Your Brain VERSES Your Feelings? Nope! Your Brain AND Your Feelings.

How do I train my brain to be stronger than my feelings?

This is a question Barbara asked me to address on Quora.com.  I wanted to share my answer here because the question contains a common (but incorrect) assumption that there is a competition between what one thinks and what one feels.

Barbara:

While I am not exactly sure what you are asking, I will do my best to address what I think you want to know.

Your question seems to address a common misconception and the two emotion myths that are implied by this misconception..

The misconception in that there is a competition between LOGIC (the brain) and EMOTION (feelings).

Note: the terms emotions and feelings, while different in the scientific literature, are basically the same in every day usage.

The two emotion myths are:

1. that your emotions control you and cause you to take actions you don’t want to do.

2. that you must control your emotions using your brain.

I will explain the above in some detail below.

But first, I need to add that there is some “training” you will need to do. It isn’t, however, what you expect.

The emotions cycle delineates how your emotions “work”.

The emotions cycle has 5 components.  The first two operate subconsciously and the last 3 operate consciously.

This is the emotions cycle:

The Subconscious Components:

I. You are constantly (and subconsciously) scanning your surroundings for any threat.

Humans have done this since we lived in caves.

II. When you perceive a threat, your body (through the Amygdala in your brain) automatically prepares you to deal with the threat. The message of the emotion communicates the nature of the perceived threat.

This process is subconscious, automatic, and very fast as it should be if every threat you faced would kill you. As a caveman, every threat would kill you so having this process happen automatically was a life saver for you and all of  our ancestors.

The physical changes in your body are related to the threat you perceive. This is the physical message of the emotion. Anger: your muscles tense, your heart rate increases, your eyesight narrows. Your are prepared for war. Sadness: your energy seems to drain, you are prepared to withdraw. Fear: you find it hard to focus your thoughts, you need to decide to freeze or flee.

Note: The subconscious component of the emotion cycle is the basis for the emotion myth that our feelings control us because this process happens automatically.

The Conscious Components:

III. Once you become aware that you are experiencing an emotion, you need to control your emotional reaction to create “safety” and lower your emotional arousal.

This is where your “control” comes in.

You are not controlling the emotion. Rather, you are controlling your emotional reaction.

Control consists of two actions…

  1. You do take a physical step away from the situation. This creates a physical safe space.
  2. You take a deep breath (or two). this lowers your emotional arousal and creates a psychological safe space.

Note: This is where you need to train yourself.

You do this by thinking about emotional situations you might encounter and visualizing yourself taking a step back and a deep breath. Remember that you are developing a new habit and that it will take time and practice.

IV. You now use your logic to assess the nature of the threat and whether the threat is actually a threat.

It is here that your cerebral cortex kicks in and you can use your logic. The cerebral cortex evolved to give us an advantage our ancestors did not have. We can move beyond our instincts and built-in reactions and choose how we want to respond to our situations.

V. Based on your Assessment of the situation, you choose an adaptive response that matches and resolves the “threat”. Your response can involve having a conversation, withdrawing, going on the attack, or doing nothing and everything in-between.

So, Barbara, it is not an matter of strengthening your logic or your emotional “abilities” as your logic and your feelings are not in opposition to one another but need to work together. The goal is to learn to master your emotions as strategic tools to improve your life and your relationships.

While mastering your emotions as tools is not easy, it is doable and I have provided you with a free resource you can use to educate yourself about your emotions.

 

Emotional Empowerment: Focus on “reclaiming” your emotions.

In my last post, I discussed the concept that our emotions are always valid but might not be appropriate.  If they are not appropriate, we should choose not to express them.

Another reason why someone might choose not to express an emotion is that they feel estranged from that emotion based on…

  • a set of “rules”,
  • their upbringing,
  • issues surrounding how they might be perceived should they directly express the emotion,
  • inadequate skill sets for dealing with that emotion, or
  • situational risk.

When a person believes they can’t express the emotion they are e I am suggesting that when you do this, you include some emotions in your “tool kit” and eliminate others.

The cost is that you cut yourself off from many emotions that you could strategically deploy to improve your life and your relationships.

It’s like saying you will only include one type of screwdriver in your tool drawer. That’s great if every screw required a flat head driver. But, if you come across a Phillips head screw, you are “screwed”.   Sorry for the pun!

You reclaim your emotions when you validate all the emotions you experience and learn to “express” those emotions to improve your life and your relationships.

Let’s dive in.

A secondary emotion is one that is expressed instead of the primary emotion which is what the individual man or woman is actually feeling but chooses not to express.

A secondary emotion is expressed because it is more “comfortable” or “acceptable” than the primary which is more accurately matched to the situation.

For men, the secondary emotion is often anger which is expressed to avoid emotions such as hurt, sadness, embarrassment, anxiety and guilt.

For women, the secondary emotion is often sadness which is expressed because women get “punished” by being marginalized, demeaned or negatively labelled when expressing anger.

More on this below.

As we grow up, both sexes may learn that there are rules which dictate that we might need to “distance” themselves from certain emotions. This is true in many cultures across the world.

There are at least 3 types of rules:

  1. There are cultural display rules which dictate which emotions are acceptable in that culture.  These rules could be  based on gender, custom, religion, etc.
  2. There might be family rules that you learned growing up.
  3. Finally, these rules could be self-generated as in “The last time I expressed that feeling, I (You fill in the unwanted consequence.) so I’ll avoid that feeling going forward.”

