Hidden Emotional Traps including: “As-if”, Castastrophising, and others


  • I’ve been doing a lot of podcasts recently in which I discuss the Emotions Cycle, Emotions as Tools and other relevant topics.
  • You can check out my podcast guest appearances by clicking this Google link…      Ed Daube podcasts.

In this post, I will discuss the topic of the emotional traps that exist as a direct result of the way the emotional cycle works and the often maladaptive way people react to the emotions they experience.

In the subconcious phase of the emotions cycle, including a constant scanning of one’s surroundings for threat and preparing your body to deal with that threat, the Amydala acts quickly and outside of your awareness. While this is by evolutionary design, the unintended consequences of this fast acting process is that you may be tempted to think that your emotions control you and the actions you take.

And, if you believe that your emotions dictate what you do, you do not assess the nature of the threat and you create a self-fulfilling prophesy in which the original perception of the event is incorrect, the actions elicited by that perception do not fit the situation, and you act as-if the emotion is, indeed, causing the behavior which is viewed as inappropriate .

When you act as-if your emotions control you and your behavior, you become vulnerable and leave yourself open to several emotional traps and the unwanted results of those traps including:

  • inappropriate behavior,
  • avoidable awkward interactions,
  • unneccary misunderstandings, and
  • escalating emotional whirlpools which can engulf you and isolate you from others.

Underlying Factors (all oof which are discussed in other posts)

The underlying factors which give rise to emotional traps include:

  • Part of the emotional cycle is unconscious.
  • Most of us don’t understand what emotions are, their purpose, or how they work.
  • We feel inadequate in dealing with our emotions. This inadequacy is experienced as being helpless.
  • Societal display rules seem to dictate what emotions are appropriate and which are unacceptable.
  • Accepting responsibility for our emotions and our actions is more difficult than avoiding that responsibility.

Emotional Traps.

Definition of an emotional trap

An emotional trap is a situation in which the poor handling of one’s emotions or feelings leads to  a worsening situation, escalating feelings, and a sense that there is no effective way to exit what is happening.

The emotional traps

While not an inclusive list, I will discuss 6 emotional traps  in this post.

  1. acting “as-if”. (This happened. It has to be the only explanation.)
  2. catastrophising (Worst case as the only case.)
  3. you vs I (Denying responsibility.)
  4. If only (This happened. Something else would have been better.)
  5. Shoulds (You failed to act in a certain way.)
  6. emotional whirlpools (Attempts to avoid uncomfortable feelings.)

Acting “as-if”. (This happened. It has to be the only explanation.)

All emotions originate as a perception which gives rise to a feeling which elicits a reaction which is strengthened by an explanation which might become a response.

To put it another way, you find yourself experiencing an emotion. In order to make sense of your situation, you “justify” the emotion with an explanation of what is happening to you. This is part of the emotions cycle.

The trap develops when you act as if that explanation is both correct and absolute in that it is the only explanation possible for your situation.

Road rage is an example.

You are driving and get cut off by another driver.  You instantly get angry, chase after the driver and give them a one-finger salute. As you are following them, you notice that they pull into the parking lot in front of a Hospital Emergency Room.

What happened is that you concluded that they intentionally cut you off and you reacted to the threat with an act of behavioral aggression. You never considered that there might be a reason for their erratic driving that had nothing to do with you.  You acted as-if the other driver was trying to kill you.

Catastrophising (Worst case as the only case.)

Catastrophising is a version of “as if” and happens when you follow one logical implication of your original explanation to the worst case possibility  and act “as-if” that possibility is the only possible outcome.

The trap happens because each logical step is the worst outcome possible and there is no attempt to consider other possible options.

As an example…

When I was in college, a med student jumped off of a building.  He survived and offered this explanation for his attempting suicide.

I failed my test in Organic Chemistry (fact).  Because I failed the test, I will get a bad grade in the class (a possibility). A bad grade in Chemistry will keep me out of med school (A very distant possibility). If I can’t get into med school, I will be complete failure and won’t be able to care for a family. (This is the ultimate catastrophe.) Being a failure in life is not acceptable so I will try to kill myself.(This is the as-if )

You vs I (Denying responsibility.)

This trap is an offshoot of the belief that our emotions control us.  The twist here is that you blame someone else for what you feel.

Examples include:

  • You made me angry.
  • If you hadn’t done (a, b, c), I would not have done (x, y, z).
  • I am (You name the emotion.) because everyone else is.

While the last point may be somewhat true because emotions can be contagious, the trap is that when we place the cause of our own emotions outside ourselves, we not only give away our own power but we also deny our responsibility both for the emotion and our own actions.

And, the truth is…

  • Your emotions originate with you.
  • You are always responsible for your actions.
  • If only (This happened.

If only  and “Shoulds” 

While both of these are offshoots of wishful thinking, if only’s (as in “If only I had..”) .if used as a possible learning exercise, can be effective.  If, however, an if-only becomes self-criticism or wishful thinking, it will likely be destructive.

The trap is that, while some other outcome might have been more acceptable, you did what you did.  Instead of validating the emotion, as it is, assessing its appropriateness to what is actually happening learning from your actions and setting yourself up to choose a more adaptive response next time, you get caught up in emotions such as anxiety, guilt or regret which can be disempowering and distracting if not mastered.

Shoulds (as in “I should have done (x, y, z).”) can be particularly insidious because they may imply blame and irresponsibility but offer no solutions. To the extent that a “should” becomes an IWBNI (It Would Have Been Nice If), you can learn from your past and change your behavior.

Emotional Whirlpools

This trap happens when you attempt to avoid a feeling that is either uncomfortable for you or culturally unsanctioned because of display rules.

The process is that you experience an emotion such as sadness (for a man) or anger (for a woman) and display a secondary emotion such as anger (for men) and sadness (for women).  This secondary emotion may lead you to do something you later regret or fail to do something that would resolve the situation.

The initial result is, perhaps  feeling guilt (I did something wrong.) or shame (There is something wrong with me.). These emotions are very uncomfortable and elicit more avoidance through secondary emotions.

The final result is an emotional whirlpool in which one  emotion leads to another which elicits a third and so forth. The process, because it starts with an appropriate emotion and moves to an inappropriate emotion, feeds on itself and is difficult to stop.

The Antidote

The roadmap to avoiding emotional traps is emotional mastery.

Emotional mastery involves accepting both that all emotions are adaptive and that you are the ultimate cause of your emotions all of which are elicited by how you perceive the situation in which you find yourself.

Once you acknowledge and validate the emotion you feel, you begin to master that emotion when you take a deep breath and a step from the o situation.  This creates psychological and physical safety.

You then assess the situation to determine the degree to which your initial perception matches what is actually going on.

The final step in mastering the emotion is to choose an adaptive response to the situation and either let the emotion pass or use the energy of the emotion as a motivator to resolve whatever needs to be corrected.

The bottom line is that emotional mastery facilitates being open to and honest about you emotions. This short-circuits all of above emotional traps and sets you up to more effectively deal with negative situations and improve your relationships with others.