Metaphors for living are numerous; a good thing as they provide the structure through which we interact within the world. Were they shallow and few, our lives would be equally as such. The multiplicity of metaphor, like the personal narratives carrying purpose and meaning, allow us to encounter variations in life without sitting down in an overwhelmed stupor. One such metaphor is the game of billiards (though ‘marbles’ could also work here): one ball at a time moves across a table (or floor), hitting one or another ball at a time and sending each in a prescribed path according to the dictates of geometry. The means of initial movement is directed by the cue (or finger). Substitute the cue for consciousness, the ball for your body and other balls for people/objects/situations, and you have a fairly full idea of how the metaphor works.
When talking about emotions using this metaphor, phrases like ‘I had my buttons pushed’ and ‘I put my feelings on him/her’ are common. These and other phrases are based on assumptions within the metaphor: ‘Emotions Move Us’ and ‘Emotions Have A Direction.’ These assumptions culminate in the quite common phrasing of ‘I was moved’ when describing a particularly emotional event/image. At the level of immediate, self-centered awareness, this way of looking at our emotional lives seems legitimate, even obvious. Unfortunately for the continuation of this view, it isn’t that simple.
Go back to the billiards metaphor, but this time remove the cue and attach cables between the balls of varying lengths, number, tension and substance. Here is life, an interconnected whole bound by various lines vibrating with tensions as each ball moves about the table. The truly frustrating bit is how the cue has been replaced by a hovering lens with a very poor viewing area. The result is it only ever sees a part of the table and only some of the attached cables at any given moment.
Emotions are Relationships
Within the billiards metaphor, emotions and thoughts are separate objective things, moved around by conscious will. How and whether a person responds to them is then viewed as a choice by each person. The notion that ‘I can’t make you feel that’ or ‘It’s your choice to be hurt’ is based on this, as if the potential choices a person has are limitless and no longer tied to context. Once we shift to a more nuanced metaphor, how and whether a person responds to a situation is more constrained. There’s still choice, but because of the cables binding various relationships, it’s a choice with boundaries and limits.
Every relationship comes with attachments, the stories/hopes/desires/histories we bring. The words we use are the means through which we elaborate upon and flesh out the substance of all those attachments. Emotion labels are no different. They direct our attention to the cables binding us within an interconnected life.
“Our minds are predictive devices, attempting to set up an accurate enough framing of our upcoming experience to guide our behavior to meet it. To do so, our past is linked with input from our current context. This combination requires constant evaluative processes, often fast and far more rarely, slow.”
Emotions are a label connecting something we care about, a Value, to the object/person/situation that said Value is perceived as embodying. Do you get angry about things you don’t care about? Do you love without someone in mind? Does frustration exist without being thwarted in pursuing a goal? Our emotions are not driving us towards anything, they are the labels we place on movement we’re already engaged in. They direct our attention to the relationships we have between our Values and the people/places/things in our lives.
Emotions Are A Means, Not the End
“Because objective analysis of our own demeanor and behavior in emotional exchanges is so difficult, we need to understand the function of certain emotions in our social interactions, which are likely to exert more influence on what we do than what we think we’re doing.”The Emotions of Social Interaction: Psychology Today
Function implies a tool being used, like a knife to spread butter or a cup to hold a drink. Thinking this way puts us right back in the original billiards metaphor. However, pause for a moment and consider the rarity of encountering a tool that isn’t used in many ways, often outside the original intent of the designer. Who hasn’t used a paperclip to unscrew a flat-head screw? How about using the back end of a hard object, like a stapler, to push in a nail? Function here then is more than just the utilization of a tool, it is the recognition of a connection between the person using it and the goal to which it is used.
Now we’re back in a mindset of relationship.
Too often emotions are considered the end goals themselves, as if to feel happy, angry, or sad, is the end of a journey. This is based on emotions being objective simple things that we engage with, like a ball from a sport. Seeing them as labels for particular relationships not only removes this limiting vision, it enlarges personal perception to look at all the myriad ways Values are being put into action. For instance, rather than happiness itself being a goal, we can inquire and identify what within the situation it is that we care about (Value) and be more present with the actions we’ve taken to support it.
Emotions are like that accident on the freeway, we seem to not be able to stop looking at it even if it means not paying attention to our own driving. They’re loud and take up most of our perception, so it makes sense to believe that they’re central to who we are. Thankfully we are more than the blaring sirens, we have lives dedicated to what we care about. Stepping back from the noise we can become more aware of what is actually driving us (our Values) and spend our energy supporting our Values in the most life-affirming way possible.