Holding on to Emotions too Long

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A lot of us wonder what we’re supposed to do with our unpleasant emotions when they inevitably rear their ugly heads, and we receive a lot of conflicting messages from the various important people and institutions in our lives. In your family of origin, there were probably emotions or at the least ways of expressing them that were tabu. For example, some of us try to keep emotions like anger or envy at a safe distance while others feed off them, using them to achieve their ends.

In the almost unconscious process where we categorize for ourselves, with the help of various inputs from our environment, which emotions are okay to feel and how exactly we’re supposed to express this feeling, it’s no wonder that we don’t take the time to consider that every single emotion is evolutionarily determined and therefore has adaptive value.

Feeling them is not the problem, trying to hold on to them too long is. It’s like letting fruit go past its expiration date, where something once prime for eating becomes sickly sweet and rotten. Instead of beneficial to your body eating it would cause you health problems.

As we have written elsewhere, the adaptive value of emotions is that they give you quick, decisive information about your environment so that you can act without having to spend a lot of time thinking about it. We all know how powerful and instantaneous a flood of emotion can be and just how much this flood influences our behavior in the moment. But in a quickly changing natural environment, the adaptive value would quickly be reduced to zero if you didn’t reset emotionally, going back to a baseline so that you could be prepared for the next input with the next corresponding emotion.

Holding on to emotions too long is what negatively impacts your well-being, not the emotions themselves. If you can treat them as detectives who look for clues from the environment and then send you the clearest message possible about what these clues mean, your relationship to your emotions might change as you start to consider all of them allies in the struggle to understand people and situations, seeing through the myriad masks, using your gut instinct the way it was designed to be used.