Some emotions are largely a waste of time
I keep a list of ideas for writing, most of which I don’t use. As I look at it now I think I should probably just write a blog that is composed entirely of my list of ideas. No context. No explanation. Just the list. It could be poetry. Someone might even think it was profound. But, no. I won’t do that. For one thing it would betray my secret list and I would have no ideas for blog posts. For another, it would be terrible poetry, and I wouldn’t do that to you.

Today, though, as I looked over my list this one idea seemed blog-worthy. It was, “Some emotions are largely a waste of time.” I don’t remember who said it or when, or if I read it somewhere. I know it’s not an original thought because I wrote it in quotation marks. (Clearly, there are shortcomings to my notes. If you were the person who said this, I apologize for plagiarizing your idea, and I thank you for it. If you tell me who you are I will absolutely give you credit for it.)

But this is an idea for the ages. Don’t you agree? We stress so much about our emotions that they consume large portions of our thinking days. Even our nights, because they leak into our dreams. They cause us to agonize over our relationships, to talk about our moods, and to pay attention to whatever Oprah has to say. I’m not concerned with why that is so. That is the job for psychologists and psychiatrists. I’m more concerned with what a colossal waste of time and energy it is.

Most of the time all that emoting and thinking and researching and Oprah-watching don’t really get us anywhere. We just carry on. A little bit wiser, maybe, a little bit more empathetic, sometimes, but mostly just the same. Some wise person (probably my mother) said, “People really don’t change much.” And she (or he) was right.

Oh, I know that people can go through rehab or some other consciousness-raising behaviour-improving process. That’s a good thing, and I commend all those who do this. But in the end aren’t we all basically whoever we were when we were ten? Anyway, that’s a conversation for a different blog post.

Today I’m thinking about all the energy we expend on our emotions. It doesn’t matter if it is joy, or homesickness, or regret, or pride, or guilt, or feeling offended, or grief, or jealousy, or sympathy, or optimism. We think it matters. Maybe this is a middle-class first-world thing. When you are fed, housed, clothed and have vacations in lovely places, what is left to think about? Ourselves, that’s what. And mostly our emotions because everything else is taken care of.

Of all the emotions we waste so much time and energy and money on, some are more of a waste than others. Let’s take regret, for example. Whatever it was that you did, it can’t be undone. So just apologize, forget about it, and don’t do it again. Whatever you failed to do, well, you can probably do it later. Maybe not in the same way with the same people, but you can still do it. As long as you are breathing, you can do it. So just stop regretting. It’s a waste of time.

What about homesickness? That’s easy. Go home. It isn’t nearly as great as you remember it, but you’ll feel better for going. So just do it. Feeling homesick is a waste of time.

The big bad bugaboo of emotions is, of course, guilt. I sometimes wonder if guilt existed before Christianity, but I have a feeling that if it did it was a very different creature. Anyway, this is the big one. The double-decker quarter-pounder of time-wasting emotions. Anyone who has lived past the age of ten has experienced this feeling. It’s tied in with parental expectations, religious training, social mores, educational trappings…a whole bunch of stuff we can’t avoid that is designed to make us feel bad. And yes, it’s a waste of time.

Completely. No, really. Most of us would absolutely not go about stealing or coveting neighbours or murdering other people anyway. We want to get along. We know what pisses people off and so we try not to do those things.

Most of the time we spend on guilt isn’t about any of those major transgressions, anyway. We spend it on, say, the pen we accidentally walked away with, having one too many drinks, the thing we said that might have offended someone, the time we forgot to pick someone up at the airport. Dumb stuff. Stuff that really doesn’t matter. It’s a total waste of time.

So just stop it. OK? Say after me, “Some emotions are largely a waste of time.”

There, now. Don’t you feel better?

Yeah. I thought you would.


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  1. Having been over-exposed, at times, to those prone to over-sharing and being ruled by their feelings, this post resonated with me. There is a school of thought that says feelings are nothing more than creations of our thoughts – and that thoughts are often nothing more than clouds passing by in the sky. Would we allow ourselves to be ruled by the passing of clouds or would we simply observe them and change our behaviors and responses when appropriate?

    Guilt has always struck me as not only useless, but somewhat self-involved. If you have done something wrong and you feel badly about it, do whatever it takes to make amends. Expressing guilt without offering amends is nothing more than a plea for unwarranted sympathy and unearned reprieve from your behavior. If you are feeling guilty over something that was beyond your control, this is, to a great degree, hubris. We are often guilty of thinking ourselves the center of the universe, more so when we take on responsibility for the actions and behaviors of others who should be capable of managing their own. While I think it’s worthwhile to engage in some introspection to critically examine our own thoughts and intents and behaviors in any incident, there is also a lesson to be learned in letting go the belief that we are so all-powerful.

    To me, personal accountability and honor have always seemed more important than feelings. Of course, I’m accused frequently of being over-rational and people say this like it’s a bad thing. 🙂 I also frequently fall short of my own expectations in regards to both, but striving for them seems to me a better use of my time and resources than sifting through feelings that can change with every passing thought.

  2. Oh, I so agree, LBMM. Our popular media seem to love the drama that accompanies splashing about in muddy emotional puddles. It pays a lot less attention to reasoning or to selfless humility. Perhaps that is why we see so many people ruled by their feelings.

  3. Yep. And we mistake pleasure, which most of the great philosophers view as a result of right behavior and ethical choices, with gratifying our feelings on a continual basis. I think a lot of the gratuitous emoting (and ensuing drama) is part of a compensation for not being willing to engage in those right behaviors and ethical choices. It seems to be a need to be “seen” as good, without actually having to “do” good for the right reasons.

  4. Possibly not able – but what is it about modern society that makes so many people not able? That’s a puzzle I ponder a lot and haven’t figured out. I just find myself having to set very strong boundaries, repeatedly, with people and that’s exhausting sometimes. So, I hide out a lot. 🙂 But, I miss the days of being able to enjoy the company of people without having to worry that I’m inviting that casual invasiveness and inappropriate behavior into my life as something that I have to manage.

  5. I really like this blog post. I’ve spent so much time beating myself up for not being as productive during the day as I had planned and/or not doing what I promised myself I’d do, or not picking up the phone and calling someone. Stopping it wasn’t as easy…but I am a work in progress. Writing down what I did get done at the end of the day and trying to be aware of my subconscious thoughts…so I can catch the “you’re such a fraud and a loser” thought and change it to a thought that serves me. Thoughts come first, then emotions. “counting the wins” as my Inner Image Coach tells me. 🙂

  6. Sally, your coach gives good advice! I like your idea of noting the plusses at the end of the day. I might start doing that instead of making to-do lists.

    Just yesterday I caught myself in a downward negative thought spiral, and I was thankful to be jolted out of it by my sister who invited me to dinner. She also graciously listened to my worries, knocked the stuffing out of them, and sent me home a much happier (and more reasonable) person.

  7. Of course the famous British reserve reflects the fact that Brits don’t emote as much as other nationalities perhaps in recognition of the fact that most emotions are a waste of time. I remember a study after 9/11 which showed that those who repressed their memories of the event fared better psychologically than those who went through therapy and were encouraged to relive the event and the emotions they felt at the time.

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