Evolution & Emotions
Exploring the Origins of Our Feelings
We all experience emotion. From the highest highs to the lowest lows, our feelings track the course of our lives. When we think back on times past, it’s often the emotions that we experienced that stand out the strongest in our memories.
But what are emotions really? How do they serve to make our lives better? Or worse? Are our emotions ours to control, or are we simply along for the ride?
In this post, I share a portion of my personal story, in which I discovered a new framework of how to understand my emotions and why this has made all the difference for me.
“I feel tired.”
This was my response if ever I was asked how I felt. For me, there wasn’t much to feelings beyond fatigue — physical or mental.
When it got bad, the only thing that appealed to me was sleep. Somehow I managed to summon enough dogged determination to push through the exhaustion. I thought I had to keep on grinding in order to overcome.
But, that relentless determination was the very thing that left me exhausted. Being so tired made it hard to think. To process my experiences. To come to decisions. Even to recognize what I was feeling.
The truth is that I felt a lot of things. Fatigue was only one of them. And, the more I dug — with the help of my wife, a couple of couples therapists, and a psychology intern working at a state therapy office — the more I discovered that there is a never-ending flow of emotions to experience.
It was this psychology intern — using me as the guinea pig for her career — who helped me see how I could take the biggest strides.
A singular moment of realization came only after weeks of regular visits. She asked me if I had ever heard the word Alexithymia.
“No”, I said. “Never heard of it.”
She wrote the word down on a sticky note, handed it to me, and told me to Google it at home.
“See you next week,” I said, looking down at the sticky note in my hand, as I exited her office.
I didn’t know what to expect but, once at home, I took her advice and Googled Alexythemia. The top search result was a link to Wikipedia. I clicked on it and began reading.
Alexithymia is a personality construct characterized by the sub-clinical inability to identify and describe emotions in the self.
- The core characteristics of alexithymia are marked dysfunction in emotional awareness, social attachment, and interpersonal relating.
- Furthermore, people with alexithymia have difficulty in distinguishing and appreciating the emotions of others, which is thought to lead to unempathic and ineffective emotional responding.
- Alexithymia occurs in approximately 10% of the population and can occur with a number of psychiatric conditions.
I read each paragraph again, trying my best to digest the message within every single sentence. I was stunned at how each descriptive element connected so well with my own personal experiences.
Identifying and describing my emotions was one of the hardest things I had ever attempted. When I looked inward I found a blank slate. This was the impetus for my standard response about feeling tired. I had nothing else to say because I couldn't even recognize that I was feeling anything else.
The concept of group detachment was also poignant. That feeling of being somehow separate from the groups in which I participate is all too familiar. Even among friends and family, the uncertainty of my relational status has haunted me. It’s like a dark cloud, casting shadows over opportunities for connection and closeness.
Empathy — how does one even begin? I’d always been aware that others experienced a much broader emotional range than myself. Yet, due to the huge difference in those emotional ranges, I have found even something as critical to relationships as empathy to be a challenge.
I was not certain that I had Alexythemia. However, it was clear to me that I suffered from many of the symptoms. What else was clear to me, is that I no longer wanted to endure such suffering.
You see, I used to think that I had a superpower. What was that superpower? Freedom from my emotions. I thought I had the power to live rationally, without the increased drag coefficient I saw in emotional individuals.
To not have emotions at all, would mean a nearly endless supply of emotional, mental, and physical energy. Freedom from caring what others thought. Freedom from embarrassment, guilt, shame, and fear.
There is a term for this superpower — a psychopath.
Fortunately, I discovered that I did not have this power. What I had was a bad case of botched coping mechanisms and a poor understanding of what emotions truly are.
It’s not that I wasn’t actually feeling anything, it’s that I was working overtime to convince myself that I wasn’t.
Why was it so hard for me to recognize, understand, and manage my emotions? Why was I always fatigued and unable to scratch below my emotional surface? What was the disconnect?
