Tuesday, August 30, 2011


Despite Malcolm Gladwell's assertions his book, Blink, I think it is far too common for people to get in trouble when they go with their gut feeling.  On a regular basis, I converse with therapy clients who are describing their anxieties, fears, neuroses, joys, obsessions and other issues.  At some point, we begin to discuss how they manage (or don't) their emotions.  Anger, for instance, is an emotion that kind of gets a bad rap.  Some of my clients have been court-ordered to attend "Anger Management" therapy or group sessions for the same.  The problem isn't primarily anger, in and of itself.  Anger is just an emotion like any other.  Any clinician will tell you that a great deal of the time, anger is actually a masking emotion.  The real cause of a person's anxiety lies in another uncomfortable emotion which is covered up by angry behaviors.  That is because angry behaviors are predictable.  When one chooses anger and angry behaviors (yelling, screaming, blaming, accusing, aggresssion), other parties tend to respond in kind.  Then the person doesn't have to deal with the real feeling... probably something like shame or embarrassment or hurt or guilt.  So really, what we are talking about is how we manage our emotions in general, not just anger.

So, we talk about what skills the client already possesses and uses to manage their uncomfortable emotions.  Ironically, angry behavior (which is distinct from angry feelings), IS in itself a method by which many people try to manage their other uncomfortable emotions.  Let me clarify: I often raise my client's awareness about emotions by pointing out that there are some emotions that we feel like we need to regulate and some that we do not.  Comfortable emotions are ones like: Happiness, peacefulness, calm, love, joy, pride, serenity.  We're okay with those feelings.  When we are feeling those things, we try to make those feelings last as long as possible.  Contrariwise, when we feel things like: guilt, disgust, shame, embarrassment, hurt, betrayal... we consider those to be quite uncomfortable and want to get rid of, or change those feelings.

I believe that one way to begin to change how we manage our emotions is to better understand how they should function in our lives.  Many people seem to believe the notion that if we feel something intensely, it has greater veracity.  That is to say, that the stronger we feel something, the more we think we should act on it.  While it is certainly true that strong feelings CAN indicate the right behaviors, it is not universally true.  Consider the following scenario: A guy goes out with a group of friends on a professionally guided backpacking trip.  One part of the trip takes the group to the top of a steep cliff face.  They break out the gear and get ready to rappel down the face of the cliff.  They anchor to a strong tree trunk at the top, have all the proper items: ropes, locking carabiners, harness, gloves, etc.  One of the guides rappels down to act as the belay person and everyone is ready.  So, our guy steps up and gets connected in his harness and is shown the technique.  Every precaution has been taken, and yet... he is about to step off the cliff and descend ... and he's never done it before and his heart is pounding and he's ... afraid.  His fear is almost palpable.  He decides to back down.  Better safe than sorry, right?  That is an example of allowing his emotion, fear, to dictate his behavior.  Now, what if he decides that, despite being fearful, that he wants to take the risk.  He recognizes his fear, but reminds himself that he has done every reasonable thing to ensure that he will be relatively safe in this endeavor and he hops backward off the cliff and enjoys the thrill of his (somewhat) risky behavior.  That would be an example of allowing his (justified) fear to guide his behavior (going with a group which includes trained guides, proper equipment, etc) but not control it.

In my opinion, this is what our emotions are for: to inform us.  Our emotions should guide us, but ultimately, they should not control us.  I like to think of a person's functioning as being similar to the President.  A good President surrounds himself with advisors.  Their function is not to make the ultimate decision, but to inform the President.  A military advisor may caution that a bordering country is becoming aggressive and needs to be dealt with by a show of force.  The agriculture advisor and domestic advisor may team up and offer critical information about that same country's trade status.  A military show of force would likely result in a loss of needed foodstuffs.  The President weighs all the available information and makes the decision that is best for the whole.  Things quickly become unbalanced when one advisor is allowed to decide for the whole based on that advisor's perspective.  In our emotional governance, this is all too often the case.

Think about the phenomenon of lovesickness.  Even this pleasurable emotion of love can be destructive if it blinds a person's reason.  A lovesick teen may be told by friends, "That guy is a jerk and treats everyone badly."  Being flooded with emotion toward her beau, she minimizes his behaviors or explains them away, "Well, he's only mean to people who are mean to him.  He treats me like a queen!"  Before long, the lovesickness wears off and she changes her mind.  It is important to recognize our feelings and even listen to them, but not to allow them to make the decisions that our reasoning mind should be making. 

Have you ever been on a roller-coaster of emotion?  Know someone who has acted on their intense feelings and been burned?  Consider doing things differently: allow your emotions to serve in an advisory capacity and slow things down so you can think about your decisions.

Some famous quotations for your consideration (I neither support or decry these quotes, I just found them interesting):

All great movements are popular movements. They are the volcanic eruptions of human passions and emotions, stirred into activity by the ruthless Goddess of Distress or by the torch of the spoken word cast into the midst of the people.
Adolf Hitler

How fortunate for governments that the people they administer don't think.
Adolf Hitler 

Comfort in expressing your emotions will allow you to share the best of yourself with others, but not being able to control your emotions will reveal your worst.
Bryant H. McGill

Emotions have taught mankind to reason.
Marquis De Vauvenargues 

Feelings are not supposed to be logical. Dangerous is the man who has rationalized his emotions.
David Borenstein

I can't say I have control over my emotions; I don't know my mind. I'm lost like everyone else. I'm certainly not a leader.
Richard Gere 

I loved her. I still love her, though I curse her in my sleep, so nearly one are love and hate, the two most powerful and devasting emotions that control man, nations, life.
Edgar Rice Burroghs

I think the smartest thing for people to do to manage very distressing emotions is to take a medication if it helps, but don't do only that. You also need to train your mind.
Daniel Goleman 

I understand that it's hard for everyone, but one cannot give in to emotions... we'll have to draw lessons from the current crisis and now we'll have to work on overcoming it.
Boris Yeltsin

I'm just basically spillin' out my emotions to the world. 'Cause rap is about emotion. And I want you to feel what I'm feelin', 'cause that's what it's all about.

If your emotional abilities aren't in hand, if you don't have self-awareness, if you are not able to manage your distressing emotions, if you can't have empathy and have effective relationships, then no matter how smart you are, you are not going to get very far.
Daniel Goleman

Just as your car runs more smoothly and requires less energy to go faster and farther when the wheels are in perfect alignment, you perform better when your thoughts, feelings, emotions, goals, and values are in balance.
Brian Tracy

Markets as well as mobs respond to human emotions; markets as well as mobs can be inflamed to their own destruction.
Owen D. Young

One is certain of nothing but the truth of one's own emotions.
E. M. Forster

Romantic love is an illusion. Most of us discover this truth at the end of a love affair or else when the sweet emotions of love lead us into marriage and then turn down their flames.
Thomas Moore

The advantage of the emotions is that they lead us astray.
Oscar Wilde

Your intellect may be confused, but your emotions will never lie to you.
Roger Ebert