The Power (and the Blind Spot) of Emotions

sweet boyfriend taking care of her pretty girlfriend

As a proud Duke alum, I actually look forward to getting the quarterly alumni magazine.  Yes, I was featured there once before  (many moons ago),  but I find it far more stimulating to read about other Duke grads  who are changing our world for the better.

Here’s an except from a recent issue, which describes how we can use our rational brain when it comes to dating and relationships.

Scott Huettel writes, “For many decisions, trying to reason through to an optimal outcome is actually counterproductive; that is, people make worse decisions when reasoning about costs and benefits than when using simple rules, or what researchers call “heuristics. Four decades of research by psychologists and behavioral economists on heuristics has produced evidence supporting this claim. Heuristics are, in lay terms, shortcuts used in decision-making; phrases such as “choose what’s most familiar” or “stop searching when you find something good enough.” They use very limited information, tend to be very simple and fast, and often work better than complex reasoning.

Knowing when to use a heuristic and when to use reasoning isn’t always obvious. The most general rule–itself a heuristic!–is that reasoning works best for decisions that involve abstract, impersonal, and one-time choices, like retirement planning. Heuristics tend to work best for decisions that involve tangible personal outcomes with which you have considerable experience.”

You may not always know that a guy is RIGHT for you, but you can trust your gut (heuristics!) to know if he’s WRONG for you.

This is why I say that you should use your rational AND emotional brain in decision making. And why it’s more important to trust how it feels than how it looks to others or whether it matches up with your checklist. It also explains why Believe the Negatives/Ignore the Positives” and “good relationships don’t make you anxious” are valuable concepts. You may not always know that a guy is RIGHT for you, but you can trust your gut (heuristics!) to know if he’s WRONG for you.

Mark Leary writes, “Emotions are, at heart, functional (and we could not survive if we lost our capacity to experience them). But two features of emotions can be maladaptive. Emotions can override rational considerations of how we should respond and lead us to behave in ways that work against our best interests. Angry outbursts, fearful inhibitions, jealous rages, or desperate actions seem at times impossible to control, as if we have been possessed by a powerful demon we are powerless to oppose.

In addition, emotions sometimes arise from our own thoughts even when nothing is objectively wrong at the moment. How many of us have tied ourselves into knots of anxiety while lying safe-and-sound in our beds, worrying about things that might never come to pass? When we work ourselves into strong emotional states through self-thought, we suffer unnecessarily at our own hands.

It’s not that emotions are bad; it’s that it can be detrimental to be blindly guided by emotion and to assume that because you feel something that it’s either “right” or “real”. Often, it’s neither.

Although few of us are masters of all of our emotions, some people manage their emotional life more successfully than others. Recognizing that emotions must sometimes be ignored and must often be controlled is the first step. Not all emotional reactions are rational or in one’s best interests, so intelligent living requires us to manage our emotions.”

So if  I ever sound too “rational” or like I’m playing devil’s advocate on behalf of men, this is why. Emotions cloud our judgment and are more subjective than objective. When you assume the worst in men and dating, it’s coming from an emotional place and you end up with these type of cognitive distortions. It’s not that emotions are bad; it’s that it can be detrimental to be blindly guided by emotion and to assume that because you feel something that it’s either “right” or “real”.

Often, it’s neither.

Your thoughts, below, are appreciated.

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  1. 1

    Great advice yet again.

    It’s too bad our emotions can be so overwhelming and addictive. They allow for some of the highest highs, but also the lowest lows.

    For all the knowledge we have about how blinding chemistry can be, it’s hard to convince anyone, men or women, including ourselves, that we should not put all our chips in for the feelings we get just from looking at someone we find to be physically appealing.

    Evolution and biochemistry has done a real number on humans. Sometimes I think we’re too evolved for our own good. Haha.

    Your work is appreciated, but you have a lot more work ahead of you to get women and men to see the light of rational thinking in this age of instant gratification and the “new shiny toy” syndrome.

