Emotion. Is it constrained by society or psychology?
Emotion has always interested me.
In humans, there are six basic emotions: anger, disgust, fear, happiness, sadness, and surprise.
This evening I sparred with my sociology professor over the constraints of human emotion. According to her, society and culture set the parameters for emotions in every person, but I countered that emotion had to be to determined by the psychological makeup of the person and I have been thinking about our conversation ever since.
As a child, I saw the two extremes of human emotion.
My father is almost stoic; always attempting to hide fear and sadness. He was scared and reluctant to express affection and love, almost to the point of being embarrassed when my mom would display any affection toward him in front of us children or family. He refused to publicly shed a tear, and in my entire childhood, I only saw him sniffle one time and that was when his dog died.
My mother was the exact opposite. She was extremely affectionate, caring, and sensitive. While reading a fictional story about a dog race, she burst into sobs when the fictional dog died crossing the finish line. Rarely was I allowed to kill a bug that intruded into the house, because it might have babies somewhere that would miss their mom – you get the point.
If emotions were related to genes, then the combination of my parents would have probably resulted with me being an emotionally “perfect” person.
But in all honesty, I lean towards my father’s side of the balance.
I don’t express emotion. Rephrase – I rarely express emotion. Out of the six basic emotions, I only struggle to feel and express sadness, fear, and surprise.
Anger is simple and although I don’t lose my cool or fly off the handle, I definitely experience frustration and will intermittently spout the occasional curse word.
Disgust is also easy for me but it happens only occasionally as I read news articles of gruesome and horrendous crimes.
Happiness is perhaps the easiest emotion for me to express, and even with my realistic approach to life I am happy and content with the insignificant.
Surprise is something I do experience, but that is an emotion I mentally control. I refuse to allow my reaction or response to indicate that I am taken aback or flabbergasted with unexpected information – be it good or bad. With things like my sisters’ getting married or death of loved ones, when I first hear about them, watching me, you would think it was only a mundane conversation.
Fear, for some reason, is not something I have to really suppress. When I am out and about, I mentally process the people around me and based on how they carry themselves, make a note to avoid confrontation with certain types of people. But when I am accosted or verbally assaulted, I have no fear. These affronts can be counted on my hands, but each and every time the antagonist has backed down because I register no fear towards them. In the moment, I am calm and unafraid. My voice and hands are steady, and I smirk at their immaturity in becoming so agitated. And, yes, I know it is the adrenaline rush that partially causes these reactions.
Sadness is the one emotion that I really try to avoid. Once again, I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve cried since I was 9 years old. I am not immune to hurt or pain, but I tend to process it mentally rather than emotionally. When my grandpa died, I did not cry. When our dogs were put to sleep, I did not cry. I’ve only cried at one death, the death of the person I trusted and loved growing up, but it took me two weeks of processing the situation before crying was even a remote option.
Empathy I feel and understand, but I am so inept at comforting others.
Why? I do not really know.
Based on my psychology professor perspective, he would tell me that I am repressing strong emotional feelings and that by pushing those feeling into my subconscious I am able to avoid dealing with them. I’d love to believe him, because that would simplify everything. However, to repress feelings you have to experience strong feelings, something I hardly ever experience. Perhaps my tolerance for sadness is just set abnormally high, I’m not sure.
So I was hoping for some clues as to my emotions as I questioned my sociology professor this evening.
From her standpoint, society determines what emotions are appropriate and then cultural norm dictates the approved time and place for the expression of each emotion.
According to society, men aren’t supposed to cry as much as women. Women can cry in public at a romantic movie with no social stigma attached, but if a man wants to cry about the Lion King movie, he probably should cry in the privacy of his home so no social norms question his manhood.
I get the “logic” in her position. But she carried it too far for me, by saying that culture and society alone determine the emotional expression of people.
I obviously disagreed.
To me, it seems that emotions originate from the psychological aspect of the human.
When extreme emotion is felt, who is going to stop and consider whether their emotional outburst will be within the accepted boundaries of society? Not very many people.
In the moment, people will express their emotions based on how their psychological self deals with emotion. If crying is part of their psychological being, then they are going to cry whether they are in the grocery store or in the privacy of their house. In cases of non-extreme emotion, I do concur that sociological norms somewhat influence the person’s emotional expression.
All in all, my perspective is that emotion is mainly constrained by a person’s psychology with slight input from society. Although my winter class schedule is horrible, I love my sociology and psychology classes.
Just based on what I’ve written here, it’s apparent that these classes make me think quite a bit. I do wish there was more time for in-depth discussions with my professors, but they say enough to keep my mind full for hours.
If I was flaky, I would be tempted to switch to a psychology major based on the highly interesting idea of understanding people and their emotions.