by Bud Nye
While recognizing the many mental and physical health benefits of their primary emotions, such as grief, fear, shame, loneliness and so on, emotion focused extinction support group (EF ESG) participants work hard at not allowing secondary reactive emotions to guide their thinking, feeling, and behaving. They also work hard at not avoiding the primary adaptive emotions they experience related to the high probability of near term human extinction (NTHE). This avoidance often occurs through many different kinds of defensive, distraction, and intellectualizing processes. (For much more about primary emotions, reactive emotions and defenses, see my essay titled “Primary Emotions, Reactive Emotions, And Defenses” found here https://guymcpherson.com/2015/05/primary-emotions-reactive-emotions-and-defenses/.) It seems obvious to me that how we relate emotionally to one another in our relationships has great importance, especially during our few remaining days. Assuming that others agree with me regarding this, EF ESG participants should find learning about the following myths concerning emotion and relationships helpful:
Myth: Emotions occur in irrational ways. Many people have the idea that emotions occur in a fundamentally irrational way, but the situation has much more complexity than this. Usually, what we refer to as “irrational” involves someone’s having a secondary, reactive emotional meltdown. For example, Jill finds her partner, Jack, in bed with someone else, goes berserk, loses her temper, and does something stupid, possibly hurting someone. That does qualify as “irrational”.
When we refer to an emotion as irrational, we usually point to someone doing something stupid while awash in a pool of reactive secondary emotion. To say this in different words, when we react to something deeper while not knowing about that—some kind of primary emotional pain out of our awareness—then we respond with a secondary, reactive emotion, this reaction often occurs in an irrational way. These reactions do often seem irrational, but we should not blame that irrationality on emotion.
Importantly, we can trust our primary emotions. In about one-fifth of a second they give us extremely important information about our environment and our needs for survival. When we ignore these signals and instead react based on reactive, secondary emotions, we get ourselves into trouble. Most people mean this when they say “emotion is irrational”. If Jill had the maturity to listen to her primary emotion when she saw her partner in bed with another woman, she would have slowed down and felt her anger—and for good reason! But she would have also realized that she felt a huge amount of attachment-related hurt and fear too. By slowing down and listening to her primary emotions she would have allowed her thinking to catch up with her primary emotions, and she would have stopped herself from charging in and playing the fool. People behave in nutty, irrational ways; not their primary emotions!
Myth: Men experience much less emotion than women do. Well, no. Even though our society teaches this idea to many boys at a very early age, decades of research by John Gottman and colleagues at the University of Washington make it clear that men have stronger emotional reactions than women, and their physiological responses last significantly longer. Still, we hear statements like “Boys don’t cry”, and “Don’t be a sissy!” Believing these ideas tends strongly to place a man on a trajectory of dissociating from his primary emotions, thus making it difficult for him to relate well to others in his various relationships as an adult. As men learn the truth about the importance of emotion, and as they begin to tap into their own emotions, they often feel stunned to learn that an entire world exists within themselves and others that previously remained outside of their awareness.
Meanwhile, the socialization of girls and boys usually occurs in very different ways, and women often do not understand the lengths to which some men will go in order to avoid their own and other’s emotion. Listening to and trusting primary emotion can provide men with an entirely new language and perspective on relationships. With learning and effort, men can develop their awareness of their emotions and integrate them into their daily lives. But in this process, men must learn to integrate their emotions instead of trying to change them, as suggested by the emotional intelligence proponents. We need to learn well the important differences between primary, adaptive emotion and secondary, defensive, reactive emotion.
Myth: We find women born with more sensitivity than men. Yes, women do often get socialized for more emotional sensitivity and awareness than men, and researchers have consistently found that even young girls have many more concerns about how others feel than boys do. Boys have greater concerns about competing. But a person born female does not automatically have more emotional awareness. Many women struggle with effectively integrating their emotions, and everyone—men and women—can learn to better integrate emotions into their everyday awareness. What people think of as greater female sensitivity to emotion, compared with men, more often involves their feeling more in tune with their emotions.
