What If Your Emotions Are In Fact Perfectly Rational?

woman overlooking Italy riverI have a healthy concern for many people’s view of emotion. This view suggests that emotion means being irrational, negative, out of control, subject to the whims of others who “make” us feel things, and holds that being emotional is generally a sign of weakness or abnormality.

Being a professional counselor affords me a unique position from which to view the dangerous byproducts of this view. I’d like to start the process of reframing emotion and putting it into a healthier context that allows us to learn and grow.

What I’ll tackle first is the eons-old disparagement that emotions are irrational and therefore inferior to intellect. This argument states that emotions have no reason within them at all and that, because of this, an emotional person loses control. Furthermore, the thinking goes, the way to regain one’s composure and control is to push away or get rid of emotions as fast as possible.

Suffice it to say this belief stems from a practice of demonizing the body and our baser instincts. What this view does get right is that our bodies are storehouses for powerful energies. Left unchecked and ignored, these energies can turn into juggernauts that can destroy and create chaos. The key point to recognize here is that these powerful energies get built up through a willful practice of emotional self-denial and from not realizing the true sources of our emotions.

Seen from a healthier vantage point, we begin to see the truth that emotions come from and are energetic expressions of our beliefs. Although it can take considerable time and effort to discover this truth, effective counseling or psychotherapy and meditative techniques are designed for just this sort of discovery. Myriad techniques work toward helping us create space between our thoughts and our reactions to them.

An example helps here. Let’s say you react strongly to people who frown at you. Every time you notice someone frowning around you, you assume it means he or she doesn’t like you or disapproves of something you did or said. This, in turn, causes you to feel ashamed or anxious. Notice that the belief you have creates your emotions. Because of your possible (if not probable) misinterpretation of the other person’s behavior, you stay in a semi-constant emotional state of anxiety and shame.

Seen from a healthier vantage point, we begin to see the truth that emotions come from and are energetic expressions of our beliefs.

Now imagine that, rather than personalizing other people’s facial expressions, you develop an attitude of curiosity. With this curiosity, you can do many things. One thing you might do is, much like bird watching, set a goal of noticing as many frowning faces as you can. What would you feel now? Perhaps interest, perhaps amusement, perhaps even happiness if you beat yesterday’s record.

Taking this curiosity one step further, imagine you generally wanted to know why the person is frowning. Instead of anxiously staying in your head, mind-reading and creating a story that may not be true, you become inquisitive and talk to the person. You discover that he or she lost a job, forgot where he or she parked, or something else that has absolutely nothing to do with you. Because you let go of the perspective that everyone is judging you and embraced curiosity instead, you connect with someone. Now you feel close, empathetic, and connected.

Emotions are actually very rational, as they spawn directly from our belief systems and attitudes. Put differently, emotions are logical and reasonable extensions of our beliefs. The issue lies in not being mindful of our beliefs. When we aren’t being mindful of our beliefs, the emotions seem to pop from out of nowhere or seem to be caused from the outside. Knowing that our thinking creates emotion puts us on a path toward taking control of our lives.

© Copyright 2015 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Joshua Nash, LPC-S, therapist in Austin, Texas

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • 23 comments
  • Leave a Comment
  • charles

    charles

    August 18th, 2015 at 7:39 AM

    Very interesting

  • constance

    constance

    August 18th, 2015 at 7:39 AM

    I don’t necessarily think that all emotions are irrational, but I do think that there are those people who take them a little far

  • Krystal

    Krystal

    August 18th, 2015 at 9:23 AM

    I’m having a very difficult time knowing whether I’m over reacting to something vs thinking appropriately. I’ve been off medication for a yr. It hasn’t been a good yr. I’m very good at internalizing then I explode. I dont want to mask assumptions mental illness, I want them gone. I keep thinking that ending it is the only way. Also. Now that I’ve written this, it will be thrown in my face. Big brother likes to hurt me.

