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Emotional Awareness through the Ages

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Attitudes about emotions have changed dramatically in the course of human history. To this day, many cultures differ in how they view the appropriateness of emotions and the ways in which people express them

Attitudes about emotions have changed dramatically in the course of human history. To this day, many cultures differ in how they view the appropriateness of emotions and the ways in which people express them.

The ancient Greeks and Romans saw emotions as potentially dangerous. The philosopher Epicurus advised his followers to avoid intense feelings of sadness or joy since he believed they upset the body's natural balance. In the Middle Ages, people suffering from depression were thought to be possessed by the devil.

Even as knowledge of science grew, attitudes toward emotions remained mired in myth. The prevailing view of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment was that the superior rational mind - our "reason" operated separately from the inferior emotional mind our "passions." This wariness toward emotions became strongly tied to sexism, with women considered the more "emotional" sex and, therefore, intrinsically weaker than men. Parents continued to teach their male children to avoid expressing emotions throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, reminding them that "big boys don't cry."

"I was raised to be a traditional European male," recalled psychologist Claude Steiner of his boyhood in the 1940s and '50s. "I ignored not only my own emotions, but the emotions of others with whom I came into contact. Looking back, I would say that many of the things I did were insensitive and hurtful to the people in my life."

The rise of science as the dominant paradigm in Western society may have also hindered emotional awareness by encouraging what Steiner described as "detachment and rationality uncluttered by emotion." While studying to become a scientist, he recalled, he had to conduct experiments that involved destroying the spinal cords of live frogs with an electric current. "As I performed this grisly task," he later wrote, "I told myself I had to suppress my feelings of horror if I wanted to be a real scientist."

A shift occurred in the postwar era. Women challenged sexism and its dismissive attitude toward emotions, while advances in medicine proved the awesome impact emotions have on all aspects of our being. Yet IQ remained the standard benchmark for individual success and achievement throughout the 1960s and '70s. Only in the last decade of the 20th century did Western society finally begin to reassess its traditional relegation of emotions as secondary in importance to cognitive thinking.

In many non-Western cultures, emotions are still regarded as private matters of the heart, not to be revealed to others. Some languages even lack words for complex emotions like depression, making it a difficult subject to talk about, much less address.

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