Monday, November 5, 2012

Navigating your emotions

“If someone comes along and shoots an arrow into your heart, it’s fruitless to stand there and yell at the person. It would be much better to turn your attention to the fact that there’s an arrow in your heart.”

Pema Chödrön

Ever have one of those moments when your emotions get away from you? If you’re like me it probably happens at least once a day. I’m a psychologist. I should know better, but I promise you it happens to the best of us. I've nearly lost my mind in Chicago traffic when I’m running a little late for work. Sometimes even on the way to teach an anger management class. Ahh the hypocrisy.

 One of the better books I’ve ever read on the subject of managing emotions is called ‘Emotional Intelligence” by Daniel Goleman, who calls it “emotional highjacking” when feelings such as anger take over the brain of an otherwise (reasonably) rationale person. The emotion in this case overrides the thinking, reasoning part of the brain, and, for a short while, the emotion takes over instead. Ever wonder how a normally calm person can sometimes turn in to a completely different person when they are triggered in a certain way? Or wondered why people just seem to “snap” in certain stressful situations? Emotional highjacking explains a lot of this.

All of this has to do with the way our brains respond to fear. When we experience fear, our fight or flight response summons us to the present moment and makes sure we are paying attention. It’s the brain’s way of saying, “This is real, this is actually happening, and you have to address this NOW.” All of this happens in a matter of seconds. The problem is that our brains can play tricks on us sometimes. Often times we go on high alert when a thoughtful moment of reflection would have sufficed instead. I see this all the time while doing marriage counseling. A comment is made that sets off a person’s alarm system, a threat is perceived, and a person goes on the attack. Their partner attacks back, and within seconds everyone is at defcon five.

All of this can start with a comment as seemingly innocent as “does this dress make me look fat?”

One explanation for this is that these kinds of threats can be a blow to our entire sense of self. If a marriage is a huge part of someone’s identity, and a comment is perceived in a way that is threatening to the marriage, it also can pull the rug out on a person’s entire sense of self, which can lead to confusion, fear, and often even rage.

All of this is interesting to consider in relation to the “iceberg” theory of personality. What we see above the surface of the water may be substantial, but still, 75% of the iceberg is beneath the water. An example used in Goleman’s book was two kids in the backseat of a car driving along with their parents in the front. The Beatles song “Help” is playing on the radio. All of a sudden there is a fight in the front seat, and dad reaches over and smacks mom. The kids are terrified in the back seat, and duck their heads and hope that the fight stops as soon as possible.

Bur that’s not the end of the story.

These kids grow up, get older, but still, every time they hear the song “Help” they are overwhelmed by a scared and uneasy feeling. All of this happens just out of their immediate awareness, but the feeling comes over them and their well-being is at least temporarily disrupted. This is how emotional triggers can work, and by the time we reach adulthood, we may have accumulated thousands of them.

This is an important concept to understand, because it also provides an explanation as to why we often tend to make the same mistakes over and over again. Freud called this the “repetition compulsion” after observing people doing something a second time, even after it caused them pain the first time. His best guess was that we continue to put ourselves in situations like this again because we want a different outcome this time around.

It rarely ever happens that way.

Ever wonder why a person who just got out of an abusive relationship tends to pick a guy just like that again and again? Why a man with a nagging and impossible to please mother would marry a woman with almost exactly the same personality? Or perhaps a woman with a cold and distant father keeps choosing men that can’t meet her emotional needs?

The repetition compulsion explains a lot of this, as our emotional wiring keeps steering us in a direction that leads to more pain. It’s somewhat like a pilot with a bad navigational system, who is trying desperately to get to Florida, but keeps winding up in New York instead. Until we can better understand our emotional tendencies and reactions, we repeat mistakes over and over, without always understanding why. And truthfully this can go on for a lifetime.

So how DO we break this cycle and begin to better understand our own navigational system? The answer I believe lies in training ourselves to focus our attention specifically to the present moment. To understand when we are susceptible to these emotional “hijacks” and to bring ourselves back to the present moment, which is the only thing we have any real control over. As Victor Frankl puts it in his wonderful book Man’s Search for Meaning, “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”

In pursuit of helping others find more of these moments in their lives, I would like to recommend a couple of things. First, acquaint yourself with the idea of mindfulness meditation, and perhaps start with the book Full Catastrophe Living by John Kabat-Zinn which may be the best book written on the subject. Goleman’s Emotional Intelligence is also a fantastic read, and one that personally helped me a great deal. Sometimes now, (not all the time) when someone cuts me off in traffic, I remember what is happening, take a deep breath, and laugh at my own reaction. I’m still a work in progress. All of us are. But as long as we are drawing breath, we can get better at making choices that empower us to be personally responsible for our lives.

That’s the best we can do..