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November 10, 2015

5 Common Myths about Emotions — Guest: Kassandra Lamb

Man holding head in hands with text: 5 Common Myths about Emotions

We all have emotions, so we all think we know how to write them. However, one of those emotions we’ve probably all experienced is denial, and that means we might be in denial about some truths for how emotions really work.

Yet sometimes the best writing—the writing that will hit hardest and feel deepest and truest to readers—comes from exposing an emotional truth that we’ve hidden from ourselves. When that happens, the story helps readers feel like they understand themselves better too.

(As readers, if we’ve experienced that emotional “gut check” in a story, we know how powerful that can feel.)

So if we have a better understanding of emotions, we might have a better chance of exploring some of those emotional truths that can resonate with our readers.

Today I’m thrilled to welcome back Kassandra Lamb, as she shares a few common misconceptions about how emotions work and gives us ideas for how we can incorporate the truth in our stories. Please welcome Kassandra Lamb! *smile*

*****

5 Common Misconceptions about Emotions
(That We Can Use as Authors)

Homo sapiens have been sentient beings for thousands of years, and still we do not truly understand our own emotions. Yet we are fascinated by them.

Because, like it or not, emotions rule our lives. We all strive for happiness, and feel an array of emotions—anger, fear, sadness—when life thwarts those efforts.

Why do readers read? Some read solely to escape the emotional roller coaster of real life, but others seek to absorb themselves in the emotional lives of the characters so that they can better understand and live their own lives.

By understanding the misconceptions about emotions that we humans tend to believe out of ignorance or cling to out of denial, we can write better stories. By challenging these misconceptions and digging a little deeper into the human emotional experience, we can write enlightening and inspiring stories!

Myth #1: Good and Bad Emotions Should Be Mutually Exclusive

This might fall more in the category of wishful thinking than true belief. We know that we sometimes have mixed emotions about things. But it happens more frequently than we like to acknowledge.

Often, we’re not in touch with our conflicting feelings. We may ignore the negative emotions, because, after all, happy feels better than angry or sad. Or if we’ve harbored a longstanding anger toward someone, we may resist acknowledging positive emotions toward them. Indeed, those positive feelings may unconsciously fuel our anger.

Great fodder for internal conflicts in our characters’ development.

How many stories begin with a main character embarking on a new chapter in their lives? They’re excited about the future, but also anxious, maybe even downright terrified.

How much more realistic and poignant that character will be if s/he also experiences some grief for the past left behind? (And a good place to throw in an intriguing hint about their back story.)

Myth #2:  If You Ignore an Emotion, It Will Go Away

Only if it’s a very mild emotion. Minor irritations or fleeting empathy for someone else’s grief, yeah, those will evaporate readily. But more intense reactions, not so much.

Emotions have an energy about them. They need to be acknowledged and vented in order to dissipate (I’ve talked more about this on my blog).

Emotions that aren’t sufficiently acknowledged and expressed tend to go underground. They may turn into depression or malcontent and come out indirectly as spurts of irrational anger or grief, snide remarks, or simmering resentments.

All too often they’re directed at people other than those who caused the emotions in the first place. The psychobabble term for this is transference.

So resentment toward an ex-wife may come out as anger toward women in general. But that’s so obvious. What is less so is the self-absorbed mother who frequently asked her young son if he loved her, and later that son is unable to say those words to the woman he adores.

Which brings us to…

Myth #3: True Love Cures Emotional Problems

Yeah, if this were true we would have no dysfunctional families and the divorce rate would be 2%. Emotional issues almost always have very deep roots–some biological, others psychological. Being loved does not make these factors magically disappear.

But people often believe that they will. If I just love him enough, he’ll stop gambling, be more affectionate, stop obsessing about germs on doorknobs, etc.

Some people also tend to believe that being loved will magically turn them into saner beings, cured of past hurts and somehow emotionally whole again. If I just find my one true love, all will be fine in my life.

As a psychologist, it makes me grind my teeth when I see this myth perpetuated in fiction.

As authors, we want to have flawed, realistic characters who have room to change and grow during the story, but having them fall in love is not enough to bring about that growth.

However, feeling truly loved, perhaps for the first time in one’s life, can provide both the motivation and some of the necessary resources to dig out emotional problems by the roots.

The hard work still needs to be done though, and first the character has to realize that they have to work at it. Showing our characters struggling with this process—inspired by the love of their life but nonetheless sliding back into old patterns–this will make them believable, relatable and perhaps even inspiring.

