Controlling emotions is something which a lot of people aspire to, but which many people feel ambivalent about. A large number of people would say that they would like to master anger, worry, frustration and anxiety – all things which cause pain. But, equally, we tend to hang on to some of our emotional lability, and fight for it, as though it were a human right, or a necessary part of us.
So what’s the truth of it? Are emotions something to smooth over, until we have complete equanimity and peace? Or are they something to celebrate, because they express something of our identity and freedom?
POSITIVE AND NEGATIVE EMOTIONS
Many civilisations have found ways to divide up the emotional world into positive and
Our attitude to both sides of the emotional equation depends on what model we are using to understand ourselves.
If we believe, for instance, that the universe is divided into two sides, good and evil, then we may get the urge to divide up emotions in the same way. Thus, love and joy will be appropriated for the good forces, and anger and hatred will be allocated to the bad forces.
If we experience anger, then we may attribute it to bad external influences, or bad parts of ourselves. They may need expelling somehow (hence the old ideas of sacrifice or penance). If we experience joy, then we may attribute is to good powers, or a good part of ourselves such as an essential good soul. We may want to encourage these (hence the old ideas of prayer, and the concept of being influenced by good or holy spirits).
THE PROBLEM WITH STEREOTYPING GOOD AND BAD
The problem of dividing good and bad in such a stark way, is that life can become a slightly ill-thought-out fight between good and evil. Societies can invent some rather spurious representations of what is good, and what is bad.
Look at popular films, books, and art, and you will see evidence of the rather arbitrary way in which directors, writers and artists can divide the world up into good and bad. In particular, there emerges the massive coincidence that the ‘goodies’ in films tend to be ‘people like us’, and the ‘baddies’ tend to be alien or different in some way. In these fairy tales, joy can only return once the alien, badly-behaved thing is overcome.
Furthermore, ‘good’ starts to be identified with the prevailing social order, and ‘bad’ starts to be identified with anything that threatens prevailing social mores. The emotional texture of films, books and art can start to follow this kind of pattern, until joy becomes a stereotypical whooping togetherness of the socially integrated, and anger and hate become completely ‘other’, allocated to a lurking enemy, destroyed for now, but destined to come back in a sequel.
THE INTERNALISATION OF EMOTIONAL STEREOTYPING
There is a parallel of this process of emotional stereotyping that goes on in the field of mental health. To offer an example, there are five main personal attributes that psychologists like to focus on: extraversion, agreeableness, openness, conscientiousness, and neuroticism. Quite quickly, we might discern a danger that society may select a ‘goodie’ set of traits, and a ‘baddie’ set of traits. Some popular psychology approaches may be tempted to sell, as an ideal personality, an extravert, agreeable, open, conscientious, and non-neurotic full house. Once that is done, we can demonise the idea of a ‘baddie’ full house, which might display introverted, disagreeable, closed, unconscientious and neurotic behaviour.
In this way, suddenly, psychologists might hail, as ‘breakthroughs’, the movement of clients to sociability, agreeability, openness, conscientiousness, and rational behaviour. This is considered ‘orderly’ conduct, and opposite characteristics are labelled ‘disorders’. Thus, we know which side we are on, and life becomes much like the stereotypical goodie-baddie type of film.
HOW EMOTIONAL STEREOTYPING CAN CAUSE MENTAL PROBLEMS
If those working in mental health take such polarised positions, applauding one ‘goodie’ set of emotions, and denigrating another ‘baddie’ set, it can spawn several unhealthy tactics in the counselling room:
The skill of being able to escape from social norms can be labelled antisocial
The skill of being able to disagree with accepted truths can be labelled disagreeable
The skill of being cautious about sharing can be labelled closed
The skill of being easygoing and relaxed can be labelled unconscientious
The skill of being reactive to inner tension can be labelled neurotic
WHAT CAN WE DO TO CORRECT EMOTIONAL STEREOTYPING?
How can we correct the balance, so that we don’t fall into the trap of emotionally stereotyping our children, our partners, our friends, our colleagues, and our clients?
The first thing is to notice when we are applying an implied ideal set of traits to another person. Are we labelling a colleague a ‘baddie’ because they are being secretive? Are we labelling a child a ‘baddie’ because they take a relaxed approach to homework? Are we labelling a partner a ‘baddie’ because they have an unusual set of values? Are we unconsciously applying a false definition of ‘healthy’?
The second thing we can do, is to learn to enjoy variety in human behaviour. When I was training in psychology and counselling, professionals would often copy each other’s style in clothing, gestures, and word use. Without realising, they were applying generic standards to their social interactions. Those who didn’t fit the ideal profile had their lives made more difficult. I dread to think how this affected clients.
The third thing we can do, is to allow a richer emotional landscape to develop in our human interactions. Instead of demonising theoretical baddies, we can learn to understand a bigger range of emotional perspectives on human problems. Otherwise, we are in danger of creating psychological versions of exclusive estates, with big gates and alarm systems. This doesn’t help clients.
Human civiilisation tends to try to tidy up, or stereotype, human emotions into good ones and bad ones. The ‘good’ emotions end up being the ones which support the prevailing social order, and the ‘bad’ ones end up being the ones which threaten it. Films, literature and art can reflect this trend.
The field of psychology can drift into the same tendency. Mental health can end up being narrowly defined in terms of a set of idealised behaviours, with the rest relegated to the status of mental ‘disorder’. Psychology professionals can fall into the trap of gaslighting clients who don’t fit their arbitrary ideals for humanity.
We can all help ourselves not to fall into this trap. We can be more tolerant of different behaviours. We can make sure we don’t unconsciously drift into copying fellow mental health professionals’ supposedly superior mannerisms and value judgements. And we can step out of our mental castles, and accept that human life is far richer and more varied than we think.