All emotions are good. Know how to make the most of them.
Emotions are important. It took me a training course on coaching well into my 30s to realise this, but emotions have a vital role to play in our lives, and I was (I still am) suppressing them without realising it.
In many societies in the world, boys are taught very early in their lives that they shouldn’t show any emotion. Some cultures encourage all their members not to display emotions in public. It can get embarrassing, and people may “lose face” if they do.
Since the Enlightenment, in Western countries, rationality has taken center stage, and emotions have been moved backstage. There are many books and professional advice about controlling your emotions, not making decisions in emotional states, not letting yourself carried away by emotions, etc. Even the term “being emotional” now has a negative connotation.
All this emotion suppression and negativity about emotions have created a society of emotional analphabets, where people don’t understand, cannot listen to, and cannot interpret their own emotions and those of others around them.
Emotions are essential. Emotions have a function. Emotions are important. Know how to use them for your own benefit.
All emotions are good
Emotions are responses to events, that can be external or internal. They are part of our brain and nervous system, and they give us clues about what’s happening around us. They are reactions to external or internal stimuli and how we interpret them. Emotions existed and helped us survive well before our rational brain (the neocortex) was developed. They always had a function, and they still do. We just need to listen to them and understand them.
When we talk about emotions, we often talk about positive and negative emotions, good and bad ones. Joy is obviously a positive emotion, anger or fear negative ones. Isn’t that right? I don’t think that is a helpful classification.
All emotions have a function. They all exist for a reason, and they all are helpful. Some are more pleasant than others, I’ll admit that, but they are all good and positive, since they allow us to survive, conduct a good life and fulfill our objectives.
There are hundreds of different emotions. Different languages will use different words to graduate degrees of emotions in a scale (for example, you can be afraid, scared, terrified, or upset, angry, enraged). All these emotions come from combining or applying different degrees of intensity to some basic or elementary emotions. All the rest are coming from these. There is still some polemic amongst psychologists and other researchers in the field of emotions as to which ones are the basic ones, but I like to go by these seven:
Love is the most important thing in life. It’s the engine of life. Many people will not label it as an emotion, they will tell you it is much more than that, and maybe they are right. I think it is the most important of all emotions. When you feel love, you feel a connection to someone, you feel you want to spend time with that person, do things for them, help them, even sacrifice yourself for them. It doesn’t necessarily have to be romantic love. There is also love between friends, family members, between the caring leader and their team, and of course, love for oneself.
A human being without love cannot function and cannot live. We need to love and feel loved. The function of love as an emotion is to connect us with other human beings, and in evolutionary terms, to create a bond strong enough to form families, groups of friends, tribes, and the like, that can survive years, if not decades, guaranteeing the survival and thriving of the individual.
If we are social animals, as Aristotle proposed, love is what glues us together.
Joy is another of those emotions that are usually labelled as positive or good, which isn’t surprising if you think of it. Who doesn’t like to feel joy and be happy? It’s a delightful sensation. It makes us feel great. I often wish I could feel joy all the time, but that´s not possible, and I don’t think it would be desirable either. Other emotions have their place too, and if we were always joyful, we wouldn’t appreciate it.
Joy is the emotion of celebration and sharing, of achievement or something good happening to you and wanting to do something about it. Like love, it also connects us to others, as when we are feeling joy, we usually want to share it. Its function is to reward you for your achievements and pleasant states of being, to make you strive for more.
Sadness can be unpleasant, and it is stigmatized in today’s society, where we are supposed to be always happy, and if not, at least in control of our emotions. We are not supposed to be sad or having a bad time. However, sadness has a critical role to play, and it is vital for our wellbeing.
Sadness allows us to mourn for something or someone important we have lost. It is a way of valuing and appreciating this thing or person, a way to say goodbye, and a necessary step to get over it. Without having the place and time to be sad, you won’t overcome the loss.
I used to have an issue with sadness. I never accepted it when I was sad, not even to myself, as I saw it as a sign of weakness. With time I learned to appreciate it and listen to it. When I am sad, I try to figure out what I am missing, what is wrong in my life, what my loss is. My body is trying to tell me something; I just need to listen to it. When I am sad, I embrace that sadness and melancholy. I even manage to enjoy and cherish it sometimes.
Anger is an emotion with bad press. When we say someone is emotional or that emotions don’t let you make the right decisions, we usually refer to anger. It makes sense, as when we are feeling angry, we don’t usually think straight. Anger consumes us and hijacks our reasoning powers.
