Here is a link to a 30 minute podcast I recently completed covering topics related to using emotions effectively and strategically. I discussed how I developed the Emotions as Tools Model and how to strategically use the emotion of anger.
Mastering Emotions and the “irrational” beliefs of Albert Ellis
Albert Ellis, the founder of Rational Emotive Therapy and an early pioneer in the field of the cognitive behavioral approach to dealing with emotional issues, discussed several “irrational” ideas. These ideas are “irrational” because they are extreme, can’t be supported in our interactions with others, and elicit emotions which can prove problematic.
This is where emotional mastery comes in.
Remember that the foundation of emotional mastery is the emotional process which involves the unconscious scanning of our surroundings for any possible “threat”, the unconscious reacting to the threat facilitated by the Amygdala and designed to insure our survival, initially validating the emotion, “managing” the emotional reaction by lowering our arousal level before we act out, and mastering the emotion by assessing both the nature of the “threat” and the thoughts we have about the threat and choosing how we want to respond to it. If the threat is genuine, we accept and validate the emotion, plan our response to it and take action. If the threat is not genuine, we “invalidate” the emotion, change our thought about the situation, and choose what we want to do next which might involve walking away, apologizing, ignoring the situation and so forth.
While not given as much attention as it deserves, it is important to note, and Ellis emphasizes this point, that the thoughts we have about our surroundings are often the underlying basis for the Amygdala’s analysis that a psychological threat exists. Psychological threats underly the emotions of anger, anxiety, guilt and shame. I say “often” because, as with the emotion of fear, the threat that is perceived is a survival threat and is not based on our thoughts. Ellis’s irrational ideas are, of course, thoughts.
Ellis listed at least 11 irrational ideas or beliefs. I will discuss 3 of them.
- It is essential that one be loved or approved by virtually everyone in his community.
This is irrational because it is unattainable. It is certainly desirable to be loved and accepted by others and we might need to examine our own behaviour if we are not getting along with others, but the rational person realizes that people’s reactions to us are often based on their perceptions and we have no control over what others do.
If you act as if others must accept you and they don’t, you most likely experience anxiety if you focus on a future threat that might occur because of this lack of love or acceptance or anger, if you believe you deserve or must be accepted, are not getting what you deserve, and will go to “war” to get what is yours.
In mastering your emotions, if you are feeling unloved or unaccepted, look for this irrational idea, examine what the other person is telling you about you, decide if their comments are more about them than you, and choose what you want to do next.
2. Unhappiness (and, I would add, all feelings) is caused by outside circumstances and the individual has no control over them.
Ellis notes that most outside events are psychological in nature and can’t be harmful unless one allows oneself to be affected. If you disturb yourself by noting how horrible it is that someone is unkind, annoying, etc, you create the maladaptive feelings you experience. The rational person realizes that he can change both his internal verbalizations about the event and his reactions to that event.
The idea that others (or events) cause our feelings is wide spread and is the reason I developed the Emotions as Tools Model.
The corollary of this idea which is not emphasized by Ellis but is often talked about in the literature, is that our emotions are negative and must be overpowered by us. The emotions as tools model specifically notes that there is not such thing as a negative emotions and that all emotions are adaptive.
The idea that our emotions can overpower us is the basis of the Anger Management Approach which emphasizes lowering arousal and controlling behavior. While lowering arousal and controlling behavior are important, mastering the emotion by looking at the nature of the threat and choosing a response goes beyond managing the emotion and is consistent with Ellis’ approach.
3. It is a terrible catastrophe when things are not as one wants them to be.
This is an erroneous exaggeration. According to Ellis, while frustration is normal, getting severely upset is illogical since there is no reason why events should be different from what they are, it is not rational to think that our happiness or satisfaction can only happen if a certain event goes our way, and if we can’t do anything about what is happening, we should just accept it,getting upset rarely
My discussion above about the emotions of anxiety and anger also apply here.
The message of the emotion of frustration is that a goal toward which we are striving, has been blocked. Mastering this emotion involves lowering one’s arousal by taking a breath and stepping back from the goal (establishing both physical and psychological distance), validating that we are frustrated, avoiding blame, analying both the nature of the goal and the nature of the blocks, and choosing an effective response.
