How to Distinguish between Appropriate and Inappropriate Emotions A Guide to Using Cognitive Techniques

There was a very strange belief I clung to stubbornly for most of my inner journey.

None of us should ever have to suffer emotionally, I believed. Every frustration, every annoyance, every fear – no matter how minor – shows a weakness, an insecurity. Perhaps those emotions represented a moment I was out of alignment with the present moment, maybe this, maybe that.

Do your time, I assured myself time and again, and one day you will have climbed the mountain and reached the highest peak – perfect equanimity.

But what if the joy of being human lies in dancing at the highest peaks of joy, and crying in the lowest valleys? Perhaps without sadness, without fear, without all the frustrations – the tapestry will be incomplete, a garish painting composed only of the brightest colours. Perhaps whatever we are experiencing right now – the deepest sorrows, a mild melancholy, or the highest bliss – is exactly what we are meant to experience.

The Questions Arise

But this view raises many questions. Are we to live in a shell? Shielding ourselves from all forms of negativity – living in a brick wall of our own making? Does that cut us off from the richness of life? Without sadness, will we know what joy is?

Are we really protecting ourselves from our emotions, or are we merely pushing them deeper inside us?

Or are we to indulge in everything we feel, act them all out with wild abandon? What would a world like that be – where we gave in to our basest desires? What if our emotions are destructive, painful, or hurtful?

A Fourth Path

And yet – each emotion carries a message. Fear alerts us to danger. Anger lets us know when our boundaries are violated. Many afflictive emotions let us know where our core shames are.

So many different directions! Reject, indulge, or accept? How do we reconcile these differences? If anger, for instance, serves a purpose and yet pollutes all our actions, what can we do?

Perhaps the answer is to be found by taking the middle road – allowing the negative emotions – but distinguishing between the appropriate and the inappropriate, the healthy and the unhealthy.


This is a follow-up to the series on Cognitive Techniques, which provides the techniques itself. This post also references emotional work several times. Both are recommended reading, although not necessary.

The Message It Carries

What does one feel? Healthy sadness, or depression? Concern, or paralysing anxiety?

When we have lost something, someone, dear to our hearts: how is it possible to be happy? Relax into your sadness, and you will find it holds its own beauty, you will find it begins to fade away on its own. We remain hopeful for the future, and we take steps on the problems we can change.

But if we fall into depression, what then? Endless misery – an inability to live on; for the colours have gone away from your life. You live constantly in the past, magnifying your own flaws and failings. You withdraw from the world; neglect yourself; indulge in self-destructive behaviours in a vain attempt to end the depression.

What of concern? When we think of something that could go wrong: how can we not feel it? A healthy outlook means we plan to cope, we judge the situation realistically.

The other possibility is to fall into anxiety – an overestimation of danger, an underestimation of our ability to deal with the issue. These lead to withdrawal, numbing with drugs or alcohol, perhaps other inappropriate responses like excessive physical force.

These distinctions can be made to every afflictive emotion: anger or recognition of violated boundaries? Shame or regret?

CBT for Dummies provides an entire chart of healthy and unhealthy perspectives and consequences of negative emotions. The chart covers everything from jealousy to guilt. I cannot reproduce them, for they are not mine – but I find the distinctions between them are simple:

  • Flexibility: Are you ready to consider alternative explanations? Are you willing to change the way you behave, respond or feel?
  • Realistic thinking: The focus of the previous post on cognitive distortions – did the other person really try to hurt you, or was it an accident? Were you really at fault? Is it really bad as you thought it was? The possibilities here are endless; master the list of possible distortions and find which ones apply to you.
  • Focus of attention: Are you focused on the negative? What you can’t change, how bad you feel, how it is all doomed? Or are you seeing what can be done, what you have learnt from the situation, using it to make you stronger?
  • Behaviours: Are you mired in inactivity, feeling sorry for yourself? Perhaps you are indulging in destructive or hurtful behaviours. Or are you taking positive action – repairing the damage, removing yourself from further danger?
  • Duration: Do you ruminate for weeks and months, even years, over an insult, an emotional injury? Or is it something that passes with time?
  • Intensity: How intense are your emotions? I remember a small social slip-up that might have offended a friend unintentionally. I realised it while I was driving home that night – and was overcome with a guilt that lasted weeks. At its worst, I nearly threw up. The unnatural intensity of the guilt meant it had touched a core issue; a very inappropriate response.

