Emotions can be complex, confusing, overwhelming and scary. If you find yourself struggling with, or fighting against your emotions you may be holding some misconceptions about emotions that could be negatively impacting your behaviour, relationships life enjoyment and emotional well-being. When we struggle excessively with our emotional experience we very often (inadvertently) cause ourselves additional suffering. In order to live an adaptive, meaningful, productive existence it is crucial that we learn to forge a cooperative alliance with our emotional world.
Some signs that you are not currently in a cooperative alliance with your emotions may be that you notice yourself:
- Suppressing your emotions- pushing them down or pushing them away;
- Excessively distracting yourself from your emotional experience (for example with work or household chores);
- Numbing your emotions (for example through drinking, drugs or watching television)
- Limiting your life by avoiding certain places, interactions etc for fear it will result in an overwhelming feeling(s);
- Berating or punishing yourself for feeling a certain way;
- Allowing your emotions to completely hijack or take control of your decision making, behaviour and life direction.
If we better understand emotions: we have a platform for responding to them in useful ways; we increase our capacity to tolerate any related discomfort’; and we are in an improved position to be able to ‘turn them up’ or ‘turn them down’, or just hold steady while they are occurring.
Misconceptions about emotion can contribute to an unhealthy relationship with your emotional world. Here are our Top 10 common misconceptions or ‘myths’ of emotions.
Myth 1: There is a right way to feel in every situation
Emotions are not right or wrong, good or bad. Emotions provide us with cues and clues about specific situations and prepare us to respond. There are individual differences in how we experience emotions. A range of emotions may be felt by different people as a response to the same event. Likewise, the intensity of the emotion and the physiological experience may also differ from one person to another. This is because we all have different physiologies; different accumulated life experiences; and different beliefs about ourselves, others and how the world works.
Myth 2: Letting others know I am feeling bad is a weakness
We all experience unpleasant emotions – not because we are weak – but because we are mammals and our brains are geared to be informed by emotion. Acknowledging and expressing them appropriately (even if just to ourselves) can put us in a significantly improved position to take effective action and move our lives forward.
Myth 3: I can’t control how I feel
We tend to assume that emotions just happen or that others make us feel a particular emotion, for example ‘she made me angry’. To some degree this is true – people and events cause us to ‘feel’ all of the time and trigger emotional reactions deep within our brain and nervous system. We do not have direct control of our emotions – we can’t turn them on or off like a light-switch. We can however learn to modulate and regulate our emotions so that we can turn them up or down a bit like a dimmer switch.
Myth 4: Negative emotion is bad and destructive, or will cause some harm
Emotions are neither positive nor negative – they are there for a reason. They may be more or less pleasant or comfortable, but they are not ‘bad’ or ‘bad for us’. It’s what we do in response to our emotion that makes the difference.
For example, when someone feels anger they may experience a strong urge to yell, fight and damage property, but this doesn’t mean that they will do these things. They can learn to be informed by anger and use this to guide effective action.
Likewise, when someone is experiencing deep sadness it may feel like the sadness is going to ‘crush them’; or when they are very anxious they may believe they are going to come to some harm. Even though emotion is overwhelming – EMOTION WILL NOT CAUSE US ANY PHYSICAL HARM. Struggling against emotion on the other hand can cause harm…
Myth 5: Emotions happen for no reason, or are completely irrational
All emotions, including unpleasant ones have a purpose. Emotions are the result of our perception of an experience (some of this perceiving happens consciously, and some occurs deeper in our mammal brain). They communicate to us about our environment and motivate us to behave in ways that enhance our chances for survival.
Emotions function as an early warning system. They are internal signals, motivating us to take action and influencing the decisions we make.
Myth 6: Some emotions are stupid and useless
All emotions have a function. They help us identify what we like or do not like, for example, how we would like to be treated. They help us to communicate with others. Our facial expressions can signal to others that we are angry, sad, anxious or happy. Emotions also help prepare us for action, for example, anxiety can help us to stay alert and focused and motivate us to solve problems.
It may be true that you like some emotions more than others but that does not mean all the rest are best done away with…
Myth 7: If others do not agree with how I feel then I must be wrong
People can experience different emotions after the same event. There is no clear cut right or wrong way to feel in any situation. Your emotional reaction is what it is – yours. Learning skills to non-judgementally observe, accept and work with our emotional experience is an important set of skills to support a happy, healthy and meaningful life.
Myth 8: Painful emotions are not important and should be ignored
Some emotions can feel uncomfortable or painful. As humans we try to do everything we can to reduce emotional pain such as ignoring or dismissing our emotions. Ignoring our emotions will not make them go away and can lead to damaging effects on our overall happiness and functioning.
Myth 9: My emotions will make me lose all control
Emotions can sometimes feel resistant, scary or confusing. The good news is emotions don’t last forever, they come and go like tides in the ocean. There are ways you can learn to manage your emotions in the moment and regulate how you react to them.
Myth 10: I feel it so it must be true
Sometimes emotions feel so strong or overwhelming that you believe they must be true. If you feel helpless, it doesn’t necessarily follow that you are helpless. If you feel anxious, it doesn’t always mean that you are in danger. Emotions reflect thoughts and if your thoughts are inaccurate or misguided your emotions may be too.
Myths about emotions, the value of expressing them and the ease of controlling them can cause us grief and distress. Emotions are neither good nor bad. They are natural responses based on what we believe and think. In developing emotional awareness we can learn to accept our emotions and express them in healthy ways.
Gagnon, D. (2016). Why do we have emotions? Retrieved from http://www.montrealcbtpsychologist.com/
Linehan, M. M. (2015). DBT Skills Training Manual (2nded.). The Guilford Press: New York.