Two confessions and fully rehabilitating the word “emotional”

Ok, ready for a confession? An embarrassing confession?

I watch The Challenge dang near religiously. Like, every week. I even have started listening to a stupid podcast about it. Every. Stinkin’. Week. Chris got me started watching this show and I… I can’t quit it.

OH THE LEVELS OF DEPRAVITY TO WHICH WE SINK IN THE NAME OF LOVE.

I won’t go too much into detail (more so to save my reputation from further tarnish than to keep this short), but in a recent episode, one of the male competitors had a weeeee bit of a meltdown. Now, these meltdowns are kind of glorious to behold. I mean, why else do we watch reality television? To watch well-adjusted people interact in healthy and well-adjusted ways to their well-adjusted co-stars? Yeah no. Meltdowns are expected.

I generally don’t judge too hard when a competitor melts down. It’s a silly game, and people are usualy just amped up on testosterone and competitive juices, getting super invested in their “strategy” and hope in winning the $1 million prize. Also, being human, people don’t always compete as well as they hope or imagine. So lots of expectation + the vagaries of the human body + vagaries of one’s competitors = lots of disappointment. This may surprise you, but people who have chosen to make their careers starring on reality shows don’t always have the best-developed emotional maturity and control to respond well to these pressure-cooker situations.

Ugh, now for my second confession. At some point while I was listening to the podcast episode recounting the show episode, I said to myself “Man, that competitor is too emotional.” I was immediately taken aback by my own self. I had just used the word “emotional” as a criticism when I fully disbelieve that being emotional is a bad thing. I think being “emotional”, feeling a wide array emotions in a wide array of situations, is a super power in the making. I think using “emotional” as a criticism is harmful, destructive, and ultimately sexist.

In fact, using “emotional” as a criticism of a man is a great example of how sexism against women actually harms men.

What I realized I meant when I said “emotional” was reactive. To be precise, emotionally reactive, when we overreact to whatever is causing an emotional reaction in us. We can overreact by fighting, fleeing, or even fleeing. And the point is not that these reactions are always overreactions, but that someone who is emotionally reactive tends to respond too strongly to situations that don’t warrant a strong response. Their emotional reaction is not proportionate to the stress or the harm.

I think that “emotionally reactive” is actually what we often mean when we call people “emotional.” What we tend to mean when we call someone emotional is that they overreact emotionally. I’d like us to retire the use of “emotional” when criticizing overreactions, instead to talk about people who overreact as being reactive rather than emotional. Emotions are a natural part of the human experience and historically have been derided as “lesser” than our rational capacities. (Usually this is because women have been trained to be more emotional than rational, but that’s a complaint for another time.)

Martha Nussbaum put the nail in this coffin in 2001 (our emotions have reasons in them), but public perception and the language we use has not quite caught up to her insight. Even I, someone who believes fully in the value of emotions and the importance of both men and women feeling and learning how to identify a wide arrange of their emotional responses to different situations (and what our emotions are telling us about our evaluation of the situation), immediately went to “emotional” when I was trying to criticize the competitor’s improper response to the game. It’s important to add new vocabulary to our descriptions of the human experience when we learn more about the human experience.

Even this cat has emotions. Most of them are under the category “disgruntled.”

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