Emotions are Always True but They aren't Always Right
April 15, 2024
Growing up, did you ever use the playful colloquial term offering a friend “frontsies” or “backsies?”  Maybe you were in the lunch line or waiting in line for a movie.  Frontsies meant that you let your friend cut in front of you while backsies meant they could cut in behind.

On a recent trip to Wegmans I offered “frontsies” to the gentleman waiting behind me.  My cart was relatively full.  He only had two items and I wasn’t in a hurry.  It seemed like the polite thing to do.

“Would you like to go ahead of me?” I asked.  He paused and looked briefly at me with a puzzled look.  Then he said, “Excuse me?” and I repeated my question with a smile on my face as I made room for him to slip in ahead of me.  I was a bit surprised he didn’t say “Thank you” but he went ahead and placed his items on the conveyor belt.

Less than a minute later he turned around and said to me “Why were you uncomfortable with me standing behind you?”  This time it was me who said, “Excuse me?” and he repeated his question.  I detected a hint of anger in his tone which was further supported by the expression on his face.

I replied saying “Oh no.  It’s not at all that I’m uncomfortable with you standing behind me.  It’s a rare day when I’m not rushing, and I noticed you only had two items as compared to my cart full.  I was just offering frontsies as a courtesy.”

Just like that, his body language changed, and a beautiful, slightly startled smile came across his face.  He said “I’m sorry.  For some reason, I thought you were uncomfortable with me standing behind you and it initially upset me.  Now I feel silly.”

We had a good laugh and exchanged a little more small talk.  After paying for his order, he looked back one last time before he left and said, “Thanks again.”

This brief encounter in the grocery store line reminded me of the key concept Emotions are Not Always Right.  That’s the thing about emotions; emotions are always true, but they aren’t always right.

Emotions activate in response to the thoughts we think.  If the young man thought something like “This woman doesn’t trust me and wants to be able to keep an eye on me.” it’s understandable he felt offended and a little angry.  The emotion of anger was true.  It was real.  But when you consider the whole story, it wasn’t actually right.

Here’s another example.  Imagine you're at work and you see a group of your colleagues talking and laughing in a corner. Suddenly, one of them glances in your direction, and the group's chatter quiets down. You think, "Are they talking about me? Did I do something wrong?" A surge of anxiety washes over you. Your heart rate quickens, and you feel excluded and a bit paranoid.

Later, during a casual conversation, one of those colleagues mentions that they were discussing a surprise baby shower for another coworker and were trying to keep it hush-hush. Suddenly, everything clicks. They weren't laughing at or excluding you; they were merely trying to keep a secret.

In this scenario, your initial emotion of anxiety or perhaps fear was genuine – they truly depicted how you felt in that moment. However, they weren't based on the actual reality of the situation, showcasing how emotions are always true, but they aren’t always right.

The problem when emotions are true, but they aren’t always right lies in the physiological response the emotion triggers. Once an emotion is activated, even if it's based on a misperception, the hormones associated with that emotion flood our system. Like an alarm that's been sounded, even after realizing there's no fire, the blaring can't be instantly silenced. Adrenaline for fear, cortisol for stress, or dopamine for happiness have already been released into the bloodstream, influencing our body's state. This means that even if cognitively we understand the emotion wasn't warranted, our body still feels the tangible effects of the initial emotional response.

On the other hand, when you know emotions are always true, but they aren’t always right, you know the authenticity of an emotion doesn't necessarily equate to its accuracy in a situation. You know just because a feeling is experienced strongly doesn't mean it's the right, appropriate, or justified emotion for a particular circumstance.

Often, emotions are influenced by past experiences, biases, or misconceptions, potentially leading us astray. Hence, while it's essential to acknowledge and respect our emotions, it's equally critical to evaluate whether they are the right fit for the situation at hand.

Chance to Change
Now that we've explored the idea that emotions are always true, but they aren't always right, let's put this concept into practice with a simple, yet powerful exercise.

The Pragmatic Pause Exercise
  1. The next time you find yourself feeling a strong physiological response associated with Anger, Anxiety or another difficult emotion, pause and remember to be pragmatic.  Remind yourself, emotions are always true, but they aren’t always right.
  2. Ask yourself a simple question: Am I certain this emotion is based on the current context, or is it possible I might be misunderstanding something?

Implementing these two simple steps allows you the opportunity to check in to explore whether your initial emotions, albeit true emotions, might not be the right emotions once you take the time to gather more information.

In conclusion, understanding that our emotions are always true to our experience yet may not always be right based on reality is vital. This notion emphasizes that it's not our emotions themselves that mislead us; rather, it's the initial thoughts that trigger these emotions to activate. My encounter at the Wegmans grocery store and the true-to-life example with colleagues highlight how easily we can be led astray by our interpretations of events rather than the events themselves.

By adopting The Pragmatic Pause, we learn to question the immediate thoughts that spark our emotions. This introspective practice encourages us to reflect on whether our true emotions are actually right for the situation at hand!