Emotional horsepower gets a bad rep

Hombre conduciendo un automóvil sujetando un volante.

(I must credit Nietzsche for the inspiration of this article. He said “The man who moves mountains also moves valleys.” This column is my understanding of that sentiment.)

“You’re so emotional!” When people say this, it is rarely meant as a compliment, it infrequently belies a sense of confidence and high esteem. This is because the person who makes decisions guided by extreme emotions has the capacity to make costly mistakes that everyone seems to fixate upon. We hear news of impulsive, destructive and abusive behaviors that come from anger. We see people who are disabled by their anxieties, people who experience severe loss of functioning and loss of relationships as a result of grief and sadness. In the field of psychology, we are often saddled with the task of reducing emotionality in our clients.

Perhaps we haven’t been entirely fair in our perspective of emotionality. In order to look at the flipside of emotion, I must first define what emotion is. To me, emotion is horsepower, plain and simple. It is the force behind which we pursue our needs. There are tremendous benefits to having this force, because without it we would not fulfill any of our needs or goals. If you approached all of your needs with a ‘meh’ attitude, you probably wouldn’t get much done at all. If your lover was imploring you for more affection and you didn’t care, if you had an interest in embarking on a new career but felt no passion toward it, if you were dying of thirst in the desert and it didn’t move your emotional needle, your life pursuits would quickly derail.

Most of the really successful, brilliant, creative, experientially engaged and interesting people in this world are also rather mercurial by nature. Their emotionality is what allows them to build upon all their internal pursuits. So imagine some people are like Ferraris and some people are more like my 2001 Volvo POS stationwagon with car seats in the back (no offense to Volvo, they are great cars that’s why I bought one). The Ferrari has hella horsepower, the Volvo not so much. If the Ferrari is being driven carefully, it can go further faster than other vehicles (big win for the Ferrari). But if is not being driven carefully–the driver is unaware of where she is steering, the alignment is off, there’s mud all over the windshield and the like–it can crash. And when it crashes, it crashes hard. Things blow up, people run in flames from the wreckage, there’s weeping mothers in the street, etc. Now if the Volvo is misdirected, it will still crash, but it doesn’t hit with nearly as much force. It’s a fender-bender, no big deal. Perhaps the air bag goes off (Volvos are also the safest car in the world, practically death-proof). Everyone is OK when the Volvo crashes because it doesn’t go 260 mph, it only goes 40 mph top speed.

Take-home message: emotional people have more capacity to experience heavier damage that results from disruptions in the way they navigate their needs, but it is not the emotionality itself that creates the damage, it is the direction the car is going. If you are speeding down an open freeway toward a self-actualizing goal, extra horsepower is a big plus. If you are speeding toward a brick wall or a school bus filled with small children, horsepower is muy bad. So if you are a Ferrari, be extremely careful in how you drive. If you’re a Volvo, don’t congratulate yourself too much for being better than the Ferraris out there. Yes you don’t smash into things but most people going big places in life don’t get there in a Volvo.

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