Breaking Up Assumptions I’ve Heard about How Emotions Work

Myriam’s think piece about 3 of the underlying beliefs people have shared over the years

Myriam D. Diatta
Sep 18, 2018 · 10 min read

m writing to researchers and design practitioners like me. I’m Black. I’m Asian. Gender binaries are harmful. Everything is political. Working with people should always be personal, never “objective.”

I came to this conclusion by working in homogenous white cis men and women-dominated schools, universities and jobs. I co-founded and co-run Matter–Mind Studio and am working on earning a Ph.D. so it’s definitely pushed me among other things. We each have unique and individual practices as Emotion-Centered Designers at Matter–Mind Studio. For me, it’s been a journey of growing guts about these kinds of everyday covert violence. It’s been about letting this very real and distinct experience translate into how I do my professional work. This article is about the conclusions and clarifications I’ve made for myself.

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Image Description: Two large rosy-colored hydrangea bushes covering spanning the frame of the image. Image Credit: seiitchi

Our practice at Matter–Mind Studio is a research collective all about grappling with what it looks like to care for people’s emotional well-being. That’s in all contexts — when working on large-scale projects with impact in the thousands, in an institutionalized academic context and on a very small one-to-one intimate scale.

As I’ve shared conversations with people at workshops, meetings, over lunch with friends, and online around the topic of our work at Matter–Mind Studio, I’ve picked up on a few beliefs about designing for emotion that need surfacing. Some of those ideas include:

A | there is an authority on understanding people’s emotions

B | there is such a thing as negative emotions

C | there is a moral inferiority to having and expressing these ‘negative’ emotions

I wrote this article as a think piece, not a to-do guide. Just after publishing Matter–Mind Studio’s Lookbook for Emotion-Centered Design, it’s important to me to complicate and situate how I practice. Part of a researcher or designer’s practice must include some space just for sitting down and having critical thought. It’s going to be a bit academic for that reason.

Letting your practice be affected is what doing work about people’s emotional well-being means for me.


A |

assumption: there is an authority on understanding people’s emotions



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Image Description: A huge, dark, lush, round treetop in a forest flanked by smaller lighter trees in the foreground. Image Credit: seiitchi

The field of psychology is not the keeper of how emotions work

An assumption about working with people’s emotional well-being is that it requires a scientific researcher. The knowledge that the scientific field of psychology produces is one truth. It’s not the only truth.

Like design, the field of psychology (and other academic research) has violent histories. They are politicized histories. The ways it shows up in present day-to-day research culture is easy, real, and shouldn’t be minimized. The practice can be influenced by lucrative outcomes that make a research lead or team sacrifice the quality of the research question and how the research is done. The field has published findings people deem ‘universal’ and established credibility that should always be filtered with a healthy dose of skepticism and critical thinking.

The tools and methods we use at Matter–Mind Studio do not constitute a psychotherapeutic practice. Our work is not a behavioral science. It is not psychology. The broad overlapping quality is that we have a set of principles and methods for understanding and designing for people’s emotions. We’re interested in exploring ways to understand and work with all the complexity of personhood.

There are cases, for instance in specific domains and types of large-scale work, where the scientific study of psychology and behavior is required and is an appropriate source of information to operate from. There are cases when it’s not required nor the most appropriate. We make room for that assessment and work to respond accordingly in our practice at Matter–Mind Studio.

Know your emotional truths and their value

What a person feels and believes doesn’t need to come from a scalable, ‘proven’ study about human behavior with a sample size of thousands. Even still, not even to make a sound decision. It may, instead, come from your family history, listening to your chest, a youtube content creator, a poem, getting struck while dancing, a chapter from a fiction book, your years of life experience on this planet, or a spiritual framework.

In Chapter 1: her shape and his hand in Avery F. Gordon’s Ghostly Matters: Haunting the Sociological Imagination, Gordon writes in depth about a different kind of emotional, sentient knowing that she keeps bumping into:

I came to write about ghostly matters not because I was interested in the occult or in parapsychology, but because ghostly things kept cropping up and messing up other tasks I was trying to accomplish. … The persistent and troubling ghosts in the house highlighted the limitations of many of our prevalent modes of inquiry and the assumptions they make about the social world, the people who inhabit these worlds, and what is required to study them. …

The ghost is not simply a dead or a missing person, but a social figure. … One form by which something lost, or barely visible, or seemingly not there to our supposedly well-trained eyes, makes itself known or apparent to us, in its own way, of course.

Here, she gives examples:

Norma Alarcón (1990) is following the barely visible tracks of the Native Woman across the U.S.-Mexico border as she shadows the making of the liberal citizen-subject. Maxine Hong Kingston [(1990)] is mapping the trans-Pacific travel of ghostly ancestors and their incessant demands on the living. Gayatri Spivak (1987, 1989a, 1993) keeps vigilant watch over that dialectic presence and absence that characterizes “our” benevolent metropolitan relationship to the subaltern [“lower status”] women “over there.”

I’d like to pose the challenge to genuinely honor individuals’ personal, bodily, familial, ancestral, spiritual ways of knowing — in all its evolutions, contradictions, and power.



B |

assumption: there is such a thing as negative emotions



There’s room for all kinds of emotions

Being in the world means holding space for what you feel. Really, for processing the traumas in your body. It’s extremely complicated. There’s room for deep sadness, fury, grief, bliss, ecstasy.

Some individuals who identify as Black, Indigenous, People of Color and Queer, Trans, and Non-Binary People of Color, for instance, may believe in ‘being real’ and un-apologetic about expressing their feelings because their norm is being told to shrink, be ‘respectable’ and as non-disruptive as possible. Some may not experience the need to question how much and in what way they express themselves. Some people feel they ought to take up as little physical and emotional space as possible.

