Do you feel wise?

Have you ever noticed that many people are emotionist? This is a made-up word I am using here to refer to people being prejudiced against certain emotions. Some emotions are treated as acceptable – or even admirable – while others are treated as “bad” or “wrong”. Happiness is generally seen as something positive to aspire to, while anger, jealousy, fear and many times sadness are treated as though they are feelings that healthy people should not have. They are treated as feelings that you should eliminate as quickly as possible and it is even suggested that people should try to prevent them occurring in the first place.
Sad man crying in rain

Well, that is baloney. Every emotion exists for a reason.

We may experience out-of-place emotions – for example, feeling afraid when there is no danger that we actually need to be careful about. We may experience disproportionate emotions – such as feeling enraged by a person’s incorrect mixing of the words “there”, “their” and “they’re”. But even in those cases we do not get to directly choose what we feel and there are reasons why we feel what we do.

Feelings tell us important things that logic is prone to completely miss. Sometimes those things are really, really important. Evolutionary Biologist Richard Dawkins has twice in the past month tweeted himself into fire-storms of online outrage due in part to his failure to evaluate the interaction between emotion and logic. In the first controversy he set the internet ablaze with fury after he tweeted some statements that he considered were logically equivalent to saying “4 is less than 5 but if you think that makes 4=0 you are wrong.” However, his examples involved rape and paedophilia:

Acts of rape or paedophilia cannot be reliably quantified, so strictly speaking if Dawkins was setting up a syllogism his propositions were false. However, the logic of his conclusion is sound: Nothing in the statements constitutes an endorsement of any kind of rape or paedophilia. Nevertheless, the ensuing outrage is completely understandable. Sometimes you can be factually correct and yet still completely wrong. Anyone who took the emotional impact seriously into account could have reasonably predicted that tweeting the statements Dawkins did would lead to a backlash.

If you care to read some of the commentary around that controversy you will see two extreme, opposite positions emerge amongst a whole spectrum of opinion. On the one extreme are those whose emphasis on logic makes them blind to the role of emotion in the controversy; on the other side are those whose emotions make them blind to the logic. The first are characterised by a seeming callous disregard for the feelings of their fellow humans; the second are characterised by anger so intense that there is a seeming disconnection from any logic at all.

The second controversy arose around Dawkin’s reply to a woman who pondered to him, “I honestly don’t know what I would do if I were pregnant with a kid with Down Syndrome. Real ethical dilemma.”

Remember, feelings tell us important things that logic is prone to completely miss. In this case, what has been missed is that abortion and disability are both highly emotional issues and that the emotions tied up in these issues significantly affect how opinions about those issues will be perceived. Once again, a backlash was entirely predictable.

My purpose here is not to trash Richard Dawkins, who is without question a scientist of exceptional intelligence and talent. Rather, this very public controversy neatly illustrates an important reality: Emotions matter. Emotions can help us make good decisions. If we ignore the information our emotions are providing us, and operate on logic alone, we risk making poor decisions. What appears a logically sound decision may be a poor decision if it involves other people and emotional reasoning is not taken into account.

On the other hand, logic also matters. Logic helps us make good decisions. If we ignore logic and allow emotions to drive our decisions those decisions are also likely to be poor.

Wise mind

Psychologist Marsha Linehan, the creator of Dialectical Behaviour Therapy, coined the term wise mind to refer to the balance between logical, rational information processing and emotional processing. Both logic and emotion are integrated to make good decisions.

If using “wise mind”, treating certain emotions as “bad”, just because they may be somewhat unpleasant to experience, is a bit like choosing to overlook certain facts because you don’t like them. If you feel like buying a new car that you don’t really need, but you are already deeply in debt, would it be a good idea to ignore that fact because you don’t like being in debt? Similarly, if a friend repeatedly steals money from you, would it be a good idea to ignore or deny your feelings of anger because anger is “bad”?

Wise mind, distress tolerance and emotion regulation

To be able to incorporate emotions in effective decision-making you need to be able to tolerate or regulate those emotions. Tolerating emotions means being able to cope with their intensity and duration; regulating emotions means being able to respond effectively to your feelings to limit their intensity.

We all struggle at times both tolerating and regulating our emotions, but these skills can be particularly difficult to master for people with Borderline Personality Disorder.

At Thrive Wellness we have adapted a tool from the Dialectical Behavior Therapy Skills Workbook by Matthew McKay, Jeffrey Wood and Jeffrey Brantley as a free downloadable PDF worksheet that helps develop your capacity for using Wise Mind. The Describe Your Emotions worksheet is available on our Resources page.

The benefit of this worksheet is twofold. Firstly, it gives you a focus during the experience of an emotion that can help you to mindfully observe your emotion instead of becoming “hooked” by the emotion and dragged along helplessly like a fish on a line. Secondly, it invites you to consider words, sounds, images and thoughts associated with the emotion. At a neurological level this stimulates a wide variety of specialised cognitive processes to communicate with the parts of the brain involved in processing the emotion – which over time will build new neurological connections and better integrate your emotions with other cognitive functions.

You are unlikely to ever “like” all your emotions – just like you are unlikely to ever “like” having to spend money repairing the brakes on your car. But your car needs those brakes, and you need your feelings, “good” or “bad.”

About Paul McQueen

Dr Paul McQueen is a Clinical Psychologist, holding a Doctorate in Clinical Psychology from the University of Melbourne. He has experience working in both adult and child mental health services in Queensland and Victoria. Dr McQueen is comitted to providing high quality, evidence-based interventions for a range of mental health conditions. He specialises in the treatment of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, Borderline Personality Disorder and Depression.

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