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Emotions: Essential Wayfinders, Not Woo-Woo

Updated: Nov 5, 2022

The essential nature of emotional connection for humans means that we have a need, and indeed a responsibility, to cultivate emotional dexterity and to learn how to manage emotional reactivity. This is in service to our ability to flourish (and connect) as individuals and as humans in communities, and to encourage and model healthy behaviors for our children and students. Findings in fields like neuroscience, psychology, sociology, education, and social work continue to expand our understanding of this concept, which is now also concretely linked to the studies of human biology and development, medicine, and physical health and wellbeing.


Consider the words of Dr. Immordino-Yang of the University of Southern California, who specializes in the studies of affective neuroscience and humanistic psychology:

“It is literally neurobiologically impossible to build memories, engage complex thoughts, or

make meaningful decisions without emotion. And after all, this makes sense: the brain is highly

metabolically expensive tissue, and evolution would not support wasting energy and oxygen

thinking about things that don’t matter to us.”


Connecting the dots, did you know for example, that 90% of the serotonin in your body is produced in your gut? Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that affects mood regulation, memory, sleep, sexual function, and more. Did you know that in addition to your central nervous system you also have an enteric nervous system located in your gastrointestinal system?


Seriously. The gut-brain axis is the term used to describe the “bidirectional communication between the central and the enteric nervous system, linking emotional and cognitive centers of the brain with peripheral intestinal functions.”


Notably, it is “the reason we get butterflies in our stomach or need to use the restroom more frequently when we are nervous and/or under stress.”


Social media and bookstores are full of titles, tropes, memes, and inspirational statements indicating a broad acceptance of the mind-body connection. History supports it as well. In fact, the ancient Romans designed living communities around the need for all people, no matter their role in the social hierarchy, to nurture their minds and bodies. Have you ever heard the phrase: “A healthy mind is a healthy body” (Mens sana in corpore sano)? It is attributed to a Roman poet, Juvenal, born in 55 AD. This isn’t a new concept!


What’s more, researchers are beginning to better understand the actual biological mechanisms that underly these important connections, including that of the gut-brain axis mentioned above.


Relatedly, collaborations between folks in neuroscience and the social sciences affirm social emotional learning (SEL) as vital to human flourishing. When SEL is scaffolded throughout childhood in age-appropriate and contextually relevant ways, we see better academic, social, emotional, and professional outcomes. It tends to be more important, in fact, than intellectual quotient (IQ), and many companies say they wish more candidates—even those with stellar domain-specific skills—were well versed in SEL competencies (e.g., relationship skills, self-management, responsible decision-making, etc.)


So, if we accept the science (and lived experience!) that underpins the belief that “a healthy mind is a healthy body” …and lean into research from the world of mental health as well (e.g., Dr. Bessel van der Kolk’s #1 New York Times bestseller, The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma), the next step would seem to be an investigation into what we can do to cultivate social and emotional well-being, in service to our mental and physical health, right?!


This draws a spotlight on the importance of cultivating self-knowledge around our emotions, the ways they make us feel in our bodies, how they relate to habituated behavioral responses, and how they impact everything from relationships to basic physical health.


I think most of us would say we want a healthier mind and body—that forming meaningful memories, maintaining positive relationships, and making sound decisions are important to us!


Yet despite the overwhelming body of transdisciplinary literature that underpins the subject, I continue to engage with folks—both personally and professionally—who see emotion science as “woo-woo,” or maybe they think it’s “legit-ish." A recent conversation with a learned family member whom I deeply respect, really puzzled me. He expressed confusion and skepticism around the role of emotions in his life and in the work place. As a result, I started paying careful attention to other peoples’ comments on the subject, and here’s what I noticed:


Some “just don’t get it” and are of the “stop crying like a [baby/girl/p---y]” mindset.


Some are generally [emotionally] disconnected from people, and as such, may not be aware of what a solid emotional connection looks and feels like—or know what they’re missing. They may not see how emotional distancing impacts them.


