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Emotions and Self-Identity in Western Society

Emotions play a central role in human cognitive processes. Although the psychological and cognitive aspects of human reality are closely interrelated with the emotional one and emotions largely affect the outcome of behavior, a person may find it difficult to explain what an emotion is. Throughout time, the complex nature of emotions has drawn the attention of many researchers and philosophers. In the given paper, I will focus on two major perspectives on emotional behavior: the organismic and interactive perspectives. These two theoretical approaches provide opposing views on emotions. For this reason, the analysis of main positions suggested by their authors seems especially enthralling to me.

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I want to start with the review of the organismic account of emotion. In the given framework, emotion is regarded as a biological impulse or instinct. This view was widely promoted by such prominent figures in psychiatry and biology as Sigmund Freud and Charles Darwin (Hochschild 139). The scholars and scientists who adhered to the organismic position saw individuals’ emotional responses as the automatic reflex syndrome (Hochschild 139). It means that emotions are defined by human physiology (i.e., brain structure and functions, neurological system, etc.), and can be regarded as inevitable visceral reactions to perceived stimuli.

I agree with this theory to a large extent because, many times, I have observed the changes that appeared in my body, along with strong feelings and emotions. When you are thrilled, your heartbeat becomes more frequent. When you fear something, the stomach contracts; when you are angry, you may be short of breath. I am convinced that many people observed these or similar bodily reactions accompanying emotional responses. Thus, the organismic perspective on emotions seems entirely valid to me.

In the interactive model, researchers emphasize the role of social factors in the emergence and control of emotions. As stated by Hochschild, “social factors affect how emotions are elicited and expressed;” they also guide the way emotions are interpreted and managed by individuals in various situations (140). In contrast to the first theory in accordance with which emotions may flood out, the interactive view suggests that adults are capable of adjusting their feelings to social contexts. From this point of view, emotions may be appropriate or inappropriate in a particular social situation.

Hochschild provides an example of such a social event like a funeral − “a time facing loss” (146). In Western culture, it is expected that people will feel sad at funerals or at least mask any happy feelings they may have during the event because a joyous face at a funerary ceremony will be perceived as something abnormal and even outrageous. It is hard to disagree with the given perspective on emotions because, in our daily lives, we are expected to comply with rules of emotional behavior, manage emotions, and hide them sometimes. For instance, a person will likely be criticized if he or she bursts out laughing at a formal meeting or expresses discontent directly in his or her boss’s face. In this way, the inability to manage and control emotions may sometimes lead to adverse consequences.

By contrasting the interactive and the organismic accounts of emotions, I concluded that people are placed in a very strange and uncomfortable situation because, on the one hand, emotions naturally arise in them and, on the other hand, they cannot be completely open about their true feelings all the time. It is apparent that because of this controversy, many emotions become suppressed, and it is worth noting that people mostly tend to avoid and forget negative feelings.

I’ve seen many people irrupt with anger because of the smallest things and problems. Based on my knowledge of Freudian concepts, I may assume that it happens because all suppressed negative emotions are accumulated in the subconscious or are expressed indirectly through various psychological mechanisms. These coping mechanisms include sudden bursts of anger projected to other objects and people than those who provoked negative feelings.

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Since suppression of emotions may be detrimental to both physical and psychological health, it seems rather unnatural. However, it is also impossible to deny the importance of emotional management in society. In the present-day social environment, communication without some degree of emotional control would rather be chaotic and might lead to misunderstanding too often. Based on this, I find it extremely interesting to find the roots of the present controversy associated with human emotions and control.

Hochschild suggests one of the potential explanations of the identified problem. According to the researcher, the “feeling rules” are nothing but the underside of ideology (142). I consider this assumption correct because, through both the process of metacognition and literature review, I realized that the dominant culture dictates individuals how to behave, what to believe, and how to react to certain phenomena. I agree with the stance of Mead, who claims that “self arises in the context of social experience” (Branaman 170).

Thus, a person may be unaware that his or her attitudes, preferences, and habits are predetermined by the environment where he or she lives. Nevertheless, it is a fact − the dominant ideology imposes behavioral and emotional controls on members of each community. In this regard, it will be appropriate to review potential ways of how feeling rules are conveyed to individuals within a cultural context and identify what place emotions take in it.