And here is another opportunity for some good plot twists. Is their lover willing and able to ride the roller coaster with them as they struggle to become a better person?

I had more than one client, when I was a practicing therapist, who started out their healing journey in what they thought was a loving and supportive relationship, only to have that relationship become unraveled as they improved their mental health…and outgrew their partner.

Myth #4  Being Emotional Is a Sign of Weakness

In reality, these two traits, emotional sensitivity and emotional strength, are only partially related. I’ve known plenty of sensitive people who were pretty darn strong, and some weak people who were quite emotionally shallow.

The relationship between these traits comes into play when people have to deal with adversity. Will a sensitive person discover strengths they didn’t think they had, or will they be crushed? Will a strong person fall apart when long-buried emotions are stirred up?

As a novice writer, I made the mistake of making my main characters much too together psychologically. I hadn’t left them a whole lot of room to grow during the course of my mystery series.

But then I remembered that even “together” people can fall apart when life throws them a curve ball. I’ve gotten really good at lobbing curve balls at my characters. 😀

However, if we try to bust this myth in our stories, we need to do so with care. This is a belief that readers often cling to with great resistance.

In Book 3 in my series, I decided to see how much crap I had to throw at my heroine before she would break. Some of my beta readers complained that Kate cried too much in this book, and that “made her look weak.”

I did tone down the crying some—even though I was thinking: Oh come on! She’s grieving her husband, someone is threatening her baby, she’s being sued for malpractice and she’s a murder suspect!

Personally, I would be crying buckets in her shoes. See what I mean about people resisting giving up this belief?

I took the risk anyway and brought my MC to the edge of a breakdown (with a few less tears). I wanted to make two points: that even strong people have their limits and that strength is less about endurance and more about one’s ability to put the pieces back together after you’ve fallen apart.

In Book 4, I went after her husband with the same agenda. Which brings us to…

Myth #5  Men Are Less Emotional than Women

Nope! Psychological research studies have found that men and women feel the same feelings at about the same level of intensity in the same situations.

The differences come out in when and how the emotions are expressed, and these differences are learned. They are not innate. (For more on this, see my post here.)

This is important to keep in mind when using deep POV. The internal visceral sensations will be similar, as will some, but not all, of the inner dialogue.

The woman may think, Oh my! when a friend bursts into tears; a man is more likely to think, Aw sh*t! But both will have aching throats and stinging eyes.

The woman may let her own tears flow in empathy as she wraps her arms around the friend. The man is more likely to swallow hard, blink away the grittiness and pat the friend on the shoulder.

I got some flak from beta readers on Book 4, because they felt my male protagonist was too emotional. I did tone down his external behaviors some before releasing the final version, but mostly I just kept saying, “But that’s the whole point. That’s what the story’s exploring—what kinds of  challenges and threats can bring a strong man to his knees?”

Confronting any of these misconceptions is not without risk. The reader looking for escapism may close your book without finishing it.

But challenging these beliefs about feelings can make a story resonates on a deeper emotional level, when readers have that aha moment, “Yes, that really is how that feels.”

Please check out my new release. In this one, I throw the meanest curve ball yet at my heroine…

*****

Kassandra LambWriting and psychology have always vied for number one on Kassandra Lamb’s Greatest Passions list. In her youth, she had to make a decision between writing and paying the bills. Partial to electricity and food, she studied psychology. Now retired from a career as a psychotherapist and college professor, she spends most of her time in an alternate universe with her characters. The portal to this universe (aka her computer) is located in Florida where her husband and dog get occasional glimpses of her. She and her husband also spend part of each summer in her native Maryland, where the Kate Huntington mysteries are set.

Find Kass on Twitter and Facebook, sign up for updates on Kate’s World at Kass’s website, and check out her posts on psychological topics and other random things at the misterio press site.

*****

About SUICIDAL SUSPICIONS, A Kate Huntington Mystery, #8:

Suicidal Suspicions book cover

Psychotherapist Kate Huntington is rocked to the core when one of her clients commits suicide. How can this be? The woman, who suffered from bipolar disorder, had been swinging toward a manic state. The client’s family is threatening to sue for malpractice, and Kate can’t really fault them since she blames herself. How could she have missed the signs?

Searching for answers for herself and the grieving parents, Kate discovers some details that don’t quite fit. Is it possible the client didn’t take her own life? Questioning her professional judgement, and at times her own sanity, she feels compelled to investigate. What she finds stirs up her old ambivalence about the Catholic Church. Is her client’s death somehow related to her childhood parish?

