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Importance of Emotions

Here are a few of the reasons our emotions are important in our lives.


Nature developed our emotions over millions of years of evolution. As a result, our emotions have the potential to serve us today as a delicate and sophisticated internal guidance system. Our emotions alert us when natural human need is not being met. For example, when we feel lonely, our need for connection with other people is unmet. When we feel afraid, our need for safety is unmet. When we feel rejected, it is our need for acceptance which is unmet.

Decision Making

Our emotions are a valuable source of information. Our emotions help us make decisions. Studies show that when a person's emotional connections are severed in the brain, he cannot make even simple decisions. Why? Because he doesn't know how he will feel about his choices.

Boundary Setting

When we feel uncomfortable with a person's behavior, our emotions alert us. If we learn to trust our emotions and feel confident expressing ourselves we can let the person know we feel uncomfortable as soon as we are aware of our feeling. This will help us set our boundaries which are necessary to protect our physical and mental health.


Our emotions help us communicate with others. Our facial expressions, for example, can convey a wide range of emotions. If we look sad or hurt, we are signaling to others that we need their help. If we are verbally skilled we will be able to express more of our emotional needs and thereby have a better chance of filling them. If we are effective at listening to the emotional troubles of others, we are better able to help them feel understood, important and cared about.


The only real way to know that we are happy is when we feel happy. When we feel happy, we feel content and fulfilled. This feeling comes from having our needs met, particularly our emotional needs. We can be warm, dry, and full of food, but still unhappy. Our emotions and our feelings let us know when we are unhappy and when something is missing or needed. The better we can identify our emotions, the easier it will be to determine what is needed to be happy.


Our emotions are perhaps the greatest potential source of uniting all members of the human species. Clearly, our various religious, cultural and political beliefs have not united us. Far too often, in fact, they have tragically and even fatally divided us. Emotions, on the other hand, are universal. Charles Darwin wrote about this years ago in one of his lesser-known books called "The Expression of Emotion In Man and Animal". The emotions of empathy, compassion, cooperation, and forgiveness, for instance, all have the potential to unite us as a species. It seem fair to say that, generally speaking: Beliefs divide us. Emotions unite us.


Human Emotional Needs

All humans have basic emotional needs. These needs can be expressed as feelings, for example the need to feel accepted, respected and important. While all humans share these needs, each differs in the strength of the need, just as some of us need more water, more food or more sleep. One person may need more freedom and independence, another may need more security and social connections. One may have a greater curiosity and a greater need for understanding, while another is content to accept whatever he has been told.

One problem in many schools is the treatment of all children as if their emotional and psychological needs were identical. The result is many children's needs are unsatisfied. They then become frustrated, as any of us do when our needs are unmet. They act out their frustration in various ways which are typically seen as "misbehavior." This is especially evident when children are expected to all do the same thing for the same length of time. The better we identify their unique needs and satisfy them, the few behavioral problems. It is also evident when they are made to do things which are not interesting to them, or when they are not challenged enough with things which are relevant to their lives. One of the things teenagers who are cutting themselves seem to have in common is they are extremely bored at school as well as emotionally neglected, over-controlled or abused at home.

In dysfunctional families it is most often the emotional needs which are not met. The children and teenagers are getting enough to eat and they have a roof over their heads, but their emotional needs are not being met.

It is helpful to become more aware of these emotional needs as a first step towards helping each other fill them.

For a more complete list these needs, go to human emotional needs list.

Primary and Secondary Emotions

Some authors use the terms primary and secondary emotions. This distinction is very helpful. A primary emotion is what we feel first. The secondary emotion is what it leads to.

Anger is a good example of a secondary emotion. As discussed in the section on anger there are many possible primary emotions which, when they are intense enough, can lead to anger. We might feel insulted, pressured, cheated, etc. If these feelings are at a low level we are not likely to say we feel angry. But if they are intense, we commonly say we feel "angry."

Depression is another example of a secondary emotion. Depression can include feeling discouraged, hopeless, lonely, isolated, misunderstood, overwhelmed, attacked, invalidated, unsupported, etc. Normally it includes several feelings. These more specific feelings can be called the primary emotions.

Secondary terms like anger and depression do not help us much when it comes to identifying our unmet emotional needs . For example, if I am trying to describe how I feel and I can only say "I feel angry," neither I nor anyone else knows what would help me feel better. But if I say feel pressured or trapped or disrespected, it is much more clear what my unmet need is and what would help me feel better.