In the absence of the chart, measure your responses – emotional or behavioural –according to these criteria. Are they healthy, or unhealthy? Adaptive or maladaptive?

When do we use Cognitive Techniques?

The question comes down to, then: When do we use what? When do we use emotional work and when do we utilise Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) techniques? There are some other changes – behavioural, for instance – that will be outlined in the future. When do we use those?

Appropriate and Inappropriate Emotions. As outlined above, I fell in love with CBT simply because they allowed me to change my inappropriate responses to healthier alternatives. Note that I am not pushing away or rejecting my feelings – I am simply seeing them and the situation in a different light. This ties in to the other points, below.

Emotional Changes. There are many reasons for our afflictive emotions. I will discuss this in further detail in a moment, but for now – a portion of them comes from distorted thoughts. By bringing our thoughts closer to reality, this portion dissipates. Naturally, there are times this does not apply. The remaining emotions require emotional work.

Behavioural Changes. Removing as much of our distortions as possible, focusing on the positive, seeing alternative and less-destructive reasons and causes – allows someone to take positive action now. As mentioned above, many of our afflictive emotions stem from a deeper issue – these can often require a lot of work, years of healing, perhaps. Are we to indulge in negative, destructive behaviour until we heal those wounds?

A Personal Example

One of my core issues – some call them schemas, deep wounds that cause the cognitive distortions – is abandonment. Most insults do not cause much reaction in me at all. On the other hand, certain insults and gestures – however minor – trigger an intense anguish, one that is associated with the pain of abandonment.

I used to know a woman who was rude and dismissive. Most of her actions did not bother me. I had been in her shoes before, and I knew her insults were not a reflection on me or my value; they merely exposed her own insecurities, her own distortions. She had chosen an inappropriate way of dealing with her own wounds.

But a few words and gestures hurt me. Maybe you are not important, huh? She said to me once. Six words – but they reached deeply in me and touched a raw, gaping wound. I felt hurt and angry – over six little words! – and despite the arguments of my rational mind, withdrew completely from the interaction.

The anger and hurt remained for days. And yet – was I to wait until the wound had closed, before I could react compassionately, rationally? I spent a day or two reflecting on her words. A part of me wanted to strike back. I was no angel – I knew where her raw wounds are, and a part of me wanted to hit back at them, to give her a taste of what it felt like. And yet I managed to catch the distortions in my thoughts. Again, I saw how her venom was a sign of her own inner struggle. I chose to react with politeness and as much compassion as I could find.

But the wounds remained. It has been a long time, many months – and sometimes her words pop into my head. If she had not hit a wound, I would have reacted with compassion naturally. I would not have had to tell myself to do so. But was I to wait until my abandonment schema was healed before I reacted with compassion? I could not have acted appropriately without the techniques of CBT.

Deeper Issues and Cognitive Distortions

Finding a rational, more realistic way of looking at things helps in many other situations as well. Just one example – those who suffer from an abandonment schema have troubles leaving abusive relationships. The pain of abandonment is stronger than any suffering they might go through by remaining in such a romance.

Anyone looking from the outside will not understand why he or she chooses to remain – but for those in the grip of the schema, this fear is very real. Perhaps by seeing that this fear is a distortion, we could make a healthier choice: leave, and heal the wounds on our own two feet.

Why We Hurt

Just a little more on the deeper issues, then. They will be discussed in the upcoming advanced emotional mastery series, but a brief sample:

  • Core Issues: The abandonment schema, amongst many others. They affect our lives in many insidious ways.
  • Deeper Wants: Similar to the above, everyone has basic wants or boundaries – wanting respect or security, for example – that shows up in many subtle, sometimes illogical ways. Having these boundaries violated would result in afflictive emotions.
  • The Shadow: We have disowned several parts of ourselves, our personalities – pushed them down into what Jungian psychologists call the shadow. What we react to in others can be a sign of what is inside us.

