The most basic emotional problem

How does our language limit our emotional self-awareness


In this video for Stoa Conversations, I talk briefly about what I consider to be one of the most fundamental ingredients of emotional resilience. Psychologists have sometimes spoken of the naive or folk-psychology way of understanding anxiety as a sort of “lump theory”, where people talk as if their emotions are just homogenous lumps of feeling. In other words, they fail to distinguish, in any way, between different ingredients of emotion. I used to tell my therapy clients that they should think of anxiety (or depression or anger) as “a cake baked from many ingredients”, rather than just a homogenous lump.

Stoicism: Philosophy as a Way of Life is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.

At the outset of cognitive therapy, we normally, at least, encourage clients to distinguish between the cognitive, behavioural, and affective aspects of emotions like anxiety. Once you realize, in particular, that anxiety involves specific types of thoughts and beliefs, you immediately have more control.

If education could do one simple thing for our children, in relation to their emotional lives, it would be to teach them that emotions are multi-component. They’re composed of moving parts, which interact with one another. Even if we only distinguished crudely between the thoughts, actions, and feelings, which contribute to our total emotional experience, that would be progress.

Merely grasping this distinction can give people more self-awareness and self-control regarding unhealthy emotions.

The ancient Stoics distinguished between voluntary and involuntary aspects of emotion, which is perhaps an even more fundamental distinction. Again, merely grasping this distinction can give people more self-awareness and self-control regarding unhealthy emotions.

For example, people who suffer from severe anxiety typically waste their energy trying to suppress, control, or avoid, automatic thoughts and feelings. Doing this tends to make their condition worse in several ways, e.g., they end up paying more attention to their anxiety, as if they’re putting it under a magnifying glass. They also tend to struggle with it in a way that causes automatic thoughts and feelings to “rebound” and occur more frequently in the future. This inner struggle can also backfire by causing us to become preoccupied and distracted, when other tasks require our attention.

At the same time, people with severe anxiety tend to neglect to take control over the potentially voluntary high-level aspects of anxious thinking, which we simply call “worry” in cognitive psychology. When individuals suffering from Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD), which consists largely of pathological worrying, are asked to rate how strongly they agree with the statement “My worry is uncontrollable” they typically say 100% or thereabouts. They’re wrong, though, as worrying requires a sequence of “strategic” cognitions, which can easily be interrupted, using quite simple therapeutic strategies. The knack is to accept our automatic thoughts, while exercising more control over our voluntary thoughts.

Again, though, this is only possible if we begin by distinguishing between the voluntary and involuntary aspects of anxiety, rather than lumping it all together as if it were a single shapeless experience. Imagine that, as a small child, you saw an analogue watch for the first time. The hands move but the reason for them doing so is a total mystery to you because you’ve never looked inside. It just seems to happen organically or as if by magic. Then an adult takes the back off and shows you the cogs inside and suddenly you have an Aha! moment – eureka! – you’re looking at a mechanism! It has lots of tiny parts and if one of them is removed it may prevent the whole device from functioning. We still view our emotions in the former naive way, though, as if we are ignorant of the fact they have no moving parts, as though they are simple and irreducible rather than complex and multi-component.

We can all learn to distinguish more carefully, though, between different types of emotion, and different ingredients of emotion, and in doing so, enhance our emotional self-awareness.

Thank you for reading Stoicism: Philosophy as a Way of Life. This post is public so feel free to share it.