The Positive Value of Negative Emotions

All of our so-called negative emotions have some positive value. In the proper amount, each negative feeling helps us stay on course towards health and happiness. They do this by telling us when we are veering away from:

Our goals

Our values

Our beliefs

Our standards

Our comfort zones

Our physical health

Our happiness

If we had no fear, no regrets, no guilt, and no sadness, we would be little more than unfeeling, uncaring robots. But since we are humans, we do have feelings, and the more human we are, the more ability we have to experience feelings, positive as well as negative. Let's see, then, what we can learn from a few common negative feelings.

Managing Negative Emotions

Here are few general guidelines for managing negative emotions. .

First, identify the feeling. Next, ask if is a healthy feeling. Then list your options and chose the one which is most likely to lead to your long-term happiness.

After asking these first two questions, the next step is to ask what would help you feel better. Try to focus on answers which are in your control, since it would be easy, but not too helpful, to think of things ways others could change so you would feel better.

Another question is to ask how you want to feel. This helps you direct your thoughts in a positive direction.

To summarize, here are some helpful questions:

  • How am I feeling?
  • Is it a healthy feeling?
  • How do I want to feel?
  • What would help me feel better (that I can control)?
Expressing Negative Feelings

Here are a few suggestions for communicating your negative feelings:

  • Don't be dramatic.
  • Don't wait till things build up.
  • Be brief.
  • Don't blame or lay guilt trips.
  • Express your feelings in an emotionally literate way (3 word sentences starting with "I feel ____")
  • Ask how the other person feels.
  • Offer a way to save face. (For example, "Perhaps I misunderstood you," or "I know your intentions were good.")
Anger Management / Feeling Destructive in Germany - A personal story

I once went to Germany to visit a female for what I thought would be a romantic vacation. When I got there she met me at the train station with her ex-boyfriend. I asked why he was there and she said they had just reunited and she wasn't going with me to Paris for Christmas and New Years as we had planned. I remember laying in bed that night. I picked up a small souvenir glass that I had brought for her mother's collection. I remember thinking that I wanted to smash it against the wall.

I asked myself what I was feeling as I stared at the glass clenched in my hand. The word that came to mind was "destructive."

I said to myself, "That is not a healthy feeling." I took a deep breath, exhaled slowly, and put the glass down.


In the proper amounts, fear protects us. It protects us from both physical and psychological danger. In excessive amounts, however, it paralyzes us, or distorts our perception of reality. It is up to us to capture the positive value in fear without succumbing to its excesses. Your fear is excessive if it prevents you from experiencing the positive feelings in life, such as joy, intimacy, and fulfillment. Many of us have what can be called "irrational fears." They are irrational because they have little or no chance of actually occurring. They are still fears though and the Mayer Salovey model of emotional intelligence (EI) suggests that when our EI has been develop in a healthy way, our feelings guide us to what is important to think about. Even if something is "irrational," it is still important to give it some thought to see why it is irrational.

We are almost always afraid of something. For our more "rational" or realistic fears we use our emotional intelligence to help us generate and evaluate options which will address our fears or other emotional concerns. Whenever we feel any negative feeling, it is useful to ask ourselves, "What am I afraid of?" Specifically identifying the fear is the first step to addressing the feeling by either logic, action or both.

Some of the ways various types of fear can actually help us are listed below. In each case, an extreme amount of the fear is unhealthy for us, but in moderation, our fears help us live a better life.

Fear of losing control - Helps us take the steps necessary to regain a sense of control over our lives.

Fear of failure - Helps us accomplish our goals. Helps motivate us to prepare, organize, and persist.

Fear of being alone - Helps us reach compromises with others.

Fear of the unknown - Helps us take reasonable precautions and prevents us from unreasonable risk.

Fear of dependence - Helps us develop our own resources and become self-reliant.


Acknowledging a Fear

This story was told by psychologist Nathaniel Branden:

Branden said that he had a client who was obviously afraid of Branden's disapproval and who obviously wanted very much to be approved of. This fear of disapproval was making it difficult for them to work together. So Branden suggested to the client that he say out loud, "Nathaniel, I am afraid of your disapproval and I really want your approval." He had the client repeat this several times and then the issue was put to rest and they could proceed with their work.



