- “You make me so MAD!”
- “I wouldn’t have said (or done) THAT if I hadn’t been so MAD!“
#1 is completely false.
#2 has an element of truth to it but is basically misleading and incorrect and is, essentially the same as #1.
In my last post, I talked about the Emotions Cycle, the perception of threat (in the context of heroic behavior, and the two processes of Assuming and Acting As-if
In this post, I am going to expand on my earlier discussion and take in a different direction and talk about the impact of believing that our anger or the actions of another person control us.
Here is the short form of the Emotions Cycle in 4 steps..
- starting from the unconscious scanning for threat,
- 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,
- moving from the subconscious to the conscious by taking a deep breath and a step back and assessing the nature of the threat and
- choosing an adaptive response.
Steps #1 and #2 happen very fast.
Based on your subconscious “definition” of threat, your brain constantly scans your situation and when what it perceives matches that definition the Brain (via the amygdala and the thalamus) puts your body on “red alert”.
(anger) If the threat is perceived as one you can eliminate, your brain prepares you for war. You become hyper aware of your surroundings, blood is rerooted to “essential” body parts and so forth.
(anxiety) If the threat is a future possibility, you may begin to catastrophise about everything that could go wrong and act as if it is an inevitability that it will go wrong.
(sadness) If an important element in your life has been lost (spouse, opportunity), your red alert involves wanting to shut down, cry, give up and so forth.
(fear) If the threat is going to “kill” you, your red alert leads you to either freeze or flee.
So, the situation (or your perception of the situation) does elicit the initial emotional response.
The red alert is an evolutionary process that evolved to insure your survival. Thus, if the threat is indeed critical to your survival, you want your brain to act fast and elicit or, indeed, cause the correct response.
For our cave dwelling ancestors, this process worked perfectly. All threats were real (not based solely on perception) and they had to be dealt with quickly or death would result (survival based). So, having a brain which would act quickly and (seemingly) autonomously was exactly what was needed.
Note: Because this threat detection process and the resultant physical/ emotional protective reaction happens both automatically and very fast, we tend to make the incorrect assumption that our emotions control us. Our emotions do control the initial emotional reaction but not (as I will discuss below) our emotional response.
And, this response is both critical and within our control.
As our cave dwelling ancestors and the environments in which they lived continued to evolve, the thinking part of their brains (the cerebral cortex) became more prominent and gave them the ability to evaluate those environments and make decisions about what actions they wanted to take.
This is where it gets a bit dicey for us today.
The emotional process is initially the same for us as it was for our cave dwelling ancestors…. perceived threat—red alert.
The problem is that.. most of the threats we face are psychological and not survival based.
Hence, while our perception of threat is critical to the process, our perception of threat (today) could be inaccurate or wrong.
Fortunately, we have a mechanism for making critical decisions about the perceived threat: the cerebral cortex.
Yes, it is true that your brain subconsciously puts your body on red alert. And, in that sense, causes the initial emotional (anger, etc) reaction.
But, it is not correct that your brain makes you angry or sad etc (your emotional response).
And this takes us to step #3 and #4 (the modern upgrade).
In steps #3 and #4, the emotional process moves from subconscious to conscious.
The reason for this move is that your cerebral cortex evolved to allow you to assess and decide whether that original definition of threat even applies to your situation.
And, to choose how you want to respond.
So, whether or not you are initially aware of your (underlying) definition of threat is irrelevant.
In addition, the original source of that definition is also largely irrelevant.
What is important is that..
- the definition of threat elicits the red alert reaction. The brain just carries it out.
- it is you who decides the extent to which the definition of threat is even relevant to your present situation.
- you, ultimately, have control over and can adjust that definition.
- you always have control over the actions you take regarding your initial emotional reaction. This is your emotional response.
So, the claim that “You made me mad.” is always false, is often an excuse to justify one’s actions, and usually is an attempt shift responsibility away from the angerer to another person. It is your definition of threat which set-up the emotional reaction and your decision about your situation which kept the reaction going.
Secondly, the statement that “I wouldn’t have said (or done) THAT if I hadn’t been so MAD!”is partially true in that if there were no anger, there probably would not be inappropriate or stupid behavior.
But, this statement has a rather insidious implication. In many respects, this statement is the same as #1 in that it implies that it is the anger that has caused the behavior not the decision of the one who is angry.
So, yes, you got angry and in your heightened state of emotional arousal, you made a dumb decision and did something you later regret. But, you assumed that your initial perception was both inclusive (the only way to explain everything that was happening) and exclusive (the ONLY way to make sense of your situation), neglected to assess your situation and acted as-if your only option was to lash out.
Failing to assess and choose an adaptive response is always on you.
Your brain informed you of a possible threat (elicited anger) and gave you the option of assessing the validity of your definition of threat and choosing an adaptive effective response.
If you opted out of that choice, the actions you took (and later regretted) were the result.
or, to put it another way…
It is always your perception (based on your definition) of threat that elicits and leads to your initial emotional reaction and it is always your decision (or lack thereof) that causes your emotional response (inappropriate behavior)!
The same logic, by the way, is expressed by the person who says “If I hadn’t been drunk (high or exhausted), I wouldn’t have (you fill in the action).”
Yes, the alcohol (drugs) blurred your logic but it was you who chose to get drunk so the responsibility for what you did rests, solely, on you.
I think you get the point!
I am not saying that your anger (or other emotion) is always inappropriate. Indeed, if the threat is valid (someone violates your boundaries, a future threat needs to be dealt with, etc), then taking adaptive action is what you should be doing.
Appropriately assigning accountability may be required. Blaming never is.
Taking personal responsibility for both your assessment of the situation and the response you choose to make is the critical issue here. If you are correct, your actions will be effective in dealing with the threat. If you are incorrect in your assessment, you can apologize and make it right.
The choice is always yours.