    Not long ago  I had a girl I was seeing tell me that she was falling for me and wanted me to be in her life for a long time to come, and even hinted at children since she was sure she wanted to have them some day. We spoke daily and were growing closer. I felt pretty great about where things were going and poof, a few days after telling me she wants to be with me, she meets some guy at a bar and it’s like I don’t exist anymore. Not even a thanks but no thanks. Turns out he wasn’t even interested in her. I was dropped for a bozo who didn’t even do anything. She thought he was flirting with her. He didn’t even remember much about their interaction.

    Sadly it feels like this behavior is the new norm. I’m all for finding the right person for you, but ruining a good thing for the slightest potential of something that may not even be better and has no hint of working out? Chemistry or the illusion of it makes people do awfully stupid things. Of course, I’ve made my mistakes too.

    Let’s hope people everywhere learn to make better decisions in everything they do, especially dating.

  2. 2

    Evan-   one of my all time favorite quotes from you is:
    So while I’ll never tell you that you’re not entitled to feel what you feel, if what you feel (anxiety, fear, insecurity) becomes your boyfriend’s problem — when he hasn’t done anything wrongit’s really on you to deal in a healthier fashion.
    I have read and learned similar things from other blogs and my counselor:   feelings aren’t facts.   We need to think about our feelings/emotions and challenge them.   I once had a discussion with my father about his feelings.   I challenged him about his feelings and he told me that they were his feelings and he wouldn’t question them.   He’s a very high functioning member of society and that statement blew me away.   People need to  be smarter about their “feelings.”

    But if you dare to question a woman’s feelings, you better have your flak jacket on.   Holy smokes….

  3. 3

    Amen to this blog! I think where many people fail in their relationships (particularly women) is that they are guided nearly 100% by their emotions. MUST use logic . I’m not saying behave like a robot, but there has to be a good balance of the two- logic and emotion.   Emotion may say “but I looooove him so, I can’t live without him” while logic may say “ he doesn’t treat me nicely or with respect, I’m an afterthought” – and this should result in appropriate action.

    Don’t let your emotions rule you, ladies! There are various techniques on how to counter them and they need to be practiced until they’re second nature.

    Yes, our gut usually leads us correctly, if we can be still enough and quiet enough to actually listen to it.


  4. 4
    Karmic Equation

    Feelings can’t be controlled. You feel what you feel. However, EMOTIONS, which is how you EXPRESS your feelings CAN be controlled.

    Just because we’re angry at our boss, we don’t have to yell at him. Our hubby pisses us off because he forgot to take the garbage out on garbage day. Yup we’re angry. But do you really have to yell or belittle him? Nope.

    So if a woman feels insecure, jealous, sad, “in love”, etc., it doesn’t mean that she has to express any of that. But if she does, she ought to express them with logical control. For example, an ex-boyfriend of mine called 900 numbers on a day he was sick (long story about why I knew this). When I confronted him about it, I calmly asked “What’s the deal with your calling 900 numbers?” After he explained why, I simply said, “Ok. Don’t do that anymore, ok?” No freaking out, even though I was unhappy with him. No yelling or crying or blaming. I drove back to work (I was on my lunch break when I confronted him). He called me and cried and apologized profusely for upsetting me. I quietly said, and meant, “It’s ok now. I forgive you.” And I did and never brought it up in subsequent fights.

    I was angry, upset, and hurt. But I didn’t express that with yelling. I stayed in control and got a better result than if I had yelled, cried, accused, etc. He became a more dedicated boyfriend. I broke up with him a few years later for other reasons.

    Anyway, the point is that it’s ok to feel insecure. It’s ok to be angry. It’s ok to be annoyed. It’s ok to feel jealous. You cannot stop those feelings. However, you can control how you express those feelings. You have to be judicious in how you emote your feelings. It does NOT have to be a dramatic scene every time. In fact, from my experience, the more in control you are of your emotions, the more he respects you and trusts you. So that on those few occasions when you do explode, he doesn’t tune you out. He’ll listen, because he knows that most of the time you’re in control, so if you’re not, then it’s a big deal.