Guilty feelings can be healthy or unhealthy.

They are healthy if they help you take some corrective action when you feel guilty. They are unhelpful if they just weaken you by making you feel bad about yourself.

Guilty feelings may be deserved or undeserved.

If you have done something which hurts someone else, it is natural to feel guilty about it. Nature's purpose for guilt is to motivate us to take responsibility for what we have done and do something to help the person we have hurt.

Many times other people want us to feel guilty for some motivation they have, such as to control or manipulate us. When they do this to us it is called laying a guilt trip on us. Guilt trips are always unhealthy because they weaken us and kill or lower our motivation and our self-esteem.

If the guilt you feel is deserved, and not a guilt trip, you probably have violated some internal standard. This is a good time to examine your standards, apologize, ask for forgiveness, make restitution, learn from the experience, and learn to forgive yourself.

Here are some helpful steps as guidelines for what to do when you feel guilty:

Evaluate your standards - Ask yourself if the standards you are comparing your actions against are really your standards. In other words, did you consciously select them? Or did you adopt them without careful consideration? Or, perhaps, are they really someone else's standards created to serve their own needs?

Apologize - If you have done something involving another person which you feel bad about, apologize by expressing your honest feelings. Ask the injured party how they felt about what you did, then listen without defending yourself. When they have fully expressed themselves, you will have learned a great deal, and they probably will feel much better because you have cared enough to listen.

Restitution - If possible and practical, offer to make restitution by asking what you can do to make it up to the other person. By this and by apologizing, you are showing that the other person's feelings matter to you, and that they matter to you. Finally, ask if you have been forgiven. When you have apologized, made restitution, and been forgiven, you will feel much better because you have closure.

Forgive Yourself - After you have done all you can, it is important to forgive yourself, regardless of whether the other person has forgiven you. For example, there is a chance that the other person will not accept your apology. They may say something like: "There is nothing you can do! I never want to talk to you again!" When someone denies you the opportunity to sincerely apologize, they are attempting to punish you. This may help them feel better in some sense by helping them feel self-righteous and superior to you. If you do feel punished as a result, it is up to you to forgive yourself.

On the other hand, it is possible that someone else might forgive you, but you still feel guilty. In this case it would be healthier for you to forgive yourself once you have apologized and made restitution as best you can. It helps me to forgive myself when I realize I was doing whatever I did in order to filll a need that I had. This is similar to self-acceptance. It is important for our self-esteem to accept ourselves, forgive ourselves and work to improve ourselves.

Learn - Sometimes there is no one to apologize to, no one to make amends to, and no way to make restitution. In such cases, truly learning from the experience will help lower your feelings of guilt. Of course, truly learning means applying what you have learned in order to change your behavior. It doesn't mean just saying "Well, I guess I shouldn't have done that," and then doing it again later. Truly learning also means accepting your unmet needs and your "mistakes", while still growing and developing from your experiences.


There seem to be at least two ways the word "disappointment" is used. For example, one day at a friend's I opened a CD case expecting to find the CD inside, but the case was empty. I felt a combination of sadness and surprise.

I did not, however, feel judgmental or disapproving, as a parent might feel when their child gets suspended from school. The parent might, for example, say "I can't believe you got suspended! What is wrong with you?" In this case we might say disappointment is a combination of disapproval and disbelief.

It is often helpful to look at disappointment as something we do to ourselves. This is because disappointment seems to arise out of our own expectations or demands about how we think the world should be, or how we think people should act.

In other words, "disappointment" is often just an inaccurate view of reality. Looking at it this way could help us accept that we didn't really understand things as well as we thought we did and that our expectations were unrealistic.

By looking at it this way it is easier for us to take responsibility for it and thus to reduce the negative feelings which usually accompany it. This brings to mind the idea that "accepting responsibility reduces resentment" - or what I call the AR3 principle.

Instead of using the word "disappointed," it might help to substitute the word "disillusioned." This helps because it reminds us that we may have created an illusion in our own minds about something. Calling something an illusion suggests that it was our interpretation of reality was inaccurate. So when things don't go the way we expected or wanted them to go, it helps if we take the perspective that we created a false image of reality. Then we can more quickly adjust ourselves to the actual reality. In my own life, the sooner I do this the faster I recover from the negative feeling of what I used to call "disappointment."

