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Outside In: A Thoughtful Look Into Our Emotions

At some point in life, practically every one of us has felt an emotion without knowing why we felt it. This article is an introduction to better understanding that why.

temp-post-image[Image: Pixar, Inside Out]

"Ms. Williams was about to give her first lesson in a school for delinquent boys. She was very apprehensive. As she walked briskly to her desk, she stumbled and fell. The class roared in hilarious laughter. Instead of punishing the students for laughing at her, Ms. Williams rose slowly, straightened up, and said, 'This is my first lesson to you: a person can fall flat on her face and still rise up again.' Silence. The message was received." From Between Parent and Child, by Dr. Haim Ginott

Ms. Williams maintained incredible composure here, but we can easily imagine others in her situation not handling things quite so well. For example, instead of calmly offering the students a thoughtful lesson, another teacher might instead get angry and lash out, or feel stupid and mask her emotion with a joke, or maybe even become so embarrassed that she'd have to leave the room. As with any experience in life, each of us can react differently, and for better or for worse. But in general, what's underlying our emotional responses -- why do we feel the way we feel?

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As we've all experienced, emotions occur automatically. Dr. Paul Ekman, the psychologist behind the recent Pixar movie Inside Out, offers a depiction of this in his book Emotions Revealed. He has you imagine you're driving, when out of nowhere another car rushes into your lane, right in front of you. For the vast majority of us, we would instantaneously feel a certain emotion (fear) and react in a certain way (swerve and step on the break). As Dr. Ekman puts it: "[when] an emotion begins, it takes us over in those first milliseconds, directing what we do and say and think. Without consciously choosing to do it, you automatically turned the steering wheel to avoid the other motorist, hitting the brake with your foot. At the same time an expression of fear flashed across your face ... Your heart began to pump more rapidly, you began to sweat..." In short, we'd have no choice about our response in the moment: we'd automatically feel fear whether we wanted to or not.

Given our emotions are automatic, it may seem to follow that they ultimately drive us as human beings. (Like in Inside Out, as the characters of Anger, Fear, Joy, Disgust, and Sadness are literally in the control tower of a young girl's mind.) But this is not the case. Although we feel emotions immediately, they are not actually the directors of our lives. Rather, they're the result of earlier thinking, of previous conclusions we've made. Take the near accident example. In such a situation, we wouldn't feel fear if we hadn't already at some time in our life concluded -- i.e. consciously or subconsciously reached the decision -- that a car speeding into our lane could be deadly. The general point here is that though in the moment our emotions can feel like they're driving us, ultimately it's our underlying conclusions that are in control.

It's important to really get this point -- that emotions result from (conscious or subconscious) conclusions -- so to make it crystal clear, imagine instead of one of us at the steering wheel during a near accident, it's a professional race-car driver. Such an individual would not feel the same fear we would -- because after years of experience with cars speeding in front of him, his underlying conclusion about any potential danger would be very different from ours.

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And there are others who would not feel our fear, either. For instance, a 3-month-old baby girl in a carseat wouldn't -- because in her brief life she would have never concluded that a car rushing into one's lane might mean imminent death. (She doesn't even yet understand the concepts "car", "lane", "death".) This unaware 3-month-old and the hyperaware race-car driver wouldn't feel our fear because they would not have previously concluded they were in danger. The broader point is: although emotions occur automatically, they actually have a deeper source in (alterable) conclusions. And this is true for all emotions, including those we may not want to feel.

In The Art of Introspection, psychologist Dr. Edith Packer describes a not-so-pleasant emotional experience: "Suppose I go to the gym in an effort to lose some weight and improve my figure. In the middle of my exercise, a young instructress, with a perfect shape, walks over to me and solicitously tries to advise me on how I could improve the way I exercise. I can assure you that Miss Perfect Shape could cause me some self-doubt." In this case, a negative feeling arose from a negative conclusion(s), something like: "God, I'm so fat" or "That woman is gorgeous and I look like crap" or "I will never be skinny." Ultimately, prior conclusions we've made underlie all immediate emotions we feel, and for better or for worse.

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If we're unaware of the conclusions we've made in the past, we can feel inappropriate emotions in the present -- and this can cause real-world problems. Continuing with her workout scenario, Dr. Packer shares one such relatable problem: "If I didn’t watch out, I could repress [my] self-doubt, get angry at [Miss Perfect Shape] for interrupting me, and have a powerful desire to be rude to her -- to tell her to get lost. I would be hoping that such rudeness would be sufficient punishment for her being in such good shape and 'intentionally' causing me self-doubt." In this case, if Dr. Packer let her immediate anger go unchecked, she could unjustly lash out at a random woman in the gym. More importantly, if she let her deeper self-doubt go unexamined and her basic conclusion(s) remain undiscovered, she could damage other areas of her life. For example, imagine how difficult it would be for a really self-conscious individual to develop a sincere, meaningful relationship with a friend whose beauty she secretly envies.

Growing up as children, we receive so much formal education about the world out there, yet sadly we gain little to no insight into the world in here -- i.e. our emotions and underlying thinking. So it is no surprise that as adults we can at times feel confused about an emotional response, and possibly be at a loss for what to do about it. But just as we are able to understand and better the world around us, we can do the same for our inner lives.

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temp-post-image[Inside Out, Stages of Joy]

Jesse McCarthy, jemslife

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