If you have ever tried to assemble a piece of furniture or a present such a bike on Christmas Eve, you will be able to identify with this irrational idea. I certainly have told myself “These instructions should be more accurate!” or “These pictures are terrible and piece A does not fit into hole B!”
The emotion I feel is anger because things are not as I want them to be.
I think you get the idea.
The same phenomenon occurs when we tell ourselves, “I should have gotten that raise/promotion!” or “My boss should not treat me that way!”
Albert Ellis calls this process “shoulding” on oneself.
As you practice mastering your emotions, take a look to see if one of these irrational ideas is at the heart of and is eliciting the emotion that you are experiencing.
I welcome your comments.
What is the best approach to dealing with “negative” emotions?
My approach, as a psychologist with 32 years of experience dealing with, and teaching others to deal with, emotions is a bit different than what you’ll get from most other sources.
First of all, I do not believe that there are any negative emotions. To label something as “negative” is to imply that it should be eliminated. As an example, you do not want a negative evaluation at work or a negative balance in your checkbook.
People label emotions such as anger as negative because they observe others who get angry, do bad things, and blame their anger for the bad behavior. This is like blaming your smoke detector when it wakes you up in the middle of the night either because the battery is low or there is a fire. The smoke detector is doing its job!
You have emotions because your emotions perform an important function for you which is to alert you to your surroundings and prepare you for action. This function is the emotion’s job. From this point of view, all emotions are adaptive. Your job is to learn what emotions are, what they do, and how you can master them to control your life.
Secondly, many writers talk about controlling your emotions. While I do believe you need to control your actions, I do not talk about controlling your emotions. If you think about it, you do not control your computer (Yes, I know about programming the computer, but this is not what most of us do.), you learn how to master it so that it does what you want it to do.
That said, here are my recommendations:
I developed the Emotions as Tools Model (Emotions as Tools A Self Help Guide to Controlling Your Life not Your Feelings) to teach incarcerated young women (and others) how to adaptively interact with their emotions.
I suggest you master your emotions as tools to adaptively gain back control of your life.
Your emotions come from the way you perceive the world around you and alert you to your perceptions. This alert is the message of the emotion.
Once you learn to acknowledge the emotion and its message, you empower yourself to question the validity of the message and choose how you want to respond to it.
The message of anger is that you perceive a threat (to your goals, your values, your finances, your beliefs) that you can eliminate if you throw enough force at it. Anger is a primitive emotion that exists in cultures around the world and in several non-human species. When we get angry, the adrenalin flows and we are ready for action. This is why a 5’5″ mom can lift a car off of her son.
The problem is that most people REACT instead of RESPOND to their anger and do dumb things. This is why anger is labelled a negative emotion. People blame the emotion for a person’s behavior rather than holding the person responsible. While it is true that an emotion motivates an individual to act in a particular way, one always has a choice about what one does.
When you recognize that you are angry, stop and take a breath. The purpose of the breath is to give you a second or two to take the next step. Taking a breath, reading a book, listening to music or any other distraction are not solutions to anger.
The next step is to question how valid (real) the threat is.
If the threat is to an important goal, asset, or value, take action.
If the threat is to your ego, your opinion, or some minor goal, then you can decide that there is no real threat and leave the situation, engage in conversation, or, at this point, try distraction.
This takes practice, but it is doable.
Next, let me address fear and anxiety as they are not the same.
Fear is a primitive, present based, emotion the message of which is that you are facing a threat that will kill you. This is the “hair on the back of your neck” feeling.
When you experience fear, I recommend that you get away from the situation. As an example, if you are about to enter an elevator and you get a creepy feeling about the guy standing there, take the next elevator regardless of whatever your logic tells you. The best book on fear is Gavin deBecker’s book “The Gift of Fear”.
Anxiety is a future based emotion. The message of anxiety is that there MAY be a threat and that the threat MAY “kill” me.
