Twelve Ideas That Can Change Your Life (Part 9)
Buried within many self-help and spiritual writings is a curious and subtle message: Your emotions should be a source of wisdom. We should do what our heart tells us, follow our gut, and not over-think things. But emotions can lead people astray in very dangerous ways. Anger can lead to our destroying what we love. Fear can lead to avoidance of meaningful parts of life. Seeking euphoric joy can lead to the slavery of substance abuse. Depression can lead to a downward spiral of withdrawal and inactivity.
Biology tells us that emotions are an ancient system based on brain structures that we share with many other creatures—even reptiles. I don’t know about you, but I would not be content with the wisdom of an alligator. Humans have the capacity for more because we are capable of developing reason. The wise person may take their emotions into account, but emotions themselves are not a source of wisdom.
Emotions and thoughts are not as separate as we might think. Our thoughts shape and alter our emotions. When our thoughts are not reasonable—when they are overly demanding, illogical, and underestimate our resilience they will distort our emotions, sometimes twisting a healthy emotional response into something that feels overwhelming and seems grotesque. But once you accept that through your beliefs (or what you are telling yourself at any given moment) you can change the nature of what you feel, then something amazing happens. Your emotions can change. Unhealthy, destructive emotions can transform into the helpful, insightful, wise variety. This tells us something very important: We are largely responsible for how we feel.
This is the exact opposite message that we so often receive from others. We are often encouraged to believe that other people and other situations cause our emotions:
- Someone disrespecting me=anger.
- Winning the lottery=happiness.
- The world is dangerous=anxiety.
If true, these “equations” would place our emotions out of our control. Reason tells us otherwise. By changing the way we think we can help ourselves focus on what is under our control, and how we can be more effective.
In a Nutshell:
Emotions, by themselves, are not a source of wisdom. Because our beliefs shape our emotions, emotions can become unhealthy when the beliefs related to them are not shaped by reason. Fortunately, we can learn to apply reason to our thoughts, and in doing so, we can gain limited control over our emotional world.
How to Use This Idea:
When you are feeling a strong negative emotion, ask yourself, “What are I telling myself here?” Try to determine what the belief is that is driving the emotion. Then ask yourself, what would the healthy version of this emotion be? Then try to identify what you could tell yourself instead that would lead to the healthier emotion. Here is a hint: the 12 helpful thinking styles in this series are examples of the kind of thinking that helps. I know all of this is far easier said than done, but this essentially is what learning about cognitive therapy (particularly Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy) will help you do.
The Fine Print:
This idea does not mean that you should banish all emotions from your life. Emotions are necessary, and the lack of emotions doesn’t actually turn humans into super problem solvers (people who cannot experience emotions due to neurological deficits have significant difficulties in multiple areas of life). And while reasonable thoughts can change your emotions from the unhealthy variety to the healthy kind, healthy emotions are not always pleasant. Sometimes the “right” thing to feel is downright unpleasant. You will never have total control over your emotions. Some emotional reactions that are non-negotiable. But healthy emotions can be a source of insight. Healthy emotions might push us in the right direction. For example, concern might alert us to a risk we need to consider. Sadness might prompt us to accept a loss. Frustration can cue us in to our need to evaluate what we can change in a disadvantageous situation.
What This Will Help You Avoid:
This idea will help you avoid the extremes of unhealthy emotions including unhealthy anger, depression, envy, and anxiety.
What This Will Help You Gain:
Wisdom. Wisdom is the ability to solve solve practical problems. Wisdom is diminished by excessive, unhealthy emotions. Under the sway of such passions problem solving is impossible and we resort to crude, primitive, ineffective strategies. But when we can use reason to temper our emotions, effective solutions become easier to identify.
The Source of this Idea:
This idea draws heavily on Rational Emotive Behavior therapy (and in particular on the theory’s distinction between healthy and unhealthy emotions). This idea is also present in ancient Stoic philosophy in which the concept of the “passions” is analogous to what I have been referring to as unhealthy negative emotions. This conceptualization also reflects from Marsha Linehan’s concept (in Dialectical Behavior Therapy) of the “wisemind”, which is a type of thinking that combines the “emotion mind” and “reason mind.”