In a recent conversation with a friend of mine, we decided that emotions could be described as near instantaneous subconscious means of processing multiple environmental inputs. (He has a masters in therapy, and if you’ve read my blog at all, you know that’s just how I think about things.) The thing I found interesting about this view of emotions is that it completely disagrees with the nebulous presentation of emotions by my second therapist. He encouraged me to not view emotions in terms of the utility derived from them, but rather I should simply feel and experience them without regards to their usefulness.
While there is merit to the idea of being able to experience each emotion, it is wholly incomplete. The idea of not limiting myself to feeling useful emotions, but immersing myself in all of them seemed superfluous. Then again, I’m the one that often speaks of necessary superfluity.
OK, a bit of background…..
The idea of necessary superfluity is one I came across during my undergraduate work. I was studying literature, and as such was surrounded by some folks that were somewhat self-conscious about defending their field. Humanities often feels like the forgotten child, seen with fondness, but not seen as a priority. There is a certain amount of painful, wistful desire to be able to do the things that other more concrete disciplines can do, but also a belief that what we do is important, and a desperate desire for the others to know it. We would tell ourselves that we do things that keep humanity human. We convince ourselves that even though man would certainly survive without our discipline, that it would cease to be humanity, that we are the soul of society. Thus, even though literature, film, at music, and anthropology are superfluous to life, they are necessary to living.
Now, what does that have to do with emotions, and whether they have any utility?
I recently finished reading a book called Boundaries: when to say yes, how to say no to take control of your life. The book has a section talking about anger. It suggests that anger is a warning that someone or something is violating or boundaries. It could be another person, or ourselves that is violating our boundaries. This is the idea that led me down the path to thinking of all emotions as having a purpose. If anger is trying to tell us something, it stands to reason that other emotions are as well. Loneliness could be telling us we need to put some effort into reaching out. Anxiety could tell us that we’re in danger. Feelings of affection can tell us that someone cares for us. Attachment feelings can tell us we’re safe. The problem with my second therapist’s presentation of how to approach emotion was that it didn’t explain that there is utility in all emotions, if we understand how to decipher them. This means that even a feeling like hated or lust can give us information that can lead to healthy responses to the situation in which we experience them, as well as to ourselves.
Viewing emotions as an analytical tool also leads to another cool idea. Analytical tools can be wrong. If they don’t take all the information into account, they can miss something that would drastically change the conclusion. If they account for irrelevant bits of information, they can reach conclusions based on contrived connections. The human mind is particularly prone to this. (for example, we rarely think that we like sweet foods because there are no fructose producing plants that are poisonous to humans). The possibility of an emotion being a false alarm, an incorrect interpretation of our surroundings, allows for us to have compassion on ourselves. Rather than thinking, “what kind of awful person would feel like that,” we can say, “wow, that emotion doesn’t fit with my beliefs. I wonder why it is my emotions are trying to tell me this.” We then have the opportunity to evaluate the inputs that our emotions calculated in a split second to find out what information is missing, or if we need to adjust or thinking to be more in line with our beliefs. The possibility that an emotion can be wrong is key to being able to process emotion while keeping an intact view of ourselves when our emotions seen to run contrary to our conscious minds.
By now you’re almost certainly wondering, what does this have to do with kissing frogs? Did he make out with some French guy and now he feels bad about it? (I promise, I bear no actual animosity for the French, this its just the only frog reference I’m aware of….) Let me tell you the story.
I was lying in bed this morning. I was tired, and wanted to go back to sleep. As I laid my head on my pillow, a single word came to mind, and escaped my lips.
Now, the feeling of wanting to hold someone, or be held by someone is neither new nor uncommon, but usually the feeling is accompanied by the thought of one or more specific people. In this case, I wanted to snuggle with Alex. Before we start speculating if Alex is a boy or girl, (hooray for androgynous names! ) he is both a boy, and a stuffed frog. He was given to me for my birthday many years ago, and was named after someone about whom I cared. He (the frog) helped me memorize the LDS missionary discussions, as he would sit patiently while I recited them to him in my bedroom. He kept me company on many occasions, and has served as a reminder for me that I am loved. This morning, I just wanted to snuggle with Alex.
The thing that struck me as interesting is that Alex, as an inanimate object, has no personality, except what I’ve given him. (I tend to humanize, as do we all)
why was it that I wanted to snuggle with, to connect with an inanimate object? What comfort could come from holding fibrous materials having been formed in a shape resembling both a bear and a frog? (Alex is kinda teddy bear shaped, rather than being an anatomically correct frog.) Here’s where I discovered what was meant in the book “addiction as an attachment disorder” when it talked about the concept of a self-object.
I never really understood the term until today. (whether my current understanding aligns with the common usage of the term, I neither know not care.) I think that what happens is a sort of partial ego transference. I humanize my froggy friend. I imbue him with parts of my personality. He becomes a sort of non-evil horcrux. (if you’re unfamiliar with a horcrux, please go read the Harry Potter series, so you can be culturally literate. It’s only one of the best-selling series ever.) In this sense, he become an object that stands in place of me. Linguistically, an object is the part of the sense that receives the action of the verb. (the word that gets verbed.) Objects are passive recipients, except when a sentence is reflexive, in which case the subject becomes the recipient of its own action. (which usually includes the word “myself.”)
Even though Alex it’s not me, my affection for that cute little frog is a form of affection for my self. It’s certainly a more nuanced, less narcissistic form of self-love than others. I don’t think I’ve ever thought, “I wish I could snuggle with myself,” but the thought, “where’s my frog” has often crossed my mind. Today it clicked that such a thought may be my subconscious asking me to comfort myself. Perhaps it is a means by which my subconscious is trying to remind me that I can be one of the most really available sources of love, and that it’s ok for me to offer that love to myself. Perhaps kissing my frog’s forehead it’s a way for me to tell my self that I love me.