From Maureena Bivins’ blog, today I learn of a study showing that emotions are primarily social occurrences: rather than being more internal, cognitive, individual responses, argues Brian Parkinson, they are “social phenomena” that are “interpersonally, institutionally, or culturally defined.”
This may seem like a “well, duh” kind of finding, but I think it has important implications for the ways in which we deal with emotion. Firstly, with the assertion that emotions are social and therefore have consequences for others, it’s more difficult to decide that how another person feels is “their problem.” Recognizing emotion as a thing essentially shared between people, as opposed to a thing that happens in isolation inside one person, seems like a step toward a more compassionate society.
Second, it sheds some light on the incredible bombardment of emotional material that assaults us daily in the modern world. I for one have lost entire days sometimes to mountains of depressing news stories, or to arguing angrily on the Internet about racial injustice or feminism. I don’t think that the rise of Facebook and the rise of incidence of depression correlate in time due to some accident: I think that it’s an example of how our capacity to deal with emotion is only so great, and our monkey-spheres – the number of people we can reasonably care about with any depth – are in conflict with our participation in and awareness of an ever-expanding world.
This reminder of the social nature of emotions is helpful as I look at my own life, at the people in it, and at what I spend most of my time doing. How many of my emotional resources are being taken up by Syria, how many by Trayvon Martin, how many by my husband and how many by my household? And how callous does it make us feel when we have to cut off our responses to world events – or even neighborhood events – just in order to function within our smaller worlds, communities, families?
This strikes me as one of the ways in which we become un-integrated beings: we feel, sometimes deeply, about everything around us. And as modernity brings us all closer and closer together, and as everything seems to be happening at once, we need to make rational decisions about what we’re going to allow ourselves to feel.
One of the things I love about Rubenfeld Synergy Method is how it tends to make space for emotions to occur in the moment, be felt, and to move through. One concept of emotion in our training was “energy in motion: the idea that emotion is not a thing that lives in us but a thing that moves through us. Emotion can change us, certainly – the same way a river moving through a valley changes its shape. But as this study shows, they are not necessary a part of us; they are a force that works on us.
My essential sense is that the more easily we allow emotions to arise and move through us, the more easily we can manage more when it comes – as it invariably will. Make a wider channel, and everything moves more easily. Don’t allow your rational mind to shut off too many possibilities, and while life may become more poignant and painful, it might become more joyful and rich as well. It’s when we try to control the flow that it either dries up or becomes an unmanageable flood. “Stuck” emotions, or grooves that have been riven deep by repeated negative experiences, are what create patterns that are fiendishly difficult to change. This is where “triggering” happens, or where automatic responses to certain actions become habituated. As even more research shows, habits are generally very hard to change, and moving from habit to choice may be even more difficult than it sounds.
Yet thinking of emotion this way may be a first step toward recognizing, not just that we are all connected, but that what we feel and what we do about it can be teased apart in a way that doesn’t shut us off from experience.