Still, anger is an essential emotion, and without it, we wouldn’t be able to live a normal life. Anger is a defensive emotion. It allows us to set our boundaries with other people. It clearly defines what others can or can’t do to or with us. It is triggered when we feel we are at the receiving end of injustice, someone crossed a line they shouldn’t have, or something we don’t like is happening.
If you are feeling angry, try to think about the reasons for it. What is triggering this anger? What is the injustice? Like with all other emotions, try not to be consumed by it, but don’t ignore it either. Listen to it, and you will get helpful information about others and yourself.
When anger isn’t left off or expressed, it can get to resentment (from Latin “re-sentire”, literally “to feel again”), which happens when we cannot let go of our anger towards someone, and it consumes us inside. If you don’t like something or you don’t agree with something, it is usually better to be assertive and say it, in the right way, of course. Better to let out what upsets you than keeping it with you forever.
Fear is another “negative” emotion. Who likes to live in fear? Fear paralyses you, doesn’t allow you to make the right decisions, and is the source of anxiety and stress. And it is definitely unpleasant to feel. However, it is also necessary for survival. Without fear from you and your ancestors, you wouldn’t be here. Fear is the alarm that goes off and warns you when your life is at risk.
The problem with fear in modern life is that we don’t live in nature anymore, exposed to dangerous animals and other numerous risks our paleolithic ancestors had to deal with, but we still feel it.
We dread speaking in public or missing a deadline almost as much as our ancestors did facing a tiger. When this fear goes unchecked and we are afraid of not being able to face the challenges modern life throws at us, anxiety, panic attacks, and stress happen.
We still need fear to function. Without it, we’d have many more accidents and deaths. We would do many more dumb things that harmed us, both physically or mentally. Bravery and courage are not the absence of fear, but knowing you are afraid of something, and still doing it. In today’s world, fear still has its place, so like all other emotions, listen to it, but don’t let it overcome you.
“We suffer more often in imagination than in reality”Seneca
Disgust is another emotion linked to the survival of our ancestors that lives today differently. It started as a defense mechanism to guard us against toxic food or in a bad state, and it was mainly linked to the senses of smell and taste. It probably also evolved to include social events and situations, and today we can feel disgusted for people or non-edible things. Only a few written words could be enough to trigger a strong feeling of repulsion. Nowadays, disgust, apart from smelly food, can also be triggered by things or people against our values.
When you feel disgusted by someone or a situation, reflect on what is making you feel like that. What values of yours are under attack? What is triggering this strong response from you? Are you being reasonable?
Surprise is the most fleeting of emotions. It only lasts a short moment, as it is a “bridge emotion” that takes us very quickly to another one. You feel surprise first, then the next second, you feel fear, joy, anger, or any other emotion, depending on what caused the surprise to start with.
The emotion of surprise serves to value new things and pay attention to everything new, which wasn’t there before. Novel stimuli require novel reactions, and the surprise emotion ensures we are awake to all the new stimuli we receive.
Emotions as key elements of leadership
Emotions aren’t coming out of nowhere. They are responses from our body to the stimuli we receive in our everyday life. Emotions evolved before our rational brain and helped us, and our ancestors survive and thrive for thousands of years. Emotions are an extension of our brains, not separated from them, so make the most of them. Use them well.
A leader in tune with her emotions will be a more effective leader. She will know what’s happening to her and her environment and why her body is reacting that way. She will understand what her emotions are telling her and use them to her advantage.
Goleman made famous the concept of emotional intelligence in the 90s, and since then, it has become one of the most powerful ideas in leadership literature. The whole concept revolves around understanding and regulating your own emotions, understanding those of others, and using this knowledge to manage relationships better. It went beyond knowing the basic emotions and why they are all good and useful, as I explained above.
The point of this post wasn’t to write a treatise on emotional intelligence. There is plenty of information out there on the subject. The point was to highlight that emotions are important, all of them. They are essential to conducting a good life and being a good leader, and there are no bad or negative emotions. They are all useful.
Listen to your emotions
Next time you feel angry, sad, afraid, or disgusted by something, try not to suppress the feeling, nor to feel overcome by it. Evaluate and analyse the feeling as if it were something external, detached from you. Notice where and how you feel it, how it manifests itself. Be aware that you are feeling it, label it, and find out where it is coming from.
Once you are aware of what is happening to you, it is easier to channel that energy in the right direction and use it in the best possible way. Emotions are there to be used after all. They are at your service, not the other way around.
Listen to your emotions, understand what they are telling you and use them wisely. Emotions are your friends if you listen to them and know how to treat them well.