Then there are some who still believe in long-since-dismissed neuromyths, like the idea of “hemispheric dominance” that falsely labelled certain people’s thinking as more “emotional”, based on the also invalidated idea that a person is either “right brained” or “left brained” (and that this predicted their thinking and learning).


I noticed that other folks think the investment of time in developing such “soft skills” is not worth it, or maybe even a complete waste of time and energy.


Then there are others, I observed, who may dip a toe into the world of “emotional intelligence”. They might watch a TEDTalk or read an article and then stop exploring. Their work is done—they are now experts. These folks tend to fall prey to the Dunning-Kruger Effect:

“…a cognitive bias whereby people with limited knowledge or competence in a given

intellectual or social domain greatly overestimate their own knowledge or competence in that

domain relative to objective criteria or to the performance of their peers or of people in

general.

You know, sort of like reading the “CliffsNotes” version of a novel rather than reading the actual book, and then thinking you’re the smart one in the class, the expert on the book. We have all fallen prey to this form of bias (we’re human!) but given how high the stakes are in this realm, I would submit that it might actually be “safer” to approach this part of life’s journey with a beginner’s mind.


Maybe there is self-protection in the reasons people dismiss the value of developing emotional literacy. Perhaps opening “Pandora’s box” of emotions is either explicitly or implicitly threatening or icky sounding. Our cultural tendency toward toxic positivity and an unrealistic quest for “perfection” (wtf?!), may further distance us from the desire (and willingness) to enter emotionally tender spaces. I heard one person say: “If I open that box, I’ll never be able to close the lid. It’ll take me down,” without realizing that the emotional gymnastics involved in her denial were taking her down anyway. They were already eroding her self-described “very important relationships.”


Regardless of the reasons, most people I continue to encounter do not seem to find it directly relevant (or important) enough to their own well-being to engage in this work for themselves, and this leaves me perplexed. We have something that we know is integral to human flourishing, yet we largely minimize it. How do we get (collectively) unstuck from this position? What will get us off of high center?


Rabbi Abraham Heschell said: "The act teaches us the meaning of the act.” So how do we get more people to start acting?! Though this is lifelong work, it is iterative—baby steps will move mountains, and impact future generations.

I intend to keep grappling with this challenge of how to be a disrupter of neuromyths and a champion of emotional literacy, on a grander scale. In the meantime, the words of a song from a 1969 Jerry Herman musical, “Dear World”, keep playing in my head, directing me to focus on what I can do right now:

"One person can beat a drum And make enough noise for ten One person can blow a horn And that little boom And that little blare Can make a hundreds others care…"


There is a growing tribe of folks across sectors that is advancing emotion science and advocating for age-appropriate SEL skill development, despite the “boots on the ground” anecdotal pushback I’ve shared in this post. Maybe it is just a matter of time. Maybe the intentional, systematic, diligence of each person blowing into their little horns—in different corners of the world—will eventually seed broader social and emotional literacy (and harmony!).


Until then, if you are ready to explore (or expand) your practice of emotional dexterity, a few good places to start would be Dr. Susan David’s Emotional Agility and Dr. Marc Brackett’s Permission to Feel. And you cannot go wrong, of course, with Dr. Brené Brown’s work--in particular, Atlas of the Heart: Mapping Meaningful Connection and the Language of Human Experience). If you’re looking for advice for how to incorporate this stuff into educational systems visit casel.org. For organizations and businesses, while there are MANY options, you might start with McKinsey and Company’s analysis (e.g., “Soft skills for a hard world”) and The Harvard Business Review (e.g., Adam Grant, Amy Edmondson, Frances Frei, etc.).


But here’s the brass tacks: If you want to be in healthy relationships with yourself and others, at home and at work…and you want your mind and body to be well most of the time, then you will have to start exploring, accepting, and integrating your emotions—positive and negative (and everything in between)—with your choices and behavior, and this will take some effort.


It is truly a practice…like yoga or football or adult-ing. It requires an open mind, some self-compassion, courage, and the willingness to experiment...and it promises the world.


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