Emotions often get the short end of the stick when it comes to working through the struggles in life. They’re either portrayed as the sole problem (“I wish I wasn’t so emotional about x”) or negatively contributing to the situation (“Emotions are always getting in my way”). Even when discussing so-called “positive” emotions like love and happiness, the tendency is to portray them as being contrary to or unhelpful towards living a more thoughtful and thought-filled life. A favorite example is to consider love as having fallen “head over heels” or some other form of losing one’s mind for love, as if it is a form of madness.
Finding seemingly clear examples of how emotions override, overcome, or otherwise short-circuit the rational components of our minds is fairly easy and a typical way of viewing them. Consider this list from a Psychology Today article entitled “4 Ways Emotions Can Screw Up Your Decisions“:
1. Excitement can cause you to overestimate your chances of success.
2. Anxiety in one area of your life spills over into other areas.
3. Feelings of sadness can cause you to settle.
4. Anger and embarrassment can lead to taking a long shot.
These basic concerns to be wary of are all based on two assumptions: 1) the human person is at core a rational entity, and 2) emotions and rationality are in constant struggle.
Find Balance by Acknowledging Your Emotions
To be fair, the author does note how emotions can be helpful, seeing as how anxiety can keep us from making a bad choice, but fundamentally all emotions “distort your thinking.”
Let’s stop for a moment and reconsider the basic assumption, that of the human person as being at core a rational entity, replacing it with Daniel Siegel’s idea of mind:
“A core aspect of the mind is an embodied and relational process that regulates the flow of energy and information.” (Siegel)
This allows us to reflect upon ourselves as being more than a producer of logic, instead bringing in a recognition of our living within particular bodies and through relationships. The body, that repository of “gut feelings” and relationships, the means through which we act, are no longer discarded or considered contrary to or apart from another. Rather, our experiences are both what happens to us and how we demonstrate the path of our lived-in lives.
Emotions are not waiting around to undermine our rational ability, any more than they arise within us to push us towards bad decision-making. Emotions exist as an initial assessment of perception and as a support for our thoughts. It is fair to say that the whole process is one big “thinking response,” the difference between emotion and thought only resides in the different areas of the brain where they largely, though not completely, emerge from.
Consider the potential thoughts and associated behavior of a person as being held within a large circle. Emotions don’t select thoughts and behavior like a laser-beam, instead they act like exploding paintballs or water-balloons. They capture a large area of potential, not any single action. The behavior that occurs then is a matter of what the person believes they are capable of and the relational context within which they are acting. Being excited doesn’t cause us to overestimate our chances of winning and plop down money on the roulette wheel. Instead, surrounded by other eagerly supportive people and flashing lights, being excited places more weight on one set of thoughts/behavior over another, pushing along those that declare “I really need this win” or “If I win this, my problems will be solved.”
Placing emotions as contrary to rationality or inevitably connected with “distortion” leads to the creation of inner-conflict and a focus on one aspect of our lives over another, ironically supporting the very distortion that was originally attempted to be solved. This is profoundly unhelpful if our goal is to embrace the whole of our lives. We are not broken or distorted creatures, there is no emotion or thought that is wrong or sinful. Our emotions/thoughts may not, and likely don’t, assess the whole of an experience accurately. However, acknowledging that we see reality in degrees of awareness can push us to seek expanded understanding, it is not an indictment of who we are.
Recognizing the power of emotions in the process of our decision-making is important, just as it is to understand the ways we think about a situation and the influence of the people we are connected with. The journey here is a constant one of relational discovery as our lives flow within and through our internal and external worlds. Faced with the inevitability of limits to our awareness: “The best we can do is a compromise: learn to recognize situations in which mistakes are likely and try harder to avoid significant mistakes when the stakes are high.” (Kahneman)
Kahneman, Daniel (2011-10-25). Thinking, Fast and Slow (Kindle Locations 405-406). Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Kindle Edition.
Psychology Today, “4 Ways Emotions Can Screw Up Your Decisions“
Siegel, Daniel J. (2012-04-26). The Developing Mind, Second Edition: How Relationships and the Brain Interact to Shape Who We Are (p. 2). Guilford Publications. Kindle Edition.
Barrett, Lisa Feldman, How Emotions are Made