Roger Ebert (the movie critic) famously said, “Your emotions will never lie to you.” In an amusing coincidence, there are plenty of movies that talk about trusting your feelings and going with your gut. Star Wars, detective stories, and romantic comedies offer plenty of examples of tapping into your instincts or gut feelings to make the right decision. Yet in the real world, we have books filled with emotional regulation techniques and plenty of heroic stories about heroes who actively suppressed or regulated their fear, anxiety, sadness, or anger to be successful. So what is with the complex, somewhat conflicting messaging?
Well, there are three concepts being explored in these situations regarding your emotions:
The first is where people give you the advice to listen to your feelings: your emotions are always an honest assessment of your desires, beliefs, and experiences. It’s why political debates use sensors to gauge audience members’ reactions to how the debate is going. They are actively monitoring whether the audience wants the things the politician is promising, whether they have the same beliefs or values, and whether the ways in which the speakers speak and behave are acceptable to them. Your emotions, for example, will never make you feel happy when you are sad without some form of physical, chemical, or other external factor influencing them.
So they are always honest, but are they always accurate? Well, no. The main culprit is your beliefs, as if you think that your spouse is cheating on you but he or she isn’t, your emotions are going to go haywire for no real, legitimate reason but rather based on what you have going on in your head. So just because your emotions are honest doesn’t mean that they are correct. As such, you should listen to what your emotions are telling you, but you have to make sure that you have the best information and perspective that will ensure that your emotions are justified.
Which brings us to the final piece, how you should respond to them. This is the toughest one in modern society because we are biological creatures with millennia of built-in reactions that are more appropriate for fighting off animals than for interacting with civilized human beings. It’s both appropriate and ironic because on the one hand, our facial expressions and social emotions like guilt evolved so that humans could understand each other better for cooperative and cohabitation purposes; on the other, we still want to punch something or someone when we get angry despite that being against the modern legal rules we have established. Instead, we need to know the best way to respond given the situation, using our emotions to understand our desires, beliefs, and experiences as best as we can (after all, without emotions, how would we know whether we liked something or not?).
So the combined insight from these three components are:
Each of these three components have challenges. In the first case, the emotions can be powerful and painful and so you would prefer to avoid or suppress them. In the second, you might succumb to confirmation bias and keep building up your anger so that you grossly overreact to the actual situation. In the third case, you might have no filter and simply scream or hit when you are mad or cry or throw a tantrum when you are sad or upset. In any of these three situations, you are deviating from effective emotional regulation and management.
Life isn’t easy, and emotions aren’t easy as a result. It’d be wonderful if we could move from one exhilarating high to the next with no negative reactions to anything. But because we live in the real world with needs and threats, that wouldn’t be optimal for what we need to live and grow. If all we felt was good, then we’d dies within minutes or days as we feel no need to breathe, drink, or eat—after all, we feel fantastic and don’t need to do anything but feel good! And in the wild, you wouldn’t last long if you felt fantastic while getting eaten by a bear; you need the fear and fight-or-flight response to keep you alive.
So instead of seeing it as a dichotomy of either completely following your emotions or completely ignoring them, you can learn to listen, confirm/deny, and respond appropriately. If you do those three things, you will be much better off with regards to how you feel about the world around you and your decisions and actions as you live your life from day to day.