2 Problematic Processes which Activate and Energize Emotional Threats and How To Neutralize Them.

In many of my posts, I have presented, discussed, addressed, and explained the Emotions Cycle.

At its core, the Emotions Cycle involves the following 4 steps…

  1. starting from the unconscious scanning  for threat,
  2. proceeding through the  unconscious perception of that threat (based on whatever “definition” you have currently “loaded” into your scanning process regarding the situation you are in),and,
  3. moving from the subconscious to the conscious by assessing the nature of the threat and
  4. choosing an adaptive response.

While steps 1 and 2 occur at the subconscious level and are outside of your awareness, your perception of threat stems from and is based on your inherent definition of what constitutes a threat (to you in the context of your current situation).

Your definition of “threat” is based on your past, your self-image, your skill sets, your tolerance for risk and many other factors. The objective situation (or what is actually taking place), of course, is a contributing factor but pales compared to other subjective factors.

Extraordinary (extra-ordinary) actions

As an example, there are numerous reports in the news where bystanders have rushed into burning buildings, run toward  burning cars,  or  just acted in extraordinary ways to rescue someone from what is, to any observer, a dangerous situation.

When told they are a hero, these otherwise normal people, deny their hero status saying they only did what anyone else would have done.

Clearly, they are extraordinary because they did what others did not.

Their actions stemmed from their definition of threat at the moment they moved to take extraordinary action.

Most of us might view the fire, the danger of being severely injured, or the possibility of dying as the critical survival threat we needed to avoid.

This is normal.

These individuals saw the same survival issues that others saw but viewed the threat of the victim’s possibly dying as the real issue confronting them and rushed into the situation.

The possible death of the victim constituted the critical threat they wanted to avoid.

While this is extra-ordinary, the emotional process is the same for both bystanders.  It is also why these individuals did not see themselves as “heroes”.  They were just acting “normally” or “doing what anyone else would do”.

Both the ordinary bystander and the extraordinary bystander are correct in their definitions of threat in their shared experience.  Their different actions stemmed from their divergent definitions of what constituted the primary threat facing them that they wanted to avoid.

Perception of threat is YOUR reality not necessarily THE reality.

I’ve mentioned in previous posts the situation in which, when I was a new supervising psychologist, one of my staff psychologists got very angry regarding a memo I sent out to all of my staff.

As a review, one of my staff was acting in a way which came very close to insubordination.  I was a new supervisor and folks at the home office suggested I put out a general memo pointing out how important it was for everyone to follow policy.  The idea was that I should take the path of least resistance and not single anyone out.

As this was the first step in beginning to hold this one staff member accountable, I was instructed to send out a memo to all staff with the general caveat that “failure to follow policy could result in disciplinary action”.

One of my staff fumed into my office and indignantly proclaimed that she had been working over 20 years as a  Psychologist, had never violated policy, and was incensed that she was being threatened with disciplinary action.

You will recall that the message of anger is that you perceive a threat that will “kill” you and that you must go to war to eliminate.

With this staff member, the threat was to her self-image as an unrecognized, reliable, ethical and self-disciplined worker who followed all the rules. To be threatened with disciplinary action was viewed as unnecessary, inappropriate, and insulting. With her reputation (and self-image) at stake, she went on the offensive and lashed out.

She assumed the memo was directed at her, viewed the memo as unacceptable and acted as-if this were the only explanation for the memo.

More on this below…

Once I clarified that it was a general memo and was not directed at her specifically, that she was a valued and responsible team member and that no disciplinary action was pending, she calmed down.

Given her new “reality”, there was no threat.

The Emotional Cycle

What is often not discussed in the context of anger, or any other emotionally based threat, is that how one defines the current threat (and the resulting perception of threat based on that definition) often stems from two actions, both of which are often automatic, inappropriate and highly problematic.

While I have addressed anger as an emotion which alerts us to and prepares us to go to war to defend against a perceived threat, I’d like to dig a little deeper and explore two processes which activate, energize, and transform our perception of threat: assuming and acting as-if.

Together, these two processes constitute an extreme case of tunnel vision.


We make an assumption when we come to a conclusion (or make a judgement) about a situation based on “facts” which we believe fit, clarify and explain the situation we are facing.  Assumptions often fill in for information which is unavailable, ambiguous, or doesn’t fit our perception.

Our assumptions are often problematic because they are presumed to be correct but are not validated.

One example is assuming you know what another person is thinking or feeling.

Acting as-if:

The second problematic process occurs when you act as-if your perception of the situation is inclusive, accurate and descriptive of the situation.  Indeed, we act as-if our perception is the best and only way of perceiving what is going on.

To put it another way..

The actions you take in your own defense are based on your perception of the situation.  This is part of the emotional process.

The problematic issue is that you consider your perception to be both totally inclusive of all possible explanations and completely exclusive in that yours is the only way of perceiving what is going on.

This is problematic because it narrows your assessment of what is going on, blinds you to other explanations, accentuates the destructiveness of the threat, and energizes your efforts to eliminate the threat.

The Antidote

To neutralize the insidious impact of assuming and acting as-if, when (in step #3) you engage the conscious process of assessing your situation, you need to make a special effort to be as objective as possible (not easy to do but definitely doable with practice).  Taking a physical step back from the situation (creating physical distance) and a deep breath (creating psychological distance) can be a signal to you to focus your attention both on what appears to be happening and on other possible explanations for what is happening.

With this information available to you, you can choose your response.