Despite Popular Opinion, Emotions are Useful!

First, it’s important to establish the messages we are given regarding emotionality. Many come to mind, so I will try to be succinct. (Disclaimer: These listed messages are all false.)

  1. Showing emotion is effeminate. The false or exaggerated claim that women are naturally and inherently more emotional than men.
  2. If you are emotional, you can’t be reasonable because emotions cloud your judgement. Often this leads to impulsivity.
  3. People who are emotional make bad leaders.
  4. Emotional people overreact and can’t think rationally.
  5. Being emotional means you are weak because it means you are vulnerable. There is an emphasis on stoicism being superior.
  6. Because of this, emotional people are not as intelligent and cannot engage in problem solving or adversarial discussion. (Let’s also not forget that women using emotion in debate are considered almost inherently irrational, but men using emotion in debate are perceived as passionate.)

These are damaging for multiple reasons, but I think it would be more useful to explain why emotions are good rather than explaining why the above assumptions are bad. 

Think back to what really helps you when you’re in an emotional state. For example, let’s use anger. When you are angry, what is it that typically allows you to overcome what’s frustrating you and helps you move on? The most typical response would be discussion or talking it through. Unchecked and unprocessed emotion leads to impulsivity and/or irrationality—sure, but if reflected on and/or analyzed, they can be a form of knowledge production. We can see the root causes of the feeling our body is giving us, and we can improve ourselves or our situation depending on what we’ve learned. For example, if I felt an intense feeling of jealousy when a girl hits on my boyfriend, based on how stifled most people’s emotional intelligence is and how we are taught to respond to our emotions, I would do one of two things. I would either shut those feelings down by forcing myself to get over it (while still being internally bothered and upset) or I may even lash out at my boyfriend for not turning down her advances fast enough or the girl for hitting on him in the first place. However, all of these options are deeply unhealthy, and they earn emotionality a bad rep. The secret untaught response I should have if this were to occur is I should dissect why I am feeling jealous. By either engaging in some internal dialogue or by talking it through with a friend or significant other, I should ask myself a series of questions that allow me to reach the root cause of my jealousy. 

Q: What was I feeling?

     A: Jealousy.

Q: But my SO loves me, why was I jealous? Was it because they haven’t been making me feel loved recently?

     A: No, that’s not quite it.

Q: Is it because I don’t think I’m as pretty as that girl?

     A: Yeah, it’s almost less so about my SO at all, and it’s more so about the girl and myself.

Q: Why does her being pretty bother you?

     A: I know it shouldn’t because everyone has their own qualities that make them valuable and unique, but I guess I forget and sometimes place too high importance on appearances. Now that I’ve reminded myself that I am not unattractive or lesser, and I have my own wonderful qualities, I feel safer in my relationship.

Q: Are you still jealous?

     A: Not really, except for some now apparent feelings of low self-esteem, but I can work on those by reminding myself of the value I hold, and now I can value the good qualities of that girl who hit on him as well as have empathy for her motivations to do so.

 

This outcome results in me understanding myself and possibly those around me better. This is partially what it means for emotions to be used as a mechanism of knowledge production. Although jealousy is typically regarded as an inherently negative feeling, using it in this manner allows me to discover important information about myself. If we take the time to reflect, we don’t act impulsively on our feelings. Audre Lorde discusses emotion in this way as well but with a more social/societal lens in her essay “The Uses of Anger” by using the example of anger exposing that she has encountered racism (This is a very interesting and amazing read that helped change my way of viewing emotions and the dismissal of them! For a shorter read, here is a speech she gave on the matter).

There’s a multitude of reasons why these messages have been engrained in our socialization—that we have been taught them and they’ve been normalized. For starters, we can think of the most basic reason which ties to gender stereotyping. When we ask “Who is typically seen as emotional?” The answer is very clearly women over men. The devaluation of the usefulness of emotions is used as a way to further devalue and subordinate women by making women seem irrational. Further, Eurocentric epistemology is rooted in white supremacy and patriarchy, and it has historically used “logic and reason” as ways to gatekeep academia and methods of knowledge validation. By excluding women—especially Black women—from ways to validate their knowledge and claiming that information is only scientific if it remains “objective” and “logical” (while failing to recognize how logic actually works), it further oppresses women as they are unable to say “These are our experiences and we have developed theory from them to help reduce our own oppression” without being dismissed as anecdotal and non-scientific. (This could be a much larger conversation, so anyone interested I highly recommend reading “Black Feminist Thought” by Patricia Hill Collins).

Lastly, and maybe most importantly, all of these factors have a cyclical effect. Societally, we devalue emotions, so we do not encourage feeling them or reflecting on them. If we aren’t taught how to properly process our emotions and use them in our benefit, thus gaining higher emotional intelligence, we often incorrectly deal with them in an unhealthy manner. When we do this, the emotions we use end up appearing shallow and useless instead of as a tool for self or societal reflection. Sure, as we age a lot of people learn more emotional intelligence, but a lot of people also do not. Learning this at a young age and with the help of others would help us avoid many painful and harmful situations in our lives, and it would improve our ability to function in society, policy making, and interpersonal relationships. 

 

So in short, just ask yourself more questions about why you feel the way you feel and go from there.