The bottom line is that while you may become estranged from one or more emotions in terms of whether you express them or not, these emotions still exist “within you”.  They have, however,  been sent to the proverbial attic and archived.

In addition to various sets of rules which may cut you off from some of your emotions, you may label some emotions as good (or positive) and others as bad (or negative) based on the kinds of experiences we have with emotions,

I should point out that in the scientific literature the terms “positive” and “negative” have a specific meaning when applied to emotions.

A positive emotion is one that is experienced as pleasurable.  It feels good.

A negative emotion is one that is experienced as uncomfortable.  It feels bad.

In both cases, it is the hedonic quality of the emotion that is being labelled.

For years, now, I have advocated that the terms “positive” and “negative”(as applied to emotions) be eliminated or, at least minimized, because I believe these terms take on a different meaning than just the pleasurable nature of that feeling.  Indeed, the terms positive and negative  are taken to imply that some emotions should be “kept” (the positive ones) and others (the negative one) should be eliminated.

The basis for my concern is the meaning that we associate with the terms positive and negative.

We tend to label those emotions we feel competent to express as positive and those we do not feel competent with as negative.

Think about it for a moment.  Do you want a negative review at work or a negative balance in your checkbook?  Of course not.

An emotion may be negative because..

  • we do not feel very competent in expressing
  • we don’t like how it makes us appear to others  (weak)
  • it leads to actions that we would like to avoid.

The end result is that you keep the emotions you label as positive in your behavioral repertoire and and archive those emotions you label as negative.

Avoiding primary emotions…

Here is how it works in real life.

You find yourself in a situation which elicits an emotional reaction.  The situation represents some kind of threat and the primary emotion you experience automatically alerts you to the nature of that threat and prepares you to deal with it.

This alert is the “message” of the emotion and is unique to the emotion…

  • Anger: You are prepared to go to war to deal with a threat.
  • Sadness: You are prepared to withdraw to deal with a loss.
  • Guilt: You are prepared to address, atone for, and make right something you have done.
  • Anxiety: You are facing a possible threat and must choose what actions you want to take.
  • Hate: You are prepared to eliminate an evil threat.
  • Shame: You become self-critical and view yourself as damaged, dumb or worthless.

In responding to the situation, you acknowledge the emotion and consider how you want to respond.

As a man, you might view the emotions of anxiety, sadness, and guilt as messy and uncomfortable. As you are not really “prepared” to deal with this discomfort or you do not want to appear weak based on the actions these emotions are pushing you to take, you might label these emotions as undesirable or negative and decide to avoid them by expressing anger instead because anger “feels” good, powerful and in control.

But, in avoiding those emotions, you create additional “problems” for yourself.

Here’s how it might work.

You do something dumb and feel guilty.  This is an appropriate emotion. Instead of mastering your guilt and righting the wrong, you “get on your own case” and experience shame which  feels even worse. To avoid the “pain” of shame, you decide to express anger as a secondary emotion  and direct your anger at someone else.  Since the anger probably is not appropriate for the situation, it might elicit an unwanted reaction and you are back to guilt.  This could create an emotional chain reaction.

As a woman, you might view the emotion of anger as dangerous because it elicits aggression from those to whom it is directed. You get negatively labeled, demeaned, or marginalized.  The same behavior that in a man is viewed as demonstrating power, leadership and initiative is viewed as “hormonal” or “bitchy” in you. As you might not want to take the risk involved in expressing your anger when you have been wronged or taken advantage of, you might decide to do nothing and default to sadness as a secondary emotion. As sadness is not appropriate to dealing with a real threat, you feel inadequate, unappreciated, and weak. You might also continue to feel angry which, if unvalidated, might lead to rage and uncontrolled lashing out.

The 5 steps to reclaim your emotions.

You reclaim your emotions when you acknowledge and accept your emotions as an authentic part of you and utilize the energy of your emotion, when appropriate to adaptively master the situation in which you find yourself.

Step 1: Acknowledge, or validate the emotion.

Step 2: Assess your situation and determine, as objectively as you can, whether the emotion accurately reflects your situation and is. therefore, appropriate.

Step 3: Decide what needs to be done (under the best of circumstances).

Step 4: Determine whether it is “safe” to outwardly express the emotion.

Step 5: Make a plan to express the emotion and deal with the situation.

A note on expressing an emotion

Keep in mind that expressing the emotion can be direct in which case you assertively inform the other person about what you feel and what you believe needs to be done in your situation.  Examples include: “I believe you published my report under your name.  I wrote it and this needs to be corrected.”  Or, “I appreciate what you are doing but I am feeling really sad and just need some alone time to sort things out.?”

Expressing your emotion can also be indirect in which case you might choose to keep the emotion such as anger, anxiety, or sadness to yourself and utilize the energy of the emotion to facilitate a change in your surroundings which validates the emotion but does include informing others about what you are feeling.

The bottom line is that you empower yourself when you reclaim all of your emotions.

  • You become more honest with yourself and, maybe, others.
  • You are more in touch with your surroundings.
  • You have additional choices about how you want to interact with your surroundings and improve your life and your relationships.

Again, let me say that you may need to educate yourself about your emotions and I have written numerous, easy to understand, posts in this blog to help you do that.  You can access all of these posts directly through the Index tab above.