What Are Emotions and What Am I Supposed to Do with Them?

I’ve mentioned a few times before on this blog that I’m a moody person. I’ve not always been thrilled with this trait. Boys/men are taught not to display their emotions (save for a few “acceptable” ones like sternness or anger or mild humor), and I’ve been going against that grain all my life. This morning, in the midst of an early-morning fog, I asked myself a useful question while journal writing: what are emotions? My answer lies below.

Nerd, Heal Thyself

Geeky soul that I am, the first question I asked was actually, “Why do we have emotions? Do they serve some sort of evolutionary purpose?” I thought I’d do some reading about the subject–and I still might–but I decided to reason things out first. Emotions are a more primitive part of our brain: above mere autonomic or reflex actions but less advanced than the reasoning brain that is capable of planning and rational thought.

The insight that came to me was that, like the “fight or flight” behavior we often face under stress, emotions are an internal assessment of our well-being in response to the world around us. While I’m not certain how the actual biochemistry works, I believe it’s fair to say that emotions are a chemical-based opinion that happens in your body about how we should behave in given situations.

This was something of a revelation to me, I have to admit, despite several therapists over the years saying essentially the same thing to me. Another important insight for me was that emotions are not senses in the traditional sense. We have sight, sound, hearing, taste, and touch to provide us inputs from the real world, but the emotions are part of what we use to process those inputs, make sense of them, and then decide what to do in reaction to them. And while I know our physical senses are imperfect and capable of being fooled, our emotions are definitely like that, even more so.

What makes emotions tricky is that because they’re closer to the reflex parts of our brain, they have quicker, easier access to what we do with our bodies in reaction to them. Again, they’re a more advanced method of processing inputs so we know what to DO. The part that vexes me (and has caused me all sorts of problems) is that I’ve let my emotions override all other functions. The relatively objective data coming from my senses is what it is. However, my emotional brain is quick to react, come up with a snap decision, and in some cases, put my body to take action (often in the form of talking) before my reasoning brain has a chance to evaluate the data and sort things out…and mayhem occurs.

It needn’t be this way all the time. Yes, my emotions provide more personal insight into what I care about–threats to my life, well-being, reputation, etc.–but that doesn’t mean they’re always balanced, fair, or even correct in their judgments. I’ve tried to be an action-oriented person and to act in my own best interests rather than be passive in the face of things that bother me. That’s good–up to a point–but the problem comes when, in my haste to take action and address problems here and now, I don’t fully think things through and let my emotions decide what the proper course of action should be.

I Am Not Spock

Me emotions are what they are…that doesn’t mean the estimates, deductions, or decisions they make are necessarily right all the time. They are an opinion formed in my limbic system, which is doing its best to interpret what might be multiple, confusing, and distress-causing inputs…and in their haste to help the body take action, just to discharge the energy created by the distress, they push me to act a specific way.

What I need to remember is that the opinions formed in my emotional monkey brain can and should seek out a second opinion from the more rational human brain next door. The answer might still be the same, but it’s worth taking the time to pause before acting.

Better late than never.

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