Shne'emar “tov erech apayim mi’gibor.” Hochi havei peirusho dikro: Tov erech apayim haba mitzad hagevurah shel kibush hayeitzer, lo mitzad rachus hateva. (Rav on Avos 4:1)
If I may paraphrase: There is more value in harnessing emotion than in being emotionless.
What is the value of emotion? Aren’t we all about Chochmah, Binah, and Daas, types of cognition? No, not only. We learn about ourselves and the people around us using two other media in addition to cognition. Failure to use all of them leaves us lacking in self knowledge and sensitivity to others.
According to the Maharsha1, we mention these three at the beginning of the Shemoneh Esrei. Why do we only mention Gadol, Gibor, and Norah? Because these are the kochos h’ikrim, the fundamental strengths we have been given by Hashem.
Gadol refers to our five physical senses.
Gibor refers to cognition. You cannot see, hear, taste, touch, or smell valor. You have to interpret sensory information to perceive valor.
Norah refers to emotion, a visceral reaction, hargashas ha’leiv. You cannot sense or determine fear or awe. Your emotions inform you.
(Based on Tiv HaTefilah, Volume 1, page 166)
If you aren’t aware of your emotions, you remain uninformed, you are missing information that is valuable to you and those around you.
Can you improve your emotional awareness, can alexithymia be treated?
The word alexithymia literally means "no words for feelings." It denotes the inability to find appropriate words to describe one's feelings. This inability causes people to somaticize rather than express emotions verbally (Lesser, 1981; Sifneos, Apfel-Savitz, & Frankel, 1977).
In other words, the inability to express emotion leads to physical distress, psychosomatic pain. A common example would be the tension headache. It really does hurt in your head but there’s nothing physically wrong with you. Emotional stress causes physical distress. Analgesics might temporarily relieve the symptoms. Becoming aware of the emotional source of the pain removes the symptom. When you become aware of your emotions and express them you prevent the build up of tension that causes the symptom. That requires treating alexithymia.
There are three dimensions to alexithymia.
Difficulty Identifying Feelings: lacking the capacity to identify feelings and to distinguish between feelings and the bodily sensations of emotional arousal.
Difficulty Describing Feelings: the inability to communicate feelings to other people.
Externally-Oriented Thinking: a cognitive style that contains little or no reference to a person’s inner feelings. a cognitive style that shows a preference for the external details of everyday life rather than thought content related to feelings, fantasies, and other aspects of a person’s inner experience. (Bagby, R. & Parker, James & Taylor, Graeme. (1994). The twenty-item Toronto Alexithymia Scale--I. Item selection and cross-validation of the factor structure. Journal of psychosomatic research. 38. 23-32. 10.1016/0022-3999(94)90005-1)
Alexithymia can be treated and, more importantly for parents, prevented.
The literature suggests that alexithymia is linked to one's family of origin, and that obstacles to emotional expression in that setting engender an inability to express emotionality in family members as they mature... [C]hildren who can accurately label their feelings enjoy more positive social interactions than kids who cannot.
Putting words to feelings helps us cope with them. Here’s a dramatic example:
In one study, participants who were identified as having extreme fear of spiders were placed in a room with a caged spider. Some subjects used emotion words to describe their feelings in that situation, while others used emotion neutral words to simply state the facts. The result? Members of the first group were able to take more steps closer to the cage than the other participants. Additionally, greater use of words such as "anxiety" and "fear” during exposure to the spider was associated with reductions in those emotions.
Putting a wide range of words to feelings help us to modulate our responses both internally and towards others. If all you can identify is angry, elated, and neutral you’re going to be limited to experiencing and expressing just those three. If you can identify a range of emotions from peeved to livid, content to ecstatic, concerned to terrified, and other such emotional ranges, you will experience and share a much richer life.
There is a term for having a rich vocabulary of feelings words: emotional granularity.
Emotional granularity isn’t just about having a rich vocabulary; it’s about experiencing the world, and yourself, more precisely. This can make a difference in your life. In fact, there is growing scientific evidence that precisely tailored emotional experiences are good for you, even if those experiences are negative.
According to a collection of studies, finely grained, unpleasant feelings allow people to be more agile at regulating their emotions, less likely to drink excessively when stressed and less likely to retaliate aggressively against someone who has hurt them.
The good news is that emotional granularity is a skill, and many people can increase theirs by learning new emotion concepts. I mean this literally: learning new words and their specific meanings. Schoolchildren who learn more emotion concepts have improved social behavior and academic performance, as research by the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence shows. If you incorporate such concepts into your daily life, your brain will learn to apply them automatically.
(The Benefits of Despair, Lisa Feldman Barrett, New York Times, June 5, 2016, Section SR, Page 10)
Adults who work at enriching their emotional vocabulary become better spouses, parents, friends, and Bnai Torah. Rachus hateva, low emotional awareness and expression, too often comes across as indifference.
The opposite of love is not hate, but indifference; the opposite of feeling can only be the absence of feeling. (The Beloved Ego, Wilhelm Stekel, English translation, 1921)
Listen to your emotions, name them carefully and express them discreetly. You and everyone you love with be enhanced.
1Tiv HaTefilah cites this Maharsha as being on Brachos 33b. I could not find it.
Rabbi Ackerman is the author of Confident Parents, Competent Children, in Four Seconds at a Time
Available at bookstores and on Amazon.
He can be reached at 718-344-6575