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The Role and Importance of Emotions in Our Professional and Personal Lives

When I started working at the age of 21, my manager was only a few years older than me. Both of us being very young and passionate about work, we developed a good friendship. As I completed my first year at work, I sat down with this friend (manager) to discuss my performance. I wasn’t ready for what came next.

In the meeting he was very formal and distant in his approach which I found unfair. Due to our friendship, I expected an informal conversation. Instead, what I got was “feedback” and “improvement points”. When he was done with the performance cycle, it left me in a very bad mood and it affected our friendship. While he was only performing his job as a manager, I was too naive and felt betrayed as a friend. It took us more than a year to mend our friendship, and I am good friends with him to this day.

This incident was very tough for me, and it was not until many years later that I recognised why it was so. At first I blamed my manager friend for being more of a “manager” than a “friend“. Later (after we mend ways) I blamed myself for being too emotional and developing friendships at work. I came to the (wrong) conclusion that emotions and rationality are mutually exclusive, and I shut myself down emotionally.

It was much later that I realised that emotions were not the culprit. Instead it was my inability to handle my emotions which led me to react impulsively. With experience I have come to believe that emotions are absolutely necessary for doing any meaningful work. They only seem tough when we don’t know how to handle them.

I have already written about how to handle our emotions in the workplace. In this article I want to stress on the importance of emotions as the driving force behind decisions.

We Experience The World Through Our Emotions

We walk around the world and make sense of it through our emotions. When we experience an event, different emotions get triggered based on our values and beliefs. Emotions make our experiences good or bad, valuable or not, and pleasurable or painful. If we introspect we will found that every decision we end up taking is derived from an emotion that touched and moved us.

These emotions can overwhelm us occasionally, but without them we would have no connection with people or events around us. While emotions can sometimes bring pain and tears, it is only through them that we feel joy, happiness and peace in life. It is very important to realise that emotions are our strength, and not our weakness.

It is our emotions that make us human. The little moments of joy when we play with our kids, the smile on our faces when we help someone, the tears in our eyes when we see something cruel and terrible (even if it is on TV) – it is these emotions that connect us all as human beings.

Seeing a tweet by a billionaire CEO and to be able to feel empathy for him/her makes us bridge the economic, physical and social divides and come closer. On the other hand, if we are privileged in any way, being able to empathise with the less privileged and act for them brings us closer. Emotions help keep our egos in check, and prevent us from being indifferent towards the less or more privileged in our society.

The Role and Importance of Emotions in our Lives

Emotions and Reason are Not Mutually Exclusive

Most of us believe that emotions and reason are opposites of each other, and it is often presented as a fact that you can’t act rationally if you are emotional. In many workplaces, emotions are frowned upon and an excessive display of emotions (joy, tears, anger) are seen as a liability.

On the contrary, what I have learned over the years is that emotions can be our biggest asset. They can give us important information that can shape our lives if we listen to what they are trying to tell us. The key is to learn how to express our emotions without repression or explosion.

Emotions can help us clear the fog of rational choices and reveal our moral lighthouses. They help us choose wisely when presented with two equally good or equally bad choices. Emotions clarify our thinking and help us see rational choices in a new light while pure rationality often makes us run wild with ideas, even at the expense of others. Rationality without emotions can look enticing in the short term, but it can be a menace in the long term.

It Is Impossible to Be Rational Without Emotions

While it is true that emotions can overwhelm rationality at times, it is impossible to be rational without being emotional. Today there is scientific evidence to prove that we, as human beings, are incapable of making decisions if we can’t feel our emotions. You can read about the works of neurobiologist Antonio Damasio to see that without emotions, there is no decision making possible. [1][2]

He worked on a patient with a severed connection between the frontal lobe (where rationality originates) and cerebral amygdala (where emotions originate) in the brain. After the surgery, the patient could think, but he could not feel anything. He noticed that while he was able to engage in rational thought all the time, he was not able to make a choice over the other.

When Emotions Overwhelm Us?

We all have been in situations where we don’t want to do what we know is the right thing to do. When emotions overwhelm us, we can get sucked into the temptation of the respective emotion and (re)act in a way which provides us emotional relief. For example – When you couldn’t control your frustration and vented it out on your manager because it felt good to spurt it out.

Emotions are very good messengers, but poor masters. We should always listen to them and let them play a big role in our rationality, but subjugating reason to emotional whims can cause us short and long term harm. In the end we should always use reason to choose the best option available for us, and use emotions as a lighthouse to guide us on the right path. This will help us in making the right choices (which might not be the easy ones) in life with conviction.

Emotions Intelligence is a Skill. Train Yourself

Now that we have seen that there is no action possible without emotions, we can conclude that emotions are not bad or good in themselves. It is our ability to handle them that make us interpret them as so. It is a skill that, just like other skills, can be developed.

Learning to deal with uncomfortable emotions builds confidence and opens up new pathways which were earlier closed to you. Emotional people are often regarded as weak in certain societies, but I believe that the ability to handle one’s own emotions is one of the most useful skills a human being can acquire.

Increased emotional awareness can be a great asset we all can make use of not only to make the right decisions for ourselves, but also to create a better world around us. A world which is not mine or yours – but ours.

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