By Susan Cox
I recently re-watched the movie “Inside Out.” The movie is told from the point of view of characters representing 11-year-old Riley’s emotions: Joy, Sadness, Fear, Anger and Disgust.
Joy is the emotion in charge and after Riley moves far away from her childhood home and friends. Joy desperately tries to keep Sadness from affecting Riley. Joy views Sadness as something bad and detrimental and tries to keep Sadness contained in a small circle. Eventually Joy learns that Riley needs Sadness, and that when Riley is sad her parents and friends can help her. If Riley ignores her sad feelings and just tries to be happy to please her parents, she can’t get that help.
I like to be happy and I tend to be like Joy and push Sadness away, hoping Sadness will stay in its own little circle. However, bottling up our unwanted emotions and trying to be falsely positive doesn’t really help us. In a TED (technology, entertainment and design) talk, Harvard Medical School psychologist Susan David said that ignoring our emotions just makes them stronger, which can lead to those emotions controlling us.
David asserted that labeling emotions as good or bad, positive or negative, keeps us emotionally rigid and doesn’t allow us to effectively deal with the challenges of life. Tough emotions are a part of life, and David urged people to accept their emotions and accurately label them so we can figure out the precise cause of our feelings. David said that many people say they are stressed, but “there’s a world of difference between stress and disappointment or (between) stress and that knowing dread of ‘I’m in the wrong career.’”
Once we know the cause of our feelings we can take action. Emotions are data, David said, and they can help us determine what we care about since we don’t usually feel strong emotions about things we don’t value. We can use this data to spur us to take action.
Candace Lightner is an example of using her emotions to focus her actions. In 1980, her 13-year-old daughter Cari was killed by a drunk driver. Lightner directed her anger and grief toward changing drunk-driving laws. Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) also resulted from Lightner’s efforts.
Locally, a group of people who were upset with the current political atmosphere formed Bartholomew County Indivisible to channel their frustration into positive changes here. Similarly, a wide range of residents were dismayed with the opioid crisis and developed the Alliance for Substance Abuse Progress in Bartholomew County to turn their concern into solutions. Both groups identified what they could learn from their emotions and chose to do something that could help others.
Dealing with our emotions this way is not usually easy. We don’t want to feel sad or hurt or disappointed. Sometimes I push these unpleasant feelings away because I don’t want to take the time to deal with them. Escaping into a game on my phone or a book or other responsibilities is easier, but unfortunately those emotions keep resurfacing. I have learned that giving myself permission to feel sad or hurt or angry, or other “negative” emotions, helps me to work through those feelings, preventing those feelings from lurking in my mind waiting to take over.
For example, sometimes my husband will do something that bothers me. If I try to tell myself it’s not a big deal and that I shouldn’t let it bother me, then I am just pushing my feelings away. I may act outwardly like everything is fine, but inside I am still upset and I keep rehashing my hurt feelings preventing me from focusing on parts of my life. This emotional focus in turn creates a barrier between my husband and me that doesn’t go away until I actually acknowledge my feelings and deal with them.
Emotions are not good or bad. They are part of life and are sources of information that can guide our actions. What we do with our emotions is more important than the actual emotions. Take the time to acknowledge and accurately label all your emotions so you can work toward the things you value.
Susan Cox is one of The Republic’s community columnists, and all opinions expressed are those of the writer. She is a mother, an adjunct instructor of English at Ivy Tech Community College-Columbus and a substitute teacher for Bartholomew Consolidated School Corp. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.