Emotions are powerful. You love so much you think you’ll die without them. You hate so much you’re ready to resort to physical violence. You want something so bad that you’ll go to insane lengths to get it. You’re so scared you’re physically shaking with muscles tense in a situation where there is no physical escape.
At their root, emotions are mental processes. Thoughts. And yet we can find them in our body too. I feel love in my chest. I feel fear in my stomach. What’s going on with that?
Emotions are thoughts that, for evolutionary reasons, it was valuable to amplify. They’re thoughts that creatures over the history of life on our planet have done better when they took seriously and acted on quickly.
A caveman who idly thought “I’m scared of that lion” was a lot more likely to die than one who felt intensely the fear of that predator. A creature that casually feels the sting of the hatred engendered by being slighted by a rival is a lot less likely to outcompete that rival than one that feels it sharply.
Today, though, these resonant intensifications of certain thoughts tend to be out of proportion to their value. Most people, thankfully, don’t have to compete nearly as violently to succeed. Don’t need to be quite as scared as it served them to be when mortal danger was around every corner.
So, as I explored around anger, there’s a use to our emotions but they’re too primitive and dangerous for us to let them drive. Evolution’s not the most exact tool, and calibrations take thousands if not millions of years. So we’re prone to be too angry, too jealous, and too fearful.
Understanding emotions in this way doesn’t make them go away. Unfortunately, knowing how emotions work doesn’t give us the ability to just turn them off. Working skillfully with emotions is a life-long process. But knowing does help. It helps us know when and why we’ll get value from overriding the crude guidance of our emotions. Helps us know better when to take the bull by the horns. To feel the fear and do it anyway.