Emotions are not a Fixed Commodity
I recently shared a personal experience with a friend. The details are not important. Her response upon hearing my story was to register outrage at someone’s behavior, on my behalf. I explained that I did not feel outrage, that I understood the perspective of the other person, and that I was able to move on from it without anger. She continued to insist, however, that what the other person had done was “wrong”, and seemed to imply that I should feel outrage: and that I was doing myself an injustice, or perhaps being made a fool of, by not feeling it.
In fact, what I felt at that point was that my friend was putting me in a spot. I felt, somehow, that I needed to persuade her of the legitimacy of my not feeling negative emotions. I reflected upon the reasons I did not feel foolish, and explained to her that it was better for me, as well as better for the situation and everyone involved, that I not bear a grudge about this issue, and I was happy that I didn’t feel one.
I present this story because this is the situation that our friends and loved ones often put us in. Further, I believe that this type of attitude on the part of friends and loved ones leads us to learn to feel the very types of negative emotions that do us harm in our interactions with others and in our own peace of mind and happiness in life.
In fact, it was only my years of training in mediation, and my long history of self-reflection and ensuing self-knowledge, that gave me the strength and perspective to stick to my own (healthy) attitude. As a younger person, many years ago, I did not have that type of healthy attitude, and would have felt the expected levels of anger and outrage in similar situations. I have no doubt that my friend meant well, and I have no doubt that I am better off for being able to resist the emotions and attitudes she felt I should have.
My point here is not just that our friends and loved ones do not always do the best for us, despite their best intentions, but that the negative emotions we feel (and the positive ones as well) are learned over time. It is my belief that we learn to feel the particular emotions that we are expected to feel in particular types of situations; and that we are taught to feel those emotions and to develop those attitudes from our cultural cues — media, entertainment, parents, friends, and other influences.
We can’t expect society to change overnight, but knowing that emotions can be learned means that emotions can be unlearned. Each person can reflect on what they want to feel. Once they decide what they want to feel, over time, they can begin to feel it. We have the power to be who we want to be. The first question each of us must answer is who we want to be.
Diane Cohen is a mediator in private practice and writes regularly on the process of mediation. Diane is an impasse mediator, and therefore mediates in all realms, but primarily in the family, divorce and workplace areas. Diane is a former co-president of the Family and Divorce Mediation Council of Greater New York. She has a J.D. from Columbia Law School, was certified as a community mediator by the Unified Court System in New York, and is a NYSDRA-certified mediator. She conducts workshops for mediators who want to work on their mediation skills.
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