by Bud Nye
People often express great frustration and incredulity regarding our society’s general tendency not just to fail to notice the massive, compelling evidence of global heating with its abrupt climate change, ecological, economic, peak oil, and nuclear collapse issues, but actively and aggressively to avoid them and to deny their validity. People involved in various kinds of extinction support groups (ESGs) commonly spend much time and energy expressing their frustration regarding this ever-so-common, unfortunate dynamic. Based on psychological and neuroscience research over about the past 20 years, in this essay I discuss some important emotional principles concerning these unfortunate processes. I also make an effort to explain how and why these self-destructive processes have occurred thus producing our near term human extinction (NTHE) self-annihilation trap.
In this essay I further develop some concepts and vocabulary that seem important to me for emotion focused ESG (EF ESG) participants. I first introduced these ideas in my long essay titled “Facilitating Emotional Change in ESGs” published here. The concepts I develop in this present essay come mainly from two books, both highly recommended by emotion focused therapy researcher Susan Johnson: Diana Fosha’s The Transforming Power of Affect, A Model For Accelerated Change (2000), and David Martin’s Counseling & Therapy Skills, 3rd Ed., (2011).
Three emotion categories: primary, reactive, and defensive
At every moment we experience a tug-of-war between taking risks seeking what we yearn for while also listening to our fears and playing it safe, an approach-avoidance conflict (we want to approach one thing while avoiding another related thing). A person’s moment-to-moment emotional experience reflects this tug-of-war with its balance of expression and defense, and their associated hope and dread. Based on the functions they serve and the motivations they reflect, we have three main categories of moment-to-moment emotional experience: primary emotion, secondary reactive (or signal) emotion, and defense:
- Primary emotions serve a profound expressive function for us, both within and between people, and they have tremendous transformational potential within us and between us. The universal primary emotions include sadness, fear, anger, joy, shame, excitement, and surprise, with each having its own physiological basis and associated facial expressions.
- Painful secondary, reactive, signal emotions, such as anxiety, shame, fear, humiliation, and helplessness, work as warnings and conveyors of information to ourselves and to others about the nature of the emotional environment. We also experience and express positive signal emotions such as hope, anticipation of pleasurable consequences, curiosity, excitement, trust, and self-confidence.
- Defensive emotions exist so that we need not confront more troublesome and scary feelings. For example, we might defensively use anger at our society for causing ecological collapse so as not to experience grief and sadness related to the massive loss of life and species extinctions as well as fear about what it all means for us, our children and grandchildren. This kind of reactive, defensive avoidance of primary emotion can have survival value in particular situations in the short term, but not so much more generally or in the longer term.
All of this has great relevance and importance for EF ESG functioning. Because of how we evolved, and therefore how we find our nervous systems “wired”, relief follows our fully experiencing and expressing our primary emotions, regardless of how painful they may feel at first. Importantly, primary emotions also occur in a self-limited way; they change when experienced and expressed, and they transform us as we experience them. An EF ESG composed of empathic participants can provide a badly needed, safe venue for experiencing and expressing our primary emotions related to collapse issues thus transforming us in adaptive ways.
On the other hand, painful signal emotions, and secondary, reactive, defensive emotions, lack these features; they do not give relief, change when experienced, nor transform us in adaptive ways. When primary grief wanes, regressive crying can go on and on. Similarly, shame and humiliation do not occur in a finite way, nor does experiencing them satisfy a person in any way. Anger can work as a core, primary emotion or it can serve as a defense against grief, fear, or vulnerability. While as a primary emotion expressing anger acts as a major and direct opportunity for positive change, as a reactive, defensive emotion experiencing and expressing anger will not likely produce positive change.
In EF ESGs expressing defensive emotions will have importance mainly as a waystation on the road to the underlying primary feelings that they mask. Defensive expression alone will not lead to helpful results of lasting value. On the other hand, having those defensive emotions empathically understood and affirmed by others in EF ESG groups can paradoxically allow an EF ESG participant to give up, at least temporarily, and possibly for the long term, relying on the defense and to take the risk of facing the deeper, hidden, primary emotional experiences with their transforming power.
