All of us have a complicated relationship with our emotions. For starters, where do they come from? Our emotions are something we are very familiar with. They are an integral part of who we are. One of the most integral parts. But, on the other hand, they often feel foreign to us, as if they swoop in from outer space, enter into us, and swoop out like a rush of wind.

Typically, they follow some sort of event. Something happens that “triggers” an emotion. Once that feeling enters into our awareness, there are a variety of paths for what might happen next. Sometimes the emotion becomes insatiable and demands to be fed. We work, through action and attitude, to reinforce that emotion. To, in a sense, keep it alive. Sometimes the emotion longs to be silenced. And we work to quiet it, to satisfy it in some way so that it goes away. Or, perhaps the third option is to try to ignore it. Let it run its course or “get over it” as best we can.

And, thus, we get the two competing extremes we often hear when it comes to emotion. The first says that our emotion is the core of who we are, it is essential and perhaps most indicative of our unique humanity, and needs to be cradled, cared for, and adhered to at all costs. The second says that they are wasteful, that they cloud our judgment and need to be ignored, controlled, or abandoned.

Can You Trust Your Feelings?

All of this boils down to one essential question: are our emotions trustworthy? Are they telling us the truth, trying to help us out? Or are they deceiving us, trying to lead us astray?

The answer is both. Or, rather, neither. 

Our emotions are not random and they do not come from nowhere. They are shaped and learned, just like most everything in the human experience. So, the first step in understanding and addressing our emotions is to acknowledge that they come from somewhere for some reason. 

The source of our emotion is our value system. We get emotional about what matters to us. We are angry when something that matters to us is being neglected or oppressed. Conversely, we get happy when something we value is being celebrated.

It is not, however, always so clean and simple. Sometimes we get happy because we are mistaking a superficial (or downright perverted) version of what we value for the real thing. Or we might get angry (or sad) because we interpret whatever is happening as a threat to our value rather than an opportunity to express it.

In this way, our emotion does deceive us. Sometimes. Because our emotion does not tell us whether what we are experiencing is positive or negative. It doesn’t tell us what value is being pressed or how exactly it is being pressed.

Emotions are an alarm clock. They are meant to awaken us. It is a way to get us into the game, so to speak. To alert us that attention, and often action, are needed. But they do not tell us why or how or even what.

The tricky thing is that, because we associate some emotions as good and some as bad, it sure seems as if our emotions are suggesting one of the three paths mentioned above. If the emotion is “bad”, we should squelch it. If it is “good”, we should feed it. These suggestions are often deceptive. Which, really, are not the fault of our emotion but of the false, over-simplified perceptions we have around our emotion.

So, emotions are important and trustworthy insofar as they serve as they are meant to serve. We should not ignore them or cast them aside. That is like hitting the snooze button all day, every day. They are valuable and important as our first-alert system.

However, we should not trust what our emotions seem to be suggesting we do. It is not the job or purpose of an emotion to suggest an action. In fact, purely speaking, they don’t. We have created short-cut associations with certain emotions to try to “deal” with them in a more efficient manner. It is these associations that suggest an action, and are often misleading.

Choosing to Perceive

The important thing here is that the deception is in the perception we have chosen around our emotions. Not in the emotions themselves.

And perception is something we can change. Attitude is something we can control.

So, when we feel an emotion, no matter if it seems positive, negative, or neutral, the next step is to choose how to perceive it. Again, we have developed such habits that we often do this without thinking about it. So much so that it now seems like our emotion is dictating our perception. We forget there is a choice.

When an emotion hits, we ought to acknowledge it. Value it. Allow it to awaken us and thank it for its service. But the next step is to slow down and think. Which value is being pressed? What choice(s) should I make in response to this? What is my attitude/perception going to be?

In practicing this, we will no longer be “slaves to our emotion”, nor will we cut ourselves off from them and cheat ourselves from the opportunity to engage with our values. We can see better and frame our choices, without allowing self-deception to dictate a predetermined way.

Joey Willis is a writer and Servant Leadership Trainer with The Crossroad.