When you experience anxiety, assess the nature of the threat. If the threat is something you need to take action on (my students studying for an exam, preparing for a job interview, or learning how to ask your boss for a raise), then ask yourself if you could survive the worst possible outcome. If the answer is yes, take the action. This type of anxiety is called eustress and is motivating.
If the threat is not critical, is beyond your ability to influence, or is based on the way you think things should be, then decide to let go of the anxiety and move on. This type of stress is called distress and is disabling. The anxiety will not immediately go away so you will have to remind yourself over and over to let go of it.
So, the best approach to dealing with “negative” emotions is to accept that there are no “negative” emotions and to learn to master the emotions as tools.
I welcome your comments on the above.
From T.E.A. to T.E.D.: My emotional wake-up calls. What will be yours?
In an earlier post, I talked about why it is in your best interest to learn to master your emotions. In thinking about this post, I thought I would put it into perspective.
While I call myself The Emotions Doctor (T.E.D.), today, growing up, the best description of me would have been The Emotions Avoider (T.E.A.). I had a major wake-up call which made me realize that I was not mastering my emotions and using all of the important information my feelings made available to me. I had to learn to master my emotions.
Without going into a whole lot of detail, emotions in my family were not dealt with well.
My dad came from a generation in which feelings, with the possible exception of anger, were not expressed and may have been associated with weakness. When he heard of my mom’s death and was moved to tears, he apologized to me for his display of emotion. Even anger was not expressed all that much by my dad and, when it was, the expression tended to be excessive and out of proportion to the precipitating event. I should mention that he was never abusive.
Emotionally, my dad was bland and unavailable. I learned from my dad that feelings, and especially anger, were to be tightly controlled.
My mom, while emotionally present, tended to focus on organizing what needed to be done. I learned from her that emotions were not really important and were to be kept at bay in order to facilitate accomplishing the task at hand.
I should add that I am not blaming my parents for what they “taught” me about feelings. They were good parents and did the best they could. Emotionally, they did what they were “taught” and passed on what they knew to me.
My way of dealing with feelings was to suppress them, go inside my head, and deal with issues cognitively. When feelings came up, as they did, I withdrew, thought things out on my own, decided what needed to be done, and did what I had to do. I was not able to use the message of my anger to energize action, use the message of my anxiety to energize a possible threat and formulate an effective plan, or utilize my grief to step back and mourn the loss of my pets who died. Anger left me feeling weak instead of powerful. Anxiety left me feeling inadequate. And, grief just sucked. I tried to accept what was happening to the best of my ability and move on.
My becoming The Emotions Doctor happened over many years and was the result of having to adapt to situations involving emotions which required me to grow. These were my emotional wake-up calls.
As a psychology intern without a drug problem but a desire to learn about dealing with substance abusers, I volunteered as a “participant-observer” in a residential alcoholic treatment program. It took the group 6 months to break through my cognitive defenses and show me the anger and hurt I kept inside. They called me a non-drinking alcoholic as I avoided my feelings with my books and my mind while they did it by self-medicating.
Working with young women at the California Youth Authority, if I was to be an effective therapist, I had to learn how to help them understand the feelings they held in regarding their own abuse and the serious crimes they had committed. As a staff trainer, I had to learn how to help jaded correctional officers and, as a professional speaker, overly emotionally protected law-enforcement personnel, to understand what emotions were and how to deal with them. Professional integrity forced me to master my own emotions so that I could then focus on helping others master theirs. I developed the Emotions as Tools Model as a teaching aide. This is the topic of my first book Emotions as Tools: A Self Help Guide to Controlling Your Life not Your Feelings.
My focus on anger and my second book Beyond Anger Management: Master Your Anger as a Strategic Tool came about because I realized that this emotion is highly misunderstood and, if you look at the news, widely and inappropriately expressed. Not only do people need to learn how to master their own anger but people need to learn, for self-defense, how to master the anger of others directed at them.
I don’t know what your emotional wake-up calls will be. Maybe, your emotions will result in you making some bad decisions. Maybe, your lack of emotional mastery will result in others taking advantage of you. Or, maybe, you are here just to get some information.
Whatever the case is for you, I am glad that you are here. My goal in this blog is to give you information which is designed to help you master your emotions hopefully before you have an emotional wake-up call or after, if that is how it is for you.
