When I was seven, I wanted to be a lawyer. At the dinner table, I frequently engaged my father in social justice debates of the kind that only young children find useful to consider – like how we should all dedicate ourselves to world peace and eradicating hunger – before they become jaded about the realities of life. But every time, without fail, my argument would dissolve into an incoherent mess of babbling and tears as I became too frustrated with his assertions. My mother, sitting placidly by our sides, would take this opportunity, while my tears flowed and my brow furrowed in exasperation and self-righteous indignation, to tell me, by way of calming me, that to make my point persuasively, I should hold back my tears. After all, lawyers don’t cry.
So it was, at the age of seven, that I first learned that only by suppressing my emotions could I make my opinions appear more believable, more valuable. Only by putting on a placid front, devoid of all passion, could I hope to convince others of my legitimacy.
Now I am twenty, and studying neuroscience. There seems to be little continuity between my current self and the seven-year-old debate enthusiast of yesteryear, except this: I still live by the same emotional rule to which I was first introduced so many years ago. Perhaps it’s the training society has foisted upon me through various manifestations over my two decades telling me not to disturb those around me with my feelings, or perhaps it’s that I have simply learned on my own that I will be taken more seriously if I pretend I have not been swayed by emotions. Regardless of the reason, I have internalized the belief that to be rational is to be unemotional; but as an innately emotional individual, this creates strange contradictions.
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Lawyers aren’t the only group of people who aren’t allowed to cry. Boys don’t cry, says The Cure. Fergie extends this rule to big girls, too. Not crying is a signal of strength, of maturity; it’s as though dissolved in tears is a potent solution of weakness that, should you allow them to spill, will contaminate not only your person but also your methods of thought, your arguments. Better to hold it in.
We live in a society that is resolutely anti-emotional. A society in which it has become uncomfortable to see an acquaintance crying, and even more uncomfortable to address it. A society in which elation is treated with apprehension, and passionate anger with attempts to reinstate calm at all costs. Neither manic highs nor depressive lows are acceptable in most public arenas or social situations. If you are feeling low, stay home, fake an illness, don’t burden those around you. If you are feeling high, temper it, for the sake of others.
It seems strange that we are so fearful of sharing our emotions and their impacts on those around us. After all, emotions exist in part to allow us a common medium of shared experience. The size of the amygdala, often referred to as the “seat of emotion” in the brain, has been correlated to the size of an individual’s social circles. The link is clear: more emotional capacity, more ability to relate to others. And human capacities like empathy, widely considered to be good for society, are reliant on activation of these same areas in response to emotion. Yet we internalize our feelings, bury them deep, ignore and refuse and erase their effect on our psyche and our reasoning. As though that is desirable. As though that is possible.
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In neuroscience, emotions are separate from feelings; whereas emotions are physical, and often unconsciously produced responses to stimuli, feelings are the subjective experiences that accompany them. Emotions are now understood to be a sort of rapid computation that takes a situation into account and produces a response – a faster version of how any other kind of thought is produced. Feelings are, in a way, how we understand our own emotions, these first computations.
Even ignoring the individual negative implications of not expressing emotions, there is so much we lose on a societal level by denying them a place in our reasoning. A purely rational mind cannot understand the struggles of others, cannot advocate, cannot help. Social policy, however dry and procedural the making thereof, should not exist in a separate sphere from human emotions. Emotional connectivity is essential to allow those who are not marginalized to sympathize with and represent those who are. By suppressing the instinctive knowledge we derive from this level of connection, we rid a policy that is meant for humans, that will impact humans, of its humanity. The dichotomy between emotions and rationality is a false one; emotions are not antagonistic to logical thought, but instead bring a human dimension that logic alone lacks.
We know that individuals possess varying degrees of ability to regulate their emotions, which can manifest in anything from depression to impulsive aggression and psychopathy; neurologically, emotions are a good and necessary thing to have. In light of this, it seems misguided that we would reject such an integrally human element from emerging or being expressed in a human society.
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Emotions do not always lead us in the right direction, as individuals or as a society. But to ignore them is to deny their power and their purpose – that of allowing us to relate to one another, and ourselves, and the world around us. That primal, visceral, animal emotion is an important element of our humanity, honed and preserved through evolution, precisely because it allows us to feel, and to understand what we feel. A world in which we deny the necessity of feeling before deconstructing and rationalizing, is a world in which we deny our humanity and the ways in which we relate to each other as individuals and as parts of a social whole. But the war on emotion is not one waged by some unseen force; it’s one fought by each and every one of us, every time we quickly swipe away the tears blooming at the corners of our eyes at the end of a painful documentary, every time we will ourselves to be strong, and calm, and reasonable, every time we tell ourselves that what we feel is irrational. If I was staunchly on the side of the unsentimentalists before – and to some extent, I was – today is the day I defect.
Anqi Zhang is a U3 Neuroscience student and the Science+Technology editor at The Daily. She is unabashedly emotional. Talk to her about your feelings at firstname.lastname@example.org.