When you’re feeling miserable, you might wish all emotions away. It’s sometimes appealing to imagine an absence of anguish and the irritability, lethargy and emptiness that go along with it.
I remember a story in the news a few years ago about a girl, Ashlyn, who had a rare disease which left her unable to feel pain. At first glance, this seemed like a wonderful blessing. Who wouldn’t want to live a pain free life? Wouldn’t painlessness mean no worries about paper cuts, headaches, stubbed toes, or burnt tongues?
In reality, an inability to feel pain causes significant life problems. Ashlyn has to be examined regularly to ensure that she isn’t in danger of killing herself through high fevers or unknown injuries. Pain, however uncomfortable, serves a purpose. It’s an indication that something is wrong with our bodies.
Emotions, like pain, serve a purpose.
- Emotions communicate to and influence others
- Emotions motivate action
- Emotions support our point-of-view
Anger, for example, communicates to others that we feel a situation is unjust. It motivates us to assert ourselves, resolve conflict or right a wrong. Expressed sadness lets others know we’re in need of comforting and kindness. We’re often quite motivated to avoid feelings of sadness and, as a result, take care of the people we love and reach out to those in need. Joy communicates that you like or care about something or someone. It inspires activity, kindness and helpfulness. Love expresses caring and causes us to protect, care and sacrifice for the ones we love. Fear communicates danger and prompts us to avoid the dangerous situation. Finally. shame and embarrassment tell us that we’ve done something unacceptable in our social group. Feelings of shame and embarrassment can produce changes toward socially acceptable behavior.
When it’s important to send a message and we push the feeling down or somehow fail to communicate it, the emotion tends to stick around. Feelings can be little red flags letting us know to change course or behave differently. If we ignore these emotional alarms we often find ourselves in difficult situations.
This is not to say that emotions should be treated as facts. People regularly misinterpret events and, in turn, feel anxious in a situation where there is no danger or angry when they haven’t been insulted. However, understanding what emotions do for us is an important step in changing how we feel.
Linehan M. M. (1993). Skills Training Manual for Treating Borderline Personality Disorder. New York: The Guilford Press.