A person’s experientially knowing the difference between these states plays a major role in healing processes. How so? Becoming aware of and attuned to these different emotional states serves as the first step in reclaiming mastery of one’s emotional experience within oneself and with others. The following important functional differences occur among these three categories of emotion:
- Communication with access to primary emotional experience occurs in a crystal clear way.
- Communication involving defensive responses along with positive signal emotions feels essentially meaningful, but with static on the line. The static involves anxiety related to the defenses, and no matter how soft and manageable they may seem, they still muffle and dampen the helpful impact that primary emotional experience can have.
- Defensive communication, with little or no access to primary emotional experience, has the sense of boredom and futility; it does not go anywhere; it does not spontaneously change nor have transformational effects when experienced and expressed as happens when experiencing and expressing primary emotions.
Having contact with and expressing primary emotional experience might feel like “speaking from the place where breathing comes from”. Not only does communication flow clearly and easily, but one may have a physical experience of inner spaciousness and strength. When speaking through defensive static one will probably have no such sense. A clear sense of self may accompany the spaciousness. One might feel like a full person who knows exactly what they think and feel, with no ambivalence. Clarity and true self-awareness flow from a center of primary emotion, not from secondary reactive or defensive emotions.
Defensive responses vs. expressive responses
When hidden emotional processes within us do not flow (they either get stuck or go around in circles) we find ourselves in a pattern of defensive responses. In this situation our defenses seem rigidly entrenched and we find our primary, unconscious, physiological emotional experiences largely inaccessible. Within our defenses we resist feeling deeply and relating openly with others. With defensive response patterns active, high-risk emotional situations—such as considering the high probability of NTHE and talking with others about it(!)—only intensify people’s defensive efforts in a self-reinforcing feedback loop. This in turn derails processes of empathic resonance and coordination between people.
In contrast, when hidden emotional processes within us flow relatively easily and the people involved need only some acknowledgment of their fears before proceeding to new emotional depths, we find ourselves in an expressive response mode. In this case defenses occur in a “soft” way and anxiety remains relatively manageable. Expression occurs more spontaneously, suffused with various emotions more from the gut, physiologically, than with ideas from the head. Importantly, while positive emotions like peace or hope may win the day, negative emotions like anxiety, fear, shame, or pain may remain, but balanced by somewhat stronger positive emotions so that the negative ones do not trigger rigid defenses.
This serves as an illustration of emotional competence in action: painful emotions do not automatically trigger defenses. A person can, for example, experience some shame connected with having spent a lifetime, largely unknowingly, supporting an economic system that kills other humans, other species, and ultimately Earth itself, yet this shame does not shut them down. A sense that pushing through the painful emotions, and that expressing true, primary feelings will likely lead to the reduction if not outright dissolution of shameful feelings, exists. This over-balances the urge to shut down. The essence of having confident expectations for emotional repair lies here: many positive, empathic experiences in ESGs, as well as among family and friends and with therapists of various kinds, teach participants that fully conscious expression of primary emotions works best to overcome fear and shame, while defense and inhibiting expression only intensify and prolong fear and shame and other secondary, reactive emotions. Relief follows our experiencing and expressing our primary emotions, regardless of how painful they may feel at first. These primary emotions occur in a self-limited way; they change and transform us when experienced and expressed. Only going through our primary emotional experiences transform us in adaptive ways, not denying, avoiding, and defending against them—and empathy from others most reliably helps us face and go through these often painful experiences.
What biological, psychological processes drive our defenses and denial?
Occam’s Razor, or the “law of parsimony”, devised by William of Ockham (c. 1287–1347), an English Franciscan friar and scholastic philosopher and theologian, serves as a basic principle in natural scientific reasoning. This convenient rule-of-thumb urges us, when faced with two hypotheses that explain the evidence equally well, to choose the simpler and/or more likely one, and the one with the fewest assumptions. Other, more complicated models may ultimately provide better explanations and predictions, but in the absence of differences in predictive ability the fewer assumptions made, the better.