Additionally, when we look at disappointment as something we cause, it also helps in another way. This other way is to help stop us from using the expression of disappointment as a way of laying a guilt trip on someone else. This use of "disappointment" - to make others feel guilty - is one used by many people.

Consider the parent who tells the child "I am very disappointed in you," or, "You really disappointed me." Think for a moment how you feel when someone says such things to you. You might feel guilty, blamed, inadequate, unworthy, ashamed. A woman once told me she felt devastated when her father said to her "You have utterly disappointed us."

The father who feels disappointed does not stop to consider that it was the father himself who did not know his child as well as he thought. Turning it into an opportunity to lecture the child will hurt the child's self-esteem by causing him or her to feel unworthy, disapproved of etc. The parent who uses disappointment to lay guilt trips doesn't consider the long term damage to the child's self-esteem. Such a parent is simply using guilt as an expedient way to emotionally manipulate the child as a form of control.1 Disappointment in another person is basically a form of rejection. It can be powerful in its toxic affect on the self-esteem.

Here is an example of how a father misuses his "disappointment." Let's say a father wants his son to be a basketball star, as the father was, or always wanted to be. The son, however, has no interest in playing basketball and is not naturally talented in the sport. It would be very unhelpful and possibly very damaging for the father to say, "Son, you have greatly disappointed me because you are not the basketball player you could be. You simply haven't tried hard enough."

When we have been raised by parents who express their "disappointment" in us, it makes us vulnerable to being manipulated by people who lay guilt trips on us later in life.

Another problem with telling someone you feel disappointed in them is that it encourages them to avoid sharing things truthfully with us. It helps others feel judged as well as disapproved of.

Note that it is the person in power who creates the expectations. They are the ones who say "I am disappointed." I noticed this in Australia when the government people said they were "disappointed" that the aboriginals put up metal structure on the land where they have created the Aboriginal Tent Embassy. The Australian police soon came and tore it down.


A more intense form of disappointment is sometimes bitterness, which tells us that not only did we expect something, but we started to count on it, need it or depend on it.

A healthier reaction would be to let the feeling provide an opportunity to get to know the other person or the child better. By showing sincere curiosity and a desire for knowledge instead of disappointment, we open the door to understanding and bonding.

In other words, we might say to ourselves, "Hmm, I expected x to happen, in fact I really wanted x to happen. I was even counting on it. I am sad, or hurt or frustrated that it didn't happen. I wonder why it didn't happen. What can I learn from this?"

Such curiosity opens the door to seeking knowledge and helps get our thinking back in line with reality. In other words, situations where we initially feel disappointed can lead to wisdom if we allow ourselves to learn. In the case of the parent and child, the parent might learn about the circumstances surrounding the child's life, and the way the child makes decisions based on his or her values, beliefs, and needs. The same idea applies to friends or romantic partners.

Here is an example of how a mother might react when she initially starts to feel "disappointed"

"Jessica, I feel sad and confused about what you did. Can you help me understand? "

The mother might also ask: "How were you feeling when you did so and so?" or "How do you feel about it now?"

These questions, if asked without causing the child to feel interrogated or afraid, is much healthier, for both parent and child, than an expression of "disappointment."



1. For a good discussion of emotional manipulation see Chapter 1 in Smith, M.J. (1975) When I say no I feel guilty. Bantam

Discouragement, Hopelessness

I am afraid this will sound simplistic, but when you are feeling discouraged and hopeless, you could look at it as a sign that you need to find some source (or create one within yourself) of encouragement and hope. Maybe a technique would be helpful, like making a list of some things which are encouraging. Or forcing yourself to find just one encouraging thing amid your present feelings of discouragement. Maybe find some uplifting books or articles or read a story on what someone is doing somewhere to help people. There is a huge selection of inspirational books and tapes. Some of them have helped me both during an immediate down period in my life and also in a longer term sense because I have the memory of some things they said which helped.

Another option is to seek out some optimistic, but validating people. Perhaps just tell a friend who knows you well that you are feeling discouraged and hopeful. Perhaps they will remind you of some encouraging truths.

I remember a few times I was feeling discouraged and I was able to remember some encouraging things. And it helps me to know that I have felt extremely discouraged and hopeless, even suicidal, but I have recovered from those painful feelings. And I believe those feelings helped me focus on what was truly important to me.

