Our bodies are made up of traits that are good for our survival and the survival of our species. Every part of us has a function, a purpose. For example, the function of eyes is to see. The function of taste buds is to determine the nutritional value of food and avoid eating poisons.
Our emotions evolved right alongside our bodies. What is the function of emotions? To answer this, think about good ol’ Uncle Caveman. How did fear keep him alive? That’s easy, when he saw a Sabertooth tiger, Uncle Caveman got scared and ran away! Fear gave him the adrenaline, energy, and focus he needed to stay alive.
How did anger keep Uncle Caveman alive? It helped him bargain for his interests better. When another tribe tried to move into his cave, anger created the right motivation for Uncle Caveman to keep his cave (good thing too, what with all those Sabertooth tigers running around). Anger helped Uncle Caveman protect his interests.
What about shame? Shame is a very social emotion, more so than other feelings. When Uncle Caveman did something that disgusted, disappointed, or angered his tribe, he felt shame. Being part of a tribe was critical to Uncle Caveman’s staying alive. The formula is: Alone = Death, Part of Tribe = Survival. Shame helped Uncle Caveman act in pro-social ways so his tribe would not kick him out. (So he had to stop tagging the wooly mammoths).
Sadness for Uncle Caveman was caused by a loss of some sort. I hope one of his children wasn’t eaten by a Sabretooth tiger, but I can’t promise that. Say it happened. Well, sadness did two important things for Uncle Caveman’s survival, and the survival of his tribe. 1) He never forgot that Sabertooth tigers can kill. He told everyone he knew. And he never again asked a Sabertooth tiger to babysit his kids. 2) It made him yearn for his child, and for connection to others. Guess what, this story ends well. Uncle Caveman’s baby actually was hiding that whole time, and since sadness had motivated Uncle Caveman to search for his kid…they lived happily ever after.
Emotions helped Uncle Caveman make decisions that helped him stay alive. The function of emotions is to help us make good decisions, so we don’t get hurt, used, ignored, or run down.
Evolution is a SLOW process. In fact, our bodies are very alike to our cavemen ancestors. Sure, we know a lot more. And we use Facebook and soap. But our bodies—and our brains—are not so different from good old Uncle Caveman!
Emotions evolved in humans like everything else; what was adaptive to the species remained. Emotions are critical to our decision making! That’s why therapists tell people to “understand your emotions.” If you did that better, you’d made better decisions. I promise.
If we all had perfectly tuned emotions, life would be good. But, we are individuals within a species, and we each have different characteristics. That applies to our eye color, height, IQ, athletic ability, and—of course—emotional experiences.
Many mental disorders are characterized by too much—or not enough—of certain emotions. Depression is too much sadness. Anxiety Disorders are too much fear. Personality Disorders may be too much shame and anger. When you notice your feelings remain far beyond their function (remember, they help you make good decisions), they can seriously interfere with your life. If your emotions have outlived their usefulness, talk to a trusted adult (p.s., Sabertooth tigers are not good confidantes). It’s time you had some help.