When she senses that someone is following her, she wonders if she is truly losing it. Or is she getting dangerously close to someone’s secrets?

Amazon US | Amazon UK | Amazon Canada | Apple | Kobo | B&N | Scribd | Oyster | Goodreads

*****

Thank you, Kass! These are great misconceptions to point out, and I love how you talk about the risks of both going along with the myths and of trying to fight them in our writing.

As a romance author and reader, I’m a huge believer in the power of love, yet as you said with Myth #3, there’s a limit. *grin*

I get bored by romance stories that treat Myth #3 as true. The characters start out with issues, the middle of the story is filled with conflicts and obstacles with no growth, and then boom! At the end of the story, they suddenly realize they’re in love and everything is magically solved.

Sorry, no. Not only is that a false portrayal of love, but it’s also an unrealistic (and boring) story.

The “happily ever after” won’t be believable because we haven’t seen them fighting for it. I’m going to assume that their first fight as a couple would cause a breakup, because they have no clue how to work things out when it’s a struggle.

(That’s one reason that I love Michael Hauge’s story structure for emotions (and integrated his teachings into my Romance Beat Sheet). He emphasizes the emotional growth of “two steps forward and one step back”—or sometimes “one step forward and two steps back”—so readers see the characters change.)

By showing emotions as they really are, we increase the realism and emotional power of our stories. And by knowing how to explore emotional truths that we might be in denial of, we might be able to make our stories resonate with readers on a deeper and more powerful level. *smile*

Do you object to any of these myths? Do you know people who believe any of them? Do you think that exposing the truths and emotional vulnerabilities of characters can make a stronger story? Do any other misconceptions about emotions come to mind? Do you have any questions for Kass?

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46 Comments on "5 Common Myths about Emotions — Guest: Kassandra Lamb"

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[…] 5 Common Myths about Emotions […]

K.B. Owen

Fascinating post! There is a very fine line for writers, in terms of pushing reality over preconceptions. I run into that all the time in writing historical fiction. People have misconceptions around what it’s like to live in that time, and there’s only so much you can show to persuade them without compromising the pace of the story and devolving into lecture.

The emotional life of our characters is so important, and these are great tips. I’ll definitely be bookmarking this!

Kassandra Lamb

Wow, I’ve been bookmarked. 😀 Thanks, Kathy!

I can only imagine how much harder it is to deal with this issue in historical fiction. You’ve got to get the emotions right but also show how the characters would deal with them in that era. You do it well, though. I’ve never felt like an emotion was off in your books.

Davonne Burns

I love this, excellent myths here. I actually know people who believe the majority of them. >_<

I absolutely believe that exposing the truths and emotional vulnerabilities of characters makes a stronger story. That's a lot of the backbone of my character arcs, having my MC be worn down to the breaking point and then shoving them over. That emotional arc is always what draws me to a story. It was one of my favorite things about Ironclad Devotion, how both emotional arcs played off each other and none of these myths featured. One of my absolute favorite things about Kira was how her emotional vulnerability never seemed trite or tacked on and never once negated her strength.

This is something I've also been very careful about in my WIP with my genderfluid character. I've tried very hard not to characterize their femininity in any stereotypical ways, such as her being more emotional and prone to crying or conversely their masculine side being stoic and unemotional.

In that same WIP their relationship with the other MC doesn't solve Jasper's depression. It does give him the strength to combat his suicidal urges but ultimately they are there as a support and motivator, not a savior. That would only cheapen Jasper's struggle and take away his autonomy and his personal victory in dealing with his depression. How is he suppose to grow when 'love' solves everything? ^

Kassandra Lamb

“That would only cheapen Jasper’s struggle and take away his autonomy and his personal victory in dealing with his depression.” Yes!! Exactly.

Thanks so much for your thoughtful comment, Davonne.

