Understanding the deep-rooted basis of our negative emotions and their destructive consequences can help us navigate the turmoil that sorrow, love, anger, greed, envy, pride, and fear can invoke in our lives.
The pioneering American psychologist William James argued in his famous 1884 essay “What is an Emotion?” that emotions and their effects on our attitudes and our behaviors is bidirectional. That is to say, “bodily disturbances” are manifestations of our emotions and those reverberations are really the fount of the emotions themselves.
Our natural way of thinking about these standard emotions is that the mental perception of some fact excites the mental affection called the emotion, and that this latter state of mind gives rise to the bodily expression. My thesis on the contrary is that the bodily changes follow directly the PERCEPTION of the exciting fact, and that our feeling of the same changes as they occur IS the emotion. Common sense says, we lose our fortune, are sorry and weep; we meet a bear, are frightened and run; we are insulted by a rival, are angry and strike. The hypothesis here to be defended says that this order of sequence is incorrect, that the one mental state is not immediately induced by the other, that the bodily manifestations must first be interposed between, and that the more rational statement is that we feel sorry because we cry, angry because we strike, afraid because we tremble, and not that we cry, strike, or tremble, because we are sorry, angry, or fearful, as the case may be. Without the bodily states following on the perception, the latter would be purely cognitive in form, pale, colourless, destitute of emotional warmth. We might then see the bear, and judge it best to run, receive the insult and deem it right to strike, but we could not actually feel afraid or angry.
“Geological Upheavals of Thought”
I’ve been reading American philosopher Martha Nussbaum’s outstanding—albeit demanding—book Upheavals of Thought: The Intelligence of Emotions. The initial chapters contemplate the power of emotions and the manifestation of emotions in all aspects of our thought stream.
One of the central positions of Nussbaum’s book is that our sentiments and emotions spring from internal narratives—the stories we ponder within ourselves about who we are and how we feel. Emotions are acknowledgments of our indigence and lack of self-reliance.
Emotions are not just the fuel that powers the psychological mechanism of a reasoning creature, they are parts, highly complex and messy parts, of this creature’s reasoning itself.
Emotions … involve judgments about important things, judgments in which, appraising an external object as salient for our own well-being, we acknowledge our own neediness and incompleteness before parts of the world that we do not fully control.
Emotions should be understood as “geological upheavals of thought”: as judgments in which people acknowledge the great importance, for their own flourishing, of things that they do not fully control—and acknowledge thereby their neediness before the world and its events.
Human beings … are the only emotional beings who wish not to be emotional, who wish to withhold these acknowledgments of neediness and to design for themselves a life in which these acknowledgments have no place. This means that they frequently learn to reject their own vulnerability and to suppress awareness of the attachments that entail it. We might also say … that they are the only animals for whom neediness is a source of shame, and who take pride in themselves to the extent to which they have allegedly gotten clear of vulnerability.
Nussbaum notes that our strong emotions stem from our intolerance and from the disruption to our internal narratives about what comprises perfection:
The emotions of the adult life sometimes feel as if they flood up out of nowhere, in ways that don’t match our present view of our objects or their value. This will be especially true of the person who maintains some kind of false self-defense, and who is in consequence out of touch with the emotions of neediness and dependence, or of anger and aggression, that characterize the true self.
Idea for Impact: People who lack the capacity to withstand psychological distresses such as anger, fear, frustration, and sadness are at a marked disadvantage in life. Learn to manage your negative emotions.