As a psychologist, I receive lots of questions about emotions and how to deal with them. Today, I thought I’d take the opportunity to educate you on the three main functions of emotions. There are many times when it appears emotions arise in us only to derail our mood and day, but that’s not necessarily the case. Even the worst emotions can be tools that we can use in our everyday lives as long as you understand what they’re trying to tell you.
There are some emotions that are enjoyable to experience and others that feel awful. At times, that leads us to think of some emotions as “good” and others as “bad.” Let’s take that train of thought and see how it can play out if applied in a different scenario. I was re-watching Spike Lee’s film Crooklyn the other week. It’s about a family living in Brooklyn in the ’70s. One of the children, Nate, has a broken arm, and his mother insists that he eats the black-eyed peas she made him for dinner because they are full of calcium. This child hates these peas! Well, in walks Dad with cake for everyone and the family is overjoyed—but poor Nate can’t have any cake until he eats those peas.
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If you were to ask Nate which was good or which was bad, he would tell you that cake is good and peas are bad. His rationale—and I think most of us would agree—would be that he prefers the taste of cake. However, as his mother pointed out, the black-eyed peas are good because they have nutrients that are necessary for healing. They both serve a function and have a place in our lives. So let’s start breaking down some of the functions of emotions and see where they fit.
Emotions motivate us
One function of emotions is that they get us revved up and ready to go. There is nothing that can motivate a behavior faster than emotions. I’ve seen people work harder than they ever had in their lives or give up faster than I can blink all based on their emotional experiences. Emotions get us prepared for action.
In fact, some of our action urges are hardwired in our biology. For instance, the action urge associated with anger is to attack. The action of attack will look different depending on the person. It could be displayed as yelling, hitting, gossiping, intentionally sabotaging someone, or self-harm, to give some examples.
The reason I use the word urge is that you don’t have to act on it. I could have the urge to urinate while walking down 5th Ave in Manhattan, but I wouldn’t wet my pants in the street. I would problem solve the situation which would lead me to find the nearest restroom. While running to the restroom, I could have the urge to yell at people for walking too slowly, but I would try to resist that urge and focus on something else, which allows the anger to dissipate. In some ways, emotions are like the nitrous button in your suped-up Fast and Furious-style brain. If you need the juice, it’s there, but you want to be thoughtful about pushing that button.
Emotions communicate with others
The other two functions of emotions relate to communication. Let’s first talk about how emotions allow you to communicate with and, quite honestly, influence others. Remember how I said some action urges are hardwired? The same is true for facial expressions. Our body language and tone of voice can also be hardwired. Keep in mind that elements of this will be influenced by culture. If we’re in a culture that prioritizes expressiveness, then being reserved will seem off, and the same is true in reverse. Whether we intend for it to be the case or not, these emotional signals are picked up by others.
I’ve been introverted my whole life and until I learned certain skills, people would perceive me as rude. I grew up in the South, and Southern culture is known for being hospitable. Hospitality requires you to be generally open, talkative, and friendly with everyone you meet. When I tell people about the South, I say, “if you make eye contact with someone, you are now required to have at least a 5-minute conversation with them.” Which meant that, as a kid, I was trying my best not to make eye contact and people would say things like “Do you have fire ants in your britches? You walk so fast!” Was I intending to be rude? No. I was a 10-year-old who was overwhelmed by too much activity and wanted to go into sleep mode.
Now I live a life where people are genuinely surprised when I tell them I’m introverted. Spoiler alert: I feel the exact same internally now as I did when I was a child. I simply have a better understanding of emotions, self-care, and various coping mechanisms. When you understand that your emotions have an impact outside of yourself, you can make decisions about what you want that impact to be. Maybe you didn’t really want to go to your partner’s work shindig, but that doesn’t mean you have to sit in the corner with a frown on your face. If it’s important to your partner and it wasn’t unreasonable for them to ask you to go, then you can make a decision to be open and socially engaged.
As an aside, I want to be clear that this doesn’t mean you have to pander to anyone and everyone. One of my favorite T-shirts I own is of the animated character Daria. It says “I don’t smile unless I have a reason.” What I am saying to you is to know your reasons and go from there. For me, sometimes that means I will throw someone a small smile, but I still walk fast so if you want that convo, better catch me if you can!
Emotions communicate information to you
The other way that emotions communicate is internal. Your emotional reactions can give you important information about a situation. They can let you know you’re doing alright or be an alarm bell that something is wrong. The same way that a cut on my foot will send a pain signal to alert me that the skin is broken and perhaps I should do something about it, emotions can do the same thing.
Keep in mind that a signal doesn’t tell you what to do, just that something is happening. The more you learn about emotions, the more sophisticated your alarm system can become, but it will always need you at the helm for optimal functioning. Let’s go back to the example of going to a work gathering with your partner. To add more context, let’s say in this example, you’re in a cis-het monogamous relationship. You identify as female and you see your partner talking to a woman. The woman laughs at something your partner says and touches his arm. You feel a pang inside that you classify as the emotion of jealousy and your first thought is, “Who does she think she is?” This is a classic example that I see at least weekly in my life.
I want to caution you that sometimes we treat our emotions as facts. The more intense the emotion, the more strongly we believe them to be a fact. That pang of jealousy was a signal, but it’s up to you to interpret it. If we assume our emotions represent the facts, we can use them to justify our thoughts and actions. This can get us into trouble if our emotions get us to ignore the actual facts of a situation—like the fact that people use casual touch to communicate all the time without it having any kind of romantic connotation.
Nate in his conversation with his mother about the black-eyed peas says, “All the calcium in the world ain’t gone to make up for this nasty taste.” If you approach your emotions with this type of attitude, you will walk around in life wondering why you aren’t healing and why you never get your slice of cake.
Are there emotions that you hate or confuse you? What are some emotions that you want to increase in your life? Let me know on Instagram @kindmindpsych. You can also reach out to me via my email at firstname.lastname@example.org, or leave a voicemail at (929) 256-2191.
All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own mental health provider. Please consult a licensed mental health professional for all individual questions and issues.
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