Why do we have emotions?
Have you ever taken time to ponder that question? Emotions are universal – we all experience them. And yet, they aren’t something we tend to put a lot of thought into.
Unless they are creating problems for our lives. Then we head to the therapist office to unpack our emotions and learn all sorts of fun facts about them.
Like why do we experience emotions? What they do for us from an evolutionary standpoint? What is the difference between primary and secondary emotions? What makes an emotion justified?
All of these questions can be answered factually. DBT provides a simple and straight forward response to each of these questions in the introductory section of emotion regulation. In fact, the first 6 lessons of this section are dedicated to providing a general framework for understanding emotions.
And yet – for the most part the general population remains in the dark when it comes to their emotional experiences. I’ve had client after client sit in my office and say “This is so simple, why didn’t anyone ever explain this to me before?“
Why don’t we teach Emotions 101 – say middle school, around 7th grade? Give everyone access to some basic facts about this integral part of the human experience. This way they feel prepared with tools when life hits them with an inevitable “whoop!”
I get it – the American model doesn’t promote preventative care even in the form of basic education. It’s a shame though. I believe it could be a simple way to reduce suffering. Providing students with beneficial factual information about health.
Anyways…. I digress.
Back to my first question. What is the function of emotions?
In DBT we believe emotions have 3 primary funcitons
- Emotions motivate us to action. Many emotions set off hormonal reactions in our bodies to prepare us for quick and potentially life saving action. We are wired to respond to some emotional cues before we can even consciously process them – as a way to increase our likelihood of survival.
- Emotions communicate to and influence others. We are social creatures. Emotions allows us to participate in the interactions that make up our complex social systems. The most basic emotional expressions (smiling for happiness, frowning when sad) can be found across all humans regardless of cultural exposure.
- Emotions communicate to ourselves. Emotions are signals to ourselves that we need to be aware of what is going on. Unpleasant emotions may mean there is an actual threat or they may be a sign we need to adjust our behavior to be in line with our values (or our culture).
Each primary emotion also has a specific evolutionary purpose:
Fear – keep us safe
Anger – motivate us to act/protect
Disgust – protect us from contamination
Sadness – focus on what is important, align actions to values
Shame – maintaining in-group status
Guilt – maintaining values driven behaviors
Jealousy – protect relationships when threatened
Envy – motivates us to work hard to gain
Love – reproduction & survival
Happiness – reinforces behaviors that increase time in optimal functioning
For another beautiful DBT info graph poster : When Emotions Fit the Facts.
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