Emotions are irrational. Rationality is emotionless. This is one of the most fundamental beliefs we have been trained to follow and enforce in our society. It is also fundamentally false. How is it possible that we truly believe that when a person of our intelligent species becomes emotional, that that person has actually gotten dumber? That is the primary assumption that we make when we think of emotions and rationality as mutually exclusive. But emotions are not irrational. And “rational” arguments are not always propelled by purely rational thought.
Emotions are necessary for survival. What we casually refer to as feelings are actually displays of our affective system. Affects, a such as fear, anxiety, and depression originate within the portion of our brain called the limbic system. Being evolutionarily primordial doesn’t make it any less important to survival because we would be dead without it. We would not have survived to become the intelligent beings we are today, capable of cognition, if our limbic system did not propel us to act on our instincts; those instincts developed for a reason, specifically for survival, but a reason nonetheless. The state of our affective system also has real physical consequences to our health, and serious mental illness can reduce our lifespan up to 20 years. There is little room to question the importance of “feelings,” but we talk about them as if they were unimportant, as if they don’t drive many of our decisions, as if they were inferior to the realm of higher-level reasoning.
We may practice empathy—we may pat ourselves on the back for understanding and relating ourselves to another person’s experiences—but many people often fail to reach the point of having compassion, which is the point where understanding starts to influence the way we treat other people. It is actually irrational to expect everyone to have the same emotional responses to stimuli in our environment. It is unreasonable to expect that everyone has the same triggers, or lack of triggers, despite the obvious differences in lived experiences because such a thing is simply impossible. It is unreasonable to preclude issues of emotions from a conversation when we are social creatures. And while many people are capable of “putting themselves in another’s shoes,” people often fail to have compassion or perceive another person’s emotional experience as meaningful enough to change their own responses to the situation. The fact of the matter is almost all of us have experienced feelings of anger, betrayal, sadness, and powerlessness for different reasons. We have different reasons for our emotional triggers, and yet we continue to believe that emotions are reason-less, have no space in public, and should be invariably be superseded by rationality in order to be acceptable, functional, and whole beings.
We value emotional honesty in this society. We characterize honesty as “refreshing” in many contexts but condemn it to dark crawl spaces of our psyche. The only way to be a truly emotionless society is if we never retained memories. Memories of our values, our upbringing, our experiences, good and bad. The irony of this myth is the double standard enforced not only through gender, but also through our consumption of media. We watch movies hoping for an emotional connection with the actors. We think that movies which are capable of making us shed a tear are powerful and praiseworthy because we see the context behind those emotions on screen. We are privileged to the stories and reasons leading up to the most powerful displays of human emotions in movies and TV shows. We know the journey. Yet many of us fail to truly grasp and appreciate real life emotions in the same manner. We are cold and indifferent because we fail to see the context.
The most problematic dimension of how we view emotions in our society is its genderedness. It is perfectly acceptable for men to continue their facade if they wish. They have the freedom to remain emotionally repressed beings for all of eternity for all that we care. The issue arises, however, in the circumstance that men impose those values onto women (and other young men). Women must bear the brunt of the consequences to this misconception.
“She’s emotional. She’s not thinking straight. Just wait until she has calmed down. She is irrational.”
Conversely, women are complicit in reproducing these gender stereotypes—we are all guilty in some shape or form. We compartmentalize men as gay if they are emotional beings; we stigmatize men from ever crying in public; we celebrate and desire men who are mysterious, stoic, unkind, and just emotionally repressed. Yet, we, as women, often lament the absence of decent men who are “in touch with their feminine side.” Despite the non-innocent role that women play in this social process, I emphasize men here because they are primary agents for actualizing and enforcing this myth. They are most often the culprit of delegitimizing women’s experiences the instant they display any emotion and deemed incoherent and unworthy. They are the ones who tell us to stop being emotional and start being rational simply because they were discouraged from a young age from practicing empathy or compassion (which are two different things).
We need to stop thinking emotions are irrational. We need to stop thinking that another person’s pains are less real or valid just because they are not our own. If a person possesses so much rationality that they think they can impose their thinking onto other people, they can step back and use that “exceptional” mind to rationalize their way into caring about other people rather than masking reality. Someone else’s reality.
We need to change the language used around emotions and stop talking about sadness or depression as if they were problems. Granted, certain situations should not be treated lightly, but why should any emotions be treated lightly? We treat our choice of college seriously, or choice of classes, or choice of restaurant. Why not emotions? It wouldn’t be wise of us to tell someone to skip class, so why would we tell someone experiencing sadness to “get over” themselves? If we are so concerned about what goes into our heads, why not our hearts? Or someone else’s hearts? Emotions have real consequences to our daily lives and our long-term mental and physical health. They are a part of the human experience, and we should all strive to be better humans every day.