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February 23, 2021

Feeling All Of Your Emotions Could Help You Live Longer

When someone on the freeway cuts you off, the first initial desire that emerges might not be to send that person a nice card. In fact, for most, it’s usually flipping the driver off, swerving, or uttering some violent threat behind a closed window. Either way, the incident leads the receiver flustered and emotionally spent.

So, what are we supposed to do with our impulses, urges, and drives? Just push them down. Just forgive those who wrong us and move on. Just forgive and forget? Well, kind of. Sigmund Freud, the famed father of psychoanalysis claims that the best option is to sublimate our desires into something more creative.

Freud’s psychoanalytic theory defined sublimation as a process by which negative urges, drives, and behaviors are channeled into more socially acceptable behaviors. Examples of sublimation are channeling inappropriate urges into positive behaviors like exercise, therapy, or other physical activities.”

The temptation is to interpret this solely as a negative thing; as if we are all ontologically screwed. In fact, most psychologists view sublimation as a realization that many rely on these negative urges to guide the need to create socially acceptable behaviors. However, a more beneficial perspective is to see that we are capable of becoming better versions of ourselves.

It could also be argued the self-mastery is key to the human experience. There are many ways this could be perceived as a positive tool. But, it should not be seen as a stoic method, where we are encouraged to deny the whole range of emotional experience. There is a tendency to promote the denial of certain emotions over others in Western Society. There is a presumption that anger is wrong in any form, or that forgiveness is a form of weakness — and, that happiness should be privileged above all the other emotions.

But, what are emotions? I know we think we might know the answer. They are both more and less than ‘feelings’ or what you feel.

Emotions are related to interests: they signal that your interests are at stake, in a positive or negative way. These could be physical interests as well as social interests.

Your brain is hierarchical, and your cortex is only notified when you need to take action. Emotions can cause your cortex to pay attention because of the interests that are at stake.”

The danger here is when society, a parent, teacher, spouse, or friend inadvertently forces or conditions you to choose one emotional response over the other. If emotion is related to interest – and that interest is in jeopardy, we might feel anxious, angry, or fearful. All 3 emotions are correct. Emotional response to an outward event does not have an ethical component. The actions that may follow it, do.

If the dominant ideology is that anger is bad (in all of its many forms) then the danger that emerges, is one that we refer to in Social Psychology as emotional conformity. Emotional conformity operates the same way social norms do — people are ultimately pressured into suppressing or sublimating certain emotions over others. Emotionally conformity is not healthy for anyone.

This happens due to a cognitive bias known as salience. This is, in short, the temptation to focus only on those things that have prominence or are emotionally striking — rather than those things that do not. A really easy example as it relates to emotional experience is that we would rather feel happy than bored. But, even this is a form of emotional suppression. Sometimes boredom can be the very emotion we need to feel.


Suppressing your emotions, whether it’s anger, sadness, grief, or frustration, can lead to physical stress on your body. “We know that it can affect blood pressure, memory, and self-esteem”

There is also other research that claims that emotional sublimation can even lead to diabetes and heart disease. Emotional suppression makes us physically sick. What we need is not to endorse the socialization of never speaking about our emotions — but, rather we need to equip each other with the skills to help each other. This extends into the area of training people to be more compassionate, empathetic, and prosocial.

Prosocial emotional support can help us build communities. In fact, it has. Because of prosocial behavior, children grow up learning that this is the way to have healthy developing relationships. It creates a connection. The brain has shown to reward us, boost our mood, and give us a sense of belonging every single time we support each other. We are hardwired for connection. And contrary to popular belief, we are hardwired to feel our emotions, not sublimate them.

To heal from trauma, research has shown that feeling our emotions is the birthplace of the process of healing. It’s a moment of affective emancipation.  The temptation is to call emotions irrational or unnecessary — like the Vulcan from Star Trek, but neuroscience strongly affirms we need to feel all of the emotions we feel.

It does not mean that we do not create a relative filter to each emotion, but it does mean that the fictional aggression towards emotions that society has invented, is a lie.


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