Myth: Emotions get in the way of making good decisions. This idea comes from not understanding the different layers of emotional processing. When people make statements like “Don’t be emotional when making decisions” they usually refer to secondary emotional reactions like anger and frustration. When we bring primary emotion into our awareness we get clear on our needs and wants, and we get this clarity when we sense others taking advantage of us or a business decision will not work well. We can streamline these gut-felt responses or intuitions into our immediate awareness and use them to guide us. We do not need to “control” our primary emotions. Just the opposite: we need to learn to let them guide us more. We have our primary emotions, and they have remained with us across time, for that reason: to help and guide us. We ignore them at our peril!
Myth: We should avoid bad, painful feelings. Actually, painful emotions help ground us in reality—if we do not run away from them, refuse to feel them, and refuse their messages to us. If we allow ourselves to feel painful emotions, they remind us of what has most importance for us in our lives. When we hurt emotionally we feel firsthand what has most importance to us. We do not get sad and cry over something that does not matter. If we say something we regret to our partner or someone else, for example, it begins to emotionally tug at us. As we feel emotionally disconnected from the other person or people, our primary emotions of hurt and loneliness emphatically tell us about our poor current state. The pain compels us to do something about the situation, to find resolution and reconnection. If we can do this our pain gets washed away by equally powerful emotions of happiness and joy that come from acceptance, connection, and emotional resonance with others. On the other hand, if we refuse to feel our pain deeply, we also make it impossible to feel our happiness and joy deeply. We simply cannot have one without the other. We know this in psychology as “the figure/ground effect”. A meaningful figure cannot emerge without a contrasting background. Anyone who has experienced “whiteout” conditions in the snow—or a totally black room with no light!—has a strong point of reference for understanding this. We cannot conceive of “up” without also having “down”. We cannot experience feeling “good” without also feeling “bad”, and to the extent that we eliminate one, we also eliminate the other.
Myth: Our thoughts control our emotions. If someone says that we can control our emotions with our thoughts, they simply remain unaware of mounds of neuroscience research—or perhaps they have too much personally invested in the myth to let go of it (a secondary, reactive emotional response). We now know that emotions set up our thinking. They occur within one-to-two tenths of a second after an event and set the stage for our later-occurring, much longer-lasting thinking. When in danger, for example, we simply do not have time to think things out. Our physiological emotional systems read the situation and send us signals to fight or flee long before we can consciously think and reflect on the situation. This short-term emotional priority obviously had, and continues to have, great survival value for us.
To function over the long term at our best we need both our emotion and cognition. But especially beginning with Rene Descartes in the early 1600s, we have so overemphasized cognition in comparison with emotion that many people do not understand, allow, and use their emotions in adaptive ways. Many people “know” how they should think and behave differently, for example. They often report “I know what I should do in my mind, I know it, but I just can’t do it. My emotion is too strong. It stops me.” Our emotions have great power. When we ignore them or push them away, they can leave us paralyzed and unable to behave in ways that we know we should. That often happens because we do not clearly experience what our deep, primary emotions try to tell us. We don’t receive the clear message from them. When we do get the primary emotion message, we get clearer in our heads too, and our primary emotion moves us to act instead of remaining stuck in fear and worry.
Myth: Experiencing an emotion makes it worse. People often think that if they let themselves feel their painful emotions, doing this will make the situation worse and increase their pain. In extreme cases these people may turn to alcohol and/or other drugs to avoid or numb their emotions. Actually, the opposite of this remains true: When we face and fully feel our emotions, they get their message across to us and they begin to dissipate with their mission accomplished. It works something like putting iodine on a cut. When you first apply it, it hurts a lot, but the stinging soon goes away and the now disinfected wound heals more quickly. If we ignore our emotion, just like refusing to disinfect a wound, the pain only grows and returns another day, now with more strength. Our primary emotions occur to get our attention and to let us know what has importance for us. We need to fully experience them.
Myth: Emotions get in the way of making good business decisions. When people say something like “Don’t’ take it personally. It’s just business”, they usually refer to someone’s having a secondary reactive response of aggression or defensiveness. Yes, we can find someone caught in reactive emotional responses difficult to work with. And we would best not make decisions when we feel the effects of secondary emotions like anger or frustration. But this does not help in our close relationships. Having an awareness of our own and others’ primary emotions serves as a great asset when we make business decisions and for our effectiveness as a leader. Effective leaders who earn the loyalty of others most often have good attunement to their own emotional worlds and those of others. People can tell that they care because they display empathy, which one can do only by demonstrating emotional sensitivity.