Over numerous millennia humans have invented many philosophical and religious stories that purport to explain various aspects of human thinking, feeling, and behavior. Similarly, natural science has developed a number of different prominent models of human functioning. Using Occam’s Razor, learning theory provides perhaps the simplest, most fundamental, most likely explanation with the fewest assumptions and (by far) the most scientific research evidence supporting it, for understanding our ancient, general human tendency for self- and other-destructive avoidance and denial—including, more recently and specifically, the mass denial of evidence related to global heating with its abrupt climate change, ecological, economic, peak oil, and nuclear collapses, all now irreversibly well in progress. Here I describe only a broad perspective regarding these defense and denial issues; I describe and emphasize only a few key points. For much more, well-described, highly understandable detail, as well as many research references, an interested reader would do well to see chapters 16, “The Nature of Emotional Problems”, and 17, “A theoretical Understanding of Therapy” in David Martin’s book Counseling & Therapy Skills.
At the most fundamental level we learn painful emotions through association with physical discomfort. However, this simple principle can account directly for only the most obviously acquired fears, and most adult painful emotions, anxiety, guilt and depression do not easily fit a model of directly conditioned fear as a result of painful experiences. Even so, we do learn all painful emotion and, therefore, in principle we can unlearn them. Regarding this unlearning, a well-established principle in the learning literature involves the fact that the only way to weaken a learned emotional response involves experiencing the response in the absence of an emotional “pay-off” for it. We know this technically as “extinguishing” the response through extinction.
Extinction involves three necessary components: (1) facing the thing one fears, (2) feeling the fear, and (3) nothing bad happening. (This sequence usually must happen many times for complete extinction to occur.) So a person must feel a fear, at some level, in order to get rid of it. One must face a painful emotion and experience painful experiences to change it. For this to happen most effectively, it should occur in steps small enough that the painful response aroused does not have enough strength to produce secondary fear of the new situation or to cause the person to escape the situation before extinction can begin. We use the term graduated extinction to describe this small-step process. We can also use a related but different counterconditioning process. Though often valuable, counterconditioning does not actually extinguish the fear. Either way, emotional change requires experiencing the emotions one wishes to change.
At least four factors make painful emotions last so long: (1) Painful emotions simply extinguish more slowly than other learned responses. This probably occurs because slow extinction of emotional pain had survival value in our past as a species. (2) We humans quite understandably avoid the things that we fear—including threatening thoughts and painful emotions, as well as situations in our physical and social environments—and this prevents extinction from occurring because we need some exposure for extinction to occur. (Consider the implications of this related to the high probability of the many horrific processes involved with unfolding NTHE!) (3) Our avoidance behavior becomes extremely strong because every time we avoid a feared thought, feeling, or situation, we immediately feel better. And (4) the experiences that cause painful emotions usually occur in unpredictable ways, thus our immediately feeling better occurs in ways very resistant to extinction (via a random “reinforcement schedule”).
An important principle related to all of this in understanding anxiety involves knowing that our own acts can become cues for painful emotion. Any internal process, such as a feeling or thought, can become frightening, given the right learning experiences. With anxiety a person fears their own internal processes—thoughts, feelings, memories, and desires. But if we only fear particular thoughts and feelings, we have no problem, because we can simply avoid thinking and feeling in those particular ways—just as most people do concerning abrupt climate change, ecological, economic, peak oil, and nuclear collapse issues. (We can classify such issues as various kinds of “hoax”, or merely political or economic “manipulations” and thus completely avoid their horrific biological implications.) A problem arises, though, when one has a motivation toward the thoughts and feelings. Then we have an approach/avoidance conflict within ourselves: we want to avoid potential pain related to the thing feared while we also want the thing feared. For example, we strongly want the powerful benefits of using fossil fuels while also wanting to avoid the many negative consequences of using them. As long as we can avoid knowledge of negative consequences, we have no emotional problem and no conflict. But when we begin recognizing the consequences for ourselves, our children, and Earth, we find ourselves in a major, life-changing approach/avoidance conflict!