  • The GoodTherapy.org Team

    The GoodTherapy.org Team

    August 18th, 2015 at 8:44 PM

    Thank you for your comment, Krystal. We wanted to provide links to some resources that may be relevant to you here. We have more information about what to do in a crisis at https://www.goodtherapy.org/in-crisis.html

    Warm regards,
    The GoodTherapy.org Team

  • Larkin

    Larkin

    August 18th, 2015 at 1:15 PM

    Ok on many levels I agree with all of this. Your emotions are your way of expressing what you are feeling at any given time. That much is true. The problem is that there are some if us, and I will include myself in this too, who have irrational reactions to seemingly benign things, and that can be the totally wrong way to react. It’s not that what you are feeling is WRONG, but maybe there could be a much better way of handling it.

  • tate

    tate

    August 18th, 2015 at 3:19 PM

    The tendency is to want to hide form the emotions, bury them and be more “rational”.
    But my emotions are what actually help me sort things out, I kind of have a better understanding of that which is important to me based on how I react to certain things.
    That means looking inward ALOT and taking a very hard inventory of those thoughts and emotions that I may be feeling.

  • pauline

    pauline

    August 18th, 2015 at 3:29 PM

    Emotions are formed by the Ego which is essentially who we are, until we discover we are not. Free of the egoic mind which collects and connects our conditioning, negativity, lacking, greed, jealously, rancour, resentment and so on to our Mind.

    I am of the opinion is that emotions are only of the egoic mind.

    Feelings are different. They well up from where the heart is. Where in fact the heart of your essence resides. Love is a vibration connecting one person to another. Or one being to one another. All positive feelings are built from a self-sacrifising meaningful life of union with our fellow human beings. These feelings that emanate from the heart is that which sustains us. Not emotions

  • Joshua Nash

    Joshua Nash

    August 19th, 2015 at 4:05 AM

    @ Krystal–Thanks so much for your courageous comment. Just know that help is always available when you ask for it.

    @ Pauline–I’d encourage you to be very careful here. Getting in the habit of labeling some emotions as “positive” and some as “negative” is usually the very cause of our suffering.

    All emotions have their place. It’s our job to listen fully to them so that we can understand and learn from them.

    -Joshua

  • Cat C.

    Cat C.

    August 22nd, 2015 at 6:29 PM

    I’d also like to add that someone “can not make” another person feel any emotion. You only have control over yourself, not anyone else.
    I can say, “I felt so and so when you said/did that thing.” That is owning your feeling and if you become X or Y and feel too emotionally out of control, see if you can meet to talk about it at another time.

  • gracie

    gracie

    August 19th, 2015 at 1:08 PM

    I would think about who has made you feel in the past that what you are feeling is not a rational thing… is this really someone who deserves to be a part of your life?
    No emotion is too small, or too large for that matter, when you take it as a way to understand your thoughts and feelings and use what you gain from that insight in a rational and thoughtful way.

  • Nandini

    Nandini

    August 22nd, 2015 at 5:12 AM

    This article makes a lot of sense and applying the understanding of the message in life is the most sensible thing to do. Altering our belief systems and seeing a different perspective of the situation which invokes a particular emotion is the best thing to deal with unwanted anxieties and the emotions connected with it.

  • camilla

    camilla

    August 25th, 2015 at 11:45 AM

    I come from a long line of stoics so I know very well the problem with being made to feel that it is better to be void of emotion and feel nothing at all, that that somehow protects you from being hurt. It’s not true, I think that when you try to ignore those feelings that makes it even worse when you do actually discover that sometimes you just have to let it all out.

  • David

    David

    August 25th, 2015 at 2:03 PM

    There are large areas in which this is nonsense. When our bodies are traumatized through overwhelm of the nervous system, it forms an implicit (can’t be consciously recalled) memory that contains a recording of what was happening inside and outside of the body. From then on, anytime something can be associated with that memory, it will bring up the emotions and sensations as they were in the trauma. This has nothing to do with your beliefs. For instance, a large black dog jumps on you when 4 years old and knocks you down, the shock puts you in overwhelm and you pass out. From then on, the rest of your life, if you encounter a big black dog, especially in similar surroundings, your body will react with fear or even terror, even though this present dog is tied up and you know it can’t hurt you. See Peter Levine’s book “In an unspoken voice” or many other good books on trauma.

  • Joshua Nash

    Joshua Nash

    August 26th, 2015 at 4:44 AM

    @ David. I’m pleased you are familiar with Peter Levine’s work. I’ve read and learned a lot from the book you mentioned.