When you are feeling hopeless, acknowledge the feeling. Yell it out if you must, or cry it out. Your body or your amygdala is sending you a message. Let it know that you have received it. I am not sure how the process works but it seems that once the message is fully accepted, validated and understood, it can be integrated by survival forces of the brain which go to work on solving the problem.

Once you have completely accepted that you feel hopeless, you can begin to take action to feel more hopeful. You can search for inspiring websites, books, tapes etc. You can actively think of people who you admire, who are contributing to the world in the way you believe is needed.

When you are feeling hopeless, it can be looked at as a clear sign that you need to feel more hopeful, (or more optimistic, more encouraged, etc) in order to get back into a healthier state. I believe our survival instinct itself is a source of hope. If I truly had no hope, why would I even bother to eat? As long as your body is feeling hungry, sleepy, etc. I believe there is hope. As I see it, as long as there is one male and one female alive on earth, there is hope for the human species. Imagine that the current members of the species have somehow managed to kill everyone in your gender except you. Now imagine you have 10 seconds to chose a partner before all the other members of the opposite sex are killed. Now, ten seconds later, it is just the two of you. Would you still feel hopeless? Or would you get to work on rebuilding the species?(1)



1. Note on the last sentence: I realize that sounds sexual if you have a mind like mine, but I honestly wasn't thinking that when I wrote it!

Feeling Destructive

The amygdala is capable of initiating a sequences of chemical reactions which create extreme energy. Some people's brains, for whatever reasons, create these intense chemical reactions extremely quickly. In a life or death situation, this could prove to make the critical difference. But we are not often in life and death situations anymore. Yet we still sometimes feel the same urges, such as the urge to completely destroy our attacker.

The challenge is how to use the energy in a constructive way. When I have felt destructive in the past it has proved helpful to ask: What do I really want to destroy? A person? A relationship? Myself? Asking these questions helps me realize that I don't want to hurt others or myself. Nor do I want to damage relationships, even though they may be bringing me pain at that moment. But what I do want to destroy are the dysfunctional systems which perpetuate the hurting and killing which have been going on for centuries. I want to prove that there is a better way. I want to show the world that there are more options than repeating the mistakes of the past. I try to focus my energy in this kind of positive direction. This takes practice, especially when one comes from a dysfunctional family, but I believe we can all make improvements in how we handle our destructive urges by refocusing our energy into more productive outlets.

If you have so much energy that you really have to release it in a physical way, try finding something like a cardboard box or an empty cereal box. If you often experience strong destructive feelings, in fact, keep a supply of boxes handy! After you have released your energy physically, chances are your mind will guide you to what is important to think about, as the emotional intelligence model suggests.


Feeling Overwhelmed

When we feel overwhelmed, it is sign that we are trying to tackle too much. During such times, the well balanced person is able to step back, and sort out the facts and feelings. When we feel overwhelmed there are always several associated feelings. Fear is almost certain to be one of them. Therefore, ask yourself what you are afraid of. Also, ask yourself what your conflicting feelings or priorities are, because they are sure to exist.

Once you have identified your fears and conflicting priorities, treat each separately. Separating the feelings and options helps you regain your sense of control. For your fears, consider the worst case scenario and assign a likelihood to it. Then plan a course of action which offers you the best chance of preventing your fears from materializing. Just the act of planning a course of action helps soothe your feelings. As far as your conflicting priorities are concerned, think about each in terms of your values and beliefs. Ranking them will help you sort things out. Finally, try to predict your feelings under various scenarios, and then take the action which feels the best.


Daniel Goleman said that resiliency was part of emotional intelligence. Mayer and Salovey, however, do not seem to ever include this, so I assume they would call it a "personality trait." Whatever category you want to put it under, it is clear that resiliency helps us survive and "thrive." I recently discovered a site called "thrivenet," in fact, which includes a wealth of information on resiliency. The site is based on the work of Al Siebert who has studied what he calls "survivors." Interestingly, his list of the characteristics of resilient people is quite similar to what I call high EQ people. The site is www.thrivenet.com







1. The amygdala is thought to be a primary emotional center of the brain.




* find frustration - add frustration -> energy but does the problem require more energy? (ex of trying to get memory stick off key clip.