A challenging part of human living is the area in which emotions arise. They can range from extremes of profound pleasure such as happiness, joy and contentment, to catastrophically painful states such as grief, depression and guilt. Some schools of thought consider emotions as states that are beyond our capacity to control and something we must live with and accept, many with the argument that our states are dictated by our genetic make up. Others may suggest that altering them is just a matter of having the right chemical mix from diet or drug use. My response to both is that no, we do have the capability to control and change our emotions without chemicals, but it first requires viewing them for what they really are and what they tell us. That is what I’ll be writing about today.
A note: when I refer to drugs and chemical manipulation, I do not refer to those who have a genuine disorder where certain facts limit their capability to express emotions in a normal way. The context in which I discuss emotions is within the realm of a fully functional, healthy human being.
Furthermore, there is absolutely some effect to one’s emotional state via diet and other outside influences, physiology is not invalid. Emotions are complex, but one still has control over them and can recognize what they feel explicitly.
What are Emotions?
Emotions are value judgements that make you feel a certain way depending on context. The feeling of “fear”, for example, is a feeling that arises when one is potentially losing something of value to them. Fear explicitly tells you that there is something in your situation that may result in the loss of something very important to you – this can be abstract or concrete. An easy example would be the fear of losing an important person in your life because they are badly injured.
The important point here is that the state of fear is related to something. Making yourself feel fear outside of anything related to it isn’t possible, there must be something there that one is afraid of.
It is the same case with a positive emotion, such as relief. Relief is the explicit recognition that something that may have been potentially lost is actually fine, thus a very soothing sensation washes over you. I’m sure many people have experienced this particular emotion before – you’d understand exactly what I’m writing about, but you can’t feel it right now. It isn’t possible to feel it unless the context demands for it.
One experiences hundreds of different emotions, both large and small, on a daily basis. An experiment: take a moment now to focus your awareness of the world around you, and pay attention to the feelings you take in upon seeing different things. You may feel slight pleasure at a color you like, disdain for a co-worker you’re not a particular fan of, some arousal at an attractive man or woman walking down the street, or maybe surprise at the fact that this writing recognized an attractive person near you (an amusing thought!).
The fact is, all of these feelings you are having are judging the value of entities around you. Judgement is an implicit action, and that is what your emotions are.
However, the distinction must be made very clear: emotions are not thoughts. This is clear in the fact that you must actually think about your emotions to recognize them. They’re separate and one doesn’t have that kind of direct control or focus with emotions as one does with thoughts. I did write at the beginning, however, that one can control and keep their emotions in check. How?
Where Emotions Come From
It’s established that emotions are value judgements that determine how one feels in particular contexts, however emotions are also states that originate from your psycho-epistemology. This is a term I must explicitly credit to Ayn Rand, as it was originally coined and conceptualized by her. Psycho-epistemology is, quote:
“Psycho-epistemology,” a term coined by Ayn Rand, pertains not to the content of a man’s ideas, but to his method of awareness, i.e., the method by which his mind habitually deals with its content. “Leonard Peikoff, editor’s footnote to Ayn Rand’s “The Missing Link,”
Philosophy: Who Needs It, 39
The psycho-epistemology influences one’s emotions via the fact that emotions must deal with integrated ideas to be able to measure value in the way they do.
For example, a child can be taught from an early age that dogs are monstrous, particularly if that child experiences an incident where the dog barks at him. The natural, physiological reaction to that dog is that of fear and uncertainty: it is not the explicit fact that the child doesn’t like dogs, but rather he is in fear of an unknown. There is potentiality of loss there as all the child recognizes is the loud bark of a monster with sharp teeth. Physiologically, he responds with “this is against my life” and thus fear as an emotion comes out.
However, if the child is taught by parents or friends that the dog is actually just excited (and this can be done in many ways), the child can eventually learn to love dogs, and it’s no longer the emotion of “fear” that comes from seeing a dog, but one of joy. One can apply this same example with anything – one can learn to love spiders if they consciously work towards it. Likewise one can learn to feel attraction to a particular type of person or physique. What we feel comes from what we value, and what we value is integrated as we grow and develop in our lives. Those integrated aspects are conclusions made about specific circumstances over the course of your life.
Now most emotions one has are usually things one doesn’t want to change. I assume that most people are not so interested in changing their intense disgust in cockroaches, for example. However there are emotions that one does want to change in particular contexts; such as the fear of public speaking, intense anxiety, irritation for no apparent reason, etc. So let’s explore where they may come from and how to change them.
Introspection is the process in which one explores their mind and thinks about the thoughts and emotions that run through them. This is the process that every human can do, but does not do often enough. It is looking inwards, recognizing the mechanics behind what makes one tick and thinking about the thoughts that come to them. It is also the explicit identification of one’s free will – the ability to explore your thoughts, differentiate, omit and choose.
Introspecting and thinking about the feelings one has is precisely what one needs to do, but it is usually done with the wrong questions in mind when working on complex emotions. One usually asks “Why do I feel this way?”, and then proceeds to provide the concrete reasons behind their feeling, such as a situation that is happening in front of them. However, what does one do when the feeling is this seemingly unknowable tension, sadness or anxiety? The “Why?” is usually not sufficient to quell these emotions and provide necessary closure. The solution is not to ask “Why?” but instead ask “Where did it come from?” and “When did it start?”
