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Our emotional life is the foundation of our interpersonal intelligence, our capacity to relate to others in creative and fulfilling ways. As a form of intuitive knowledge, our emotions play a vital role in communication, fulfillment of needs, intimacy, and reasoning. They are a part of our sense of identity and coping strategies which are essential for our adaption to life. Emotions carry energy and information with the power to heal and protect us.

Our emotions have a profound influence in shaping our personality. We are born with our primary emotions fully present; due to the effects of socialization we begin to conceal them very early in life through physical tension, and dysfunctional belief and behavior patterns. As an integral part of our thoughts and behaviors, appropriate emotional openness and expressiveness, on the other hand, can reduce stress, open us to our needs, affirm our worth, facilitate communication and problem solving, and promote intimacy, marital satisfaction and love, for emotions are a form of intuitive knowledge.

Emotions are adaptive innate responses that provide information and meaning about the world. They motivate us to action and are necessary for rationality to function. In addition, they influence memory, perception and learning. They can have a timeless quality, as they can be transferred from our past to the present, from parent to spouse. Emotions are part of our core self, our self-esteem; when we communicate our core emotions effectively, intimacy is enhanced and our relationships can be redefined. They are a part of our sense of identity and our coping strategies.

Traditionally, the words emotion, passion, feelings and affect have been used to describe the same phenomena. The word emotion comes from the Latin emovere meaning to move out or to move.

Emotions may have evolved because they have communication value. They help establish a social balance. People search for emotional information in facial expressions from others in order to appraise an uncertain situation. This starts out in infancy where an infant’s exploratory behavior is facilitated by the mother’s emotional signals through smiles and pats. Communication of emotion takes place through a signaling system which serves also to redefine relationships in terms of attachment and power.

Emotion is necessary for rationality to function. The role of emotion is to fill the gaps reason leaves in the determination of action and belief. Thus, emotions give meaning; they influence the way in which we see ourselves, others and the world. What would someone be like with no faculty of emotion? A machine, perhaps.

Emotion also motivates actions. In my individual counseling practices in Bethesda, Reston, and Washington DC, I find that emotional experience prepares a person to respond in intimate relationships with love, trust and empathy that seems to facilitate bonding and attachment. Emotions amplify or decrease these responses through neurological pathways. Emotions also play a role in learning, as recent studies have suggested: recall or memory of learned material is dependent on the emotional state of a person when recalling or learning.

Emotions are also related to our sense of identity. Our self-esteem is the emotional aspect of our self-concept. We tend to have preferred emotional responses to events that we associate with our identity. Emotions highlight the question of the “true self.” Which one am I, the spontaneous or the thinking self?

Emotions can be classified into primary, secondary and instrumental. Primary emotions convey biologically adaptive information; for example, expressing vulnerability, hurt, or fear. In psychotherapy, individual counseling, or couples counseling, accessing primary emotions, which are often unconscious, can aid in redefining a relationship and in constructive problem solving. Blaming may be a response and a strategy arising out of fear of abandonment or rejection and from not knowing how to respond or connect with a partner. Invoking the underlying primary emotions of fear, pain and anger behind the blaming enhances emotional self-disclosure and intimacy, and lowers mutual defensiveness as well as encouraging responsiveness from another person.

Secondary emotions are defensive coping strategies which are disruptive to problem resolution and the development of intimacy for couples. Although they may have been useful at one point in a person’s history in coping with pain and distress, these strategies are maladaptive. They can include blaming, sarcasm, name-calling, withdrawal, etc.

Instrumental emotions are manipulative ways to influence the responses of others; for example, using helplessness to gain sympathy. Accessing secondary and instrumental emotions in couples counseling or individual counseling may be unnecessary and at times detrimental. In the growth process, however, working with these emotions may be important in helping ourselves understand why we do what we do and what the effects are of our emotional strategies.

