You’ve heard it before, “You are too emotional!” Surely you heard it as a child, at least once. But, what does it mean? How do you know if it is true?
What is the proper place of emotions in any life? And, if you are “too emotional,” what should you do about it?
First let us establish some ground rules. Emotion is necessary. Imagine a life without it. No love, no families based on that love, no compassion, no empathy, no righteous anger. What would be left? A life of relating to others as objects, like chairs or tables, their only value in utility – the function that they perform; only reason would be left – cold computation of what to do and how to do it. No laughter, no tears, no gratitude, no passion.
If you agree with what I’ve just said, then it is clear that emotion has a place. It binds us to others, plays a part in letting us know when we have been injured, allows for the possibility of good relationships and a joy in living. It also creates an energy that is necessary for self-defence and for the pursuit of causes. Emotion motivates us and permits the creation of communities. But, when you are called “too emotional,” the accuser usually isn’t referring to love or happiness or even anger. No, usually he means that you are too easily hurt. And, when you are young, especially if you are male, you are encouraged to “be a man” and live by the “athlete’s creed” – if you are hurt, in other words, rub some dirt on the injury and get back into the game. Don’t complain; that is for whiners and wimps and little kids.
Similarly, emotion interferes with necessary behaviour in war-time or in other crises that require focus, indifference to pain, and steadfast action.
But how about situations that are less demanding and fraught with danger or competition?
For me at least, emotion has become, for the most part, a friend. I can be moved by the sadness of my patients and those in my life who I love. I do not consider it a weakness. It is simply a part of being the responsive, sensitive person I aspire to be. And I can be moved by music or drama, again to the point of a tear. Life seems richer, warmer, more eventful and worthwhile that way. I don’t feel the need to keep up a brave front, an appearance of having tamed my emotions.
No, I’m not often whipsawed by my feelings, but, in part, that is because I give them their place in things and don’t keep them all bottled-up, looking for a way to burst out of the container that I would otherwise have put them in. And, when it is required, I am prepared to seek solace from a few of those closest to me, just as I give solace to my patients and those I love.
True, being emotionally vulnerable means that you can be injured. But, don’t fool yourself, life will have its way with you whether you are deadened to feelings or not. By killing your emotions, you are probably only succeeding in limiting the fullness of your life while attempting to create an illusion of strength.
Put another way, it is only human to have emotions and best if you are comfortable with that fact almost all the time. But, beware when the emotions have you! At the extreme is a condition called Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD).
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition, states that “the essential feature of BPD is a pervasive pattern of instability of interpersonal relationships, self-image, and affects (emotions), and marked impulsivity that begins by early adulthood and is present in a variety of contexts.” These folks are, unfortunately prone to “frantic efforts to avoid real or imagined abandonment,” instability, recklessness, suicidal behaviour, rapid and intense mood changes, emptiness, and anger. They are the flesh-and-blood definition of what it means to be “too emotional.” And, not surprisingly, they are difficult to treat, although Dialectical Behaviour Therapy is a treatment specifically designed to do so, and has demonstrated great promise with this patient group.
For those who are not categorised with this diagnostic label, how do you know if you are too emotional? Here are a few questions you might ask yourself:
• Do people, not only family members, often tell you that you are too emotional?
• In an over-heated moment do you tend to make impulsive decisions that you later regret?
• Do you have many arguments and blow up easily?
*Do friends and relatives have to handle you with kid gloves?
• Do your emotions suck the life out of you, change easily and quickly, and generally whip you around?
• Do you weep easily and often in the absence of major set-backs or great losses (I’m not talking about having a tear come to your eye here, but something more gut-wrenching)?
• If you are in mid-life, are you no less emotional than you were in your teens? (Most of us become less volatile, more in-balance, over time).
If you’ve answered too many of these in the affirmative, you may want to seek counselling. A last word or two, life is challenging. We need to permit ourselves feelings and we need to express them, within limits, and to have a sympathetic soul there to bear witness and listen to us.
Balance is the key most of the time. It may help to remember a portion of the “serenity prayer” – God grant me the serenity to accept things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.
If you do not “know the difference,” often enough and go to emotional extremes over the routine ups and downs of life, if even the small things seem too big, then it might be time to seek professional help. Not to kill your feelings, but to make sure that they don’t destroy your ability to have a good life.