There is a widely held belief that our emotions control us and make us do things we may later regret.
The problem is that this is an emotional myth!
I have attempted to address this myth in my blog posts, my responses to questions on Quora.com and in my podcast appearances because belief in the myth prevents people from taking control of their lives by utilizing their emotions as strategic tools.
In this post I will address this myth in a different way.
I will use your car’s cruise control as a metaphor for mastering your emotions.
- Classic or “dumb” cruise control: The traditional mechanism in your car that keeps you traveling at a set speed.
- Smart cruise control: Technology which both allows you to set a specific speed and gives you additional options by automatically adapting to the surrounding situation and kicking in when an obstacle is present.
- Set point: This is a specific number or limit which tells the device with a feedback loop that a specific designated action needs to be initiated. It could involve a thermostat turning on the furnace or air conditioner or the cruise control speeding up the car.
- Emotional set point: The degree to which you perceive a specific situation as a threat which initiates an emotional reaction.
- Your perception: The meaning you give to any situation you observe.
- Emotional reaction: The subconscious physical changes which your brain (amygdala) initiates in your body when a threat is subconsciously recognized.
- Emotional response: The action you choose to take to allow you to effectively interact with the perceived threat.
The “Tools” We Use
There are many tools which you use on a regular basis.
“Task oriented” Tools
Task oriented tools are designed to complete a specific task.
Sometimes this “task” is simple. A screwdriver is just a screwdriver unless you don’t know the difference between a flathead and a Phillips.
At other times the “task” is very complicated. Your cell phone can do many things very well but it won’t replace a screw in your cabinet.
Examples of task oriented tools include your cell phone, your computer, your car, your TV remote, your sewing machine and a screwdriver.
While you may not think of your cell phone and computer as “devices”, they are also “tools”.
“Set point” tools.
Devises with set points make your life easier by automatically maintaining whatever “status quo” or set point you choose.
Examples of set point tools include:
- The thermostat in your home or car that controls the temperature.
- The spell checker on your word processor that monitors your document as you type.
- The cruise control on your car that keeps you going on the freeway.
- Your brain which encourages you to keep doing the same habits in the same way.
Everything is fine…Until it isn’t!
In most cases, our tools work fine and there is no problem.
- (Thermostat)…The house/car stays warm (or cool) and comfy.
- (Spell Checker)…The correction that is made is appropriate.
- (Cruise Control)…We merrily move along on the road at a chosen speed and get to our destination.
- (Brain)… The actions we take fit the situation, are appropriate, and lead to a desirable outcome.
The tool does what it is programmed to do.
It is not able to make adjustments for unique situations. In other words, it does not typically think about or take into consideration “exceptions” to the norm.
It is these “exceptions” that are often problematic.
The spell checker that changes the name of an important client in an email or changes a word that gives the sentence a totally different focus than what you intended. You missed the changes in the overview before you hit “send”.
Your brain elicits an angry outburst which is hurtful, inappropriate and unnecessary because you misread the situation.
You get the idea.
Emotions as Tools
Emotions are hardwired tools..
- Your emotions unconsciously perceive threats
- They unconsciously prepare your body to react and insure your survival.
You are hardwired to perceive threat in your surroundings. This has been the case since humans lived in caves and this “ability” helped us survive as a species.
This is the first part of the emotions cycle and is mitigated by the Amygdala in our brain.
Each emotion has a set point at which it recognizes a significant event such as a “threat”. This is the message of the emotion.
Your definition of threat is your set point and when that set point is reached, your emotional “cruise control” kicks in.
Below this set point, or threshold, there is no experienced emotion.
The characteristics of this process are that it is automatic, out of our awareness, and quick. This is our emotional reaction.
The characteristics which comprise your emotional reaction are critical if your survival is at stake. But, they are also the foundation for the myth that our emotions control us.
The critical difference is that when the emotional process “originally” appeared in our cave dwelling ancestors, all threats were survival based and this fast emotional reaction saved lives. Today, most threats are psychological and our brains have evolved so that we now can evaluate the threat and choose our emotional response.
When the emotion is compelling, uncomfortable, or debilitating, this automatic process is viewed as undesirable.
Let me break it down….
The emotion seems to “take over” and “compel” one to act in a particular way. Examples include anger (aggression) and jealousy (driven to take back what you believe is yours).
The emotion just doesn’t feel good. We call this its hedonic quality. Examples include sadness, anxiety, guilt, and jealousy.
