“My emotions got the better of me.” “We should keep emotions out of this argument and stick to the facts.” “If only she could show emotions, our relationship would be more rewarding.” These statements reflect beliefs and values pertaining to emotions, a central component in human relationships in all spheres of life.
Emotions help us connect
Emotions allow us to build rich and meaningful connections with other people. Our ability to experience and express own emotions provides the basis for understanding other people’s feelings. It seems that human beings process emotion related information by re-activating neural states pertaining to our own perceptual, emotional and expressive experiences. This means that people who are cut off from their own emotional experience are likely to be negatively impacted in their ability to relate effectively and in a rewarding way to other people.
In my work as a psychologist I know that the experience of being understood at the emotional level is a central component in building a trusting professional relationship. Having one’s emotional experience recognized and validated is affirming for most people. Parents recognize and affirm their child’s emotional experience by being emotionally present. They also help the child make sense of his/her experience e.g. by suggesting words for what the child is feeling. Verbalising is a tool that helps us gain some distance from the immediacy of emotions and to regulate them.
Cognitions and emotions are interconnected
Cognitions (thoughts) and emotions are firmly interconnected; they impact and shape one another. Especially the so-called social emotions like envy, empathy and jealousy play a key role in social decision-making. They help us appraise current situations and thereby guide us in adapting our behaviour to what is happening in the present.
Emotions tend to bias and constrain our decisions. Social decision-making is, in large part, non-deliberate. This is because emotions are rooted in the ancient parts of the brain and, consequently, outside the sphere of influence of the conscious mind. Nevertheless, we are able to intentionally reappraise emotions; in other words, we need not be at their mercy.
To some extent human beings communicate the emotional resonance felt in relation to another person through body posture and gestures; this tends to happen unconsciously. Communicating such attunement verbally is a delicate matter because it may be perceived as intrusive, as violating the psychological boundaries of the interlocutor.
Window of tolerance
The concept, “window of tolerance”, refers to a bandwidth of intensity within which emotional experience is potentially constructive. Once the intensity shoots out beyond the upper limit we are likely to feel overwhelmed by our own emotions and out of control. The capacity to reason is undermined and we are physically agitated. At the interpersonal level the volatility is often expressed in conflict. When emotional intensity drops below the level of tolerance we are apathetic, lacking drive and focus. To others we appear numb and absent.
What helps us remain inside the level of tolerance will be delineated and explained in the next blog.