Infants require affection in order to develop normally; from birth, they engage and shape their emotional behavior (initially,crying; later smiling, etc) in order to gain affection and protection from their carers. In adults, a confiding relationship (in effect, a means to express our most private thoughts and emotions) protects us from depression; indeed, high levels of social support insulates us against all forms of stress, effectively preventing many physical and mental health problems. All human communication also has two distinct components; the meaning of what we say (e.g. I want you to tidy your room) versus how we say it (politely, timidly, angrily). In fact the manner of our communication is often far more important to the outcome than what we say, as it shapes how we are perceived by our listeners (as, for example, friendly and decent, weak, or dangerous). Any significant level of emotional expression is, in itself, a very powerful communication that is highly likely to affect our relationships with our listeners.
So – our emotions, and how we express them, have a central role within our lives. Emotional experiences seem to function both as a means of sensing and expressing our basic needs and drives. (If we ignore or lose sight of these we will end in deep trouble, one way or another.) As we develop we also learn ways of thinking about and expressing our emotions as part of their social repertoire. It’s helpful to think of these as ’emotional rules’.
Emotional rules are critically important for two reasons. Certain emotional responses are necessary in order to deal effectively with life events e.g. sadness in bereavement, excitement in sexual relationships, love in long-term relationships. It’s reasonable to argue that a healthy personality can accept and tolerate a range of emotions in others and also in themselves, and have some way of expressing their feelings. A restricted range of emotional behavior (relative to that person’s culture) will limit the kinds of social relationship available to a person. So emotional rules determine how we perceive ourselves and others, how we behave, how we cope with life events, and how (and with whom) we form social relationships.
This is illustrated below, showing six basic emotions, in a format:
EMOTION: the type of situation in which that emotion is experienced; the impact of the emotional communication; an example of a healthy rule (which encourages emotional expression); an example of an unhealthy rule (which discourages it).
FEAR, ANXIETY: worrying about the future; protect me/help me deal with what will happen; Fear is a sign of weakness; Fear is natural and often alerts us to dangers.
EXCITEMENT: seeing the future in a positive way; be happy with me/let’s have fun together; Excitement is a sign of immaturity and shallowness; Excitement is our way of communicating our hopes and dreams
SADNESS: response to loss; comfort me/look after me while I feel like this; Sadness is a sign of madness; Feeling sad shows that we care about what happens to others.
HAPPINESS: response to gain; share this with me/enjoy yourself with me; Happiness is a sign of stupidity and foolishness; Expressing our happiness shares it with others.
ANGER: response to pain or frustration; Listen to me/take notice of me or else…; Anger is dangerous and must not be allowed; Anger tells us and others that this is really important.
LOVE, SEXUALITY: response to intimacy and physical attraction; Be close to me/Be my friend and lover; Pleasure and sexual feelings are signs of laziness and wickedness; Sharing sexual closeness is natural and necessary.
This can be done for any emotion. Ask yourself – what are my rules? What emotions do I resist, or struggle to let myself express? Why?