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.