Emotions: What are they good for?

Blackbird landing on a post

Some people believe counselling is about stopping people feeling sad, angry or afraid, so they can be happy instead.

It’s true people often do feel happier after experiencing counselling. And it’s a real joy to see that happen. But I don’t believe the other emotions are an enemy that needs to be defeated.

Humans evolved to experience the full range of emotions. This wouldn’t have happened if they weren’t useful. So what exactly are emotions good for?

Put simply, emotions provide us with crucial information about our needs and wants. By listening to our emotions, experiencing them fully, we can make better choices and take actions that will help us get our needs and wants met.

Counsellors tend to talk about four emotions: happiness, sadness, anger and fear. Of course each of these has hundreds of variations. Anger can run from mildly annoyed, to rage. Happiness includes both contented and ecstatic. Sadness can range from disappointed to devastated. Fear includes everything from startled to terrified. But while the strength of the emotion will vary depending on the situation, the purpose remains the same. To provide useful information for us to act on. Let’s look at these emotions in more detail.

Happiness

When we’re feeling happy, the information we’re receiving is that our current needs or wants are being met. This can be our desire for love, sex, companionship, or to engage in creative expression, or include fulfilling needs such as for food, drink, shelter, warmth etc. By being aware of when we’re feeling happy, we’re better able to choose to either carry on doing what we’re doing, or make plans to repeat it in the future. If listened to carefully it’s also possible to explore what it is about the activity that has led to the happiness. For example, you might feel happy on an expensive foreign holiday, but when explored deeper realise it’s the quality time with friends or family that’s the biggest reason. Something that can perhaps be repeated more often closer to home.  It’s an emotion that’s very much about what’s being experienced right here, right now.

Anger

Anger, in many ways, is simply the flip side to happiness. It’s telling us our needs and wants are not being met. If we allow ourselves to experience our anger, we are given important information about what those needs or wants are, and what might be getting in the way of them being met. And crucially, that information can then be used to take steps to change the situation, if possible, or adapt to the situation if it’s out of our control. Like happiness, it is very much about what is happening in our lives right here, right now.

Fear

Fear is like an early warning system. It tells us our needs or wants are under threat. This could be our desire to live, for example, if a lion is charging towards us. It allows us to take action to avoid that threat from happening. Sometimes the threats are easy to identify, like the lion example, but other times we might feel a sense of anxiety or fear and struggle to identify why. Being able to stay with the emotion and explore it can help find the cause. It could be something simple like realising you’ve forgotten to put the rubbish out and fear being told off. Or something bigger like fear of losing your home and lifestyle if you don’t land the business deal you’re working on. In either case, recognising the cause of the fear allows for action to be taken. You can take out the rubbish. You can check you’ve done everything possible to close that  business deal and/or look for a backup plan. Fear is an emotion based on the future, of what might happen.

Sadness

Sadness is also about giving us information. In this case it is telling us that something we need or want has been lost. It allows us to take action to grieve that loss, and if appropriate, and at the right time, to take steps to find another way to get that need or want met. This is an emotion that is about things that have already happened. And perhaps because of that it’s often the one people find most difficult. We can’t change the past, so why experience sadness? It is understandably tempting to try and block it completely. But it’s as much a part of being human as all our other emotions. Evidence for humans creating methods for marking endings and losses goes back millennia. Painful as it can be, accepting our sadness about events in the past, can help us to move forward in the present.

So that’s what emotions are designed to do. They’re part of a system helping us to recognise our needs and wants, and to get them met, allowing us to live a healthy life.

When things go wrong

Unfortunately, the system can break down in many, many ways. Wires get crossed. We feel anger instead of sadness when we experience a loss. We feel afraid when our needs and wants are being met. We feel happy when our needs and wants are under threat. Emotions that feel real but have replaced the ones that would allow us to take productive action. Or we feel the appropriate emotion, but at an unhelpful level. Someone takes our parking space leading to rage and police involvement. We collapse sobbing after spilling a drink. We experience terror when asked to introduce ourselves in a group and bolt from the room.

How can counselling help?

When it comes to emotions, then, the goal of counselling is not to try and get rid of any emotions but happiness. Instead, it’s to explore what might be getting in the way of all the emotions being helpful and productive. Different approaches might be followed to help repair the system and get it functioning properly again. We may well be in situations where it’s entirely appropriate to feel angry, or sad, or afraid. When the system works, and we are able to experience our genuine authentic emotions, and accept them, I believe it allows us to make better choices and ultimately can lead to a happier life. Not by blocking the other emotions, but by accepting and even embracing them.

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