    As opposed to your making every feeling a dramatic scene. Men eventually tune you out if you’re always the drama queen who has no control of her emotions.

    1. 4.1

      @Karmic Equation

      Excellent evaluation

    2. 4.2

      Except that the definition of emotion is (per Merriam-webster dictionary):: a strong feeling (such as love, anger, joy, hate, or fear)

      So, to be more accurate, emotion is not how feelings are expressed; BEHAVIOR is how feelings are expressed.

      Totally agree with unnecessary drama over feelings!

      Drama belongs in the theatre, and maybe in teenagers. 🙂

      1. 4.2.1

        Sorry, to clarify: behavior is what should be dictated more by logic, in response to feelings/emotions.

        Didn’t mean to quibble over words.

    3. 4.3


      I agree with Karmic here too. Men and women both respect a partner who exercises self-control when it comes to their feelings. It’s okay to feel the things you’re feeling. It’s okay to be angry with your partner or cry infront of them. And it’s okay to tell your partner that’s what your feeling. But it has to be done with respectful and self control.   It’s not okay to make it the justification to lash out or to indulge in selfish behavior. Unfortunately, usually women justify their emotional behavior because they can’t help what they feel and men tend to do the same, especially when it comes to sexual matters. But men like it when a woman has control over her emotions. And women like it when a man has control over his sexuality.

    4. 4.4
      Silly rabbit

      Did he not know he can get oodles on free porn online? Don’t pay $3.99 a minute for what’s free.

      1. 4.4.1
        Karmic Equation

        Not until I told him. He doesn’t even own a computer. So we watch using my smartphone.

        And your point is?

  5. 5

    Great topic, Evan. Thanks!

    I second Karmic Equation @4. Hi Karmic! Feelings are always valid, but that does not mean they necessarily say anything real about our situation. How/when to express feelings is an art to master to be successful in relationships.

    I learned this the hard way as a very sensitive/reactive woman. When I became mindful enough to sense my feelings and develop the split second of freedom to choose how to respond, I became a much better partner. My husband and I have a healthy marriage thanks to how we choose to respond when we experience strong feelings.

    We have three intelligence centers: the mind, the heart, and the body/gut. Actually, four when we include our soul. We reason with our mind, we feel with our heart, we sense with our gut. Only the integration of all three (or four) lead to real insight, therefore wise decision-making.

    Each of us tends to over rely on one center, do one so-so, and neglect the third one completely. The person who is too much in their head/thinking benefits from practices to reconnect to their heart/gut, and conversely the body-based instinctual person benefits from more pausing and reasoning. Same for the feeling/heart person.

    Connecting to the center you underestimate and not taking your favorite one too seriously would help tremendously for more effective decision-making. When you rebalance all three (all four) centers, what’s your insight on the fresh situation you’re in?

    1. 5.1
      Karmic Equation

      Hi Fusee! How is married life treating you? Babies yet? I thought you were expecting the last time you posted. But maybe I’m wrong.

      I borrowed the “emotions” definition from one of your posts. I’m sorry I didn’t attribute it. But I found your definition to be the easiest one to distinguish between feelings (uncontrollable) and emotions (controllable).

      Don’t be such a stranger.

      1. 5.1.1

        Hi Karmic! Married life is really beautiful, getting sweeter and better over time : ) No babies, never wanted them, and at 37 very unlikely that I will change my mind. We adopted a puppy though, and it’s plenty parenting for us! What about you? Looks like you have a new boyfriend?

