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.
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…
- You do take a physical step away from the situation. This creates a physical safe space.
- 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.