As humans our emotions play a large part in how we react to the world around us. Today’s blog post by Avance Care’s behavioral therapist Dr. Sharon Kirlik, PhD, LCSW, uncovers how embracing all emotions and accepting the purpose and existence of them helps us not only survive, but thrive.
Embracing all emotions – the good and the bad
As a self-proclaimed research geek, I have read multiple robust studies that use the terminology “positive emotion” and “negative emotion” to describe the degree of discomfort versus pleasure people generally feel while experiencing human emotions. While I understand the differentiations being made within this research, I believe that this portrayal does more harm than the intended good.
Not only does it inhibit the holistic embracing and radical acceptance of that which makes us human: our ability to feel, but it intensifies feelings of “fear” and “non-normalcy” when any amount of discomfort within the experience of emotion is detected. Through this dichotomy, I believe researchers are doing unintentional disservice by using labels that culturally evoke comparison and judgment between emotions, rather than highlighting contextual imbalances within each emotional experience. As a result, this view affects the intentionality and effectiveness of the ensuing behaviors.
What is the purpose of our emotions?
All our human emotions exist for a very practical, productive, and “positive” scientific reason – survival of our species. The difference between robots and humans for example, primarily lies in the human’s inherent ability to spontaneously experience emotion in the moment. Robots do not have this capacity. The shared emotional experiences among humans facilitate our connections with other humans, and these connections are essential to the survival of our species.
In the animal kingdom where typically, survival of the fittest means that an animal left alone in the wilderness will fall victim to a predator, we as humans within the animal kingdom need connection and support from others for our survival. With this context in mind, each of our emotions has an important reason for existing and many of the reasons inevitably circle back to the advancement and protection of the human species. From this perspective then, all emotions are inherently “good” because they facilitate our survival.
Why do we have anxiety?
The degree of discomfort experienced within an emotion is more of a biological phenomenon rather than an emotional one. For example, many people in our society today have difficulty coping with anxiety. It is estimated that more than 80% of the United States’ population meet diagnostic criteria for this mental health challenge. What may be surprising to learn is that anxiety is the emotion of safety; your brain has detected something, whether fictional or real, that is perceived as a threat.
The human brain is an incredibly smart organ that will take over if it senses that something within your body is not functioning properly. When the body perceives a danger, anxiety prepares you by pumping hormones throughout the body which generates a fight, flight or freeze response. These physical feelings are an automatic, biological process that occurs within the brain with the purpose of protecting you. It is completely and utterly brilliant….and not anything to fear! The human body is working as it was meant to work. The physical discomfort that is described as “negative” in association with an episode of anxiety lies in the physical symptoms that accompany it: a pounding heartbeat, hyper-focus, shallow and rapid breathing patterns, etc. There is no doubt that it can be uncomfortable, but it is the magic of your human body taking over so that you can get to safety.
There have been multiple accounts throughout the years of smaller-framed people demonstrating “super-human strength” in stressful situations, as a product of adrenalin pumping from the brain because of their anxiety. After a bad car accident, for instance, adrenaline has enabled people to lift an entire car off their child or their loved ones to save them. From that perspective, anxiety serves an amazing purpose – giving you strength to overcome.
How can I strengthen emotional intelligence?
It is not emotions themselves that are “negative” but, the way that they are managed that becomes an issue. This awareness of emotions is the root of emotional intelligence. In other words, how can an individual experience intense anxiety, and know how to cope with the associated discomfort? How much does this emotion and its responding behavior impose on their daily functioning? The “negative” label we use for emotions focuses on the thoughts and behaviors associated with an emotion, not the emotion itself. Emotions are an innate part of our humanness; they cannot be controlled, but thoughts and behaviors, with training, can be controlled through intentionally learning, relearning, or conditioning.
I see this confusion between an emotion and a “behavior-in-an-emotion” almost every day that I work with people in therapy. For example, people tend to mistakenly associate the emotion of anger with the behavior of violence due to constant exposure to trauma, societal portrayals in movies, television and video games, or a complex interplay of all. Learning to intentionally choose effective behaviors that both honor and communicate the emotion of anger is essential.
Anger is an emotion that facilitates change. The biological processes that occur in anger are sometimes confused with anxiety because they are physically experienced in the body very similarly. Violence is an ineffective, often impulsive behavior used to express anger and is becoming exponentially normalized and thus, misconstrued as a feeling rather than a behavior that stems from the root feeling of anger. The difference between a human and an animal is that an animal does not have the capacity to intentionally choose a behavior; it behaves instinctually. Humans have the capability to choose, with intention, their behaviors in a feeling. That is not to say it is easy, it is to say that it takes challenging work. We have the ability to learn and change.
Anger generates an opportunity to teach people how you expect to be treated in a mutually successful interaction. Respectful and effective communication of boundaries between people are often culturally misconstrued as confrontational or punitive; this is not always so. Boundary setting is an essential yet nuanced behavior that is learned and developed. The apprehension to set boundaries is often hedged in the assumption that people “should know” how you are feeling. This assumption; however, completely disregards the human inability to “mind read” and these thoughts can often fester into hurt feelings, resentment, and years of unresolved anger. Honoring and effectively communicating what you need is a way of intentionally capitalizing on feelings of anger. It is an opportunity to instead evolve relationships into more fulfilling interactions.
Can we embrace emotions for what they are?
Emotions occur as part of our humanness. Ultimately, an emotion is simply a feeling, and a feeling is not necessarily a fact. Most of the people I work with in sessions struggle immensely in their endless attempts to avoid, fight, or run from their feelings; but this is futile as they cannot separate emotions from their humanness. In the short term, avoidance can work to temporarily delay discomfort, but years of persistent running takes energy and is simply not sustainable. Research in both physical and mental health continuously supports the harmful consequences associated with long-term attempts at avoiding, pushing away, or running from emotions.
The constant energy expenditure that it takes to perform the impossible task of separating from humanness takes a detrimental toll on our well-being. I believe that the real key to successfully managing feelings is to practice embracing all emotions and accepting them for what they are: part of our humanness. It is beneficial to suspend judgment and embrace that they just are. Learning how to behave in tandem with your emotions will positively impact how emotions are experienced. It can feel uncomfortable, and it will pass. You absolutely can do hard things!
Our Behavioral Wellness providers engage you in an active therapeutic process that will help you grow in self-awareness, make healthy choices, and achieve appropriate balance in your life. Avance Care therapists use a strengths-based approach that helps you achieve your full potential and greatest degree of life satisfaction. Find mental health support through Behavioral Wellness Services at our Avance Care locations.
Dr. Sharon Kirlik is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker with over 28 years of pragmatic, clinical knowledge practiced in multiple realms of social work across the United States, India, and throughout the African continent. She earned her Master of Social Work degree at the University of Georgia and her PhD from Capella University in counseling. Dr. Kirlik integrates several robustly supported theories to assist clients in self-defining behaviors and thought patterns that no longer work within the context of their lives. She is expertly versed in cognitive behavioral theory (CBT) and client-centered theory (CCT) and believes that both of these directive and non-directive techniques used in tandem serve as an effective and efficient means of partnering with a client to implement new patterns and adapt old patterns that better suit their present lives.