Robert Plutchik’s Wheel of Emotions. For more information go here

Is there such a thing as just enough of a “bad” thing? Or too much of a “good” thing? Does that make the bad thing good, and the good thing bad? I try not to label things as good or bad, because that’s a judgement call. Here, I try even harder not to label; I’m talking about emotions. In my opinion, there are no such thing as “good” emotions and “bad” emotions. Some of the reason for that is what I’m talking about today: there is a zone of effectiveness when it comes to our emotions. Too much of them is not good, and too little of them is not good, but quite often, just the right amount of emotion is beneficial.

Emotions are necessary, regardless of what your drill sergeant told you. As a matter of fact, the primary emotion that he or she displayed…anger…was extremely necessary for that time and that place. Without anger, without intensity, boot camp would not have been the test of your limits that it actually was. I’ve talked before about how “bad” emotions…anger, fear…were effective and necessary in combat. We talk about people who are “emotionally dead” and “soulless.” That’s the part where there are too little of them. Then you have the overreaction, when our emotional responses are much too intense when it comes to the situation. When someone cuts us off while driving, frustration is appropriate. Maniacal rage is not.

In the Dialectical Behavior Therapy Skills Training Manual, Marsha Linehan describes three functions of emotions: we use them to communicate to and influence others, to organize and motivate action, and use them for self-validation.

Emotions Communicate to and Influence Others

Back to the drill sergeant: the expression of anger (although it likely really wasn’t there, it was kind of an act) was to communicate to you the urgency of what needed to occur. And to influence you, of course. I’m not talking about using anger as a weapon to bully someone, but an angry response, or hurt response to something communicates that we don’t like whatever just happened. Emotions are an important part of our interpersonal interaction. Anger can indicate to someone that something we believe is true has been or is about to be violated. Fear can indicate that there is danger in our environment, and expressing that fear alerts others to that danger.

By suppressing the expressing of our emotions…as service members are all but explicitly trained to do…we reduce the effectiveness of our communication to others. People don’t know that they’ve crossed a boundary if we don’t show some form of displeasure. People don’t know that there is danger if we don’t express some form of uneasiness. Similarly, people may misunderstand something if we show too much emotion, disproportionate from the environment. Showing the right amount of emotion for the right situation can help us communicate to others what we feel and what we want.

Emotions Organize and Motivate to Action

Emotions are also important in motivating us to do something: this is where we approach the zone of emotional effectiveness. Anxiety, many would say, is bad. It gets in the way, it paralyzes us. But that’s if there’s too much anxiety; a couple of research articles show that just the right amount of anxiety could be a good thing for us. One shows that an appropriate amount of anxiety is important in assessing and avoiding risky behavior, and another shows that anxiety and worrying can be beneficial in getting us ready for an important task. The same could be said for anger; if someone cheats us, or insults someone we care about, anger is an appropriate response to that. Sadness wouldn’t be, and happiness certainly wouldn’t be. An effective amount of anger would allow us to express our displeasure, to stand up for what we believe; to let someone know that a line has been crossed. Just as an excessive amount of anxiety can be detrimental, as described in the second study above, and excessive amount of anger, or fear, can also be detrimental.

Similarly, I equate fear to jumping out of airplanes. In full disclosure, I was terrified of heights as a kid. My family knew it, it was sort of “my thing.” They did all they could to “cure” me of it, which, of course, made it worse. So what did I do when I grew up? Decided to jump out of airplane. Repeatedly. And not just jump out of them, but become a Jumpmaster, whose job it is to stand in the door of the plane and stick my head out. Talk about fear…I knew it, I used it. I had an old Jumpmaster mentor tell us one time, “the minute you stop being afraid of jumping out of an airplane is dangerous. It means that you no longer respect the danger.” TOO much fear, of course, could have paralyzed me, and too little fear would have made me complacent. Again, just the right amount is just the right amount.

Emotions Can Be Self-Validating

When it comes to self-validation, we often don’t understand our emotions if we’re not aware of them. Sort of like Spidey-Sense, emotions are the combination of physical reactions and psychological reactions to a certain event. If we feel anxiety about something, it signals to us that what we are about to do is important, and we need to pay attention to it; then, once we do it, the anxiety goes away. That is a signal to us that what we just did was important to us and we need to pay attention to it. Anger, similarly, signals to us that something we care about has been or will be violated. Our safety, or the safety of something we care about. When we respond to that threat…appropriately…then we resolve that situation, and anger goes away. Again, validation that our emotion was appropriate for the situation. After time, interpreting and implementing your emotions effectively becomes something that you rely on to make decisions. The “gut instinct” is critical for many, and is rooted in emotional awareness.

Emotions are necessary, or we wouldn’t have them. Just like ice cream, or that unstable ex of yours, too much of them can be a very, very bad thing. Understanding how to find the appropriate emotional response to the event in your environment is the key to finding balance and operating in the zone of emotional effectiveness.

The Head Space and Timing Blog is supported by the Colorado Veterans Health and Wellness Agency, a 501(c)3 Nonprofit in Colorado Springs, Colorado. The goal of the CVHWA is to provide military culturally competent mental health counseling to veterans and their spouses, regardless of characterization of discharge, time of service, or era of service. Our vision is to assist veterans to identify and remove barriers to their mental, physical, emotional, and behavioral wellness. For questions or inquiries, contact us!

Duane France

Duane K. L. France is a combat veteran of both Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as a mental health counselor practicing in the state of Colorado. Do you want to join the conversation regarding veteran mental health? Share, like, and comment. Read Duane's previous posts and follow him on Twitter and LinkedIn. Keep the conversation about #veteranmentalhealth going.