Emotions are powerful high-octane motivators. Ask any advertiser, marketer, or politician. They know, if they can engage the parts of a person’s brain that we generally associate with the range of behaviours we call “emotions”, they can motivate a person to action, even against their own interests. Not surprisingly, many hurtful people in our day-to-day lives also prey on our emotions to achieve their ends.
To defend oneself from this kind of manipulation, one strategy is to always doubt the validity of any action motivated by or primarily motivated by emotion and to always doubt the validity of any and all appeals to emotion.
This strategy, I think, is a mistake.
Remember, our emotions evolved to help us survive and reproduce in our environment. Our emotions are capable of making very reasonable and rational judgments on how we should act in a variety of situations. Emotions are there to motivate us to actions that are beneficial, usually to ourselves and often to others, even when they feel bad or painful. Yes, they can be manipulated, but that does not mean they are always wrong. Our reason, for example, can be manipulated as easily as our emotions, but we still recognize that it can get it right, when we learn to reason carefully. It is a strange prejudice of our species that we totally disregard the validity of our emotions because they sometimes get it wrong, but overlook too easily the errors of our reason.
There is, I think, a more sensible approach. I claimed some months ago that an emotion in one person doesn’t in itself create an obligation or duty in another. My love of you, for example, does not oblige you to do anything. You may decide to oblige yourself because of that love or your own love, but you are not required to do so.
Similarly, the fact of my emotion does not create an obligation or duty in me, even if it feels like it does. An emotion should be seen as a kind of proposal — admittedly, a powerful one — on how one should act, but a proposal that is open to reflection and consideration. In many high-octane situations, it will often make sense to act on the emotion and reflect later, but, reflection on and assessment of the action taken is still necessary, even if it happens after the fact. In time, you will learn when and how to trust your emotions.
And, once you learn that, you will be far less vulnerable to manipulation. It is, in fact, the distrust of our emotions that makes it easier for the hurtful to manipulate and have power over us.