The emotion seems to sap us of energy and leave us feeling unable to take effective action. Examples include anxiety (an inability to take action) and guilt (a sense of unworthiness).
But, this automatic process is only part of the story and this is where the concept of a smart cruise control becomes important.
So, you may ask:
“What does the concept of cruise control have to do with emotions?”
The short answer is that people believe their emotions function the same way their classic (dumb) cruise control operates.
- They get into a situation in which the emotion is automatically triggered.
(Set point is reached.)
- The emotion engages and elicits physical and psychological events
(The brain and body are engaged just like the car speeds up.)
- The emotion is experienced as acting autonomously and without conscious input.
(The cruise control, once set, functions without additional input.)
The implication is that the emotion reaches some set point after which it takes over and the individual has no choice but to give in to the feeling and either act out or do nothing.
This is the Myth…but, there is more to the story.
Most people relate to their emotions from a classical (or dumb) cruise control model.
I am suggesting that it is much more adapative to adopt a smart cruise control approach.
Your Cruise Control
Classic, or “dumb”, cruise control
This technology enables you so you to set a desired speed. This is the “set point” for speed. The tech monitors your speed and, if the car falls below this set point, the automatic system engages and you speed up.
I call this accessory “dumb” not because I want to put down the technology but because it is blind to changing road conditions. Once set, it does its job and maintains a certain speed.
As long as you are in an unchanging situation such as a stretch of road with limited or consistent traffic, you are golden. The car stays at speed.
But, if traffic should slow and you are not alert, the car in front of you may have slowed or stopped, you remain at speed and plow into the stopped car in front of you!
Your “tool” is happy to keep you going at 69 mph. It is doing its job.
In order to avoid an accident, however, you will need to remain constantly vigilant, continue to assess your driving environment, and override or disconnect the cruise control as needed.
Smart Cruise Control
Your smart cruise control has a set point which it maintains. This tech, however, is designed to monitor your surroundings and when there is a car stopped in front of you, it slows you down. Once the obstruction is removed, you go back to your set point.
Our emotions CAN function the same way.
Indeed, the second part of the emotions cycle involves the cerebral cortex and gives us the option to assess our situation and choose our response.
Just like your smart cruise control monitors your speed and your surroundings, kicks in to both slow you down and give you a choice about what you want to do, and then defaults to your set point once the obstruction is dealt with, your cerebral cortex can automatically kick it and give you choices about how you want to deal with a threat.
Emotional mastery involves experiencing the emotion, slowing down, assessing the situation and choosing a response.
Emotional mastery is NOT automatic and must be learned!
Anger as a Tool and an Example.
Your anger is a tool that is designed to help you survive.
Your anger cruise control kicks in when you experience a threat that you believe you can handle if you throw enough power at it.
When you get angry:
- You have perceived a threat to your life, your goals, your ego, your values.
- Your brain has sent chemicals all through your body telling it to prepare for battle.
- You are ready to go to war with the threat.
When all threats were survival based, your emotional cruise control worked perfectly.
The problem is that nearly all of the threats we face today are psychological and not survival based.
Consequently, what may seem to be a threat may, in fact, only be a misunderstanding.
Unfortunately, your anger does not know the difference between a survival based and a psychological threat and you automatically go into self-protection or go-to-war mode.
If you lash out and say, or do, something you later regret, it is just like plowing into the car in front of you at high speed.
This is where the smart cruise control metaphor, the Emotions as Tools model and anger mastery come in.
Just as you should constantly monitor the traffic when your cruise control is on, you should constantly monitor your surroundings when you become aware that your anger (or any other emotion) has been engaged.
Once you become aware that you are angry, you should manage your anger by lowering your arousal and master your anger by assessing the threat and deciding whether to let your anger move you forward to take action (if the threat is real) or override the anger and shut it down.
The same idea works for other human emotions such as anxiety, sadness, guilt and shame.
The point, here, is that your smart emotional “cruise control” should always be set on automatic. This will let your emotions alert you to possible threats. When a threat is perceived, your “smart tech” will kick in and, before you react, you can evaluate what is going on and decide what you want to do.
This is called mastering your emotions:
- You accept and validate the automatic nature of your emotions.
- You monitor your emotions and assess the situation.
- You choose an adaptive response and initiate it.
The bottom line is that you want to approach your emotions from a smart cruise control model to get the most out of them as strategic tools.