When are our emotional reactions appropriate vs inappropriate?
Most of the time, our emotions serve us well by bringing meaning (i.e., value) to our experiences; they mobilize us to deal with what is most important in life as well as providing us with many different kinds of enjoyment. Unfortunately, sometimes our emotions get us into trouble by leading us to respond in ways that are inappropriate for the circumstances.
In order to determine whether our emotional reactions are appropriate versus inappropriate, we have to first be able to accurately identify what we’re feeling. Once we know what the underlying emotion is, we can then assess how appropriate it is by considering the following:
- We may feel an emotion that’s appropriate for the situation, but at a level of intensity that’s inappropriate.
For example, it’s appropriate to feel worried (fearful) if a friend hasn’t responded to our calls after a couple of days trying. However, it is inappropriate to feel panicked or terrified if this friend is known for their poor communication and typically doesn’t respond until the weekend.
- We may feel an appropriate emotion but express it in an inappropriate manner.
For example, anger would be justified if we believed our spouse purposefully ignored or disregarded something we said. However, punishing them with the silent treatment in return would be an inappropriate expression of our frustration.
- We may feel an emotion that is inappropriate based on the situation.
For example, it’s appropriate to feel disappointed (sadness) after discovering your coworker got a job promotion instead of you, but it would be be inappropriate to experience rage (anger) over the decision.
Why do we become emotional?
Given that not every single minute of life is emotional, the question remains: Why do we get emotional when we do? The most common way in which emotions occur is when we sense, accurately or otherwise, that something seriously affecting our welfare, for better or worse, is happening or about to happen. This isn’t the only route for becoming emotional, but it is very important, perhaps the central or core route for becoming emotional, so let’s focus on it. It is a simple idea but a central one — emotions evolved to prepare us to deal quickly with the most vital events in our lives.
Recall a time when you were driving your car and suddenly another car appeared, going very fast, seeming as if it were about to hit you. Your conscious mind was focused on an interesting conversation with a friend in the passenger seat or the program on the radio. In an instant, before you had time to think, before the conscious, self aware part of your mind could consider the matter, danger was sensed and fear began.
Emotions Guide Us
As an emotion begins, it takes over us in those first milliseconds, directing our immediate thoughts and behaviors: what we do and say and think. These unconscious and subconscious directions are more prevalent than what any of us might be comfortable with, but the reality that we are in control of our actions (and, especially reactions) is not entirely true. For example, without consciously choosing to do so, most drivers would find themselves automatically turning the steering wheel and hitting the brakes in an effort to avoid hitting another motorist. At the same time your hands begin to frantically turn the wheel and your legs move to brace yourself, an expression of fear is simultaneously flashing across your face — brows raised and drawn together, eyes opened wide, lips stretched back towards your ears. As the adrenaline continues to be released into your system, you begin to feel the physical sensations of your heart pumping more rapidly and you may even begin to sweat, the blood rushing to the large muscles of your legs.
Regardless of how close we get to facing actual (versus perceived) danger, our automatic responses don’t differ much; you would have made that fearful facial expression even if the other motorist you were trying to avoid turned out to be a parked car that you misjudged to be on the road. The same goes for your heart — it would begin to pump more rapidly even if you did not engage in a sudden physical exertion requiring increased blood circulation. These responses occur because, over the course of our evolution, it has been useful for others to know when we sense danger, and it has similarly been useful for our bodies to be prepared to run at a moment’s notice when we experience fear.
How Emotions Prepare Us
Emotions prepare us to deal with important events without us having to think about what to do. You would not have survived that near-miss car accident if you weren’t continually monitoring the world for signs of imminent danger, or even potential threats. Nor would you have survived if you had to think consciously about what you should do to cope with that threat once it became apparent. Emotions do this without your knowing it is happening, and much of the time that’s good for you (and those around you)!
Once the danger passed, you will still feel the fear churning away inside. It would take 10 to 15 seconds for those sensations to subside, and there would not be much you could do to cut that short. Emotions produce changes in parts of our brain that mobilize us to deal with what has set off the emotion, as well as changes in our autonomic nervous system, which regulates our heart rate, breathing, sweating, and many other bodily changes, preparing us for different actions. Emotions also send out signals, changes in our expressions, face, voice, and bodily posture. We don’t choose these changes; they simply happen.
Learn How to Read Different Emotions
Facial expressions clue us into the emotional experiences of others. Typically, we observe these as macro expressions, meaning the facial expression is obvious and typically observable for at least a couple of seconds. However, when we attempt to conceal, minimize, and even falsify our emotions, there’s a good chance that our true feelings are still being expressed, but they’re typically only visible for a fraction of a second. These split-second facial expressions are called micro expressions and they are a great indicator that someone is lying or otherwise attempting to conceal what they truly feel and think about the situation. While it is difficult–if not impossible–to curb our natural response to emotions, each of us is able to become more adept at spotting and interpreting the micro expressions of others with guided training. Learn to see the emotions that were never intended to be seen with Dr. Paul Ekman’s Micro Expressions Training Tools, the gold standard for catching lies and hidden emotions.