If one focuses hard enough on these two questions, they may be able to figure out from what ideas they implicitly hold the emotions in question stem from. I’ll give a personal, first hand example of it.
Over the past few weeks, I have had bouts of sadness and depression that seemingly came out of nowhere. Asking myself why I felt the way I did was not sufficient – the feeling was seemingly floating around without any explanation.
However, sitting down and spending fifteen minutes writing things out in my personal time helped clear out much of the clutter and illuminate the things that were bothering me. I asked myself when it started, and traced back the approximate time. I then asked myself where they stem from, and upon some introspecting I recognized that I was deeply dissatisfied with my primary job over the past month or so. Without delving into too much detail, I made the explicit identification that what I currently do is simply not good enough for me: I’m not happy with it as it’s not productive or engaging enough.
And thus, through that a wave of relief washed over me. While I am still not quite happy about my current state, I am at least conscious about why I feel the way I do. I now need to take specific actions to change my state and progress past it.
Apart from this concrete example, one must understand that sometimes changing your feelings takes time and a focused, conscious effort. It is often not a one day fix when it is a more complicated scenario that caused the emotions to arise in the first place.
This can also be seen in changing how one reacts to things such as weight lifting or intensive exercise. Within this context, if one is not accustomed to exercise but wants to alter their lifestyle for the better, their initial emotional reaction to many of the aspects of exercise (and some extent healthier eating) is of pain and disdain. This changes over time however when one consciously works through the feelings.
One has to recognize that there is a difference between what their emotions are telling them, and what their conscious mind wants. Changing that state from pain and disdain to pride and satisfaction is a process that requires discipline in the initial stages, motivation from the result of persistence, and finally consistency in the habituation of the activity itself. The emotions will then follow after the facts. That is an explicit altering of one’s psycho-epistemology, but again, it’s not a fast process.
Repression, Suppression and “Washing Over”
When one works towards changing their emotional state or value response to certain parts of their lives, it is important to understand when it may be necessary to suppress their emotional responses, but never repress them. This is a slight divergence of the primary topic, but it is worth mentioning briefly.
Suppression is the act of holding down an emotion, such as anger, to maintain one’s composure or focus in any particular context. Suppression is not a bad thing given the right circumstances, but it can be a bad thing if one is suppressing when one shouldn’t.
Take for example a superior at work saying something that goes against what you believe, or has an opinion that is deeply offensive to you. You’re angered, but lashing out in such a way is not conductive to your long range outcome. Thus, some suppression is required, albeit one can always maintain their integrity with a simple “I don’t agree” and leave it at that. Later on, however, one can let out that anger through an activity, speaking with their partner, writing about it, etc. The fact of its existence is important, and it is important to address it.
But let’s say you suppress and refuse to acknowledge your own emotional response, and continue on with your life as if nothing happened. Eventually, you can completely repress that anger you initially had as if it never existed – except that it still remains, but in different aspects in your life.
Repression is bad precisely because you are evading certain facts about yourself. Repressed feelings tend to manifest themselves in other aspects of life, potentially in the form of an unknowable, constant dread, or a deeply insidious anxious sensation, or increased irritability, etc. Think about what you are doing by ignoring and suppressing your emotions – you are explicitly training your own psycho-epistemology to perceive that certain emotions must not be felt because they are bad.
But emotions aren’t bad, nor are they good. They just are. One cannot place judgement on a feeling. They are indicators that something in one’s life is either a pleasure or a pain – and recognizing those facts is vital to understanding ones self, as well as changing it if necessary. Once one has recognized the emotion in them, they must accept it for what it is, and examine from what premises it originated from.
Finally, there is the aspect of what I call “washing over”. Sometimes, it is important to allow an emotion to fully envelop you even if it is an extremely unpleasant one, and the reason is because it helps you recognize its intensity and “lets it out”, so to speak. Resisting what you feel can only go so far before you can’t take it anymore and lash out in either subtle or not so subtle ways. To allow it to wash over you is allowing you to explicitly identify it alongside its reasons for existing and allow it to pass through you. This applies to all emotions, too – if you are happy with your achievements, allow your pride to envelop you. Relish in the radiant joy you feel for achieving your values. On the other hand, experiencing loss is something you must face and let pass – allow your grief to come out and acknowledge its existence; otherwise, it will manifest itself in many different ways in your waking life.
Evaluate and Decide
One’s emotions and listening to them are vital to having a functional and healthy life. But one must also recognize that they’re not for making decisions, they’re for evaluating and helping figure out what the rational approach is.
Impulsivity gets you nowhere as it’s the pragmatic, unthinking approach: one is succumbing to the feeling or whim of the moment and allowing it to direct the course of their lives.
However, if one recognizes their emotions, introspects and discovers where it came from and why, one can make the right decisions based off that knowledge, and ultimately change themselves to be a more focused, rational being that adheres to the reality of their psyche, and existence as a whole.