Serena Yung
Serena Yung
Wow, I was quite shocked that some people actually believe in these myths. For instance, I thought it was common sense that we have mixed feelings about things and very often too. I get mixed feelings about things and people ALL the time! My feelings towards my main villain can even be seen as confused, lol, and even characterizing it as a love-hate feeling towards him oversimplifies it. Oh my gosh the last myth is my pet peeve. I HATE it when people think men are less emotional! My dad has always felt that he was more emotional than my mom. And I was actually a bit offended when my mom said she was very amazed by how deeply my dad loves and cares about me, because she never thought men were capable of so much love. Ugh, yeah, I am quite offended by her assumption that men can’t love deeply, very offended indeed. Lol, sorry for my grumpiness, but it really is a pet peeve of mine! Even for different behavioral expressions of the same emotions, I think the society really is changing now. Maybe it’s just me, but many of my male friends tend to express their emotions in a more feminine manner. I like feminine men (as people), so that could explain why my male friends tend to be more on the feminine side. So as always, it’s important to be true to our character rather than to write what we think “boys should do”. In emotional… Read more »
Kassandra Lamb

Those two are my pet peeves as well, Serena. I used to discuss #5 with my college students back when I taught. I’d ask them just how much this had changed. Both the guys and the gals would say it has, but not as much as one might think. And some of the young women would (sheepishly) admit that although seeing a man cry made them feel warm fuzzies for him, they were less likely to be sexually attracted to him. *sigh*

Hopefully by addressing this with our characters we can shift this further over time!

As for me, I cry when I’m super pissed, which makes sense. Crying is the pressure valve for any intense emotion (that’s why people cry at weddings). But as soon as I tear up, somebody (usually a guy but not always) starts to pat me on the shoulder and tell me it’s gonna be okay. Makes me want to deck them. My husband knows better though (now); he gets out of swinging range fast when I start bawling. 😉

Serena Yung
Serena Yung

Lol! Wow, I must be a different kind of woman, since I almost always find a guy hotter if he cries, because it makes him look more human to me, haha. But then I’m also a demisexual, thus I wouldn’t feel sexual attraction towards a guy before feeling a deep emotional bond with him first; so revealing his vulnerable side to me is a step towards that emotional closeness, I guess. Maybe that’s why I seem to be so out of the norm there!

Oh on the subject of men crying, there may be some cultural and time period differences in social attitudes towards this. I learned in my Later 18th Century Novel class in university, that 18th century (British) men were EXPECTED to cry and show emotion. The men I read about in Chinese martial arts novels that are always set in ancient China also cry very frequently, and nobody thinks there’s anything wrong with that. In fact, if they don’t cry, it might be seen as abnormal! Or that they are so sad that their emotions are numbed and they can’t feel anything.

Surprisingly, I don’t know what the norm attitude is towards men crying in modern day China…I just seem to know more about ancient Chinese culture than about modern Chinese culture for some reason. Even though I’m Chinese, lol. Oh well.

Still pretty interesting that social attitudes can change over time and be different across cultures!

Kassandra Lamb

Good points, Serena! In many European countries it’s not seen as weird if men cry. And I’m with you; I’m not attracted sexually to a man until I feel emotionally close to him, and knowing that he isn’t afraid to show his emotions and be vulnerable aids that closeness.

Serena Yung
Serena Yung

Thanks for your replies!

Btw for the mixed emotions point, I sort of finished writing my hyper long story at last! (though I still need to end my character’s story). And after I finished, I felt calm, cheerful, and depressed at the same time, lol. Calm and cheerful because I finally sort of hit the finish line, but depressed because this is the last time I’ll ever see the hero and heroine and their friends and acquaintances at that age. When we see them in the sequel, they’ll be a lot older already…not “kids” anymore, lol!

Btw a typical romantic comedy I think ends with a very happy ending? My ending was pretty happy overall, yet there were quite a few sad things talked about at the end that it made my ending bittersweet, though more sweet than bitter. Sometimes I worry that I keep breaking genre expectations of plot events too… Having unexpected plot events is good for the readers who always want to “see something new”, but maybe not so good for the readers who want the things that tend to happen in this genre to happen. Oh well. At least the hero and heroine got to marry in the end, so I already fulfilled the basic romantic comedy requirement, lol. It’s a very atypical Chinese martial arts story, though…But I can talk about that in the future, haha.

Cobalt-Blue
Cobalt-Blue

I would add a sixth myth. That myth being the myth of bad or evil emotions. All emotions have a purpose, even the so-called bad emotions of anger, hatred, and fear. They serve a very important part of or psyche and our existence. They give us strength when we need it. The tell us to flee or to fight. They allow us to recognize those who would harm us and counter it. But like all other emotions, they must be mastered and focused. It’s a bad thing when we let ANY emotion control us, but these emotions are no more evil than love or compassion.

Kassandra Lamb

Darn, I knew there was one I was forgetting, and that’s the one! Thanks for adding it.

