Quest for a Switch

Could you help me? I’m on a quest. For years, by the way. You know, such an everlasting quest where you eventually don’t find what you’re looking for. But because you don’t find it, you do find something in yourself. I’m looking for a button. Or rather, a switch. An on/off switch. A switch for my emotions. Too many feelings. Too many thoughts. It can be compared to the amount of waste in the world; it’s too much, you don’t know where to put it, so just dump it somewhere where it’ll destroy everything. An endless waterfall, a flood, permanently drowning, but living on. And such a switch would be oh so nice at such a that. However, there’s a downside to using this switch; I also lose my humanity with it.

“[A] remarkable feature about the emotion signal system is that it is always “on”. It is ready to broadcast instantly every emotion we feel. Think what life would be like if there were a switch, if it could be in the “off” position unless we chose to switch it “on”.” – Paul Ekman (Emotions Revealed, p. 55)

Emotions. As a highly sensitive person I have to deal with it on a daily basis, and perhaps more often than I’d like. A curse, because it sometimes makes life so much more difficult than it should be. But would I actually want to turn it off? As Paul Ekman says: “But if we could, if we could turn off our emotions completely for a time, that might make matters worse, for the people around us might think we are detached, or worse, inhuman.” (p. 52)

Rather than turning off emotions, it might be more helpful to understand how emotions work and where they come from. According to Ekman, there are nine ways in which emotions can be triggered (p. 37). Experiencing or reflecting on direct events are two of them. Remembering a beautiful memory, talking about a painful event, or using your imagination to portray a situation can also evoke emotions, as can reading news stories where people have violated social norms or when someone says you should or shouldn’t be afraid of something. Empathy can also trigger emotions, because you empathize with someone. Finally, we can make emotions appear voluntarily, for example by making a happy or angry facial expressions. (p. 37)

According to Ekman, emotions we experience can get us into trouble in three ways (p. 16). The first way is when the emotions we feel are justified, but we experience them too intensely, which is very recognizable to me. (Has anyone found the switch yet?) The second way is that we feel the right emotions, but express them in the wrong way. Finally, we can also feel a completely wrong emotion, something we only realize afterwards. (p. 16)

We can see emotions as glasses through which we look at the world. According to Ekman, we try to see the world in a way that tries to confirm the emotions we feel; we refuse to allow anything that goes against those emotions: “When we are gripped by an inappropriate emotion, we interpret what is happening in a way that fits with how we are feeling and ignore knowledge that doesn’t fit. (…) Emotions change how we see the world and how we interpret the actions of others. We do not seek to challenge why we are feeling a particular emotion: instead, we seek to confirm it. We evaluate what is happening in a way that is consistent with the emotion we are feeling, thus justifying and maintaining the emotion.” (p. 39)

(Short note: Ekman distinguishes between emotions and moods (p. 50). A mood is a light and continues state of emotion, while emotions are much shorter. Emotions also have a direct event as a trigger, while a mood often doesn’t have this. Moods make us are less flexible and, according to Ekman, do not really have a function, unlike emotions. (p. 50))

So far it seems that emotions are only detrimental; we can suffer from them, it determines and limits our view of the world, and we experience them in the wrong way or at the wrong time. Is it weird that we look for the switch to turn off emotions? Absolutely not. But should we really want it? Do we want us to be able to switch off our emotions, to be able to determine for ourselves when we feel which emotion in what intensity? There have been plenty of times when I would’ve liked to have that opportunity, but at the same time emotions can be very important to us.

Emotions are an important source of knowledge. Emotions can tell us a lot that we can learn from, but we must be able to understand them. Fear warns us and protects us from danger. Disgust keeps us alert and less likely to engage in activities that we don’t actually approve. Sadness can cause others to offer you help and support. Anger can motivate us to change the world, to fight for social justice, and to fight for human rights (p. 42) If we’d turn off our emotions, we’d miss all this information. Ekman: “Would we really want to eliminate those motivations? Without excitement, sensory pleasure, pride in our achievements, and the achievements of our offspring, amusement in the many odd and unexpected things that happen in life, would life be worth living? Emotion is not like an appendix, a vestigial apparatus we don’t need and should remove. Emotions are at the core of our life. They make life livable.” (p. 42)

These last two sentences from Ekman are perhaps even more important than any knowledge that emotions give us; emotions are important to our life. They make life the way it is, let us experience it the way it is. Emotions are at the heart of life. There may be times when we wish there were a switch to turn off our emotions, but at the same time, that entreaty is situation related. We don’t want to turn the switch of our emotions “off” at all; we just want more control over our emotional responses (p. 42). Unfortunately, there’s no method (yet) for how this could be done, but I hope to have helped you a little bit with the text written above.

So let’s stop the quest. The quest with the aim of finding a switch with which we can turn off our emotions. Indeed, this quest didn’t help us find the switch we were looking for, but it may have taught us a little bit about ourselves; that emotions, however difficult they may be, are a core part of our lives and can make life beautiful. As Ekman says: “None of us wants completely and irrevocably to turn off all our emotions. Life would be dull, less juicy, less interesting, and probably less safe if we had the power to do that.” (p. 42)

Above I wrote that my high sensitivity, the intense experience of emotions, is a curse, because this sometimes makes life so much more difficult. But at the same time, this intensity also makes life so much more beautiful. You don’t just live, you also feel that you are alive. It’s not only a curse, but also a blessing.

The only switch we need now is one that allows us to switch to another quest.


Footnotes:

  • Ekman, Paul. Emotions Revealed: Recognizing Faces and Feelings to Improve Communication and Emotional Life. St. Martin’s Griffin: New York, 2007 (2nd Edition)

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