Your Emotions Are Locally (But Maybe Not Globally) Valid And Other Terrible Inspirational Posters

Photo credit to  Emm Roy
Photo credit to
Emm Roy

Over on tumblr, I wrote a little about how I have a hard time resolving my sadness because I get caught up too early in the question of Is This Emotion Justified, and never make it to dealing with the emotions. Ogingat asked if I had specific opinions on whether or not emotions should be justified.  I, uh, tried to answer and accidentally a very long blog post.

[epistemic status: I keep arguing with myself, but cautionarily endorse this for at least the next week or so.]

My answer is roughly:

1) It’s a really good idea to determine if your emotions are based in reality.

2) Also, a lot of people use this as a proxy for not actually responding to their emotions.

My overarching belief is that emotions don’t need justification, choices in response to emotions do, and patterns of emotions should always be run through the Is This Justified test.

I have these heuristics, (for a loose definition of rules) that I think are useful. Sometimes they conflict and have fights in my head.

In the moment, focus on naming the emotion, less on the causal factors.
Sometimes I am sad because I forgot to eat, sometimes I am sad because someone hurt me, and sometimes I am sad because my brain is a jerk.

In pretty much all of these cases, I should treat my brain like it’s experiencing emotion, check my physical state, and then if it’s not an obviously physical problem spurring my feeling (sleep, food, water, comfort of clothing, pain), I should proceed in treating that emotion. For the Sad state, I should take a walk with music, tell my boyfriend, take a break from work, etc. This is true if the sadness is because my brain decided Tuesday at 2pm was Sad Time and also true if someone I know died.

Emotions are generally Your Responsibility, this goes double for actions in response to emotions. Sometimes the responsible thing to do is to tell someone else about your feelings, or stop being around the person who always makes you feel unintelligent, or enlist help from someone else in determining what the right decision is. But in general, feelings you have are your responsibility to respond to. (Sometimes ‘responding’ is never, ever speaking to that person again.)

I don’t think it’s terrible to feel really irritable for no reason (in fact, this is sometimes a symptom of depression). But behavior in response to the feeling needs justification.

Having [negative] emotions about your current emotions is usually unhelpful, especially when they’re as strong or stronger than the root emotion.
[Credit to Chana for the original formulation of this]

Feeling (a)guilty that you feel (b)sad!
Feeling (a)angry that you are (b)depressed!
Feeling (a)humiliated that you felt (b)jealous!

For one, it’s hard to address two emotions at once, and I am fairly confident that the set of (a) emotions don’t generally decrease instances of (b) emotions—but they do make it a lot harder to talk to other people about your (b) emotions. If you feel sad now, and also you feel like you shouldn’t feel sad, it seems unlikely you’ll be able to do something to make yourself feel less sad. And I think the you that feels guilty for being sad, and the alt-universy you who just feels sad with no guilty have the same goal: be less sad, stat.

Example: Susan approaches me (or I notice and ask Susan) and it comes out that she is feeling guilty, because she’s angry I broke up with her pretty abruptly.

So I think we can agree that if I didn’t want to be in a relationship with Susan, I should not be dating her, and the best way to cause this is for me to break up with her. And I think most people would agree that you shouldn’t say with someone for a while just so you can artificially create a fading relationship.

I think we can also agree that when people break up with you, it sucks, and being upset is a pretty reasonable reaction. (We might have ideas about how to behave with that upsetness—we usually agree that revenge and emotional blackmail are bad, but that being upset makes sense)

But if all Susan can do is tell me that she feels guilty for feeling upset with me, then I’m in the role of telling her that her negative feelings are okay, that it’s normal to not like being near me for a while, etc etc etc. It’s not that I disagree with these statements! I don’t! But you’ll notice we’re never progressing to the root emotion—at best I can hope that Susan will move to disliking me in a guilt-free way. I also don’t get to discuss or defend my actions. I’m too busy telling Susan that it’s okay to hate me for a while to make the case for eventually not hating me.

Then what about emotions that are unhelpful or not grounded in reality? (And how would you even figure out which are or aren’t?)

There’s a both useful and terrible phrase in the mental health/social justice community which is that ‘your emotions are valid’.

On one hand, it’s endorsing something I strongly believe—that the emotions you are having right now are real and worth looking at and caring for, and that this is an essential process for moving forward.

On the other hand, I don’t think I or other people who use this phrase actually want to take it as far as it can be taken. We usually have Feelings about people who experience revulsion in response to race or gender characteristics. We have Feelings about Alice when she is very angry that Bob, who she didn’t want to date, develops a crush on John instead.

In short, we’re averse to calling those ‘valid’ feelings.

But before we explore that, a horror story from my profession!

A few decades ago psychologists believed that you could recover repressed memories via therapy. Specifically, memories of child sexual abuse.  There was a movement to recover these repressed memories (coinciding with the panic about Satanic Ritual Abuse). Many of those memories were false. Created. Horrific, but remnants of our brains’ ability to create nightmares and falsify recall.

And I think we all agree that many of these these children, now adults, were not sexually abused by the people they accused. They didn’t watch ritualized killings or rapes. Many of them didn’t experience sexual abuse they were recalling in offices, on couches. But we also know that it’s extremely hard to introspect and know which memories are completely accurate. We know that false memories are vivid.

And as those children and adults deal with the fallout, as they perhaps experience false flashbacks, or have triggers, we could say “Well, you obviously shouldn’t be having those emotions/flashbacks/, they’re not representative of reality. You’re not really a rape victim, stop feeling bad.”

And if we stopped for just a second, or read any of the facial cues of the people listening with horror, we would realize this is an asshole move. It’s true, their reactions to false memories are well, reactions to false memories. We could say that their emotions are valid in some sense: they are reacting to memories and trauma that their brain believes to be real. But we also could say they aren’t valid: their memories are based in completely made up stuff.

Here’s where I like the global/local distinction. Instead of “your emotions are valid” as an approach, “your emotions are locally valid, check back later about global validity”.

(I make terrible slogans.)

Local validity: I am experiencing [X] emotion. (If known) this is an emotion I am having in response to [Y]/a real feeling that’s occurring in response to something. It currently exists for me. I might want to do look it full on and maybe do something about it.

Local validity is about noticing and responding to your current emotions as if they’re real emotions that are happening to you. Global validity is about reflecting about the trends and patterns of emotions and how well you think they’re grounded in a realistic view of the world.

Global validity: I had That Emotion in response to Those Events. Does my read of the events fit with the outside view of things? Would I tell someone in my situation to go ahead and have my same emotional response?

Do I normally want to have That Emotion in response to Those Events?
What are patterns I can find? Do I like those?
Do they align with the sort of person I’d like to be?
What non-judgemental* information about myself can I get?
What do I reasonably assume I could do to change, if anything?
What are the tradeoffs of changing my emotional reaction to events like Those Events?

*I say non-judgemental, because you want to start by collecting information. Get stuck in spirals of guilt won’t let you move towards planning what to do next.

Again, all of these principles conflict and create weird edge cases that cause me to edit and adjust and add exceptions and caveats. Ultimately, I try to balance my interest in the truth and aligning my behavior with a true understanding of the world with my brain’s interest in using those values to avoid dealing with difficult emotions.

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