Another differentiation can be made among levels of emotion, between deep and surface affect. Deep affect corresponds to primary emotions and surface affect to reactive emotions. Deep affect has a vulnerable quality which must be permitted to emerge slowly rather than be willed into existence. Surface affect, on the other hand, appears rapidly and is characterized by a rehearsal quality. Sharing deep affect may be a form of primary communication that enhances intimacy and relationship satisfaction in couples, as demonstrated by research in couples therapy and couple counseling. The experience and expression of primary emotions facilitates mutual self-disclosures by lowering defenses, leading to the enhancement of attachment bonds and intimacy.

Emotions act as a signaling system in interpersonal communication. For example, the expression of hurt may invoke compassion in the other partner; vulnerability invites openness. Because emotion is also a motivator of action, mutual self-disclosure of deep emotional experience can lead couples to redefine the positions they take with respect to each other when they interact.

At the heart of people’s self-identity are core personal and relational beliefs. Many of these may be limiting or dysfunctional. For example, “I am not good,” “I can’t trust others,” “I always have to be strong,” etc. In psychotherapy, individual counseling or couples therapy, these beliefs can be easily accessed by invoking emotional experience. A primary task of growth for couples is to access these beliefs so they can be disconfirmed by both partners. In this approach, once the underlying emotions are accessed, the problems are then framed in terms of emotional deprivation of needs, pain and insecure attachment. Likewise, positive beliefs can be accessed through emotional experience.

Emotions can be altered through choice by implementing, for example, new emotional experience, change in self-talk, social support, becoming aware of triggers, reinterpretation of perspective or event, imagery, self-disclosure or sharing (confession), change of focus or distraction (counting to 10 breaths or 100 when angry), change of behavior, modifying the situation, helping others, forgiveness, and acceptance. Transformation through psychotherapy, meditation, prayer or movement as well as ritual, problem solving, relaxation, breathing exercises, social skills, writing but not sending a letter, diet, exercise and so on may also alter emotions.

From the perspective of traditional Chinese medicine, emotions are viewed as movement of energy; and, when in balance, they manifest as five wills (assertion/anger, joy/sadness, sympathy, grief, fear). Young children move quickly from one emotion to the next. As we get older, we develop a tendency to prefer one or two emotions at the expense of the others. Becoming prey to one emotion creates an imbalance, generates a loss of emotional freedom, and goes counter to the realization of one’s “true nature” – one’s purpose or destiny.

Emotions can be viewed as analogous to the wind. There can be tempests, great winds, gentle breezes or calmness; these fluctuations are a natural part of life. A tree receives the wind; it does not reject it. The tree will bend in a tempest, and as the calm returns the wind bends back to its natural state. People can be viewed as trees and rather than rejecting an emotion, can learn to bend and let the emotion move through. Emotions have phases; they arise and they pass away (cycles of emergence, awareness, appropriate expression, completion). Disruption of the emotional experience affects the ability to choose and act. Mastering our feelings involves giving them appropriate channels for their expression. In this function, the heart plays a central role. The heart at its core, like the center of the storm, needs to be calm in order to allow for the arising and passing away of the emotion without increasing the perturbations or inhibiting their flow.

The development of positive emotions is often ignored, yet positive emotions play vital roles in evolutionary adaption and the development of resources. Joy and love, for example, enhance social bonds, attachment, social and physical resources, cognition (interest), and they undo the after-effects of “negative” emotions.

Our emotional expression is reflected by our level of emotional maturity. As infants, we experience the world in terms of “I want what I want when I want it.” As children, we act out our feelings and expect adults to figure it out. As adolescents, our attitude can often be, “don’t tell me what to do.” But as adults, the earlier ways of experience and behavior are inadequate. Adult emotional expression is based on mutual concern, caring, love, and flexibility in adapting to change.

Emotions, along with beliefs and behaviors, become part of our identity. From the point of view of traditional Chinese medicine, we tend to gravitate to one emotion more than others. Traditional Chinese medicine recognizes prototype emotions: anger, joy/sadness, sympathy, grief and fear, and their lack thereof.