For me, finding the answer required a long journey of self-investigation, supplemented with the study of topics as diverse as evolutionary biology, psychology, sociology, physics, and mindfulness. What I discovered at the core of my emotional unwellness was a fundamental misunderstanding of what emotions even are.
In my life, particularly in my formative years, two fallacies about the nature of emotions coalesced in my mind to bring about my unfortunate state.
- The culture within my home was staunchly anti-emotion. We neither talked about nor acknowledged a whole host of emotions. At times, displaying emotion was a call for negative attention. Because of this, I came to see emotions as a weakness.
- My family was also very religious. As such, I was taught to see myself as a soul — the combination of a body and a spirit. The nuance of this idea caused me to see emotions as a byproduct of my spiritual nature. For a long time, I connected certain emotions — love, hate, sadness, anger, and even fear — to the spirit within my body, rather than my actual body.
These two ideas — that emotions are a weakness and that emotions are a characteristic of our spiritual nature— left me with few options for effectively managing my emotional health.
What are Emotions Anyway?
Improvement in my life came when I was able to understand what emotions are and what they aren’t. Are things perfect? Far from it. But they are much better.
My timeline of education and realizations didn’t unfold in the exact order as I’ve portrayed it here. In contrast, I arrived at a working understanding of the nature of emotions, and only then came to see how I had spent my entire life thinking about them incorrectly.
While there is no scientific consensus on the exact definition of emotions, my working definition is this:
Emotions are a type of biologically initiated chemical signal intended to inform you of something.
Given this definition, the range of human experiences that fall under the umbrella of emotions is quite broad.
The feeling of being tired is a biological signal that we need to sleep. The feeling of being hungry is a biological signal that we need nourishment. The feeling of pain in your hand, when touching a hot stove, is a biological signal that you should stop touching the hot stove.
And, not all of these chemical signals are warnings of something bad or dangerous. The feeling of being satiated is a biological signal that you’ve had enough to eat.
It may seem strange to compare these sensations (being tired or hungry or feeling pain) to emotions such as love, embarrassment, pride, happiness, or excitement. But, aren’t they fulfilling very similar tasks? Are they not simply informing us of a situation that needs our attention?
We easily recognize the sensation experienced when rubbing a dog's furry belly as touch. But we also say that a kind word can be touching. Perhaps this is why words such as emotions and feelings are often used interchangeably.
Evolution has provided us with chemical signals for a whole host of situations of which we need to be aware. We have our five main senses of touch, taste, hearing, smell, and sight. We have internal cues such as hunger, fatigue, or the need to defecate. We have emotions tied to basic survival — fear, surprise, disgust, and even sadness. We have emotions which are tied to our social nature — jealousy, envy, shame, guilt, and pride (also known as social emotions).
Recognizing that the things we feel inside are simply making us aware of a situation, brought me to another realization about my own emotions.
Emotions are neither good nor bad, they just are.
Emotions may be uncomfortable, but that doesn’t make them bad. After all, a certain level of discomfort will help keep you alive.
Again, there is no consensus definition of emotions. For me, associating emotions with chemical signals within my physical body has made them much easier to understand, process, and manage.
How about an example?
Down the Rabbit Hole
When I was a child, my family moved quite frequently. At times these moves were over large enough distances that I lost touch with the friends I had only recently come to know.
It was heartbreaking to leave people and places behind.
Given my underdeveloped emotional aptitude, I found it difficult to sit with the sadness, pain, and grief that I experienced. My strategy for overcoming these “negative” emotions, was to force a “positive” emotion to take their place.
Rather than allowing myself to feel sadness, I forced myself to feel excited about the new places I would see and the new people I would meet. It was a band-aide when stitches were the proper protocol.
Fast forward to just a month ago, and my new family (myself, my wife, and our two children) found ourselves in a situation in which we were required to move.
