What Good are Emotions?

Emotions serve a function... they give us information, they communicate to others and motivate us to actions. We may have times when we would like to "get rid of" unwanted emotions specifically feelings of shame, guilt, anger or sadness. You don't hear many people say they would like to feel "less happy".  However trying to push away our feelings doesn't work.  Research shows that not only is emotional suppression an ineffective way to eliminating thoughts and feelings, but it may even worsen the situation (Gross & Levenson, 1997; Petrie et al., 1998; Wenzlaff & Wegner, 2000). So, instead of trying to get rid of unwanted emotions it can be helpful to understand the function the emotion is playing. Functions of Emotions

1. Communicate to (and influence) others

Facial expressions are a hard-wired part of emotions. In primitive societies and among animals, facial expressions communicate like words. Even in modern societies, facial expressions communicate faster than words.
 When it is important to us to communicate with others, or send them a message, it can be very hard for us to change our emotions.
 Whether we intend it or not, the communication of emotion influences others.

2. Organize and motivate action

Emotions motivate our behavior. The action urge connected to specific emotions is often "hard-wired." Emotions prepare us for action.
 Emotions save time in getting us to act in important situations. We don't have to think everything through.
 Strong emotions help us overcome obstacles in our mind and in the environment.

3. Emotions can be self-validating

Our emotional reactions to other people and to events can give us information about the situation. 
Emotions can be signals or alarms that something is happening.
 When this is carried to an extreme, emotions are treated as facts. "If I feel competent, I am." "If I get depressed when left alone, I shouldn't be left alone." "If I feel right about something, it is right." "If I'm afraid, it is threatening."

* Functions of emotions is taken from Dr. Linehan's Skills Training Manual for Treating Borderline Personality Disorder (citation below).


Gross, J.J. & Levenson, R.W. (1997) Hiding feelings: The acute effects of inhibiting negative and positive emotion. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, Vol 106(1), 95-103.

Linehan, M. M. (1993). Skills Training Manual for Treating Borderline Personality Disorder. New York: Guilford Press

Petrie, K.J., Booth, R.J., & Pennebaker, J.W. (1998). The immunological effects of thought suppression.  Journal of  Personality and Social Psychology. 75(5), 1264-72.

Wenzlaff,  R.M., & Wegner,  D. M. (2000). Thought suppression. Annual review of psychology. 51, 59-91.