Emotions are a very powerful – and helpful – part of who we are. When everything is going well, emotions can inform us of danger, threats, and uncertainty as we feel fear, anger, anxiety, etc. Emotions can also run amok and cause unintended destruction: anything from holes in walls to destroyed relationships to failed employment.
So what are emotions? The best illustration I have heard is that emotions are like gauges in a car: they tell us that something is going on, but they don’t say what. The low-gas light could mean that you need to fill up on gas because you drove through a tank of gas. It could also mean there is a short in the light, a leak in the fuel system, or a bad sensor. The low gas light doesn’t say exactly what the problem is, just that there is a problem.
Emotions work the same way. They don’t tell us specifically what the danger, threat, uncertainty, or even benefit might be, just that the circumstances probably exist. For instance, when we are angry, we might not be able to identify why we are angry, just that we are angry. Many people react to their anger and appeal to it as the measure of any event or conversation. “That person made me angry. I want to hurt them so they know how I feel.” The danger with this approach is that our anger may be unjustified or misplaced. They might have been speaking truth to us we didn’t want to hear (so whose fault is it, really, that we are angry?) or may be having a bad day and accidentally angered us. It is certainly important to recognize these emotions, but it is also important to be able to both identify what is causing the emotions and then to choose our best response. Being able to take a step back and examine what we are angry about allows us to then choose how to address the anger.
Next week, we will look at specific steps to take to identify what is underneath our emotions.