Applaud them, deny them, love them, hate them, or ignore them: the fact is, we all have emotions and need them in order to live healthy, productive, satisfying lives. Why, you ask?

Let’s first start with when and how emotions got such a bum rap in the first place.

In the beginning, there was Descartes

In Western culture, the beginning of our dysfunctional relationship with emotions can be placed at the feet of the French philosopher René Descartes (1596-1650).

His famous dictum, cogito ergo sum (I think, therefore I am), assumes that consciousness (or mind, or soul) exists only within beings who can reason. Further, consciousness exists separately from the body. We exist because we can think. Reason is what separates and elevates humans.

In Descartes’ infamous vivisections – experiments on live animals – he rationalized that the animals’ howls and contortions were not an example of pain because animals cannot experience pain. Why? Because they lack the consciousness necessary to conceive of and therefore experience it.

For Descartes, self-evident pain was nothing more than reflex and not accurately reflective of a conscious experience. Animals exist instead through mere physiological instinct: an automatic and biological experience.

The charge: consciousness/reason exists separately from and in superiority to emotion/instinct. Emotion simply happens whereas reason is controllable.  

Dualism is a drag

In this worldview, reason is a disembodied logical force leading to increased understanding and control, a necessary ingredient for success in the world. Civilization rests upon reason and humanity is the pinnacle of this progressive forward-moving trend.

Emotion, on the other hand, is a primal, embodied, and biological force that moves us away from logic and mastery. It represents a dangerous and regressive force. Unchecked by reason, emotion will lead to impulsive decisions and uncontrollable consequences.

In Cartesian thought, emotion is a retrograde force that, in addition to being closer in proximity to non-human nature, also is believed to be more fully present in some humans, specifically women and non-Europeans.

Dualistic thought does not deny the existence of human emotion, but by defining it as a force at odds with reason it enables powerful humans to define what/who is and is not important. It undergirds the all too common practice of separating reality into good and bad regardless of the consequences.  

You’re so emotional!     

If this state of affairs remained purely theoretical we might have forgotten all about it and moved on with our lives. Unfortunately, the impacts of Cartesian dualism are far-reaching. Classifying reality into these camps has contributed to oppressive assumptions and identifications.

Our culture has mapped this either/or reflex onto a multitude of time worn dichotomies: men/women, whites/blacks, East/West, North/South, human/animal, urban/rural, science/art, technology/nature, wealth/poverty, etc. 

Dualism serves as a core foundation for the Western tendency to bifurcate and simplify reality into either/or categories. These categories end up excluding and oppressing, at worst, and denigrating, at best, entire groups of people, institutions, and ideas.

That’s right, the women are smarter….wait, what?

How many times have you heard someone say without irony that, “Women are more emotional than men.”? That “feminine energy” somehow puts women more in tune with their feelings.

The notion that women are more emotional – and men more rational – is not true. Men are emotional beings. Women are rational beings. To deny these realities is to damage all people. (See my blog post, “Men and Emotions” for a brief discussion on this topic.) The outcome of this falsehood is used to justify sexist practices in the workplace, at home, in politics, in religion, and virtually every space in our world.   

If viewed sympathetically, this worldview allows for complementarity. Men and women are better at different things! What I in my core essence as a man cannot do, you in your core essence as a woman can do. Or in the immortal words of Tom Cruise's, Jerry Maguire, “You complete me.”

These examples are useful as metaphors, but when reified as Truth they become suspiciously disempowering.

Viewed critically, dualistic thinking is a dangerous, oppressive force. All humans and animals experience emotion. There is no evidence, other than our insistence, that women are more emotional and men more rational. To deny men their emotional experience and women their rational experience stunts individual and cultural growth.

Why emotion-focused?

This oversimplification of a complex topic does not do it justice, but it opens the door to understanding why uncontrollable emotion is handled with kid gloves and discussed in whispered tones. It just happens and therefore is a chaotic force.

What if, however, emotions were viewed not as primal representatives of non-reason, but as physical data that allows us to live more fully authentic lives?

My client work significantly is emotion-focused and with couples I utilize an approach pioneered by Sue Johnson, Emotionally Focused Therapy for Couples. I believe that humans are social creatures and as such we utilize emotion to communicate with one another and with ourselves. We need others, specifically significant others, to be fully human.

(Note: when working with trauma and emotional dysregulation, I utilize some emotion-focused interventions, but I tailor and titrate my work with the understanding that emotion often is too painful for those experiencing traumatic stress. The goal might be embodied emotional fluency, but the road towards it I make as smooth as possible for those who require this approach.)

Descartes’ Error

Neurologist Antonio Damasio, in his book Descartes’ Error, examined the real world impact of emotionally stunted brains. To do so, he focused on historical and present day case studies of brain damaged individuals.  

The results of living without fully functioning emotional systems were not pretty. Emotionless living did not resemble a life of calm, reasoned simplicity, far from it. These individuals instead were not able to care for themselves. They demonstrated no ability to make “rational” choices. Indeed, many trauma survivors deaden their emotional experience in order to survive intolerable situations. This strategy, unfortunately, ends up hi-jacking some survivors who end up resembling zombies.

Damasio has developed what he calls “the somatic-marker hypothesis” to demonstrate the intricate, integrated, and interactive relationship between all parts of the human organism. Simply put: “somatic markers are a special instance of feelings generated from secondary emotions[i]. Those emotions and feelings have been connected, by learning, to predicted future outcomes of certain scenarios” (italics in original).

This means that we learn through an accretive process. We learn to live healthy, happy, stable lives by building upon past experience, and emotions are a primary means of accessing this knowledge. Emotions are data that we use to determine how best to live our lives.

Descartes’ error, according to Damasio, was to separate body and mind.

Working with emotion

Emotions are not forces that swoop down and take us over. They are the foundation of how we make healthy choices. Without the ability to understand and utilize somatic markers (i.e., emotions triggering us to respond appropriately) individuals are not able to use feeling/emotion to live rational lives.

I focus on emotion in my client work because emotions are vital to reasoned decision-making. They provide human beings with life-saving and underutilized information. They are a nonverbal means of making sense of our surroundings. They provide data that we might otherwise miss in our hyperfocus on logic and reason.

The emotion-focused approach takes into consideration one’s cognitive appraisals (thoughts and meaning) and action tendencies (behaviors). The goal often is not to change thoughts and behaviors, but to understand and accept the emotion driving them. Doing so allows us to identify our needs. Utilizing a holistic, organismic approach – taking into consideration all data at our disposal – makes true healing possible.  

Emotions are not more important than cognitions or behaviors. To prioritize emotion in the therapeutic process is an attempt to rebuild an atrophied human system. It is an attempt to use everything at our disposal to live full lives and, in some instances, to reconsolidate past traumas into stories of survival.

To focus on emotion is nothing less than claiming one’s full humanity, body and mind.


[i] For those familiar with emotion-focused psychotherapy, Damasio’s use of the term “secondary emotions” differs from, say Leslie Greenberg’s. Damasio utilizes the term to designate emotion that is analyzed by the cortex and not simply experienced/processed by the body.