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Image Description: Left: A poem that reads “what about this theory. the fear of not being enough. and hte fear of being ‘too much.’ are exactly the same fear. the fear of being you. by nayyirah waheed. Right: A thin vine-y branch with small, pointy, dark green leaves out of focus with grey skies in the background. Image Credit: seiitchi

Your emotions can cause you suffering and affect your life in ways that are painful. Emotions should not be put by others on a negative to positive scale. Suggesting some of other people’s emotions are ‘negative’ suggests an individual’s emotions are wrong. It implies it needs correcting and inherently devalues the experiences that led them to their current truth. You may feel angry and raise your voice because you’re deeply disappointed about something. A person may feel deflated and be non-communicative because they don’t feel safe.

Being respectful is one thing and being expected to be pleasant and non-disruptive to the point of erasing your own feelings is another. If someone you’re working with is in a position of power or privilege and are personally invested in expressing the badness of your ‘negative’ emotion, they’re silencing it to convenience themselves. They see themselves as the ‘victim.’ It’s manipulative and aggressive (historically). You get to be extra. You get to protect yourself.

It’s about boundaries

Because I’m naming that there’s room for all emotions, I also should follow that up by pinpointing, naming and working with boundaries let us each feel what we feel while remaining healthy in regards to taking on others’ emotional experiences. That line you draw might be about how much you’re willing to be accountable for at work, to what extent you’re up for being a rock or a barf bag at the water cooler, or if you’re willing to work with and take money from a problematic corporation.

It’s ok to set boundaries. Having boundaries set on you does not mean someone gets to change how you feel, tell you to be nice or be less ‘disruptive.’ Setting boundaries is separate and distinct from avoidance, ghosting or squirreling away. Avoidance may be self-protection, but is not boundary setting.

It’s is about practicing drawing a line with brave intent, clear communication and purpose. Setting boundaries with a person means accepting where a person is at, then leaning in, stepping away from the situation and knowing when—and standing tall in that decision, at that time. Sometimes, ‘ain’t nobody got time for that.’ This being the case, you get to choose whether or not you have the time or energy to invest in ‘putting yourself in their shoes,’ making others comfortable, being patient, hearing out their emotions, or sharing your inner feelings with them. The person with whom you’re setting boundaries may accept and trust that you have been very thoughtful and no longer have time for them, that it may be the very worst time for you to take on others’ emotions, or they may not be the person you want to share your experience with. Or, you just may not actually care.That’s ok. You may need to be firm with your boundaries. Sometimes, people may be firm with you about their boundaries. That’s ok.

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Image Description: Left: One hill on an autumn day with grey skies. Image Credit: seiitch. Right Image: A poem that reads “‘no’ might make them angry. but it will make you free. if no one has every told you, your freedom is more important than their anger. poem. from salt. by nayyirah waheed. 2013.

Make room for people to set boundaries. When having vulnerable conversations with participants, colleagues, new friends, be sure to hear out what their boundaries are. It’s each of our responsibilities to clearly name our own boundaries so the other person can receive it. Expecting others to read your mind or being vague leads to more complications and tangles in the relationship. If you’re in the position of being a facilitator or a guide, or you’re not but you happen to feel generous, make time for people to name their boundaries. In a workshop setting, for instance, you may state in the beginning what emotional commitments participants may be making if they participate and give them a friendly no-pressure invitation to step out and offer a balanced alternative to participating.

Respect those boundaries. What needs to be respected is that an individual named their boundary. When someone does not respect another person’s named boundary or fails to effectively feel out their boundary, it can be harmful if they’re not thinking through their position and the other person’s experience with them. And vice versa. We’ve written more about this in our Reader’s Guide to Emotion-Centered Design.



C |

assumption: there is a moral inferiority to having and expressing ‘negative’ emotions



People cause harm while being nice and even… while doing nothing

Being silent can easily cause emotional and physical harm. A person’s silence (or politeness, niceness, ‘peacefulness’) can mean that a person is prioritizing their safety or comfort, they may feel separate from or even ‘above’ an individual’s perceived problem or they may feel afraid. This might look like a misunderstanding between close friends that goes unaddressed for years. It might look like not speaking up in a meeting at work about a project while watching things go downhill. It might look like saying nothing when you’re at an event while seeing someone painfully excluded. It might look like speaking in a gentle kind tone while saying something harmful. It might look like silently shaming a person for repeatedly using drugs. It might look like new residents putting money into a new outsider bar or retail shop in a historically low-income neighborhood. It might look like demanding “peace and non-violence” from an oppressed group. It might look like an institution staying silent and choosing not to act, leaving individuals stranded or detained.

Judith Butler frames this issue in detail in their talk at The European Graduate School in 2016 about Distinctions on Violence and Non-Violence.

The question that I’m posing … is how we stabilize the distinction between violence and non-violence and if we can stabilize it. If we can’t stabilize it, why not? When we begin to debate philosophically whether we are in favor of non-violence, we usually have to stop to define our terms. How do we delimit violence and do we all agree on the various forms that violence can take?

What if we talk about ‘policies’ and even ‘failures to act’ that lead to the destruction of lives. There is no physical blow, and so no discrete act of physical violence performed by one body upon another.

…It’s a doing nothing in the face of something to be done.

An individual can be generous with their emotions and be forgiving of others’ in one scenario. In another, this same person can choose not to be. There’s a reason for their degree of generosity of heart. As people we’re full of contradictions and inconsistencies, we have very private and public lives, and our wide range of emotions are powerful. These qualities should be let lived as just that.

It’s a messy process to negotiate it all. It may be painful, loud, full of mistakes or terrifying and that’s ok. Learning from this and letting your practice be affected is what doing work about people’s emotional well-being means for me.

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