Emotions are high-intensity, short duration experiences. They naturally exist for only a few seconds and, unless we consciously or unconsciously sustain or amplify them through thoughts or actions, our intense emotions will very quickly peak and subside of their own accord into less intense but longer lasting moods, or they might subside altogether.
The manner in which we deploy our thoughts has an impact on the way we feel, and the way we feel has an impact on the way we think. This relationship between our thoughts and our feelings determines our emotional intelligence. It influences how we perceive, choose and act. It affects how we live.
Fortunately none of this is fixed. We need not be caught in an ongoing cycle of reactive thoughts and negative emotions. The foundational skills of emotional intelligence are awareness of emotions, management of those emotions, and regulation of our moods. The good news is that these skills can be learnt.
We human beings don’t have just one mind, as many of us assume. Some theorists such as Daniel Goleman suggest that we have two semi-independent seats of consciousness situated in different parts of the brain that evolved at different times. One is the rational, thinking mind, which is located in the neocortex of the brain. The other is the emotional, feeling mind, which is located in the limbic system. These two parts of the brain are the physiological correlates of the symbolic head and heart.
These two parts of the brain process data differently. The processing speed of the neocortex is slower than that of the limbic system, and the limbic system gives up some accuracy of processing in order to be faster. The limbic system is great for getting us out of the way of an oncoming truck, but not so good at finding a solution to a complex mathematical problem; that’s a job for the neocortex.
Despite their differences, these two minds mostly exist in harmony with one another. However, when we cross a threshold of emotional arousal, as might occur in a heated argument, there is a tendency for the limbic system (emotions) to hijack the neocortex (rational thought) with all sorts of ugly consequences, like a night on the couch.
It was thought in the past that the ideal is a rational mind that is free from the pull of emotions, the inference being that if we could just get rid of pesky emotions we would be better off. However, to the extent that we are successful in suppressing unwanted feelings, we are subject to the law of unintended consequences, which include: debilitating ailments and illnesses (physical dimension of our lives); poorer decision making (cognitive dimension); and an existential greyness (emotional dimension). In short, suppressing our emotions looks like a sure way to become sick, thick and sad. Any takers?
Our attempt to suppress our feelings, particularly those that are troublesome to us in some way, is often an unintended invitation for those feelings to express themselves as physical ailments.
If the feelings themselves will not be heard and attended to, then often those feelings take physical form and show up as ailments. And if we ignore these ailments and their emotional correlates, if we attempt to tune out the somatic signals as well as the emotional signals, then the only viable option remaining to an intelligent self-preserving system is to get our attention by worsening the symptoms until we finally, hopefully, get the message to attend to our feelings.
The apparent benefit of suppressing emotions is that we don’t have to feel what we don’t want to feel. But this benefit is a chimera: the emotions will go underground and will be felt one way or the other, emotionally or physically, now or later. And if we keep suppressing emotions over time, then we keep accumulating the costs, often in the form of chronic illness, and sometimes with catastrophic consequences.
A more modern paradigm than that of troublesome emotions being an obstacle to rational thought is that the two minds can have a symbiotic relationship where emotions actually enhance rational thought. The logic of this is that without feeling there can be no meaning, and without meaning it is almost impossible to make a decision, especially so for the most important decisions, such as who we choose as a partner, where we choose to live and what work we choose to do.
While our decision-making can in fact be undermined by overwhelming emotions, this is not an argument in favour of suppressing emotions because, if we choose to cut out feelings, we unnecessarily rob ourselves of some very valuable information. Arguably the world’s greatest investment decision-maker, Warren Buffett, makes the paradoxical case for investors getting in tune with emotions. He has said that a key to successful investing is the ability to control the urges that get other people into trouble. He is acknowledging that high emotion, such as fear and greed, can have a corrosive effect on the quality of investment decision-making. But he is also saying that those investors who are aware of their own emotions and the emotions of others, and who are able to translate that awareness into action (or mindful inaction), have a distinct advantage. This takes the form of improved immunity against contagious high emotion in the markets. It also holds true beyond the confines of the investment world.
If we picture the possible responses to our emotions on a continuum ranging from suppression of emotion on the one end to being overwhelmed by emotion on the other, there appears to be an optimal path through the middle, one of intelligent awareness. Awareness of our own emotions and the emotions of others are two of the requirements for applying emotional intelligence, which is the basis for success in various domains of life, including decision-making.
Many of us have the fantasy that if we can lop off the so-called negative emotions, the ones that cause us most trouble, like anger and fear, we will be left with only the emotions that we want and like, and we’ll be blissfully happy. Nice idea, except it just does not work.
What happens when we suppress some part of our natural feeling life is that we actually reduce our capacity to feel, period. If we attempt to remove those unwanted emotions we also remove the wanted emotions. This is an accurate description of what many of us have done. Our resultant lived experience is one where we feel stuck and lifeless, where the joy and zest has mysteriously seeped out of our lives.
Not so mysterious, really. What has happened is that we have managed to dampen the amplitude of what we permit ourselves to feel, we have reduced our emotional bandwidth, we have inadvertently chosen to be less alive.
Our ultimate job in life might be nothing more or less than expanding our emotional bandwidth so that we can feel more, not less, so that we can be more alive while we are alive. And in order to feel more without being overwhelmed by emotion, we need to build the capacity to feel more, to strengthen our emotional muscle little by little.
- What emotions are you attempting to suppress?
- What might be the first- and second-order consequences of this strategy?
- When will you begin to soften your resistance to these emotions, even just a little?
- Justin Newdigate: Noise (2019)
- Ann Weiser Cornell: Focusing in Clinical Practice (2013)
- Daniel Goleman: Emotional Intelligence (1995)