        I vaguely remember talking about feelings and emotions with you back in the day! I also remember being told at my peer counseling training years ago that  “emoting” is  the word used for  the  physical expression of a  feeling, so I might indeed have used the word emotion in that way. Regardless of correct terminology (which I don’t know), the point is  that we EXPERIENCE  feelings while we ideally CHOOSE how we respond to them and how we express them. Mindfulness practice helps building the ability to observe and make a choice.

    2. 5.2

      Fuseeeeeeeeeeeee, ma p’tite cherie!   So lovely to see your sweet self here, after so long.   Felicitations on your happy marriage.   I have recently been struggling with the issue of being an extremely sensitive/ reactive woman, myself.     Do you have any books or websites that might help me learn more about balancing my intelligence centres, stp?   Thank you.

      1. 5.2.1

        Hi Henriette! Nice to “see” you : ) Anything from Jon Kabat-Zinn is excellent, wise, and compatible with any belief system/spiritual background. Consider reading  “Mindfulness for Beginners” and exploring his guided meditations on YouTube. For body-mind-heart balancing, I’d read “The Life We Are Given” by George Leonard (a bit “vintage” with a 1995 publication date, but truly excellent). And then exercising vigorously helps a lot women like us who experience strong feelings. I did Muay Thai (kickboxing) for six months and it was so grounding, it would totally reset my emotional center after each training. And it made me strong in body and mind.  Ridiculously  exhausting though : )

  6. 6

    I’ve always found the topic of emotions and learning how to control them fascinating so I’m surprised there have been so few comments on this particular thread.
    I think learning how to control one’s emotions is a critical life function which should probably be a core part of the education system as it is of national systemic importance. The consequences of poor emotional control and discipline can simply be catastrophic as we see in the news every week.
    I don’t really see emotions as some sort of abstract entities independent of physical matter; rather that they are purely physiological bio-chemical processes churning around in the cranial soup that is our brain. The effects on one’s emotions and personality of mind-altering substances and traumatic brain injuries is sufficient evidence  of this for me.
    Therefore, the first step to controlling emotions is physiological. That means regular exercise, healthy balanced diet, regular sleep patterns, avoiding/reducing alcohol and drugs and getting sufficient natural day-light.
    The second is mental discipline. This is learning how to deal with stress and life events. Knowing your “pick-me-ups”. Even something as small as haircut, new outfit etc. can help. Music helps some. It is important to develop an awareness of one’s emotional boundaries and then learn how to exit situations when approaching these limits.
    Leaning how to manage different people.
    Whenever I meet a new person I’ll usually try suss them out by observing what makes them tick and what triggers certain responses in them. I then create a mental bank of these observations to be retrieved when I deal with them again. This way I can preemptively avoid unnecessary rows as I know how to avoid triggering them. When dealing with abusive people it is necessary to develop the tools that will enable one to cut them off. Entirely.
    So if I continue my logical train of thought that emotions are nothing more than synapses firing off in our heads then it follows that anger, jealousy, happiness and ultimately even “love” itself are simply just chemical processes, which can be controlled by adjusting the chemical balance. Which then leads to the conclusion that, in theory, a drugs company should be able to artificially induce these emotions simply by re-creating the necessary chemical compound.
    Imagine there was a drug we could take which would make us fall in love with the person who is “right on paper” for us?
    All that said, I do admit to also following my gut (heuristics!) when sussing people out. Which then leads me to wonder what, exactly, is the science behind this. I’m sure it’s something to do with sensory perception of certain stimuli.
    Yikes this all sounds very “rational”! :s
    Note: I’m not a medical professional so my comments only pertain to my life experience. Although in another life I would have loved to have studied clinical psychology and conduct live experiments on people to test out some of my theories.

  7. 7

    @tom10 good insight I enjoyed reading your comment

  8. 8

    I “suffer” from being both a “feeler” in terms of personality type as well as a Highly Sensitive Person so emotions, while I am comfortable with expressing them, have a tendency to get me more worked up when compared to others. Id love to dig deeper into a balance of rational thought vs feelings

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