Most definitely all emotions serve a purpose. The so called “bad” ones get that label because they make us uncomfortable. But they’re crucial to our survival. They tell us to get away from dangerous and/or unhealthy situations, and as you say, anger gives us the strength and courage to stand and fight when necessary.

But definitely we need to learn how to manage all emotions.

Vinnie Hansen

We’re so lucky at misterio press to have Kassandra on our team. She often fact checks the psychology of our books.

Good post, Kass! I especially liked the tip about grief over the life left behind as a way to work in a bit of back story. 🙂

Kassandra Lamb

Thanks, Vinnie. You usually nail the psychology in your stories!

That’s a great way of putting it, Jami, that our emotions are layered, with the not-so-happy emotions hiding under the happier ones, or fear hiding behind anger (I saw this a lot in my clients).

Elizabeth Harmon

I loved Kassandra’s point in #3, that love can provide the motivation and support needed to overcome an emotional problem, but it’s the cure itself. This is what can make a dark moment so wrenching, because we don’t know for sure if the character has grown enough emotionally to survive, with the relationship intact. When they do, we can feel confident in the HEA. Great post. I always learn something at your site.

Kassandra Lamb

Yes, excellent point! The HEA is much more realistic and believable when we’ve seen the characters struggle with their own issues in order to let the lover in and have a healthier relationship. Thanks for pointing that out, Elizabeth.

Tamara LeBlanc
Tamara LeBlanc

Really fascinating post.
I had never truly thought about these myths until reading this post. Sure I think about emotion and how to do it justice in every story I write, but I have never really deconstructed the myths in order to understand them better.
Thanks so much for this wisdom.
Have a great afternoon 🙂
Tamara

Kassandra Lamb

You are very welcome, Tamara. I’m glad you found the post so helpful!

Rhonda Hopkins

Great post and right on the money as usual. I know when suppressing anger it comes out as sarcasm usually (in me and my characters). Sometimes that’s enough. Other times, it’s just waiting to blow. So yeah — definitely to acknowledge it and get it out of the way sooner rather than later. 🙂

BTW…loved the latest book!

Kassandra Lamb

Wow!! Thanks, Rhonda!

Ah yes, sarcasm can definitely be one of my methods for indirect anger release. All too often it pops out of my mouth before my brain can stop it. But I’m having fun applying that tendency to a new character who is a bit of the snarky side.

Kim McDougall

Thank you for an important reminder. I’ve been reading a lot of epic fantasy lately–some good, some not so good. The bad stories tend to omit these sorts of character developments in favor of hard and fast action in a pace that may seem energizing, but just gets dull after a while. I wonder if this is a reaction to novice authors trying to catch editor’s attention with action, action and more action.

Taurean J. Watkins (@Taurean_Watkins)

Um, did my post get lost in the ether, Jami?
(If so, glad I saved it somewhere, because I knew I’d get EPIC…

Serena Yung
Serena Yung
Just thought of another myth about emotions: You know how you expect yourself to “explode in happiness” (or be utterly ecstatic) when something very good happens? E.g. Getting an A on a very hard university course. Well from my personal experience, and I think from some psych studies, you don’t feel a slap-bang-explosion of happiness when the event happens. Instead, you feel a tiny bit happy, but then this joy accumulates slowly until you finally “realize” that you’re very happy, lol. It feels like a raindrop that slowly grows into a river. However, even though I know “explosions of joy” are unrealistic, I still like to write them rather than the drip drip drop gradually accumulating type of realistic happiness, because the explosive type is more dramatic and entertaining. Also, I think a lot of people believe that we feel a “big blast of happiness” when a very positive event occurs, so if I wrote anything different, my readers might think my character is written wrong, is unrealistic, or is psychologically abnormal, lol. That raindrop to river happiness was how I felt when I finally finished writing my story yesterday. (Yes, even my character’s story and his reader friends’ discussions about his story afterwards.) I was just calm and somewhat cheerful after writing the last sentence, but this cheeriness built up over time, and now I feel kind of euphoric. This euphoria isn’t wild and crazy, though. It’s more like a happy, warm glow of joy. P.S. I feel kind… Read more »
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[…] this post is the follow-up to my guest post on misconceptions about emotions over at Jami Gold’s blog last […]

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[…] Garver gives pointers for writers on strengthening observational skills. Kassandra Lamb lists 5 common myths about emotions, and Angela Ackerman discusses the emotional wounds a character might suffer after a home invasion. […]

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