In its negative manifestation, a preference for our emotion can become a preoccupation or a grievance to which we cling rigidly and defend, and around which we organize our personality. This preference is partly genetics and socialization, and partly a result of our early development, emanating as a coping device against early woundings. Later in life when we are too rigid about these preferences, they become problematic. For example, a grievance about having been wronged may initially serve as a means to maintain protection against further damage. Later, this unresolved anger will prevent us from acquiring our needs in relationships.

Emotions are, by definition, urges which prepare us for specific actions. Fear, for instance, creates the urge to escape; anger, on the other hand, creates the urge to defend or attack. Emotions have adaptive value in that they increase the odds of our survival. Just as “negative” emotions such as fear and anger urge us to act, “positive” emotions such as joy and contentment also have adaptive functions. Although they do not always make us ready for physical action, they induce other forms of action. Joy, for example, steers focus and attention and produces an urge and a readiness to engage in interactions that may present themselves. These activities include social, physical, artistic and intellectual play, interaction and creativity, thereby promoting skills and expanding the repertoire of thought and action. Joy, through its expansive equality turns us toward the world and toward contact with others. Likewise, enjoyment is a positive state that leads to the pursuit of an activity for its own sake; it moves us through interest and exploration in stimulating intrinsic needs for competence and self-determination, and it counteracts depressive moods.

We often view emotions in terms of good or bad emotions; joy and forgiveness are good, fear or anger are not, etc. Yet all our emotions contain information, each one with its own character, energy and purpose. Emotions can be seen as energies that protect and strengthen our bodies. If we honor our emotions, we can use them as an avenue to our growth and unfoldment. Each one of our emotions can be seen as embodying a purpose and fulfilling a task. Problems arise from “clinging” to reactions to our emotions, from lacking natural adaptive emotional movement and from projecting the source of our emotions onto others. For example, acknowledging our anger and projecting it onto others, or seeing the source of joy and love as existing in another rather than in ourselves, thereby disempowering ourselves.

Let’s look at a few key emotions. Ideally, anger, or assertion, promotes action in being ourselves and discernment; it removes obstacles to growth and protects us by alerting us to violations of our boundaries. Anger helps restore our boundaries once a violation has occurred, and affirms our need and views. Derivatives of anger such as jealousy, disgust, fury, rage and hatred emanate from the lack of healthy (non-clinging) movement of anger/assertion.

The task or purpose of joy is communion or connection, celebration of life, self, and others. In lack of joy, the fire of joy is diminished; and in sadness, there is a longing for joy, communion/connection with self, others, and life.

Grief expresses affliction, loss, death. It is a response to what must be mourned, allowed to move. It is about letting go of what is no longer there or useful in order to make room for the new. Grief can also be an experience of loss of something missing that is needed and without which we cannot be whole: for example, self-worth or connection to our essence.

Fear alerts us; it acts as a protector and preserver of life by noticing danger. It answers the question, what must be done or what action needs to be taken for preservation. Terror and panic can act as anesthetics against excessive pain or trauma; for example, in such instances we may dissociate from the experience in order to survive. Anxiety can alert us to the presence of underlying fear, although If not allowed to resolve it recycles in ways that impair our balance.

Sympathy promotes understanding, acceptance, caring and nurturing and alleviation of suffering. In guilt, sympathy moves us towards reparation. Sympathy also plays a vital role in forgiveness, the ability to show mercy through strength in not hurting others or continuing to hurt ourselves.

Other experiences such as love, depression, suicidal urges, confusion and indecision and shame can be seen as derivatives of these five main emotions. Depression is a constellation of feelings signaling a need for wholeness or integration. Confusion and indecision often mask states of anger and/or fear. Suicidal urges alert us to the need that something in us needs to die or end so that something new can emerge.

Learning the role our emotions play in our health, in our growth, and in the healing of unresolved emotional events, can enhance our ability to protect ourselves in healthy ways, and to be open and confident. Our emotional intelligence can be developed by enhancing our self-knowledge, and by making use of services such as psychotherapy, couples counseling, or individual counseling Bethesda.