Personal power is the ability to act in your long-term best interests. Emotional power in the ability to use inherently short-term emotions for your long-term best interests.
Popular descriptions of emotion-coping reduce the odds of acting in your long-term best interests. They tend to be binary: express them or suppress them.
Suppressing emotions is clearly bad for physical and psychological health. This empirical fact has led to an unfortunate cult of feelings, where every feeling that happens needs to be expressed.
Trouble is, we don’t merely express emotions; we amplify, magnify, and decontextualize them. That is, we change them, in a manner similar to the observer effect in physics. In exchanges with others, expression of strong emotions impairs reality-testing, creates temporary narcissism, and makes it impossible to see other perspectives, much less any kind of nuance.
The binary view of emotion-coping, embedded in contemporary culture, is no small contributor to the polarization and intolerance of disagreement that infects the land.
It ignores the primary function of emotions: arousal – signaling the organs and muscle groups of the body to prepare us for action. (The root of the word “emotion” is “to move.”) The action they prepare us for is:
Approach, Avoid, or Attack.
For example, compassion and affection prepare us to approach; anger and resentment prepare us to attack, mentally or literally. No one subscribing to the cult of feelings advocates attacking, so we’re told to “feel the feelings” but don’t act on them. In other words, we’re supposed to taste the food, but not swallow. It’s worth noting that research on the ill-effects of suppressing emotions does not distinguish between suppressing feelings and motivations. We can only guess which is worse.
In any case, the physiological arousal of emotions, evidenced in facial expressions, body language, and tone of voice, is next to impossible to suppress completely. That’s why people know you’re feeling negatively about them when you smile and try to be courteous.
The binary view of emotion-coping also ignores the evolutionary function of emotions. They did not evolve for self-discovery or to lend insight about childhood experiences or relationship dynamics. And they are not ends in themselves to be experienced for their own sake; they’re signals about a possible reality that require attention. They evolved to help us negotiate the environment at the moment and in the near future.
Thankfully, there’s an alternative to express or suppress, and that’s regulate. Emotions don’t just happen to us; they’re embedded in perceptions of ourselves in the environment at the moment. We regulate them by changing perceptions of self and/or other people.
Emotional signals run on autopilot. The negative ones function like a smoke alarm. When the smoke alarm goes off, we don’t scream, “We’re all gonna die!” We check to see if there’s a fire in the house. Most of the time there isn’t, but if there is, we put it out. Emotions are signals about a possible reality. We should check them out but not confuse them with reality. The smoke alarm in not a fire.
If you assume that emotions are reality rather than signals about a possible reality, they are likely to work against you, motivating behavior which:
- Violates your deeper values (causing guilt, shame, anxiety)
- Impairs your health
- Harms your relationships.
You can make emotions work for you by choosing to:
- See multiple perspectives