Two Lessons on Emotional Growth

This animation from School of Life describes the two types of emotional desires we seek, and how they have the power to determine the decisions we make.

While scientists grapple with the question of how much our brains grow as we age—do we make new neurons as we age, or are we stuck with the ones we made in adolescence?—our physical bodies are constantly changing and maturing. Just look at a picture of yourself from two years ago, one you didn’t like then; weird fashion phases and haircuts aside, it probably looks a whole lot better to you now.

A less talked about but perhaps more important area of growth is what’s happening on the inside: our fluctuating emotional life.

In this video from School of Life, philosopher Alain de Botton explains how our emotional development influences our desires and our overall contentment.

The Two Types of Emotional Desires

Our emotional side is composed of two primary motivations, de Botton says. The first is to achieve connection, the second it to reach self-expression.

1) Connection: Connection can be understood as a desire to move away from loneliness, shame, and isolation, and toward opportunities for understanding, sincerity, and communion.

“We long to share with friends, lovers, and new acquaintances an authentic picture of what it means to be us—and at the same time to enter deeply into their feelings and experiences,” de Botton says. “What we call love is a subsection of the drive to connect.”

We can count ourselves as emotionally healthy, in large part, according to what degree of emotional connection we have in our lives.

We can count ourselves as emotionally healthy, in large part, according to what degree of emotional connection we have in our lives.

2) Self-expression: Self-expression is defined by the wish to externalize our ideas, creative abilities, and intellectual capacities. This often centers around the work we do or the activities we practice in our free time. This is the way we gain a greater understanding of the content of our minds, our values, and our ways of seeing the world.

“We will feel we have had a rich life whenever we have been able to give a voice and shape to some of the many perceptions that course through us—and, in some way, however modestly, left a fruitful imprint on the world,” de Botton explains.

Two Lessons on Emotional Growth

1) Our Emotional Desires Can Inform Our Happiness (and Unhappiness) 

Understanding the two aspects of our emotional desires can provide much-needed insight into our own happiness, or lack thereof.

For example, when we fall out of touch with a friend or realize a romantic relationship is crumbling, it is our desire for connection that makes us hurt so deeply.

Similarly, feeling intense dislike for a boring job, or anxiety that our talents are going to waste, can be explained by our craving for self-expression.

If our emotional desires are unable to flourish, it places us at risk of greater unhappiness.  As de Botton says: “It is as misguided, painful, and nonsensical to try to stop someone growing emotionally as it is to bind their feet.”

Failing to meet our emotional needs can impact our lives in startling, and sometimes devastating, ways.

2) Our Emotions Won’t Be Ignored

Choosing to ignore what we truly want in order to please others or tow the status quo can inspire what is perceived as a breakdown, or identity crisis.

For example, a desire to have a relationship with greater emotional connection can cause us to leave a marriage that, to outsiders, may appear like a “perfect match.” Or our drive for self-expression can lead us to quit a job that, despite being well-paid, leaves us feeling unfulfilled.

While the end results are often worth it, the process of getting there can appear to ourselves—not to mention, our loved ones—as though we are destroying everything we have worked so hard for.

“If the drive to emotional growth continues to be unattended, and perhaps even unknown to us, it can short circuit our whole lives in a bid to be heard,” says de Bottom. “A breakdown is a roundabout attempt to create opportunities for a breakthrough, that is, a new stage of emotional growth.”

A breakdown is a roundabout attempt to create opportunities for a breakthrough.

It may feel terrifying to choose to go after what we truly desire. But by listening to our emotional needs, we are able to move towards greater peace of mind.

“By understanding more clearly how basic and important the drive to emotional growth can be, we may come to better recognize the symptoms of its frustrations and the logic of our longings,” de Botton concludes.

When we choose to upset the steady course of our lives in the name of giving our emotional desires the voice they demand, we can be readier to understand what might be behind what may seem like “crazy” behavior.

We haven’t lost our minds—“It’s just that we just have to honor another even more vital side of our nature,” says de Bottom. “We are under an inner imperative to continue on our path towards emotional growth.”