Can all human emotions be a distillation of love and fear? Our Guest Blogger Ian Martin puts his views forward.
Albert Ellis, the founder of Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy (REBT) and inspirational psychotherapist, who some see as the God Father of Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT), listed eight healthy and eight unhealthy negative emotions. These emotions include depression, and anxiety, which are the two emotions most people seek professional help for. However, the rest of the eight are equally disabling and obstructive, such as rage, hurt, jealousy, envy, etc. Ellis uses this list to provide a structure for psychotherapeutic change in his highly effective and well-known therapy, Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy (REBT).
However, it is possible to step back and understand all human emotions, including Ellis’s eight pairs, as distillations of two basic emotional foundations; love and fear. Love, or some variety of it, accounts for all positive emotions because it is expansive and flowing, unrestricted, self-generating, and self-sustaining.
Fear on the other hand is restricting, interrupts flow, it restricts or gets in the way of constructive action in pursuance of our general goals and purposes, and it is destructive and exhausting.
All of Ellis’s eight unhealthy negative emotions can be thought of as expressions of one or more of the facets of fear.
Let us consider depression, which is the most common unhealthy negative emotion experienced by human beings. Ellis holds that the cognitive theme of depression and its healthy alternative, sadness, is ‘loss and failure’; more than that it is ‘unacceptable loss or failure’. How can this be related to fear? If we experience an unacceptable loss or failure then we fear that it will deplete us in some way, or that loss or failure as experiences will in some way define us as ‘a loser’ or ‘a failure’. This fear that such a negative experience can somehow deplete us, or that repeated negative experiences can in some way reduce us, is felt as ‘depression’, a sinking, depleting, destructive and exhausting emotion.
Anxiety is easier to understand in the context of fear, because anxiety and fear are often experienced interchangeably. It’s easy to use the two words to mean the same thing: anxiety, in many ways, is fear. Ellis holds that the theme of our thinking when we experience anxiety, and it’s healthy alternative, concern, is the perception of ‘threat or danger’, and again, it’s more than that, it’s unacceptable ‘threat or danger’. This perception of ‘unacceptable threat or danger’ leads us to behave in ways which are avoidant, or designed to help us to escape, because we fear the ‘threat or danger’ is greater than our ability to overcome it. Either the ‘threat or danger’ will be so great as to be ‘awful’ or ‘terrible’, or it will be so extreme as to be impossible to deal with. Ultimately, our fear is that we will not survive the threat or danger, and that we might die. Excessive anxiety, or panic, is an extreme experience of a fear that imminent death is near.
Likewise, as we work through Ellis’s list of unhealthy negative emotions, we can rethink each emotion as an expression of fear in some way. Unhealthy anger, or rage, can be understood as expressions of fear too. Ellis holds that anger is all about rule-breaking, usually by others, but frequently by ourselves as well. As fallible human beings we all break moral and ethical rules on a daily basis, so why does this prompt fear? Indignant rage is usually experienced when another person has broken one of our own strongly held rule. Our fear is that this in some way threatens our safety, our certainty, or our sense of security and stability, and it often leads to punitive behaviour designed to either restore stability, and our own sense of justice, or aggressive behaviour designed to punish others for their rule-breaking assault on our own sense of security. Our fear is that if nothing is done then our world, and the way we understand it, and how things function, will remain unsafe, uncertain and diminished.
Another very commonly experienced unhealthy negative emotion is ‘shame’, and it’s healthy alternative, ‘disappointment’. Ellis holds that we experience both shame and disappointment when we believe that something ‘shameful’ has been revealed publicly about us. Here the fear is easy to understand as it concerns reputation and standing. We fear that our status will in some way be depleted as a result of the shameful information being in the public domain.
As we work through the list in this way, with a view to understanding ‘fear’ in the context of unhealthy negative emotions, we can see that fear may play a role in all emotional disturbance, and that this kind of fear is different from what we might label ‘anxiety’.
If fear is the ‘catch-all’ for unhealthy and healthy negative emotions, then love is the emotion which encompasses all positive emotions. Love sponsors forgiveness, compassion, empathy, affection, joy, exhilaration, enthusiasm, constructive actions and behaviours, and the warmth of companionship and friendship. Seen in this dualistic way human emotions can be understood as opposites, and human life can be understood as a balancing process between both emotional landscapes.
Both REBT and REBT with Mindfulness or REBT with Hypnosis i.e. Cognitive Behavioural Hypnotherapy (CBH) can facilitate a release of fear and a return to love, and this process, once understood is so much easier and more intuitive than we think it to be.
CBT, CBH Therapist CCBT Lecturer