I welcome your comments.
The Orange County Register perpetuates an anger myth.
On May 21, The OC Register, wrote an article entitled:
Focus: A look into what makes Americans angry.
In the article, the register started out noting that “Anger is an emotion characterized by antagonism toward someone or something that a person feels has done them wrong, according to the Encyclopedia of Psychology. Anger isn’t always bad; it offers a way to express negative feelings and can drive you to solve problems.” and noted that sometimes anger can lead to more anger.
The article highlighted American’s anger at the government and at their political parties. I am sure that there are are many other issues which elicit anger in Americans. I know that, today, there are many issues with elicit my anger.
While I think that the article is good as far as it goes and I understand that the author wasn’t interested in how people can master their anger, there is an inherent danger in the article’s headlines.
There are several anger myths, some of which I discuss in my book Beyond Anger Management: Master Your Anger as a Strategic Tool. One of these myths, and the one that the Register article appears to support and perpetuate is that something “makes us angry”.
That something outside of me makes me angry is a myth because each individual “causes”their own anger by how they interpret what is happening to them.
The emotion of anger is a primitive threat detector. As a survival mechanism (which helped us survive as a species), we constantly scan our surroundings for threats. When we perceive a threat we see as one we can go to battle with and overpower, the emotion we experience is anger. It is our perception of a threat that causes our anger The perceived threat elicits (does not cause) the anger. Mastering one’s anger involves assessing the nature of the threat and choosing an appropriate response.
Here is the potential problem with the myth.
If you look at this literally, the implication is that something happens that controls us. How else can one interpret the word “makes”? If something makes me angry, it is a relatively easy step to the next assertion which is that the thing that made me angry, caused me to take whatever action I took to eliminate the “thing” that made me angry.
If I believe that you made me angry, I do not have to take responsibility for the actions I take toward you. I can act out aggressively and blame you for what I did.
We see this when a celebrity attacks his girlfriend and blames her. In another example, Donald Trump disavowed the aggression at his political rally recently but negated his disavowal when he validated the actions of his supporter. If we are such an angry nation as the map in the Register implied, then we should not perpetuate myths that, by implication, allow angry people to avoid responsibility for their actions.
I know that it is entirely possible that most people won’t interpret the article’s headline in this way. However, some (perhaps many) will and, as we have seen, these folks can be problematic.
The Emotional Process Part 3
In an earlier post I mentioned the 6 primary emotions of mad (anger), sad, glad (happy), fear, disgust, and surprise. With the exception of glad and surprise, all the primary emotions are primitive threat detectors.
Each of the primary threat detectors focuses on a different threat. The “message” of each emotion is an alert that you may be facing a specific threat. An important part of mastering your emotions and using them as strategic tools is the ability to recognize that your emotion is alerting you to and preparing you to deal with a possible threat so that you can choose how you want to respond to the situation in which you find yourself.
Remember that the fast track message from your senses to the amygdala sets you up to react to the threat as if it was a real and valid issue that would hurt you if not eliminated. Also, remember that your initial perception may not always be accurate. The slower track message to the cortex gives you the opportunity to master the emotion.
So, let’s look at the message of each primary emotion.
The message of mad (anger) is that you perceive a threat that you believe you can eliminate if you throw enough force at it. When you get angry, your attention narrows onto the “enemy”, adrenaline is released into your body, and you are ready to go to war. We will focus more on the anger mastery cycle in a future post.
The message of sad is that you have experienced a significant loss in your life. The emotion of sadness is experienced as a loss of energy and a desire to withdraw from the situation. If you have experienced a significant loss, it is in your best interest to take some time and process the loss so that, when you are ready, you can return to “life” and begin to move on.
In is important to keep in mind that emotions are not experienced as an “all or nothing” phenomenon. It is not the case that the feeling is either present or absent. You can experience the feeling as a less intense sensation that something minor has happened or as an overwhelming sensation that some major has taken place. Think about being sad that your favorite TV show has been cancelled by the network verses losing an important family heirloom or experiencing the death of a relative.
