Healthy Emotional Life

Living with our emotions has probably never been easy, but today it must be harder than ever. As psychology and therapy deepen into popular culture, more and more people have learned to take an evaluative stance to the emotional life of themselves and others.  Not that long ago the quintessential “problem emotion” was anger, so much so that 2003 gave us the slapstick comedy Anger Management.

The messaging is pretty clear: that anger should be “managed,” which I take to mean controlled and, as much as possible, eliminated. But now, books about emotions proliferate and clients come into my office with concerns about the degree to which a wide variety of emotional experience is “healthy.” They are skeptical. They are considering the possibility that they are pathological, that their emotional experiencing needs “treatment” of some kind.

Now, to be clear, there are emotional disorders that can be highly distressing and create insurmountable problems to one’s relationships, occupation, and other critical aspect of building a good quality of life. But these are relatively rare, while being self-critical of our own emotional expressions has become quite common.

Emotional life is changing. Children are taught emotional intelligence at a young age, partners and colleagues expect a higher degree of it than before, and it is more and more a part of popular consciousness. But without being clear on what healthy emotional life looks like, this new focus has created an opportunity for insecurities to run wild.

image by Andrea Piacquadio

What Emotions Do People Think “Problematic”?

I think it not too controversial to say that emotions themselves were just not that much in the popular consciousness before the last few decades. Anger Management has perhaps been popular for longer, because the unregulated expression of anger can have serious real world consequences. But what about the others: have we learned how to “do” joy? Have we learned how to “be” grief stricken? How should we “behave” with shame?

As emotional vocabularies grow, self reflection and self criticism have turned towards our emotional life.

image by Nathan Cowley

What worries us about our emotions?

Experience and Expression

Client concerns about emotional health roughly fall into two categories. Although they nearly always overlap, it is still useful to discriminate between them: the “experience” of emotions and the “expression” of emotions. Experience refers to the strength of these inner feelings, the degree to which they affect us, move us, and influence us. The expression of emotions is self explanatory: it refers to the ways we communicate these inner experiences, the ways in which they move outward. Sometimes people think there is something wrong with their experience: a powerful thing happens in their life and they are skeptical that their inner response was “okay.” Alternatively, people have concerns that the way they express their emotions, the things their emotions have them doing, might not be “normal”.

Too much, too little

Typically, people are worried that their emotions—both experienced and expressed—are either too much or too little. We are worried that our emotions aren’t appropriate, but because of how muddled our conceptions of emotional life have become, there is a misconception that there is a “sweet spot,” neither too much nor too little.

Consider grief: what is the appropriate amount to feel, the appropriate duration, when we have lost someone we love? Obviously there is no clear answer to this… and yet most people that I discuss grief with include this meta-observation as part of what is so distressing about the experience. “Am I doing it right?” becomes a source of insecurity which adds to the pain.

Control and choice

Another dynamic which feels problematic to people is the degree to which they exert “control” over their emotions. Again, there are questions of too much and too little.

Some people feel they don’t exert enough control, or perhaps that they cannot exert it. They feel swept away by their emotions. Their partners and colleagues might report that they are highly emotionally volatile. It can feel that they are a ship on a sea whose storms and surges they have no capacity to predict or resolve, they simply ride the wave no matter the consequences. And for people who’s emotional volatility is extreme, where there exists a pattern of deleterious effects from it, this can be a serious problem requiring new ways of “doing” emotional life.

But for every person who’s unbridled emotions are genuinely problematic, there are many more who are experiencing average volatility and yet are deeply concerned that they are “out of control.”

On the flipside, some people who use a lot of control in their emotional experience and expression can feel inauthentic. They might wonder after the motivations for the control they exert: they fear that perhaps they are suppressing and avoiding, or perhaps they are managing the experience of others in their constrained expressions of emotion. Of course, just as we all experience emotional volatility, we all experience emotional containment, for various reasons and at various times.

The question is: why is it happening? And, how much capacity for change exists?

“Triggered” or “Real”

A final dialectic which shows up commonly these days is between triggered and “real” emotions. Because the language of triggers has become so embedded in popular dialogue, it has become quite ordinary for clients to frame their emotional life in this context.

Some clients can start to feel that any particular “reaction” to something happening is a trigger. And because triggers point to unprocessed experienced in our past, the prevalence of triggers is understood as evidence of a problem.

But strong reactions to strong experiences is, of course, completely normal and ordinary. So learning to distinguish between the normal emotional experiences of everyday life, and these more particular forms of “reactivity” is worth considering. In the old days, it may have been safe to say that people insufficiently understood when they were triggered. In today’s world, I would argue that there is no obvious bias—that some people remain in the dark about their triggers, while others map the logic of “triggers” into everyday life, and each of these is worth sorting out.

What is a healthy emotional life?

Healthy emotional life is different for everyone. Our lived experience, our identities, our beliefs and our choices all mash up against the happenstance of everyday life to produce emotions. It is a beautiful and unpredictable arrangement, filled with the dynamic that make each of us unique.

But we do have the ability to gain emotional mastery. Some of the qualities of mastered emotional experience include the following:

Spontaneity: rather than being “preprogrammed” responses to stimuli, emotional mastery allows us to be uniquely responsive to our situations

Appropriate: our emotions will “match” the combination of me and my experience as they collide with each other. The “volume” or intensity of my experience and expression will also match. It will make sense in the context of my emotional life, and not feel random or out of proportion (too little or too much)

Guided: our beliefs, our ethics, our conception of self and other all inform how we respond to stimulus out in the world. Emotional mastery allows us to be aware of these connections, and to understand why we respond differently than someone else in a given situation.

Modulated: We have the capacity to shift the intensity both upward and downward too help us through a situation, depending on what is needed in the moment. (Many people get really good at modulating in one direction – try going both ways!)

Choice: We can learn to influence our emotions through choice – to be in conversation with that part of ourself.