    You bring up a good point. Trauma occurs often as a result of an incident that is out of the person’s control. Trauma is a result of the autonomic nervous system being disregulated.

    Obviously the extent of my article can’t cover everything, but I’ll point out that trauma is still rare in relation to the types of emotional upheaval I mention above.

    What’s important to recognize is that whether it’s trauma or self-made emotional upset we are talking about, the cure still lives in contacting the body and releasing the energy fully to be free of it.

    -Joshua

  • David L.

    David L.

    September 6th, 2015 at 8:36 AM

    Joshua, yes, we are in agreement about healing via contacting the body. and yes emotional responses in relationships are probably more frequent than those from traumas AND traumas are much more frequent and pervasive than you might imagine. Robert Scaer, (an MD who worked with Peter Levine and has written books on trauma) in an interview said 100% of us are traumatized in some way. See liberationispossible.org/trauma-spectrum-interview-with-dr-robert-scaer-part-1/
    This is particularly because of how easy it is to traumatize a helpless bady (abandonment for a few hours is a trauma), the problems of the way most births are performed in hospitals, surgeries and anesthesia, and then all of the accidents and abuses we incur during our lives. Thus when someone responds with anxiety at frowns from another person, if they were beaten by a frowning parent, then the body will respond with fear and an need to escape, etc. Once the trauma from that is healed (not simple in abuse cases) then the client may respond with curiosity instead of fear.

  • Joshua N.

    Joshua N.

    September 6th, 2015 at 4:04 PM

    Thanks for the video, David. It was certainly worth watching.

    What stood out for me were two things. One, how the resiliency we have (or don’t have) going into an event can determine if we experience trauma. Two, the meaning we place upon the event also determines whether or not we see the event as traumatic.

    For me, it’s important to recognize the need to be mindful of our reactions to any given event. If we tend to overreact to seemingly innocuous events, that suggests a greater possibility that prior trauma exists.

  • David

    David

    September 8th, 2015 at 3:04 PM

    Joshua, glad you found it worthwhile – I Robert Scaer has done excellent work on trauma, and from an MD’s perspective. The simple definition I use for a traumatic event is one that overwhelms the nervous system. When this happens, you usually pass out, faint, black out, go uncounscious, blank out or miss a time period or have pain that’s unbearable. It means you are unable to adapt to the current situation, and it leaves you helpless. When this happens an implicit memory is formed that contains the state of your body at the time of trauma. From then on, anything that can be associated with that state, will trigger a response as if the trauma is happening again. The stronger the association matches the original event, the stronger the response. So yes, this will often result in an “overreaction” to a current event and when you become aware of this, you can suspect a previous trauma happened. This is especially true for panic attacks and phobias.

  • Joshua Nash

    Joshua Nash

    September 9th, 2015 at 4:34 AM

    David,

    Good definition! It seems you might could even broaden it to include all emotional disregulation that occurs chronically.

    Watch for my next article where I address this stuff in more detail. And please keep in mind the limited space these articles can take up!

  • Jennifer L. W.

    Jennifer L. W.

    January 15th, 2016 at 9:14 PM

    May I offer an observation ? For me, knowledge and awareness of any trauma takes time and hard work in the therapy session and out of it. My first step would be to develop the self knowledge with my therapist to discern whether or not this over reaction is trauma induced or the result of ” emotional disregulation “. I have found that the severity of any emotional response or over reaction would be a tell tale sign that there is more going on inside than emotional disregulation. Traumas are almost always clouded by denial and a lack of knowledge and awareness of your own personal history. Lets say a person tries your theory of becoming curious as opposed to becoming fearful and anxious and discovers that he or she still has the strong overreaction to certain types of events or circumstances ? Keep in mind that the overreaction would have continued on and probably increased in strength after several attempts of trying your suggestion . Wouldn’t this mean that the underlying trauma has not been dealt with ? Wouldn’t the wiser move be exploring in a therapeutic setting the severity of the overreaction and what incident or incidents maybe causing this overreaction ? If the incident is trauma related, the feelings, emotions and the holding of the trauma in the body will all become part of the clients awareness. This will take time and developing awareness on the clients part. After the trauma work and memory of the trauma has been brought out into the clients awareness , and the feelings are processed and dealt with dealt with , then begin on incorporating the beliefs aspect into the total picture. I believe that addressing the issue your way is like putting the cart before the horse. Wouldn’t dealing with the trauma provide enough awareness and closure so that the client would be able to recognize where the overreaction is stemming from and deal with the emotional disregulation on their own ? For example : I am overreacting or having a overly strong emotional response to this incident. After discussing this with my therapist, I now know that this trauma or incident caused this reaction or strong emotional response. Lets wait and deal with the belief system after appropriate exploration with the therapist as to where this reaction or strong emotional response is coming from.

