When all the mysteries of the universe have been figured out, I think we’ll still be probing the mysteries of the human heart like cave-divers with a wet match. It’s human emotion that is more endlessly surprising, more deeply satisfying and deeply frustrating, than just about anything else in life. The great novels of the past dealt with issues of society, history, religion, and gender in ways that have dated themselves; introduce the possibility of divorce, for example, to the great novels of the nineteenth century, and half of them wouldn’t have any problems anymore. Anna Karenina could have joint custody over her child and Madame Bovary would drop her husband like a bad habit. But these novels endure because they capture emotional landscapes and emotional troubles that are still the same troubles we face today. When science and law have solved even more of our problems in the future, good old fashioned emotions will still be tearing us up inside.
So how does this apply to our own lives?
How does this apply to our own lives? I think so many of us, the control freaks especially, think at some point that we’ve got a handle on our emotions, thank you very much. In times of plenty and goodness, we kick back and think smugly that we’ve got a handle on it all. We know what makes us happy and we know how to get happy again when we’re sad. We know how to grieve appropriately, how to vent our anger. We’ve smoothed out the bumps on the roller coaster.
And then something unexpected comes along — a fight with a friend, a bad breakup, a disappointment, a misunderstanding — and it feels like we’re back to square one. We’re children again, overcome with anger or grief or self-loathing. Why am I feeling this way? We wonder. Why do I have to feel this bad? If it’s all happening in my head, if it’s my perception, then why can’t I control it? Why can’t I just stop being sad?
No matter how in control we feel, a bad day can still dump us back on the emotional roller coaster. Sometimes feelings are like a bad cold; we just have to wait them out. And they will not be hurried. The only cure for an emotional spell, I’ve found, is time. If we fix the problem, there’s still a recovery period to wade through. Emotions move slowly and cling to everything like maple syrup. They ooze through our bodies and leave residue behind.
So where does that leave us? How do we ride the roller coaster? Here are a few things I’ve learned about weathering emotional storms and understanding others’ emotions as well. This stuff is crucial to understand when capturing emotion in fiction; and it’s pretty important for developing your own emotional intelligence, too.
1. Time is the only cure. As I mentioned earlier, emotions move slowly and have a high degree of inertia. Even after you’ve resolved an issue with a friend, for example, you may find those hurt feelings lingering. Even after the person has said “sorry”, sorry doesn’t work right away. So give it some time, and give the other person time as well. All people take varying amounts of time either to cool off or to cheer up. Even if you’re worried that a friendship is about to end, give it a little time, and you may be surprised what a new day brings.
2. Respect others’ emotions. There is nothing more subjective than someone’s emotional state. I’m angry because you said that, but he’s just sad that you did. I’m ready to bounce back but he isn’t. That offended him but not me. We are all tremendously complex and tremendously idiosyncratic. There’s nothing more disrespectful than trivializing someone else’s emotional response. If we say, “Don’t be so sensitive”, or “you shouldn’t have been offended by that”, or “Why can’t you just get over it?” we’re telling the person that their emotions lack value.
3. Listen to your own emotions. You’re mad that your friend said something. But you’re not going to tell him. You’re not even going to admit it to yourself. You’ll just go about your day pretending to everyone that you’re not upset. It’s the perfect plan! Except that it’s a horrible plan. If you deny your emotion to yourself, it will find a way to creep out in insidious ways. You’ll become passive aggressive or cranky; you’ll pick on people for no reason. Remember to listen to yourself and be honest with yourself. Your emotional response has merit and validity. Try to figure out why you’re feeling a certain way.
4. Emotions aren’t “supposed to” be anything. They are what they are. This might be the most frustrating thing about emotional states. We want to feel a certain way, or we think we’re supposed to feel a certain way. But our emotions refuse to comply. We want to be proud of our friend’s accomplishment, but a little bit of jealousy has wormed its way in. We want to stop grieving for a lost relative, but grieving just isn’t done. In this situation, remember that you’re not entitled to feel anything. Emotions are what they are; nothing more, nothing less. It’s our job as human beings to be astute observers, to probe and wonder and figure out why.