Myth: In happy relationships people don’t argue. John Gottman, a leading couple researcher, found that even his “master” couples who stayed married over many years argued with each other. Couples who divorced also argued. The only couples who did not argue had become quite distant from one another, and even though they never argued, their relationship usually ended in divorce. The critical difference between happy relationships and those that end involves the way they argue. In happy relationships people argue without criticizing each other’s character. (People who comment at places like Nature Bats Last might pay special attention to this point.) These people do not fall into the extremes of what Gottman calls “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse”: criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling (all of which often happen very frequently at various blog comment sites). Gottman found that extremes in these categories reliably predict divorce (just as they reliably predict people ending their commenting at many online sites). Importantly: arguing itself did not occur as a factor in divorce. The “master” couples Gottman studied for over two decades had the common trait of arguing without falling into “The Four Horsemen” categories. Indeed, he noticed that some “master” couples argued about exactly the same issues 20 years after he first interviewed them!
Myth: Anger always causes trouble. Just as with all primary emotions, anger occurs as a signal with a message. It tells us when something has gone wrong and it prepares us to make it stop, to protect ourselves. We experience anger because in some contexts we need it. When infringement of our boundaries occurs, we get taken advantage of, and so forth, anger immediately organizes us to protect and assert ourselves to stop the intrusion. In this way, anger in and of itself helps us.
How we inappropriately respond to our anger leads to the myth that anger always causes trouble. If we get out of control in our anger, this does not help us. On the other hand, if we use our anger to assert our proper boundaries or to let others know when their behavior causes us harm, then we use our anger in helpful ways. People can learn to recognize their anger with each another and discuss it without attacking each other’s character. (Yes. Even people who comment at Nature Bats Last can learn how to do this.) A goal of removing anger from a relationship remains an impossible one. Often, just naming the anger as it happens (“I feel angry right now”) can help us contain it.
We need to keep in mind that our emotional processes occur as physical processes. Our body responds when defensiveness and tension rise in an argument. We need to slow down. If we can notice our bodily responses, this increases our awareness and helps us identify what we experience happening in the moment. If we can recognize our triggers and responses, we can begin to slow the process, stopping a “Four Horsemen” cycle before it takes over. Anger itself does not cause us trouble. On the other hand, our secondary, reactive, angry response to our own or others’ anger, fear, shame, or other primary emotion often does cause trouble.
Myth: I should show my strength, not my emotional vulnerability in my most important relationships. Typically, the emotional alarms that set off a cycle of secondary reactive emotions involve fears that we have lost, or will lose, something we need. This may involve the need for recognition, reassurance, or simply understanding. The underlying questions people have touch on basic questions of adequacy and value for others: “Am I lovable?” “Do they want me?” Taking time to acknowledge these underlying needs can stop a destructive “Four Horsemen” cycle and help us more effectively respond to a critical concern in our relationships.
Acknowledging our needs means opening ourselves in the most emotionally vulnerable ways. Safety and trust within a relationship make this possible; lack of safety and trust make such opening very unlikely. We need to keep in mind that our ability to focus on the other person, thus building safety and trust, has just as much importance as the content issue we face. Our willingness to listen deeply and to respond to the other person’s needs increases the emotional security in your relationship. Often what we need most in difficult times involves knowing that another person hears us, cares about how we feel, and cares about what we have to say: empathic listening. We can ask about the other person’s needs. Showing our availability and responsiveness can open the door to others’ vulnerability. People sharing their vulnerabilities builds relationship bonds. Not sharing vulnerabilities maintains walls of anxious disconnection and alienation.
Myth: People don’t need emotional attachments to others. Actually, the first and foremost instinct of humans involves neither sex nor aggression, but to seek contact and comforting connection. John Bowlby proposed that we find ourselves designed to love a few precious others who will hold and protect us through life’s difficulties. This works as nature’s plan for the survival of our species. Sex may impel us to mate, but love assures our existence after birth. We do not learn this drive to bond; it occurs innately, and without those attachment bonds we die. Adult love works as an attachment bond, just like the one between a mother and child. Our need to depend on at least one precious other, to know that when we “call” we will find them there for us, never dissolves. It endures, as Bowlby put it, “from cradle to grave.” As an adult, we just transfer that need from our primary caregiver to our partner. Emotional dependency does not occur in an immature or pathological way; it occurs carrying with it great survival value and strength.