“Emotion.” For some, even saying or hearing the word activates . . . emotion. But what is it? Or perhaps the question is, “What are they?” Is “emotion” a singular entity or a collection of things? A phenomenon as common as emotion seems so difficult to understand. In my work as a therapist/pastor/elder, I have asked and been asked questions like, “What is emotion?” “What is so important about them?” “Why does it matter what emotion I feel?” hundreds, if not thousands of times. The answer to these questions matters. It matters relationally, spiritually, and naturally, emotionally. However, the essence of the word itself remains difficult to capture. In fact, researcher Thomas Dixon states that the term is so difficult to define and understand that perhaps it should be cast from usage in psychology and science altogether.1
The field of psychology focuses more on the role of “affect” than in defining “emotion.” “Affect” (short “a” as in “apple” with the emphasis on the first syllable) is defined as a person’s “immediate expression of emotion.”2 In over thirty-two years of clinical and church-based practice, I have noted a person’s affect thousands of times. In fact, the linchpin of my experience as a therapist is to guide someone as they unwind their story from places inside of them perhaps long ago locked away.
As someone untangles their story, I am honored to hear words like, “I have never told anyone this,” or “This is so scary, but I trust you.” Often, in the course of an hour, a mound of used tissues will grow while only a small part of the story is told. The qualifying statements, the steady tears, and long pauses come not from the content of the story, but its emotional impact.
While scientists wrestle with defining emotion, thousands of people in my office, other offices, restaurant booths, vehicles, homes, and many other places, are sharing their stories and struggles through emotional expression, or affect.
Emotions are the language of relationship and are essential for humans to pursue and maintain them. Parents do not have to send their babies to “emotional expression school,” or enroll them in a seminar to learn how to express their emotions. The most common expression for a small child is to cry out, even from the moment of birth. This attachment (or the lack thereof) profoundly impacts the brain. The expression of emotion shapes our ability to integrate the events of our life into our brain.3
From the moment of birth, it is evident that humans are made for relationship and will (quite literally) cry out for them. Research shows that human beings are so “hardwired” for relationship that researchers label this need as “emotional architecture.”
In a fascinating study at San Francisco State University, researchers discovered that even blind babies will react with a smile while interacting pleasurably with their mothers:
I can attest that what begins in childhood continues throughout the entire life cycle. At the root of human struggle lies emotional upheaval and distress. There is an adage that has been passed through generations of practitioners that, “We are impaired through relationship, and repaired through relationship.” As emotional distress is the root of upheaval, emotional expression in secure relationships is the root of healing. Relationships in which a person is seen, soothed, safe, and secure provide the foundation upon which emotional healing occurs.5
Much of therapy in all its forms creates an environment rich in these “4 S’s” in order to heal the trauma stored in hurting people’s brains and bodies. In other words, even though our bodies and problem-solving skills grow, secure attachment and an environment conducive to expressing emotion remain the key ingredients to healing. Sadly, many people expend tremendous amounts of energy attempting to deny, minimize, pray away, and numb emotions because of their vulnerable need to “cry out” in emotional expression. All too often, their histories of being shamed, blamed, humiliated, or punished for “being emotional” fuel the drive to rid themselves of any emotional expression at all. They are relegated to lives of numb grayness.
We are made for relationship, and connection. We inherit an emotional architecture that expresses passion, dreams, hopes, visions, imagination, desire, and longings. Emotions guide and impact relationships between marriage partners, business partners, parents, uncles, aunts, friends, and a host of other relationships.
Though the scientific community struggles to define emotions, scientists and physicians are publishing research at a rapid pace, reinforcing what pastors, therapists, and other helpers have experienced for decades. Hurting, suffering people heal through secure relationships that allow safe emotional expression.
The morning I wrote this article, I received a text from someone who sat across from me for many hours. His text read in part, “I am forever grateful for our work. I am truly living again.” As if that wasn’t blessing enough, I later read this passage from one of my favorite books: “Emotions are at the root of all that we do. Emotion is the messenger of love; it is the vehicle that carries every signal from one brimming heart to another. For human beings, feeling deeply is synonymous with being alive.”6
Without emotion, a numb, gray life would be the norm. Imagine a world in which the gray masses simply spoke content and relied on facts, figures, and data to interact and form relationships. There is actually a word for such living, and it’s called “transactionalism.”7 It practices pragmatism, undergirded by the belief that life and relationships are to be data-centered and static, running at the pace of the latest data transfer needed to solve a problem or conflict.
The people that come into my office, and I suspect almost every person reading this, would kindly decline such a life. Something inside us desires far more than problem solving our way through life. We yearn to love and be loved, to fight for commitment and relationship, to know and be known. We crave movement and energy. Emotions and our ability to express them break us free from static transactionalism. Curt Thompson gets to the heart of this desire: “Emotion itself could be considered to be the gasoline in our human tank. If we were to take emotion out of the human experience, we would literally stop moving.”8
We are not made to stop moving. We are made to live and to love, to cry deeply and to laugh loudly. To get to the end of our days emotionally tired but with the emotional vigor from a lifetime of the good, the bad, the hard, and the wonderful in the fight for living fully.