In my experience, when these deeper issues are at the root of our suffering, challenging our thoughts and perspectives only make up a portion of the work; deeper emotional work is also required. Both working in tandem can create a powerful combination.

It is important to note that I am just speaking from my own experiences – I am not a trained practitioner. Additionally, I have not used it for more than a few months on deeper issues. It is highly likely that if I had chosen to pursue cognitive work as my main method rather than emotional work, and stuck with it for a longer period of time, cognitive work would be all that I needed.

There are, of course, other reasons outside our control for afflictive emotions. Some forms of depression, for instance, have genetic causes. How CBT or even emotional work affects these I do not know.

An Opposing Argument

On the other hand, I have received emails and other comments since the last post; readers have recovered from chronic depression by changing their thoughts. There has also been research that cognitive work makes positive changes in the very structure of our brain, although I can’t find the source.

In Feeling Good, David D. Burns refers to many research groups where CBT was just as effective as antidepressant medicines for major cases of depression. How much more effective would it be for our everyday unhappiness? He also refers to his own clinical experience – more than 30,000 cases using CBT.

I have had similar experiences with CBT. A relapse in depression, a few weeks ago. Part of the reason was my deeper issues – many things conspired to bring them all to the fore. For some reason, emotional meditation just didn’t work this time. I was fortunate – I noticed a significant portion of my sorrow was caused by distorted thinking. Yet reframing my situation, in addition to cognitive work, lifted me out in a few days.

It is for this reason that I urge readers not to give up on cognitive work after a few weeks of little results. It was the same for my emotional work – in the early days I had many doubts, and yet now I swear by it. If your sorrows are deep, both emotional and cognitive work will take time months, or more. Keep them both in your toolbox; use one when the other fails or takes too long.

Individual Differences

Perhaps the differences lie within. Just as one woman learns best by watching, another by listening, and yet another by doing – each of us might tend towards a different method of growth and healing.

In Emotional Alchemy, Tara Bennett-Goleman draws from her years of psychotherapy practice and has come to the same conclusion. There are four different areas she believes we can work on: emotions, thoughts, behaviours, and relationships. Each person will find they naturally gravitate towards one of the four. And the good news – improvements in one area will carry across to the other three.

This was true in my experience: I was first drawn to CBT, many months ago, when I realised that intense emotional work led automatically to less distorted thoughts.

The Question of Responsibility

Whenever someone asserts that our thoughts create our feelings, a question arises: isn’t that nihilistic? If their suffering is caused by their beliefs, their wounds and insecurities – why is there any need for morals? Lie, cheat, and steal! If they suffer, it is because of their distortions and thoughts!

This was another question I struggled with; perhaps the answer can once again be found in appropriate and inappropriate emotions.

Have you experienced this for yourself? You say something innocent, not meant to hurt – and yet someone takes it as a personal attack, flying into a rage. Very often such a reaction represents a cognitive distortion on their part. If you begin to flagellate and prostrate yourself, it is your distortion – for it is genuinely not your fault.

But perhaps you get drunk, and run me over as I was crossing the road legally. “You broke my legs!” I scream. My thoughts would be undistorted – my anguish is real and valid. Your remorse, if you felt any, would be just as valid.

The goal of cognitive work is now called into question. Is the end goal simply to feel good? Could you – would you – change your thoughts to convince yourself you were not in the wrong? That I was wrong for being upset? Just a few broken bones, you might think. He’s suffering from the magnification distortion!

Would that not be just another distortion of yours? Is that how cognitive work is meant to be performed?

This is just a suggestion, my personal preference. The goal of cognitive work is to change your thoughts and perspectives to get as realistic and rational a perspective as you can. With a clearer, unemotional perspective – we then have the power to accept due responsibility, to take positive action.

A Reader Question

To finish off the post, a quick question to my dear readers. I have recently accepted a few advertisers who run online casinos, as you can see in the last sidebar. A good friend, Wade of The Middle Way, told me it might be inappropriate given the topic of my blog. I had never thought of it that way. I would like to ask, if anyone is offended by it? I will take it off if so.