The Purpose Of Emotions: The Map And The Road

Everything has a purpose. That purpose may not be profound, but you feel a variety of emotions for a reason. Emotions are your internal reaction to your external environment. Before you can have a reaction to something, you compare it to your own thoughts, feelings, and beliefs. You are checking to see if the way it appears is the way you believe it should be. When a situation meets expectations and you approve of it, you experience positive emotions. If the situation runs contrary to your expectations or you disapprove of it, you experience negative emotions. To summarize this, your emotional reaction represents the congruence between your perception and the actuality of the world.

There is an old saying: “When the map and the road disagree, the map is wrong.” To appreciate the application of this saying to emotions, you must also remember that your emotions are based solely on perception. There is always more than one way to see a person or event. Our perceptions, perspectives, and beliefs—our map—are formed by what we think the world should look like. When our map is compared to the world and the world looks different, we have a choice to make. We can continue to wander around aimlessly and hope to get somewhere or we can discard the map and select a new one. Your emotions serve as a way for you to evaluate your perspective of the world around you.

“When the map and the road disagree, the map is wrong.”

Notice that I did not include “change the road” as one of the options. This is because that can be extremely difficult and it will not increase your emotional control. Reality is very difficult to change. There are some fundamental things about people and the world that you must accept, that you must shape your strategy for living around. I could make a list of things in the world you must learn to accept and manage, but I’d never cover everything that could arise or has arisen. Instead, here’s a generally precise guide: if it falls outside of a thing you can control, then you have no choice but to accept that it’s a part of reality. The only thing you can actually control is yourself and what you can influence is surprisingly limited.

Changing the road is never an option

Just because you are forced to accept something does not mean that you are forced to accept your own perception of it. This is because you have control of your perceptions and thoughts. Changing your perception does not change the event, but it will change how you feel about it. Since your perception of something is responsible for how you feel about it, changing your thought process about it can give you the ability to change how you feel towards it.

Let’s return to the map analogy. The road is reality and the map is our perception of reality. Our perception of events in reality lead to our emotional reaction. When the map and the road are in disagreement, it would be a waste of energy and time to try and rebuild a whole new road so that your map makes sense. The road is beyond your control, having been there long before you. It will continue to exist long after you. A more sensible course of action—one that is completely within your control—is to find a map that works better for where you want to go. The trip is the journey through life and the destination depends entirely upon what you want.

The analogy between the map and your emotions allows us to have many more useful insights into the purpose of our emotions. When we use a map to navigate to a destination, we are exerting control over the path we take.

The road is beyond your control, having been there long before you. It will continue to exist long after you.

There are two ways a person can arrive at a destination. They can take a reactive or a proactive method. Trying to get to a place in a reactive manner means that you aren’t really sure if you’re going the best way. Instead, you adjust your path based on the things that don’t work—dead ends, getting lost, and unexpected detours. You may eventually get there but there is a greater chance that you will deplete your resources and never make it in the first place.

However, a proactive journey is one in which the best route is planned out, detours and delays are accounted for to the best of your ability, and you have a general idea of what to expect along the way. This method offers a significantly greater chance of success. You can only travel proactively if you have a good map that properly aligns with the road you want to take. Life is represented by the road and like most roads, you cannot change a thing on it. But you can steer around the potholes, avoid the dead ends and be prepared for detours so that you can enjoy the journey. Developing the proper perspective will not only train you to have the best emotional response to things, but you will also gain greater emotional control.

Having the proper map does not allow you to escape all the possible dangers on the road, but it can minimize them. If you know that danger is imminent, then you can either avoid it entirely or make sure that you are prepared to minimize the damage that it will cause. When you are traveling reactively, all problems take you by surprise or with very little warning. What could have been avoided you must encounter and what you could have been prepared for can now destroy you. With the proper perspective, there’s a much greater chance that you will get more out of the journey. Energy will be spent enjoying the trip rather than trying to survive every mistake you make along the way.

Our perspective (map) tells us how well we are seeing the world (road). If we have the right perspective, then we have positive emotions. If we have the wrong perspective, we have negative emotions. We can see that the purpose of emotions is to avoid any incongruences. The problem that most people have when it comes addressing these incongruences—positive or negative—is forgetting where they have the power to control things. The only thing that you can control is yourself. If you altered your perspective, you would experience a shift in emotion. But, instead, most people hope to change the world or others. This leads to frustration and further loss of emotional control.

What could have been avoided you must encounter and what you could have been prepared for can now destroy you

The initial reaction to try and change the road instead of the map makes perfect sense. You’ve invested a lot of time and energy into your own personal map. Furthermore, there are likely several instances where the map has been “correct.” Very few people would continue to follow a map that always took them to the wrong place. It must work some of the time. Your response to the world has developed from a tremendous amount of input and has had some success. Your emotional response is reinforced by time. All of this means that you are less likely to view your map as the reason why you are having trouble on the road. You’ll have the audacity to blame the road.

You have no allegiances to the road. The road is new and foreign but your map has been with you forever. Because you have invested so much into your map, you abandon reason in the face of discrepancies between the map and the road. Instead of reaching the logical conclusion that the map is not correctly calibrated, you believe that the road is incorrect and therefore must be changed. But we know this is impossible. The road can’t be incorrect, because it’s a constant. (don’t know if you agree with this change, but the syntax of what you had before was a bit muddled—implied the road has always been incorrect.)

Because of your allegiance to your own perspective, you have a negative emotional reaction to the correct way—a call for change—but you do not attempt to change the right thing. You believe that the change towards congruency should come from your environment to match your perspective, rather than the other way around. This change is impossible, therefore you constantly –and rightfully—feel out of control.

Your emotions signal for you take control. In this respect, the only difference between positive and negative emotions are that positive emotions tend not to invoke a feeling of distress and loss of control. When you feel positive, you are not worried about disagreements between your perspective and the world because, for the moment, all seems right. Negative emotions signal that something is wrong and needs to be fixed. But, if the problem is outside of yourself, there is nothing you can do about it other than change your perspective. Change your perspective, change your emotions, change how deal with difficulties along the road. Change your life. 

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