  • Joshua N.

    Joshua N.

    January 16th, 2016 at 12:33 PM

    Jennifer,

    You bring up some good points.

    First–Perhaps I thought it could go without saying, but I generally believe it’s best to practice this type of inquiry, at least initially, with the help of a therapist. If you genuinely believe you have trauma-related symptoms, I’d never suggest you figure all this out on your own.

    Second–It’s important to view curiosity as an attitude, rather than a theory. What I’m attempting to convey here is the importance of cultivating an attitude shift away from denial and resistance towards open, gentle investigation.

    Third–Genuine emotional intelligence and healing from trauma requires more than simple insight. Many of my clients are quite aware of how they are negatively impacting their emotional health, but don’t know how to respond to themselves differently.

    Finally–A big stuck point people create for themselves is believing that an understanding of the root cause is essential for healing to take place. Although I used to believe this, I’ve learned symptom relief is largely independent of insights related to knowing rout causes.

    All that being said, it’s most important to recognize that real healing involves mental, emotional, and behavioral components. Miss one aspect and you won’t get the full results you’re looking for.

    Hope this helps!

    -Joshua

  • Sharron

    Sharron

    January 15th, 2017 at 2:48 PM

    Emotions are not really spoken about like many issues, glad you mentioned this.
    I personally feel other people’s emotions even when they are miles away. I am not sure if its feelings or emotions but I feel it. I feel my friends dispare, I felt another friends anger when I hadn’t seen him, I felt one friend was about to pass over on that Sunday who I hadn’t spoken to for months.
    I think there is a lot more about emotions that people have not explored and this touches the surface. Why do we have emotions? Surely there has to be a greater reason than just to express in that moment of time, maybe emotions carry so energitic weight that can be felt from afar! Like pain! People feel partners when they are in pain, even when they are miles apart! Why?

  • Johannes

    Johannes

    September 1st, 2017 at 8:33 AM

    Thanks for writing the article, I like aspects of it.
    I think you run the risk of going from devaluing emotions directly to indirectly. “Your emotions make sense, but they might come from erroneous beliefs, which when overcome, neutralizes the emotion.” So you’re still in the paradigm of trying to get rid of emotions. From my experience, when I honor and stay present with my emotions, without questioning their validity, reality testing tends to shake out eventually. I may be unconsciously angry when someone frowns on me because it reminds me (again, maybe unconsciously) of my abusive father of frowned a lot. Rather than changing my beliefs, I think I’m better served exploring the anger, which will lead to my father, give me a chance to face and work through the anger towards him, and then other people’s frowns won’t affect me much. Had I taken the approach of questioning my beliefs in this context, I may have missed the links to my father and the opportunity to work through the emotional roots of these reactions.

  • Joshua Nash

    Joshua Nash

    September 1st, 2017 at 11:15 AM

    Johannes,

    You bring up a could point. I’ll clarify as it might not have been clear in the article. We must ALWAYS feel our emotions first and foremost. This keeps us from “thinking” our emotions. Invalidating emotions is about not feeling them. So you’re definitely right here.

    It’s only after we’ve come back to a calm place that we can effectively analyze the beliefs behind our emotions. The big point to get here is that emotions will emanate from both rational AND irrational beliefs. However, it’s the irrational beliefs that usually lead to more chronic, unhealthy behaviors.

    Thanks for the comment!

Leave a Comment

By commenting you acknowledge acceptance of GoodTherapy.org's Terms and Conditions of Use.

* Indicates required field.

GoodTherapy uses cookies to personalize content and ads to provide better services for our users and to analyze our traffic. By continuing to use this site you consent to our cookies.