Clanton states that “emotions are responses interpreted based on previous social learning” (156). As mentioned in the preceding paragraph, we adopt particular values and attitudes from social and cultural surroundings through communications with other people who serve as the carriers of cultural information. By interacting with each other, representatives of one cultural community learn to interpret and predict emotional responses.

It is observed by Blumstein that “selves are created, maintained, and changed by virtue of… relationships and the nature of interactions that occurs in them” (Branaman 170). The theorist’s view entirely corresponds with my perspective on identity formation − through social interactions of a different kind, we learn information that then becomes part of our perceptions and contributes to the formation of beliefs.

In my opinion, a non-verbal component of communication plays a vital role in the development of behavioral expectations in people. Facial expressions, poses, voice tone, and other types of information closely linked to emotions are read by collocutors. Based on these non-verbally conveyed messages, individuals develop an understanding of the true intentions, feelings, and aims of each other. By reading emotions in people, we gradually learn the rules of emotional behavior and expect others to behave appropriately according to cultural norms and etiquette.

It is interesting to note that cultures and ideologies are dynamic and ever-changing. Therefore, during some time, people of a particular community may change their opinion on an object or social reality phenomenon. In this way, an attitude to emotion may transform as well. It was the case with such emotion as jealousy in the United States. In his writing, Clanton observes that during 1945-1960, jealousy could be regarded as a proof of love, while, later, it became associated with low self-esteem and obtained a marked negative connotation.

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Through media, it was dictated which forms and manifestations of jealousy could be appropriate and even positive and which could be regarded as abnormal. As stated by Clanton, the shifts in the public attitude to the emotion were substantiated by some wider cultural trends − the period from the 1970s-1980s was considered “an era of ‘liberated’ relationships,” and there was no place for such an obsolete phenomenon as jealousy (159).

I was also raised in an environment where jealousy was commonly perceived as destructive and detrimental to well-being. For me, jealousy is a sign of weakness; it signifies that something is wrong in my worldview and requires improvement. Due to this, I will usually try to hold my emotions within, and sometimes I will feel bad about letting this “green-eyed monster” occupy my mind (Clanton 159). My experience and way of expression of jealousy speak volumes about my values and beliefs, as well as the environmental factors to which I was exposed because, as Clanton observes, “jealousy and other emotions can be analyzed in terms of the social causes that give rise to the substantive beliefs and norms on which they depend” (161).

The perception of jealousy as a personal defect again refers to the problem of emotion control and suppression. It is possible to say that this feeling occurs in people naturally as a reaction to external threats, fear of loss, etc. Although some people believe that low-self esteem may be why a person feels jealous, I agree with Clanton, who states that it is jealousy-associated guilt that may contribute to low self-esteem in individuals (165). In this way, research findings again verify the assumption that particular beliefs about feelings and excess emotional control may cause significant distress and negatively impact people.

Concluding, I would like to say that emotions serve as an essential source of information about the environment. They also unavoidably fill up thoughts and actions and play an important role in decision-making. However, most people do not give credit to their emotions and, in most cases, try to avoid them trying to be rational and logical. It happens more often when a person faces some negative feelings. As a result, the conflict between one’s real emotions and social expectations can arise.

It is possible to say that to balance biological instincts and social demands regarding the expression of feelings, people should try to develop emotional intelligence. It includes the ability to understand and evaluate their own emotions and express them accurately; make use of emotional knowledge, and regulate feelings to stimulate personal growth and well-being. The outcomes of such skills may be rewarding because they can contribute to better self-esteem and refined communicational habits.

Works Cited

Branaman, Ann. “Introduction to Part III. The Self in Social Context.” Self and Society, by Branaman, Blackwell Publishers, 2001, pp. 169-174.

Clanton, Gordon. “Jealousy in American Culture, 1945-1985.” Self and Society, edited by Ann Branaman, Blackwell Publishers, 2001, pp. 156-166.

Hochschild, Arlie Russell. “Emotion Work, Feeling Rules, and Social Structure.” Self and Society, edited by Ann Branaman, Blackwell Publishers, 2001, pp. 138-154.

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