In the popular American imagination, emotion and rationality are often mutually exclusive. One is erratic, unpredictable, and often a liability; the other, cool, collected, and absent obvious feeling. And even though research suggests that people experience emotions internally in similar ways no matter their gender, many Americans still regard emotion as uniquely feminine and weak.
That myth has long ruled everything from the military to the white-collar workplace, and it has played a role in systemically excluding women from professional and cultural leadership. But dismissing the value of emotion is at odds with how human feelings actually work, both interpersonally and evolutionarily. As a society, “we believe emotional strength is not about how you manage your emotions, but about not having any,” said the psychologist Guy Winch while speaking on a panel at the Aspen Ideals Festival, co-hosted by the Aspen Institute and The Atlantic. “That’s science fiction, and it’s just not how we are. Emotional strength is about the management.”
Human emotions are, in reality, an integral part of competent decision making. “Emotions are like GPS. They help to guide us,” said the psychotherapist Lori Gottlieb, who writes The Atlantic’s “Dear Therapist” column and spoke on the same panel. “Follow your envy; it tells you what you want. If you’re feeling sad, why? Something’s not working. If [emotions] don’t guide you, you’re going to make choices and decisions that end up lost.” Feeling sad or angry, in other words, can provide information about an experience that’s essential in order to evaluate an appropriate reaction.