Follow Your Emotions, Manage Them Not
When a lower creature is given the message of distress, it listens and makes the appropriate maneuver. It practices self-preservation.
The message for humans is that when you are given the long-term, chronic distress message; do not adhere to the conventional wisdom, to manage your emotions. Use strategic evolutionary psychology wisdom: follow your emotions.
Over the years, I’ve written several books on managing emotions and have counseled and taught thousands of people how to do just that. But I’ve come to question the enhancement value of managing emotions.
In effect, the conventional psychological wisdom behind managing emotions is that to do so will help you be more effective in all aspects of your life. Is this really true? A good case can be made that helping people manage their emotions is simply a way of helping them adapt to their situation, but paradoxically, it keeps them in the situation that inevitably was the source of their distress.
I’ve helped couples work out problems, so they could keep their marriage—for what purpose? So they could continue to work out their problems every week for the rest of their lives? I’ve helped top executives, seasoned managers, and line employees manage their emotions so that they could advance and stay in an organization that, for them, is the source of their frustration, anger, and anxiety. For these people, managing emotions in the conventional sense does not help them thrive; it only helps them survive by adapting.
I have reason to support this point. Studies investigating the responses to distressful events and environments show dominant responses that Mother Nature would classify as adaptive. A sample of responses would be making changes within yourself, so you can adapt such as lowering your expectations, trying to get over a problem, retreating from others, and even doing nothing. These responses simply help a person cope with the situation encountered.
Sure, there are times when managing your emotions is going to enhance the delivery of your presentation, your golf game, or your ability to help your children with their math problems when that does not come easy.
However, in chronic distressful environments, managing your emotions becomes paradoxical: It helps you stay in the situation by helping you adapt to it, to survive. You will never thrive because the environment does not provide you with what you need; the distress is the result of a bad match between you and the environment, be it your partner or your job.
Many animals have no choice but to adapt. But humans do have a choice. They can adjust and seek out. Switching jobs often enhances an individual’s performance—the job environment is a better match, which is also true for the student who transfers to a different school and excels. Telling the student to remain in the same school and study harder, or to take a stress management class, is simply telling the student to adapt for the next four years when she could be thriving during that time.
“Follow through on your emotions!” is advice here. I’ve often wondered how many people would be in better marriages if I had encouraged them to listen to their distress and split up. Maybe a lot of them would be in marriages where the distress was once a month instead of every day. I wonder how many executives and employees would be thriving if I had guided them into exiting their job so they could get themselves into a work environment where their ideas are listened to with appreciation. I’d have to conclude that I’ve helped a lot of people stay in situations just so they could survive, not thrive.
I think the natural genius of your instincts could reverse the process so that more people could thrive. Instead of using your reasoning to help you adapt and survive, use your innate hardwiring—your emotional distress—to guide your reasoning. You might say: “This is a bad place for me, so it is smart for me to exercise my option to move on or make some adjustments.” In fact, moving on or making adjustments is also part of the evolutionary function of distress: It motivates you to do something that reduces the distress and makes you feel better, to shelter seek.
As a clinician, I’ve found that acknowledging that a marriage or a job environment is not what you truly desire is a difficult reality for many people to confront. Why would this be so? Because an honest assessment might evoke shelter-seeking instincts, and because we are hardwired to be loss averse, anxieties and fears are aroused. Being dishonest to yourself keeps these anxieties and fears under control, but at the same time keeps you stuck in unhealthy environments and fosters instinctual disconnection.
Confronting the fact that your marriage and/or your job conditions are distressful does not mean that you have to leave them. You can make adjustments. But this is impossible to do if you are not honest in assessing the state of your environmental affairs.
Only you know how you really feel inside. Only you know if you are honestly answering questions such as these: Do I feel good about myself when I am with my husband, wife, or partner? Am I experiencing emotional growth in my relationship? Does my partner understand and respond to my needs? Does my partner encourage me to develop myself?
In my work environment, am I surrounded by people who encourage me? Does my job/work environment develop me? Do I feel secure in my work environment? Do I feel good when I am at work?
As I said, the key is to answer these questions with brutal honesty.