When in conflict, we constantly and painfully vacillate. We must think and feel the thoughts and feelings that motivate us, and we must avoid them. With such conflicts, which, besides approach/avoidance conflicts also include approach/approach conflicts (wanting, but not having the ability to have two desired things), and avoidance/avoidance conflicts (not wanting two painful things that we must choose between), we suffer.
In all of these processes, we often cannot name or describe what bothers us; we just feel horrible. We have simple principles at work here while the actual experiences occur in powerfully painful and complex ways. These powerful experiences underlie one of the most important principles for understanding our self-defeating avoidance and denial behavior: Just like using crack cocaine, anxiety reduction works as an extremely powerful and immediate reinforcer. When we avoid or deny a painful thought or emotion, within our nervous system we immediately get powerfully reinforced for doing so. This principle helps us greatly to understand behaviors in ourselves and others that otherwise would make no sense. It goes a very long way to explaining our often “irrational”, self- and other-destructive thoughts, feelings, and actions. It helps us to understand much religious and philosophical thinking, feeling and action. The irrational now begins to make a good bit of rational sense.
Relevance for EF ESG work
A huge amount of research literature demonstrates that much non-conscious experiential knowing occurs within us, and with much importance for us. Meanwhile, we want to think of ourselves as in charge of our lives and we tend to find the idea of unconscious influences unsettling. But, as Guy emphasizes so often, we end up with more control of our behavior and our problems if we accurately understand them (in this case human functioning). Despite its unsettling nature for many people, a huge amount of evidence supports the idea that much critical emotional processing occurs completely separate and different from conscious, symbolic, intellectual or cognitive learning. People can learn and “know” life-changing new things without having any ability to put these things into words. In Malcom Gladwell’s words, “thinking without thinking”.
Contrary to some popular beliefs, none of us perceives the world directly or accurately. In fact, the term perception refers to interpreting the chemo-electric signals produced by our sense organs. In these interpreting processes we develop organized expectations of our world—and to some extent we perceive what we expect to perceive: that which fits our previously constructed “templates” of “reality”. We develop “schemes” to facilitate processing new information. Previously organized sets of information help us organize and select new information more effectively than if we always had to start from scratch in making sense of each new situation. In addition to this useful function, however, our schemes can prevent our accurately processing new experiences that do not fit our expectations. We can, and often do, encounter a situation, quickly fit it to a familiar scheme, and stop processing novel information prematurely, badly distorting the experience.
On one hand, habit can stop our thinking processes too early without anxiety acting as an important factor. On the other hand, anxiety can also inhibit unpleasant thoughts from needed more accurate thinking. Indeed, information that violates our schemes can threaten us just because we do not expect it, and we might therefore inhibit it. Painful emotions simply make people unwise. One goal of emotion focused ESGs involves reducing these distortions, helping participants experience more accurately in two ways: by reducing anxiety about particular issues, and by becoming more independent thinkers who tend to consider issues more completely. We accomplish these goals largely by reinforcing each other’s approaches toward our feared thoughts and emotions through teaching each other about and subsequently using empathy with each other. Thus I expect that my next essay will focus exclusively on empathy.
Directly related recommended reading
Bright-Sided, How Positive Thinking Is UNDERMINING America by Barbara Ehrenreich (2009).
Counseling & Therapy Skills, 3rd Ed. by David Martin (2011).
Flim-Flam, Psychics, ESP, Unicorns and other Delusions by magician and co-founder of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, James Randy (1982).
Mistakes Were Made (but not by ME), Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson (2007).
The Transforming Power of Affect, A Model For Accelerated Change by Diana Fosha (2000).
Willful Blindness, Why We Ignore the Obvious at Our Peril by Margaret Heffernan (2011).