Emotions as Messengers of Unpleasant News: 5 examples
The message of emotion informs one’s current relation to some stimuli, whether internal or external. Emotion then informs the perceived level of urgency for relief, typically with a suggested action for relief.
This may include a range of options from prompt relief to eventual relief, relative to the circumstance and the available resources for relief.
I can think of a few illustrative examples using the pain dimension. Let's illuminate this using anger, fear, guilt, denial, and depression.
Neuroscience shows no significant difference between emotion and cognition. A distinction can be found in intensity of the felt need. Let’s consider this gradation with working definitions for anger, fear, guilt, denial, and depression.
Emotion reports needs along a continuum of felt intensity. The more urgent the apparent need then generally the more intense is the emotion.
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Anger is the body reporting to itself that it’s faced with something it perceives it cannot accept. As a form of discomfort or pain, it signals the need to distance oneself from or to remove what is unacceptable. This ranges from mild rejection, experienced as annoyance, to definitive rejection, experienced as hate. Whatever becomes acceptable does not produce annoyance or anger or hate. The optimal homeostatic zone one’s responsive behavior seeks is acceptability.
Fear is the body reporting to itself that it’s faced with something it perceives it cannot handle. As another form of discomfort or pain, it signals the need to protect oneself from what cannot be handled. This ranges from some uncertainty for how to handle it, experienced as anxiety, to be absolutely convinced it cannot be handled, experienced as panic. Whatever does not need to be handled does not produce anxiety or fear or panic. The optimal homeostatic zone one’s responsive behavior seeks is some form of “handle-ability.”
Guilt reports an apparent contradiction between belief and action, often as the result of self-serving action that contradicts one’s conscious other-serving belief. Guilt is then relieved by realigning action with belief, or adjusting belief to account for action, and sometimes altering both. Beliefs and actions that align to do not produce guilt. The optimal homeostatic zone one’s responsive behavior ultimately seeks is harmony among beliefs and actions.
Denial is often the body reporting to itself an apparent need to integrate more slowly new information, specifically new information that abruptly confronts familiar patterns relied upon for self-preservation or other-preservation. As integration of new information evolves, denial often gives way to a new understanding that is neither the same as before the abrupt change nor the same as the sudden shock catastrophized. In this view, denial is not a sign of psychopathology but a natural step in adjusting to painful changes. Adjustments that are readily integrated do not produce denial. The optimal homeostatic zone sought by one’s actions is fully integrated adjustment to this new impactful information.
Depression is often the body reporting to itself a drop in bodily energy. As a type of discomfort, it signals a subconscious redirection of the body’s focus. This ranges from a mild redirection in a moment’s trajectory to a life paralyzing debilitation of focus. If the energy drop springs from an intuitive appreciation that the decision could result in errant actions, such mild organic depression could spare one from guilt. Ostensibly, a personal bout with depression is less impactful on others than guilt. For socially attuned femininity, depression may be the preferred alternative to a masculine decisiveness that readily results in guilt. It’s seemingly easier to adjust to oneself than to adjust to another. However, adjustments in focus that are instantly cognizant do not produce depression. The optimal homeostatic zone pursued here is full adjustment in focus.
Keeping this all in perspective
Less unpleasant emotions are generally preferred
Besides seeking a return to these optimal homeostatic zones, one also seeks relief from the strain. Short of realizing a return to homeostatic equilibrium, we may settle on whatever brings us comfort or distraction from the mounting pain. When relief fails to be forthcoming we tend to experience relief from suffering as a need in itself.
Sometimes this means seeking what is immediately comforting over enduring the discomfort necessary for full need resolution. Especially if we become more familiar and acclimated to this mounting need strain, and find the path toward full need resolution to be strangely unfamiliar. “For most of us, the pain we feel is preferable to the pain we fear” (Paul and Paul, 1983).
Denial provides some respite from the intensity in other unpleasant emotions.
One way it helps to avoid discomfort is by rationalization. If I can reinterpret whose responsibility it is to deal with some threat, I can shift the more painful sense of powerless felt as fear over to the less painful sense of being wronged felt as anger.
Anger is often a cover for other emotions. For one, if I do not accept having to feel disappointed again by someone’s repeated untrustworthiness I may feel my anger more potently than the underlying emotion of disappointment that my anger is rejecting.
Depression may be preferable over guilt. Last year I lapsed into mild depression when I intuitively realized my life was off its intended course. My conscious decision to follow through on some career decisions would have resulted in hurting others, resulting in guilt. To avoid this damage, my intuition redirected my energy before I was conscious of why. This depression was something I was generally able to quickly resolve on my own; the guilt I avoided would likely have led to lingering consequences. After getting through it, I was actually thankful for the mild depression.
Severe depression, on the other hand, may be less attractive than mild guilt. You may find it easier to be forgiven and move on than to get out of bed each day. While enduring a spell of mild guilt you may still have the energy to do something about its situation. Severe depression gets complicated with guilt when becoming increasingly incapable to fulfill past commitments.
“Don’t shoot!” exclaims your pain, “I’m just the messenger of bad news.” Emotions themselves are amoral—neither good nor bad in themselves. When unanswered and their underlying need festers and left to cause more trouble and more displeasure, that is what deserves to be judged as bad. Pain as a messenger warning of trouble is perhaps one of the most undervalued gifts of nature.
We can easily conflate the displeasure of pain with the negativity of its underlying message. Is it bad to feel fear, or is it bad to believe you cannot handle something because you have yet to try and build your courage?