When we think about emotions what we normally think of it in terms of a single person. How am I feeling? How are you feeling? But actually emotions are highly relational in nature. First of all, most emotions that you experience in your life come from a relationship. Secondly, regardless of the source, when you experience an emotion, it has an impact on other people around you. What I am highlighting here is that emotions are communicative. They do not exist in a vacuum. They impact everyone around you continuously.
In fact, you could even say that an emotion is a “power.” When you experience an emotion it is and has the power to bring other people into the experience you are having. In some sense, you are “casting” yourself out into the world and onto others. This is an incredibly significant thing that is rarely discussed.
Think about anger, for example. When you experience anger, everyone else around you is impacted. You are casting your anger out into the world, and other people are sucked into it. Even though you use nothing physical, they will feel your anger “hit” them, and it will demand a response. And when the anger hits, they will choose one of several responses:
- The first and most common response if you are angry, is for other people to also get angry back. You have successfully cast your own emotional situation onto them, and they have not become a part of your angry world. They will now throw anger back on you and a cycle begins.
- The second possible response is to withdraw. Nobody likes being punched, and so they will avoid you, avoid the conversation, and generally try to escape from your spell.
- A third possible response is confront or engage. An emotionally mature person may be able to see or sense your emotions and not be pulled in immediately. They may identify your emotion and say “Why are you angry?” or take some other strategy to address the fact you just cast something out that they do not want.
- A final response is to shut down. This is similar to withdrawal, but it’s more fundamental. This is essentially to turn off emotional capability and processing it logically instead of experiencing it.
That’s the negative side, but what about the positive side? The same rules apply. If I am happy, you will feel it. And you will have to decide what you want to do with that emotion. You would think that everyone would want to enter into happiness, but it’s actually not the case. When you feel my happiness hit you you have to decide whether or not you will enter in and reciprocate.
- Just like anger, your first choice is if you want to enter in. If you choose to receive the emotion I am casting, you will also feel happy. My happiness is not just an invitation it is an actual opportunity to also be happy. If you choose to receive it, you’ll be happy too, and you’ll start casting happiness back at me.
- One response is to “observe.” This is the same as the shut down strategy. Instead of entering into and experiencing the emotion I’m casting on you, you simply observe what I am doing and experiencing. You may have some small pleasure from this, but generally, you stay outside of it.
- Another response is to confront or cancel. You may be the kind of person who is not comfortable with happiness, emotion in general, or are jealous if someone is happy and you are not. In this case you will say or do something designed to bring my emotion back down. You would prefer that we are all unhappy or at least unemotional.
An emotion is your actual life experiencing being imparted to someone else, or their life experience being imparted onto you. This is how preaching works too. The greatest moments in a great sermon are those in which the speaker becomes deeply emotionally affected. This has the effect of bring an entire crowd into the life experience of a single speaker. The speaker weeps for the lost, and suddenly you feel a concern for the lost that you never had before. You receive something from the speaker because their emotions were cast out on you and you chose to receive them.
Many people believe they can shut down their emotions and have others not experience them, but this is not fully true. A person who has shut down emotions still gives off some emotional information, especially when they are frustrated or angry. More importantly, though, they will send emotional information to others by virtue of what they do not send. If I am happy and you do not enter into my happiness, you are now shutting down the cycle of happiness. Exactly what you are doing in your own life– canceling emotions – is what you will send to other people. You become the anti-emotion caster. Kind of like a “black hole.” You don’t create emotions, you suck them up.
My point in writing this is highlight the relational dimension of the whole process. Emotions are not simply something you experience. They are what create and end relationships. Emotions are literally the vehicle by which you connect or do not connect by other people. They are the human capability which make you feel as if you are part of something larger, and cause you to want to have social interactions. Without them, social life simply becomes instrumental. With them, you can actually be connected to other people in deep and profound ways, but you have to steward the emotional environment together to make that happen.
This is why families are so important. A family is an environment, a nursery, where you learn how to handle emotions. Before you are old enough or experienced enough to choose what to do, you are learning to adopt strategies to deal with emotions. Will you enter into the emotional world or escape it? Is it a good place or a bad place? The world around you and most fundamentally the relationship (or non-relationship) between your parents will tell you that. In a follow-up post, we’ll talk about how families do that.