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The Emotional Sweet Spot


What comes to mind for you when I mention “cooperative?” Now consider what comes to mind when I mention “not cooperative.” For me, the only notion that comes to mind is “Uncooperative.

Let’s try the same exercise with ”relaxed.” For me, several emotions come to mind such as up-tight, anxious, agitated, upset, restless, and so on. Even so, I divide the emotional state into “relaxed” and “not relaxed.”

The point is that I divide emotional states into two states that I can characterize as “X” and “not X.” Try it for yourself. For example, What is the alternative to being “affectionate,” to being “supportive,” to being “trusting?” You likely come up with a few words to describe each, but those words are just ways of being more specific about “not affectionate,” “not supportive,” and “not trusting.”

If we were to stop here, the conclusion would be pretty simple. The target emotion is either present or not present. What’s more, We also divide emotions into two more groups: good and not good. Being cooperative is good and being uncooperative is bad. The same good or bad dichotomy holds for relaxed and not relaxed, affectionate and not affectionate, supportive and not supportive, trusting and not trusting. Sure, there are people and situations where good and bad get reversed, for example, where trusting is a bad idea and not trusting is the better part of good judgment. Nonetheless, good and bad are still in play.

In less personal relationships and situations, we may want to replace “affectionate” with “warm” to avoid any issue with meaning, but the present versus not present, good versus bad division still applies. What is the alternative to warm? Terms like cold and aloof come to mind. “Warm” is good and “aloof” is bad.

I’m getting closer to the point. Using this approach to understanding emotional states, we can see that we can and do think about emotional states as ranging from fully present to fully absent, from all good to all bad, and we then judge other people and ourselves accordingly. One end of the range for each of the emotional states is the ideal place for us to be and not being there is actionable. We want other people to be more cooperative, more relaxed, warmer, more supportive and more trusting. We may or may not apply the same expectation to ourselves or at least not to the same degree, but the expectation is there and doing better is always an option. But what if the construct or mental model we are using for emotional states is wrong?

Now I get to the point I want us to consider. What if emotional states are not in a range from good to bad, from Present to not present? It’s not a dichotomy. Instead, think of an emotional state as ranging from not present to present and then on to not present. Present is a single point in the middle. Emotional states range from bad and undesirable to good and desirable and then on to bad and undesirable? Good is a single point in the middle. The notion is sort of like the notion that says “There can be too much of a good thing.”

Let me suggest a few ranges that shift from undesirable to desirable and then when desirable goes too far, it be comes itself undesirable.

Nervous shifts to Relaxed but if overdone becomes Impassive.

Cold shifts to Warm but if taken too far becomes Smothering.

Cynical shifts to Trusting but if overdone becomes Gullible.

Critical shifts to Supportive but can turn into being Unquestioning.

Oppositional shifts to Cooperative which if taken too far becomes acquiescence.

As we can now see, the emotional sweet spot is in the middle between Not X and taking X too far. In each example, if the emotional sweet spot in the middle is taken too far, the outcome is undesirable, perhaps even more undesirable than not relaxed, not warm, not trusting, not supportive or not cooperative.

What happens as we go past the sweet spot, as we shift toward too much of a good thing? As counterintuitive as it may seem, we begin to emotionally separate, to disconnect from people and situations. We begin to abandon our individual agency and succumb to the manipulation of people and circumstances. We may do this more passively as in becoming acquiescent or Impassive or more actively as in becoming gullible or smothering. In any event, instead of stopping and taking stock at the sweet spot, we take a good thing too far.

What is the conclusion? As we find the emotional sweet spot in any relationship or situation, take care not to go too far in what seems to be the right direction. Since we can likely never exactly hit the emotional sweet spot and stay there – let’s call that “finding X” – we are usually better off leaning a little toward “not X” than running the risk of too much X where we begin to lose our individual agency and our ability to judge.

It may be useful to note before stopping that conning us into the emotional sweet spot and then nudging us on past is the secret sauce in robocalls and most any other scam. Just know that it can and does happen, often when we are least expecting it. Along with keeping our emotional radar up for external signs, we also need to keep our internal emotional radar active for signs that we may be shifting on past the emotional sweet spot, those times when its telling us to pull back a little, to take care not to lose our emotional edge.

Now you know so there you go.