Blog, Mental Health

They’re Not Emotions; They’re Symptoms

I was talking to my partner about something that had been nagging at me a bit- nothing big, but I wanted his perspective. As we were talking, I made the comment that I’m not a highly emotional person… or I tried to, anyway, but he started laughing uncontrollably.

“You can’t tell me that you’re not an emotional person,” he said, “because I’m one of the people you go to to process your emotions! What have we just spent the last ten minutes talking about?”

In true stubborn form, I bristled. “Logistics!” I retorted. He shook his head in exasperation.

I am, of course, an emotional person. I live my life with a lot of passion and feel things very deeply. It’s not that I lack emotion; it’s that I dislike operating from an emotional place.

Emotions are messy. As a friend put it the other day, “they’re just so…soggy.” They can be irrational. Emotions feel a bit like a tempestuous toddler- they refuse to be ignored, refuse to go away, refuse to listen to reason or sense. They just sit there, crying on the floor, because you told them they couldn’t have something.

And so I don’t like operating from an emotional place. I don’t trust my emotions. When my anxiety flares up, it tells me all kinds of things that I know are absurd, but I am still utterly convinced they are true. Same with depression.

My partner is trying to point these things out to me- that I experience these emotions- and I’m counteracting every one: “depression and anxiety are mental health, not emotions,” I point out.

It’s not that I think he’s wrong, exactly; it just that, as my mother would say, I am the kind of stubborn that will cut off my nose to spite my face.

He looks at me. “For you…maybe it’s not emotion,” he says slowly, “it’s a symptom. You experience emotion as a symptomatic byproduct of external factors, instead of recognizing that the emotions come from within yourself. That’s why you focus on logistics: if you can change or understand the external factors, you can shift your emotional responses.”

He’s right, and I know he’s right. I concede the point. It’s no secret that I filter my emotion through logic, try to deconstruct what I’m feeling through some kind of algorithmic, streamlined process.

“It’s not that you ‘feel sad.’ It’s that a situation happens, the byproduct of which is sadness. So if you can reframe the situation, or change it, or create a different situation, then you create a different byproduct. It’s a symptom for you, based on some external cause.”

I feel like this framework lends itself to the idea that I don’t take responsibility for my emotions. I feel like the premise of “responsibility” is based on the idea that we don’t make other people be the caretakers of our emotional processes. And that is something I do believe in: I work really hard to mitigate the impact of my emotions. Regardless of the cause or where they come from, I do make a conscious, concerted effort to limit the blast radius impact of a strong emotional surge.

I mull over this a bit. “But we’ve structured everything through a harm-reduction lens,” I point out. “How I manage mental health, how I manage…everything in my life. Harm reduction is based on minimizing impact, which is symptom-based. It’s not about tackling the underlying cause, but about accepting the premise of someone’s life and minimizing the ways in which harmful behaviors impact themselves and their communities.”

Several years ago, a friend of mine told me about a rule that she has: the 72 hour rule. If something upsets her, makes her angry, whatever, she sits on it for 72 hours. If, at the end of that, it’s still something weighing on her mind, then she goes to the other person and addresses the issue. But chances are, she’s forgotten about it in that time, because it wasn’t actually as big of a deal as it felt in the moment, and her reaction might have been from a convergence of factors: exhaustion, low blood sugar, hormones, whatever.

I have adopted this rule for myself and it’s one of the best things I have ever done. Because 7/10 times, yeah, I’ve forgotten about the thing that upset me in the first place. But in those times that I don’t, I feel calmer, more logical, more capable of articulating what actually bothered me because I’ve taken the time to think about it. I can approach the issue in a calm, reasoned way and usually find a better resolution.


Mitigating impact. If I frame emotion as a byproduct and focus on the logistics of the situation, rather than the experience of emotion, it feels better to me than unbridled, unrestricted, unchecked emotion. It feels controlled- or at least, controllable. It doesn’t mean that my emotions are someone else’s fault or responsibility. It feels like chemistry: when I mix certain chemicals together in a certain order, they produce specific byproducts. But I can mix different chemicals, or mix the chemical in a different order, and produce very different byproducts.

Which isn’t too far from how emotions work in the first place. Chemical reactions in the body, based on firing specific neurons in a specific order. So if I retrain my brain, then I change the emotional reactions.

But it still distances me from the experience of emotion. It still focuses on emotion as symptomatic, rather than causational.

So maybe, yeah, I need to allow my emotions to be an experience in and of themselves. To acknowledge them as a cause in their own right sometimes, not easily explained by external circumstances. It’s not that someone else can make be feel things, it’s that circumstances create by-products, one of which is emotion.

But that affords me the luxury of distance. The ability to separate myself from what I feel. To delegitimize by own emotions through constructing logical processes to change them.

I don’t like operating from an emotional place. But taken to the extreme, it means that I sever the cords within myself that allow me to access the emotional responses I have. It’s a useful tool, sometimes; it’s a bit of a crutch other times. Learning to value and respect my own emotional responses is something I have never been good at, but pretending they aren’t there just causes them to erupt with greater force. Like the screaming toddler on the floor, they need something; ignoring them doesn’t make them go away.

It just makes them scream louder.

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