DRMacIver's Notebook

Your emotions are valid but probably wrong

Your emotions are valid but probably wrong

This is a follow on from Emotional reactions as legacy code.


  1. All emotional reactions serve a purpose. They are designed to get you into a particular mode of thinking and acting in response to some stimulus that makes that seem like a good idea.
  2. Learned emotional reactions do not go away on their own, and most people do not have the skillset for making them go away.
  3. Ignoring or arguing with your emotions as “bad” will typically not help and may intensify them, because they will still feel relevant and will respond to the fact that you’re ignoring them when they’re needed by rising to a level which you can’t ignore. (Going very dissociative seems partially protective against this but has its own set of problems, guess how I know).

As a result, we can conclude:

  1. Your emotions are valid, in the sense that invalidating them is the worst thing you can do if you want to respond to situations more healthily.
  2. Your emotions are usually wrong.

The reason for this is simple: Childhood is very different from adulthood, and you learned many of your emotional reactions in childhood. Those early learned emotional reactions will have had a long time to bed in - either you’ve been embracing them, and learned that that works, or you’ve tried to ignore them, and they’ve intensified to stop you from doing that.

Those emotional reactions you’re having from childhood? They were adaptive when you learned them. They weren’t necessarily good ideas when you learned them (e.g. you might have learned that getting angry and screaming would get you attention. It probably wasn’t ever a good way to get attention), but they filled a functional role.

The problem is that your adult environment is very different from your childhood one:

  1. You are surrounded by different (and often much better) people than you were in childhood.
  2. You have significantly more agency and power than you did in childhood.
  3. You have significantly more skills and competence than you did in childhood.
  4. In most circumstances where things are bad you can leave (this isn’t always true, but it’s true more often than people treat it as being).

This environment is so different from most people’s experiences of childhood that it’s incredibly unlikely that the strategies that were adaptive as a kid are still adaptive as an adult, but unless you relearn the emotional reactions you’ve inherited from your child self, you will behave in very maladaptive ways.

For a personal example, for me school was a living hell. I was the weird kid, I found everyone else completely unrelatable, I had no communication or emotional skills. It was awful and I was stuck there and there was nothing I could do about that because every attempt to improve my situation made it worse, so I was utterly powerless. I really cannot recommend anything about the experience.

In contrast, as an adult, I have wonderful friends who I find extremely relatable. I’m still weird, but in ways that are very compatible with those around me. I have a fair bit of social status (again, in my wonderfully weird niche communities), I’m almost certainly in the top 10% of the population as far as emotional and communication skills go (in some respects I’m much higher, in some respects I’ve still got a lot of learning to do, so this is a complicated claim to make, but I think top 10% is true by any reasonable metric), and if someone or something is causing me trouble I can usually exit the situation, or modify it to work better for me.

The result is a degree of agency that I am totally emotionally unprepared for by my childhood experiences, and I constantly have to retrain my emotional reactions to remind myself of that. Fortunately this is invigorating rather than exhausting.