Emotion: Friend or Enemy
We have been talking about the movie Inside Out and the wonderful psychological insights it provides us. The human mind is the most complicated phenomenon on planet earth. Anyone want to challenge that? It is because it is the single entity that can observe itself!! We saw little Riley running around her mind trying to make sense of what was happening. As far as we know human beings, and possibly dolphins, are the only creatures capable of self-consciousness.
Anyhow I digress! What I love about the movie is that it provides a relatively simple model of an impossibly convoluted singularity. The movie is only a model but at least it gives us a way of talking about the complex inner workings that we all experience—workings that are sometimes impossible to put into words.
Take emotions, for instance. And some days you can take them!! The movie showed five emotions in little Riley: Joy which was her face to the world; Fear, Disgust, Sadness and Anger, each represented by lovable cartoon figures in different colors. Psychologists typically add a sixth—Surprise. At first psychologists attempted to identify the six emotions by facial expressions but this proved too difficult because feelings are typically expressed in combination. Say you are a rock star and an excited crowd is ready to mob you for autographs, locks of hair or articles of clothing. You might feel excited but also a little scared! So you would convey fear and elation at the same time. It would be tough however to communicate that combination in one facial expression. Much of the time our emotions are expressed as a mixture!
Emotions are also with us from the beginning of life. It is astonishing to know that babies already can express the six emotions within their first few months. Watch a baby for a few minutes and you will believe it! They are so expressive. But then too many parents, teachers and society in general spend the next six years of their lives trying to suppress emotions—just as Riley’s well-intentioned parents did. We fail to realize that emotions are vital to our well-being and especially to our relationships with others. Here is what I said about it in my book Family Entanglement: Unravelling the Knots and Finding Joy in the Parent/Child Journey: https://www.createspace.com/4008162
Emotions are puzzling both to children and adults. In many ways they are barometers to the world around us. They alert us to danger. (When the hair rises on the back of our necks we know that menace is afoot.) They allow us to fall in love. (It is surely one of the greatest joys of being human.) Emotions are vital to what we do and who we are. (P. 45)
There was a time when organizational psychologists believed that the business environment should be devoid of emotion—maintained on logic and pure reason. But in recent years they have discovered that emotions are essential in the work place. In fact they are critical to rational thinking and ethical decision-making. Take Star Trek for example. (I am talking about the original here. I am married to a devoted Trekkie.) Clearly the running of a starship requires both logic and emotion. Spock is able to assess a situation with faultless logic but he is not the captain for a reason. Captain Kirk considers the rational assessment that Spock provides and then makes a decision taking into account the good of the many; the good of the one; the Prime Directive and the sheer humanity of the circumstances to make the best decision possible.
So yes! Emotions can be our enemy and our friend. But they are essential to our well-being as individuals, as families, as businesses and as a society. Next week we will take a look at what can happen when emotions are suppressed too hard and too long.
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Ellen Toronto is a clinical psychologist in private practice in Spring, Texas and has been practicing since 1980. In 2017, she was elected a Fellow in Psychoanalysis by the American Psychological Association. In 2016, Dr. Toronto's practice was recognized as one of the top Ann Arbor Psychology practices. She received her Ph.D. in Psychology from the University of Michigan. Dr. Toronto is married to Robert Toronto, Ph.D., and together they have four sons and eleven grandchildren.