What Good Are Emotions?
Critical thinking is important, but so are emotions. Some people have the misconception that being a critical thinker means being cut off from your emotions, or that reason is somehow a superior substitute for them. Many set up a weird sort of dichotomy between thinking and feeling, as though there is an either-or choice to be made and one must be sacrificed for the sake of the other. Nothing could be less true. Reason and emotion play separate-but-equal roles, each vital in its own realm. The goal should not be to have more of one and less of the other, but rather, to recognize the roles of each and strive to develop both as best you can.
Maybe the reason for the weird dichotomy so many of us have is that people do tend toward one or the other: thinking/feeling is actually one of the four axes on the Meyers-Briggs personality test. So not only is there a gap between thinking and feeling, it is considered important enough to be a defining characteristic of a person’s personality. But just because we gravitate toward one end of the spectrum doesn’t mean we can’t develop the other end, or that it is unnecessary to do so.
A good starting point might be to define the roles of thinking and feeling. Thinking is our primary survival mechanism. Human beings do not have great strength, speed, or stamina, do not have particularly good vision, hearing, or smell, we cannot camouflage ourselves or weather long spells of adverse conditions. What we do have is a highly developed brain, which we use to solve problems. The problems of today are very different than they were when we first began using reason–and incidentally, this “higher class” of problems is indicative of the great success of reason, as it has taken man so far beyond mere survival–but the process is basically the same. The greater our ability to reason, the more successful we will be in solving problems. Since life is one long series of problems to solve (some good, some not so good), success at problem-solving generally means success at life.
Feelings serve an altogether different, but complementary, function. My favorite definition of feelings comes from John Bradshaw: Feelings are tools that allow us to know when we’re fulfilling our needs. Perhaps the most primal example of this is the fight-or-flight instinct. When we’re in danger, fear is always our first reaction because it motivates us to act. In this case, our need is survival, and our emotions–fear and the desire to survive–motivate us to attend to that need. Yes, reason ought dictate how we attend to that need, but the need itself is essentially emotional.
Now, Bradshaw’s work focuses on healing from traumatic childhoods, and his interest in emotions is more about identifying what we want and what makes us happy, but the definition still applies. The point is that emotions signal us of our needs and whether we’re fulfilling them or not. This includes what we want, who we want, if we’re happy, if we’re taking care of ourselves, if we’re lacking something important in our lives; basically, if we’re on track or not. People who live too much in their heads and ignore their feelings can spend years, sometimes a lifetime, doing something that isn’t what they want and doesn’t make them happy. And sadly, you can see such people everywhere you look.
Thus, emotions are necessary, as necessary as our ability to think. You might say that thinking allows us to sustain our lives, but emotions make doing so worthwhile. For example, we can think our way into making good choices, but we can’t think our way into feeling good about those choices; we can think our way out of problems, but we can’t think our way into a sense of well being and contentment from solving those problems; and we can think up new ideas and be disciplined about completing them, but we can’t really think our way into the creativity so vital to that process. In each case, thinking and feeling complement each other, creating a whole that either alone cannot.
People with highly-developed reasoning skills are the most likely to believe they can live an emotion-free life, or that relegating emotions to certain areas–one’s personal life, for example–is a good solution for dealing with “messy” and “undesirable” feelings. People who think this way, though, can be dissociated from their feelings rather than in control of them, and might be avoiding messy and undesirable feelings because they fear dealing with them. They’ve essentially thrown the baby out with the bath water: in repressing scary and unpleasant feelings, they’ve also cut themselves off from good feelings and from the sense of wholeness that comes when feelings working in tandem with reason. Not every reserved, intellectual person falls into this category, but many do, simply because so many of us have unresolved feelings and this is one very convenient way to avoid dealing with them.
Conversely, though, people who act highly emotional aren’t necessarily more in touch with their feelings. Being overly dramatic or easily upset rarely means people have a healthy relationship with their feelings (even though they may make such declarations). More likely, it means they either have unresolved issues lurking just under the surface, or that they have learned to use emotional displays to get what they want (in a rather passive-aggressive form of problem solving). Rarely are big emotional displays or a preoccupation with one’s base emotional desires indications of an emotionally well-adjusted person. Instead, emotionally well-adjusted people are simply comfortable with their feelings and have a good sense of how they fit into their decision-making processes, neither avoiding them or giving them too much power.
Emotions and reason are separate developmental streams, mutually exclusive but equally important. Being on one end of the thinking/feeling spectrum is normal, but that doesn’t mean developing the other area isn’t important. It just means it will require effort that may initially feel uncomfortable, but will ultimately have positive results. When reason and emotion work together, each fully functioning within their respective realms, is when we are operating at our highest capacity.
Categorised as: Power/Empowerment