Emotional Honesty

My father insisted that men were rational, women emotional, and therefore, women were irrational and inferior to men.  He liked to prove his point by provoking his wife and daughters into a rage, at which time he would sit back and smirk. I learned from his example that emotional expression showed weakness and inferiority, so hid or denied my emotions until I finally realized he was wrong.  Over time, I discovered that much of the maturation process involves un-learning beliefs and attitudes picked up almost by osmosis from early conditioning.

My father was not a bad guy, and he was probably rather typical of his generation.  Untold generations of men and women throughout history have believed and perpetrated the idea that intellect is superior to and at odds with emotion, yet this is fallacy.  The way the brain is wired, all sensory input travels through the pain (thalamus) and emotional (limbic) centers before reaching the frontal cortex, where intellectuality resides.  This implies that even the most intellectual and rational thinking is influenced by emotion.  What we choose to focus on, our interests, our skills, are all based on intent or desire, and their emotional significance to us.

Emotion gets a bad rap because it is associated with lack of control, as in the emotions of anger or fear.  But denial of emotion makes a person particularly susceptible to being manipulated by it, a major tactic used by advertisers and propagandists.  Targeting people’s insecurities, such as feelings of inadequacy or vulnerability, makes them more suggestible and more likely to buy the product or agenda being promoted.

The artificial split between emotion and reason is culturally created at an early age, when children are told what they “should” or “shouldn’t” feel.  The words “should” and “feel” do not go together.  Feelings are.  While it may be improper to act on certain feelings, to deny their existence only leads to repression, distortion, and dishonesty.   If allowed to run their course, emotions generally evolve into something else.

The greatest value of psychotherapy is that it helps people find words for their feelings.  A diary or journal can serve the same purpose.  The words help bridge the gap between emotions and intellect, by making the feelings conscious and less threatening.

Ideally, emotion and intellect work together to guide thinking and behavior, but for this to happen, emotional honesty is crucial.  Some experts claim addiction is a disease of lying.  A more fundamental explanation is based on the Freudian model describing the stages of psychosexual development.  In the anal stage, which occurs around two years old, the child begins to learn self-control, symbolized by potty training.  Here power-struggles with the parent can begin, as the child learns boundaries and the meaning of the word “no.”  This phase is thus termed the “terrible twos” because of the child’s resistance to new structure and boundaries.  Successful mastery of this phase allows the child to develop healthy attitudes towards authority.  If this phase is not successfully negotiated, the child may develop life-long issues with authority.  In an alcoholic or addict, this shows in the see-saw between overly controlled versus out-of-control behavior, as internalized authority struggles with the inner child in a contest for power over the will.

This is why one of the maxims of addiction recovery emphasizes changing the concept of “power over” to “power to,” in which the individual harmonizes the opposing forces to achieve balance.

There’s a mistaken belief that emotional honesty must be rude, crude, or uncivil.  I’ve had people insist that people want you to lie to them.  Some believe in telling people what they think  the other person wants to hear.  I disagree and claim that tactful honesty is actually a sign of respect.

This is another benefit of psychotherapy or of journaling.  Having the words for feelings provides a broader range of tools for communication, and allows for reasonable expression of emotion in a rational manner.



13 thoughts on “Emotional Honesty

  1. Rosaliene Bacchus

    An interesting and informative article, Katharine. I was especially intrigued by the observation: “I’ve had people insist that people want you to lie to them.” As the truth often hurts, it’s not surprising that our response may give the impression to the bringer of the debilitating truth that we would prefer to be lied to.

    I agree that “tactful honesty is actually a sign of respect.” The key word is “tactful.” Being tactful is a skill that many of us lack and which may differ across cultures.

    1. katharineotto Post author

      Tact may be a learned skill. That’s why journaling can be so helpful. I have been known to write out imaginary conversations in which I was honest and tactful. Another method is to ask for dreams that help deal get perspective on a situation.

      Also, I’ve found that people aren’t as easily hurt by the truth as one might think. I think tone and intent help a lot, and people do appreciate the honesty.

      1. Sha'Tara

        Not looking for blame, just a great discussion. It’s a fact that many, if not most, people confuse feelings and emotions and use the terms interchangeably. I used to do that until a Teacher pointed out the difference. Should I say more? 🙂

      2. Sha'Tara

        I’m not sure I could actually “teach” anything but some things you just learn and some things just make sense. When it comes to feelings, these are like our natural bodily senses: we just have them about everything. As you pointed out, should and feel don’t go together. That would be like saying, you shouldn’t smell that; you shouldn’t taste that, etc. Now, what comes first, feelings or emotions? Is this a chicken and egg question? Not at all. It is very clear that emotions arise from feelings, whether pleased, or hurt or whatever. We emote from our feelings. The problem is never the feelings; the problem is emotions. Feelings don’t cause us to lose control, emotions do. When you hear a screeching, deafening noise, you don’t go bananas over it, you cover your ears, or find ear plugs. What are emotions? They’re an opening to vent the results of feelings. My Teacher called them exhaust systems and compared them to the exhaust system of a car. You don’t suck on a car’s exhaust and you don’t recycle it back into the gas tank – you vent it out and away so you can stay alive and keep on driving. Emotions are exhaust, poison. No wonder people who hang on to their emotions end up doing crazy things, or criminal things. Emotions should always be thought of in the negative sense. To not react emotionally to some situation doesn’t mean one is heartless or cold, though it may mean that when dealing with psychopaths, sociopaths, sadists and masochists. There is a much better, constructive and healthy way to deal with powerfully engendered feelings from situations outside our personal control: compassion. That is how I was taught to deal with the aftermath of feelings caused by situations that had the potential to throw me seriously off-balance. Compassion. It’s simple, it’s straightforward and it’s totally within my control. If I’m focused on working with my compassion I won’t even be tempted to use my emotions to cause harm, either to myself or to others. Thus endeth the lesson, hah! 🙂

      3. katharineotto Post author

        I’ll have to think on that. I don’t agree that emotions are always bad. What if the emotions generated by feelings are pleasant, such as liking the smell of a flower? I think of enthusiasm, passion, intensity, initiative, joy, and productive energy that comes from will or desire as emotions, too. By your definition, these are not feelings, but they are not negative, unless carried to far.

      4. Sha'Tara

        When I queried the Teachers about the problem with emotions, they (she actually, it was YLea) said, the problem? You’re never in control of emotions, think about that. I did. The self empowered individual must find the way to be completely in control of her/his own life – all aspects of it. Granted in certain situations, an unforeseeable, unpreventable accident, or an act of aggression leaving one helpless physically, there is no control on the surface of things, but the one who is trained in non-emotional response will know to ‘withdraw’ from the physical situation, going deeper and deeper within until even the loss of the body becomes acceptable. Such a place is extremely difficult to attain even for the self empowered, impossible for those who rely on, react with, emotions to deal with the situation. It may surprise many to “learn” that none of the positive aspects you mention require emotions to experience – they are all “stand alone” expressions. Emotions are the ad, the propaganda. Used as motivators they invariably lead to a downer that can lead to depression when one comes off the emotional high. If I did love (I don’t because I consider that to be an emotion) I could do it deliberately, with commitment, with purpose, counting the costs, thus without any emotion which love will never let one do so I do the same through the practice of compassion, a deliberate, constant choice. Nothing inside me is pushing me to act against my will, for if it did I would automatically reject it. Desire is not will and is more akin to emotion. Desire denotes attachment and attachments are emotion-based, hence why the self empowered compassionate person had no attachment, particularly not to other people. Caring without attachment results in the best care giving. Where there are no favourites there is justice and balance. There is no balance in the emotional state.

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