The message of fear is that you are facing a threat that will kill you unless you escape. Fear is a present “here and now” emotion and is not the same as anxiety which is a “future based” emotion.
The message of anxiety, by the way, is that you are facing a threat which MIGHT be harmful to you. I will talk about anxiety in a future post.
The message of disgust is that you have encountered something unpleasant, repugnant, distasteful, or offensive. Disgust is what you experience when you taste a food that is spoiled and you recoil with an anguished look on your face. The emotion sets you up to recoil, and expel or get away from the threat.
I hope this has been informative and I look forward to your comments.
The Emotional Process Part 2
In my last post, I spoke about the emotional process and detecting threat.
While your emotions are designed to detect threat, this doesn’t mean that an actual threat exists.
When we were living in caves, all threats were real and would kill us. There was no ambiguity. If it looked like a threat, it was a threat. This type of threat is called a survival threat. Our emotions evolved to protect us from survival threats. Survival threats exist today and include being confronted by someone who wants to physically harm you, seeing a loved one whose life is at risk unless you are able to rescue them and so forth.
Problems arise because, today, most of the threats we face are psychological threats. Psychological threats may hurt us but are not fatal or they may not be threats at all. Threats to your ego, your values or the way you think things “should” be are psychological threats.
The emotional process involves acknowledging your feelings and the possibility that a threat actually exists, taking a deep breath before you react to both physically calm yourself down and to give you some psychological distance between you and the threat, and assessing the nature of the threat before you choose a response.
The same process occurs when you are making breakfast and you burn the toast. Your smoke detector goes off. Rather than call the fire department, you assess the nature of the threat the detector is warning you about, realize that there is no threat and throw the burnt toast away. If the smoke detector went off in the middle of the night, your assessment might be very different.
When I talk about each of the primary emotions, I will tell you what the threat is and the choices you have about responding to the threat.
The Emotional Process
In one sense, you are a threat detecting “machine”. No offense, here, as I am not saying that you are not human.
When it comes to your emotions, however, your brain is hard-wired to scan, detect, prepare you to deal with, and warn you about a possible threat that may harm you.
You might find it interesting to know that the threat detectors (primary emotions) that exist in you today have been around in humans since we lived in caves. These threat detectors are the primary emotions I mentioned in an earlier post and helped us survive as a species.
This is how the process works.
Your senses (eyes, ears, nose, mouth and skin) are constantly scanning your surroundings. When a threat is detected, a fast track message goes to the amygdala in your brain and to the thalamus. This message is unconscious and very fast. The function of this message is to prepare your body to fight, run, or freeze in place. This is the fight/flight/freeze reaction Hans Selye wrote about. It is automatic. If you are a gazelle on the Savannah being chased by a cheetah or a caveman with an intruder outside your cave, you want this reaction to be fast and automatic. Your life may depend on it.
At the same time, a slower message goes to your cerebral cortex. This is the thinking part of your brain that has developed over time as we evolved as a species. The cerebral cortex enables you to assess the nature of the threat and choose a response to fit the situation.
Mastering your emotions involves being aware of the emotion and learning how to respond, rather than react, to the situation.
Thanks for reading and I encourage you to leave a comment.
Emotions as tools
When you ask someone what they are feeling, most people will give you a very general answer such as good, okay, kinda down, or fine. You might get a more specific answer such as happy, sad, or angry.
If, however, you ask the person to be more specific about their feelings or ask what does a specific feeling mean, you likely will get a look of confusion. The reason for this is that most people do not understand what feelings are or why we have them. Considering that there is very little “training” about feelings, this lack of knowledge is certainly understandable.
The downside of not understanding your feelings is that you may view all feelings as messy and intrusive, you may view some feelings like anger as bad or dangerous, or you may feel that your feelings control you.
The basic truths are that there is a reason why you have feelings, all of your feelings serve a purpose, your feelings are tools which you can learn to master just like any other tool such as your cell phone, and you can use your feelings to improve your life and your relationships.
While I talk about all these subjects and more in my book Emotions as Tools: A Self Help Guide to Controlling Your Life not Your Feelings, I will introduce you to these truths in the next post.