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Why are Emotions Important?

We live in a culture that values rationality and intellect over emotionality. Many of us grew up in families where expressing certain emotions – sadness, grief, fear, for example – was discouraged or perhaps even threatened with punishment. And yet, emotions are critical for survival. They are nature’s warning system, our body’s response to a stimulus in our environment. As Daniel Goleman writes in the groundbreaking book Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More than IQ, “All emotions are, in essence, impulses to act, the instant plans for handling life that evolution has instilled in us.”

We lose a very important resource when we suppress our emotions. In fact, we lose connection to ourselves. As Brené Brown writes:

Without understanding how our feelings, thoughts, and behavior work together, it’s almost impossible to find our way back to ourselves and each other. When we don’t understand how our emotions shape our thoughts and decisions, we become disembodied from our own experiences and disconnected from each other.

Neuroscience has discovered how emotions arise – through impulses that originate in the body and are sent to a part of the brain called the amygdala, where the signals are processed, interpreted, and expressed. It is important to know that the amygdala is a part of the brain that is below the neo-cortex, which is the thinking or cognitive part of the brain. This means that our emotions happen without us having control over them – we can’t simply think them away. If we don’t express our emotions, they come out sideways in different ways, sometimes through illness, sometimes through uncontrolled eruptions of rage, etc. Gabor Maté speaks of this at length in his compelling new book, The Myth of Normal: Trauma, Illness & Healing in a Toxic Culture. He makes a strong connection between the suppression of emotions and a number of chronic diseases or illnesses such as auto-immune disorders, migraines, fibromyalgia, endometriosis, as well as cancers and neurological disorders. He in no way blames individuals for ill-health, but says that “if you go through life being stressed without knowing you are stressed, there is little you can do to protect yourself from the long-term physiological consequences.”

Maté has distilled a list of personality features he has most often seen in people with chronic illness. These traits include:

  • an automatic and compulsive concern for the emotional needs of others, while ignoring one’s own;

  • rigid identification with social role, duty, and responsibility;

  • overdriven externally focused multitasking hyper-responsibility, based on the conviction that one must justify one’s existence by doing and giving;

  • repression of healthy, self-protective aggression and anger; and

  • harboring and compulsively acting out two beliefs: “I am responsible for how other people feel” and “I must never disappoint anyone.”

Maté emphasizes that these characteristics are not established by choice, but are coping mechanisms developed in response to life circumstances. We learn early in life that it may not be safe to express our emotions and that we need to be hyper-attuned to the emotions of others in order to survive.

Yet the ability to recognize our emotions is at the heart of emotional intelligence, which Goleman defined as “self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, and the ability to manage relationships.” (These last two traits he later called social intelligence, taking emotional intelligence into the realm of relationships with others.) A landmark 40 year study of PhD graduates at UC Berkley found that emotional intelligence (EQ) was four times more powerful than IQ at predicting success in career and life. In fact, the World Economic Forum has named emotional intelligence one of the most valuable skillsets of this decade.

Brené Brown has spent many years researching emotions and their role in human existence. Although she identifies 87 different emotions and experiences in her newest book Atlas of the Heart: Mapping Meaningful Connection and the Language of Human Experience, her research found that, in a survey of seven thousand people, the average number of emotions that people could name was three. Basically – mad, sad, and glad. Brown asserts that we need to have the language to name our emotions:

Language is our portal to meaning-making, connection, healing, learning, and self-awareness . . . When we don’t have the language to talk about what we’re experiencing, our ability to make sense of what’s happening and share it with others is severely limited. Without accurate language, we struggle to get the help we need, we don’t always regulate or manage our emotions and experiences in a way that allows us to move through them productively, and our self-awareness is diminished . . . newer research shows that when our access to emotional language is blocked, our ability to interpret incoming emotional information is significantly diminished. Likewise, having the correct words to describe specific emotions makes us better able to identify those emotions in others, as well as to recognize and manage the emotional experiences when we feel them ourselves.

All this means that, when we have had to suppress our emotions or when we can’t name our emotions, we have lost a valuable tool of self-awareness as well as of awareness of others. We have, in fact, lost connection to ourselves and to others. The good news is that we can regain this most valuable of survival skills. One particularly effective way is to spend time with horses in an equine-facilitated learning session. Horses pick up on our emotions, whether we express them or suppress them. Because horses are prey animals, they have evolved an uncanny ability to sense what is going on in those around them. This ability is what tells them whether the mountain lion is hungry and is stalking them, or that the mountain lion has just eaten and is looking for a place to lie down and sleep. If they sense the former, they immediately take off running, but if they sense the later, they continue grazing as the mountain lion passes by. Horses are particularly skilled at perceiving incongruence in people. That is when ‘one’s insides don’t match one’s outsides’, exactly what happens when we are taught to suppress our emotions. Time spent with a horse in an EFL session can show you what you are holding inside, even when you are unconscious of this.

Emotions are critical for survival. If we have suppressed our emotions because of what our care-givers required of us, or in order to ‘fit in’ at school or work, we have lost connection to the essence of who we are. But there is hope. As Brené Brown says,

So often, when we feel lost, adrift in our lives, our first instinct is to look out into the distance to find the nearest shore. But that shore, that solid ground, is within us. The anchor we are searching for is connection, and it is internal. To form meaningful connections with others, we must first connect with ourselves. . . “

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