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Why do we have emotions?

January 26, 2020 | Awareness, Emotions

I love asking this question to my clients. Why do we have emotions?

Despite the social demands telling us we should be rational (as if that were really possible, but that’s a topic for another post), the truth is we need emotions. They motivate us, they lead us into action, the tell us about our needs and our beliefs. They are the first line of interpretation of our environment; that is, they give us a fast analysis of what’s going on and prepare us for action.

What are emotions?

We are not our emotions. Emotions are one of the ways in which our bodies process data. Using our awareness, we can observe emotions and make choices about our actions. Furthermore, we can take the information provided by our emotions to also understand ourselves better, and dismantle and change the beliefs held at the core of them.

Emotions are the way our body organizes for action, based on our best, fastest interpretation. When something happens, that information goes first through the lower levels of the nervous system. Data comes through the stem and into the limbic system, before moving into the cortex and sending information back to the limbic system and stem. This happens a few times, creating new information as a result of the analysis of the previous information.

Let me give you an example. You come home after a long day at work one day. As soon as you open the door, you hear yelling and see a bunch of unexpected people. You may gasp and freeze, go into a moment of panic because you don’t know what exactly is happening but it could be dangerous. This is the stem and limbic system responding. Then you see the baloons, how people are smiling at you, and you remember that it’s your birthday. This information travels around your brain until you come into the realization that this is a surprise party. At this point, you move from fear to surprise, because you understand now that you’re not in danger.

The benefits of using emotion as information

If we stop and take notice of what we’re feeling, we can multiply the level of data we have to make choices. I believe we all intuitively know that the more information we have, the better choices we can make. By knowing what we’re feeling and how to interpret that information, we can figure out what our beliefs and needs are. By engaging our awareness, we’re using a fully-connected brain to process our inner experience. We can integrate the full range of our meaning making machine, and use that to our benefit.

Also, when emotions are heard and addressed, they tend to reduce in intensity or even disappear (which is different than repressing them). Knowing how to soften emotional responses gives us power over what we feel. If nothing else, isn’t that a cool promise?

I grew up speaking Spanish. English is my second language. When I communicate in English, I make mistakes. I've chosen to let my writing reflect the kind of mistakes I make when speaking, so that you have an idea of what it might feel like to talk to me. I trust the message is still clear but, if it's not, please don't hesitate to ask me for clarification.

The information provided on my blog is a mix of my personal thoughts, professional approach, and articles related to mental health. The purpose of sharing all of this is to communicate the models at the core of my practice, as well as to provide education. I hope this will help to minimize some of the power imbalances related to my profession. The articles on this blog should not be considered as professional advice for any one person or group of people. If you have any questions about the appropriateness of this content for you, please contact a qualified mental health professional.

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