How is it that so few people understand the purpose of emotions and how essential and valuable they are to us? The answer lies in our culture, especially its Puritan aspect, and in our ego-driven attachment to things rather than ideas and inner wisdom. Considering this off-base perspective, I was delighted to read what former US Surgeon General, Vivek Murthy, MD, had to say about the relationship between physical and emotional health (“What it means to be healthy,” National Geographic, 9/2017, p.3).
Reporting that he realized the importance of emotional well-being while traveling around the country, Vivek says that “people were experiencing a high degree of emotional pain. I think of emotional well-being as a resource within each of us that allows us to do more and perform better. That doesn’t mean just the absence of mental illness. It’s the presence of positive emotions that allows us to be resilient in the face of adversity.” What he’s saying is that it’s not enough to avoid depression and anxiety, but that we need to cultivate a positive mindset as well.
Moreover, he gets right to the problem with American culture, insisting that “The first thing is that we need to change how we think about emotions. Emotions are a source of power, and that’s what science tells us. But many people I encounter have been led to think of emotions as a source of weakness [emphasis mine].” That is the phrase that really struck me. Many (most?) people have no clue why humans have emotions and firmly believe that they are merely a pesky annoyance and character flaw rather than that they form and inform character. To achieve well-being, you need to know what you’re feeling in order to know what to how to act effectively.
Women tend to recognize the importance of emotions more readily than men do, though I can certainly think of individuals about whom that statement is patently untrue. The men who seek me out for therapy are generally more in tune with their emotions than the ones who are brought in by their spouses or other family members. When treating couples, which I do a great deal of, it saddens me greatly when husbands or partners get dragged into my office metaphorically kicking and screaming about having to divulge and discuss emotions. l get it, though: They don’t see the purpose and can’t imagine how talking to a stranger about their innermost heartaches and heartbreaks will do them one damned bit of good.
Let me go out on a limb here and state categorically that if you seek emotional well-being, you’re going to need to get up close and very personal with emotions, both in a general and a specific sense. You’ll need to understand their purpose and function, value them, listen to them, and not aim to get through, past or around them. Treat them as valuable pieces of information that you cannot do well without, and you’ll do just fine. Remember, understanding and reflecting on emotions will only strengthen you.