Just a week before our move, I was walking alone through our neighborhood — a lovely tree-lined area, where we’d lived for the past five years. My daughter was born there and had never lived anywhere else. My family knew the neighborhood inside and out and had made friends with a whole host of neighbors. We had become attached.
During this solo walk through the neighborhood, I observed the scenes around me and felt a deep sadness. It was the type of sadness you feel when you lose something familiar to you — something you love. The type of sadness you feel, when you realize that you will never again walk the same streets or interact with the same people in the same way again. The type of sadness that informs you that even though you’ve walked those streets countless times before you will miss the experience when its no longer available.
Given the context of my message here, a question arises — what is the purpose or value of this level of sadness? Why is it helpful to feel sadness about things you used to know, such as places you lived or people with whom you used to interact?
I believe that the answer lies in what is lost. Not only the physical items — the streets, trees, or even relationships — but also in the emotional loss. When you live in a place long enough you develop a connection to that place, you come to know it well, you develop a familiarity.
Familiarity is an emotion in and of itself. It’s a funny feeling. Familiarity is when you know your surroundings — the structures, streets, people, plants, and animals that you come across on a regular basis.
Familiarity feels good because familiarity is a “safety” feeling. It makes you feel like everything is going to be alright. It assures you that there isn’t a threat lurking right around the corner. Familiarity allows you to let your guard down. It lets you become vulnerable. It allows you to feel close to people and to places.
So, in a sense, the version of sadness that I was experiencing could be classified as the loss of another emotion — familiarity.
Familiarity feels good because it signals safety. Sadness at loss feels bad because it signals a loss of that which has been proven to be safe.
These emotions are connected, as if by an invisible string. We feel one or the other, based on the direction that our lives pull the string.
Considering the Evolution of our Emotions
But, the truth is that neither sadness nor familiarity is actually good or bad. Shakespeare nailed it on the head when he said,
“… for there is nothing either good or
bad, but thinking makes it so.” — Hamlet
Along with understanding the drivers of my emotions, I’ve come to understand a bit about the power I have to manage those emotions.
Many of us have had the experience of walking through a forest and hearing a twig break behind us. We spin around to assess the situation, and when we don’t immediately see what has caused the twig to snap we are left with two options.
Tuck tail and run.
Investigate the cause of the sound.
In the case of a wild animal, such as a white-tailed deer, there is only one choice — which actually means that there is no choice.
Deer’s actions are based on their emotions. When they hear the sound of a twig snapping, a level of surprise or fear arises in them, and they high-tail it out of there (literally in the case of deer). They have no other choice simply because a quick reaction is where their evolution has landed them.
Humans, on the other hand, can choose option #2. We can put our fear aside and walk towards the sound of the snapped twig. Our curiosity, braveness, or stupidity can overcome our instinctual reaction.
From this simple example, we see that, as humans, we have the ability to consider our emotions and act in a manner opposite their natural inclination.
This ability stems from the development of our frontal cortex. We evolved both emotions and the cognitive ability to consider those emotions.
Now, our level of cognitive ability is, in reality, a two-edged sword. When wheeled correctly it provides us with the ability to anticipate our emotions and maintain a level of internal peace. When used incorrectly it can fuel our fears, drown out our reasoning, and send us into a hopeless emotional abyss.
For, there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.
Where to Now?
Recognizing and exploring my emotions through the lens of evolution — or in other words, how they may have developed through evolutionary processes — has made it much easier for me to sit with them, appreciate them, and eventually to let them go.
This starts with recognizing emotions for what they truly are — a type of biologically initiated chemical signal intended to inform us of something.
I now enjoy the thought exercise of conceptualizing what my emotions are trying to tell me and considering the evolutionary purpose behind these biological messages.
Again, I’m far from perfect when it comes to managing my emotions. But I can tell you this much, “I feel tired”, now feels like a pretty shallow response in comparison to the new depths I’ve discovered within myself.