There’s no Such Thing as a ‘Wasted Emotion’

Months ago I was working with a female client who was struggling with jealousy. Apparently an ex-girlfriend had contacted her boyfriend via Facebook (of course) to notify him of her recent engagement. It all seemed innocent enough and, after some lengthy explaining from her boyfriend, the client understood this. However, she still felt lingering feelings of anxiety and insecurity.

“It’s so frustrating, feeling jealous,” she said with her elbows on her knees and her hands over her ears. “There’s no point in me feeling this way. Jealousy is such a wasted emotion.”

When you spend the majority of your week with people who are generally unhappy, a natural tendency grows to attempt to cure those people of any and all negative sensations. After all, that’s ostensibly why they are there. This urge is to be kept in check, however, because all emotions have their place.

“No no,” I jumped in. “Every feeling serves a purpose. A wasted emotion doesn’t exist.”

“So what’s the point of jealousy?” she asked.

Fortunately, my dissertation was on romantic jealousy so I was quick to respond. Probably a little too textbookish for most people’s tastes, but that’s what happens when you spend months on end studying a single phenomenon. You become robotic about it, like a less charming Wall-E.

“Romantic jealousy, in its purest form, is your body’s signal that there is a potential threat to what you believe is rightfully yours. In this case, your boyfriend. It generates anxiety because your mind is processing a potential loss.” I then smiled confidently, as if those words would not only make her feel better, but also cure the world of poverty, war and AIDS.

“But I kind of get that his ex isn’t a threat. She’s getting married for Christ’s sake. She just wanted to share that with him.”

“Right, that’s why jealousy is only meant to be a signal, and for some people it’s an almost automatic response. It’s not designed to say ‘my relationship is threatened,’ but rather, ‘is this a real, viable problem or something that’s not actually worth getting distressed over?’ If the threat is real, you would have to decide if you wanted to ‘protect’ what is yours.”

So every feeling has a purpose. Sadness is to teach us what we value and what truly brings us joy. We wouldn’t really know happiness if sadness wasn’t part of the package. The same can be said for grief. If we didn’t feel the sting of loss we wouldn’t love and appreciate those we care about. And anger is our signal that our rights as people might be being exploited. The list goes on and on.

That said, every emotion has the unfortunate potential to be taken at face value and acted upon. My client could have confronted the ex-girlfriend or, even worse, forced her boyfriend to “de-friend” her. People who suffer from panic generally know, at least outside of the attacks, that the anxiety is a false alarm of sorts. It’s the ‘Flight or Fight’ mechanism kicking in, but some patients believe they are having a heart attack and flee to the E.R. It’s only when they are able to do a mental check-in of this intense physiological reaction and recognize that there’s no real danger to their health present that they get better. The same can be said for Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD). Dr. Gail knows that germs are everywhere and that avoiding handshakes isn’t going to change that. But the anxiety comes over so strongly that she can’t help but to avoid touching others.

“Out-of-context jealousy basically sounds like a mindfuck to me,” my client said.

“That pretty much sums it up. Your brain needs a little time to get comfortable with the idea that there’s no real threat present. That’s why the lingering feelings are still there.”

“So if I can train myself to recognize what the purpose of my jealousy is and to check it’s validity, I’d have more control over it?”

“Exactly!”

“And then I wouldn’t need you anymore?” she said, with a level of excitement suggesting that she was about to complete Chinese Water Torture as opposed to therapy.

“Um…yes, that’s right.”

And that’s pretty much what she did. When the feeling of jealousy came on, she reminded herself that the emotion wasn’t a waste; rather, it was a signal to ask herself if there was a true threat to her relationship. With a lot of practice – and make no mistake, changing emotional patterns takes plenty of work – she got very facile at quickly realizing there wasn’t really anyone trying to steal away her man. And when that process started to become second nature, she felt better, and the water torture ended.

Working with me must be sheer hell because the clients can’t wait to be done fast enough.

If you enjoyed this piece please consider giving your blessing to my Facebook Fan Page. Thank you.

Related Posts:

Anger!

A Less Than Stellar Start (a Primer on Panic)

(Visited 546 times, 1 visits today)

8 Responses to “There’s no Such Thing as a ‘Wasted Emotion’”

  1. A lot of the psychoeducation I do is about explaining there is no such thing as “Good” and “Bad” emotion. As for your explanation of jealousy…..I think you nailed it. I may have to borrow it. 😀

  2. Hannah says:

    Good job. If only the other psychologists out there could help clients realize all this CBT/ Rational Emotive .. stuff sooner.

    Question: What if the threat is real? Like, what if the client you spoke about found out that her fears were realized? Then what?

  3. Emily says:

    You wrote: “So every feeling has a purpose. Sadness is to teach us what we value and what truly brings us joy. We wouldn’t really know happiness if sadness wasn’t part of the package. The same can be said for grief. If we didn’t feel the sting of loss we wouldn’t love and appreciate those we care about. And anger is our signal that our rights as people might be being exploited. The list goes on and on.”

    And here. . . I cite this as I shoot a bullet through your idea that “Wisdom guarantees happiness”. Even you seem to be confused about joy and happiness (which are two different things). Joy is not fleeting – it is ever-present even during trying times. Happiness is a fleeting sensation. Sadness, grief, “negative” feelings/experiences are necessary in MOST people’s quest to become wise. Wisdom will not necessarily make you happy or even guarantee it. But wisdom will teach you not to despair and how to cope. And mostly how to avoid unnecessary, human-provoked unhappiness. But if you want to be wise? Get ready to be broken.

  4. Hannah….that is, “the biting dog”. The example that ends up being realized as dangerous. The vast majority of the time the biting dog doesn’t happen because many of the fears are quite irrational.

  5. 6122594 says:

    emotion is simply temporary neuro chemical imbalance caused by external stimuli like the appendix it is a redundant evolutionary throwback and serves no purpose

  6. Annie says:

    Clients want to be done with for the same way we all want to be done with our dentists. Everything is medicine is simply painful.

  7. JP says:

    Rob writes:

    “So every feeling has a purpose. Sadness is to teach us what we value and what truly brings us joy. We wouldn’t really know happiness if sadness wasn’t part of the package. The same can be said for grief. If we didn’t feel the sting of loss we wouldn’t love and appreciate those we care about. And anger is our signal that our rights as people might be being exploited. The list goes on and on.”

    I think it took me about 25 to 30 years of my life to realize that emotions had any value at all. I would just suppress them or ignore them whenever confronted with them. I figured emotions would only get in the way of whatever I wanted to do with life.

    I honestly had no idea that they actually contained information, and that such information could be of value, until a few years ago.

  8. Bonnie says:

    I wish I knew how to understand my emotions a long time ago. I left a meaningful relationship a long time ago because my emotions became so overwhelming I had to leave. If only I knew that understanding them is the key to controlling them.

Leave a Reply