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Emotions power us but they shouldn’t control us

Accept your feelings, don’t be driven by them

Humans feel discomfort as a protective mechanism. We feel pain or disgust because the things that trigger that have a pattern that matches things which have tended to harm us.

Some of these patterns are hardwired instinctually, some we pick up through learned experience as we grow. But the emotions those patterns trigger are not signs of danger occurring, they are signs that, as far as we know, there is a greater chance for danger to occur.

They are warnings, measures of the possibility that danger could appear, not indicators, measures of the actual level of danger. The distinction between worrying about whether that rustle in the bus is a tiger and a tiger actually leaping at your face.

The point is that none of our emotions are deterministic. Discomfort is not a sign that we should 100% avoid something 100% of the time. It’s just a chance.

As a result, discomfort should be taken as advice to be alert and not an absolute sign of danger. For example, if we have grown up in the middle of the country, the first time we encounter the sea it may be little disconcerting. This same thing is true of non-physical situations that trigger our emotions. Speaking in front of a crowd for example.

Certain people are wired to be a little more anxious and fearful than other people. Other people have gone through experiences that make them more anxious and fearful of certain situations. And still others were raised in a way that, either from their parents example or their parents’ actions, they become more fearful and anxious.

The point is that while fear is generated differently for different people, it’s effect is the same.

When we are afraid we start to look for danger. And when we can’t find it, it makes us more anxious because we treat fear as a sign of actual danger rather than a warning of potential danger.

So when we can’t find it, we get more anxious because it means that the danger is not something we can predict and our instincts are to assume it’s a worse case scenario.

But let’s take a step back here.

Fear is not a negative emotion. There really isn’t such a thing as a negative or positive emotion. All our emotions are there for a reason. They can be pleasant or unpleasant but there is no malice.

They are all “intending” to be positive in the sense of encouraging behaviors that seem beneficial and discouraging behaviors that are harmful.

But the problem is that our uncomfortable emotions are not judgement based. They are just as instinctual and hardwired as pulling your hand away from something hot. And in the same way, the reason these emotions feel uncomfortable is that discomfort is the lever they use to affect our decision making and actions.

Their purpose is to keep us safe but since they are designed for an environment of ubiquitous fatality, they err on the side of assumed danger. In some cases, such as fear, that means lack of action. With other emotions, such as anger, that meas action in way that may not actually beneficial to us.

The solution is to reintroduce intelligence back into the equation. We think we make decisions using our intelligence but we really make them with our emotions. Our intelligence is in thrall to simply justify these previously made decisions.

Instead we should develop the self-awareness to see when we are being driven by emotions, learn to accept the discomfort associated with those emotions without trying to get rid of them, and reengage our minds to come up with the good decisions.

By viewing our emotions as an internal point of view that we can’t control, we avoid the trap of trying to “deal” with our emotions. Trying to make them go away. Take away the lever.

We just practice sitting with that crappy feeling of worry or discomfort and recognize when we start going down the path they point towards. We simply don’t follow. A supremely difficult thing to do but as with everything it gets easier with practice.

Our emotions power us, but power is nothing without control.