

Sane Advice for an Insane World

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Dear Dr. Donna,

My family thinks I am too emotional. I am definitely more emotional than they are, but it’s just who I am. They hold in their emotions and consider it a negative aspect of my personality that I don’t. They are always telling me to get control of my emotions, but that just feels so unnatural and disingenuous to me.

I’m so confused. Why are we so different? Why am I so emotional?

- An Emotional Mess

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Dr. Donna Says . . .

Dear Mess,

A scientist friend of mine once remarked, “What is the point of all this emotion? It just gets in the way. It’s messy and inconvenient!”

Another friend believes that emotion is the whole point of it all, that experiencing emotion is the greater purpose of why we are here.

Who is right? It’s confusing. It feels like they both have a point. Who hasn’t been at the mercy of their own or another’s emotions in a way they would have preferred to avoid? From the tantrums of a toddler to the deep pain of grief, there’s no denying some emotions can be overwhelming, messy, and inconvenient. But then again, to live without emotions? Hmmmm . . . sounds draconian.

So, what is the purpose of emotion?

For centuries poets, philosophers, theologians, politicians, and psychologists (along with the average Joe at a cocktail party), have argued about the purpose of life. Is it to be happy? Fulfilled? Experience the gamut of human emotion? Add value to the world? Make a difference? Do great things? Or, just be?

Our bodies, or more specifically our biology and physiology, have a mind of their own, so to speak. By this I mean they exist, supported by their executive director in the brain, with their own independent set of policies and procedures. They have one job—survival. They are laser focused on keeping the organism alive, toward the greater purpose of keeping the species alive.

It’s really that simple to our bodies and a large portion of our minds. We, in our first world experience, have stacked complicated layer after layer of existential meaning over top of it all. But, it’s important to remember that when the proverbial chips are down, the body tries to function in service of that singular goal, above all else.

So, while we are struggling to live happy and meaningful lives, there are times when the body, and its partner in crime the mind, are working against that, or at least without any deference to it. There are times when ignorance, as blissful as it might be, poses a danger to survival and thus certainly cannot be tolerated.

This is the bailiwick of evolutionary psychology—a branch of psychology that views aspects of human behavior as evolved adaptations of natural selection.

While we work to keep our emotions firmly planted on the positive end of the spectrum, our survival mode may have different ideas. It doesn’t care if a particular emotion makes you feel happy or fulfilled. It cares that it keeps you safe, even if you have to be uncomfortable or miserable in the process. Emotions exist, according to this perspective, not to make us more human, connected or fulfilled, but rather as a source of information, and most importantly, a warning signal to direct behavior.

If we are scared—good! There may be a threat to pay attention to. If we are attracted to someone—good! That may contribute to the perpetuation of the species. Being happy or sad about the situation is not the point. It is the collateral damage. The side-effect.

Of course, there are also times when dysfunction and mental illness work against even the lofty goal of survival. Freud once said, “Intelligence will be used in the service of the neurosis.”

But that is a topic for another day.

Recommended Readings

Master Your Emotions: A Practical Guide to Overcome Negativity and Better Manage Your Feelings by Thibaut Meurisse

How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain by Lisa Feldman Barrett

Permission to Feel: Unlocking the Power of Emotions to Help Our Kids, Ourselves, and Our Society Thrive by Marc Brackett, Ph.D.

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Writer and university professor researching media psych, generational studies, addiction psychology, human and animal rights, and the intersection of art and psychology.

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