Memories, Emotions, and Behaviors
The beautiful complexities of the mind
When we reflect, we have numerous memories to sift through. Both pleasurable and painful memories reside in our minds. Life provides both pleasant and unpleasant to everyone—although not precisely measured and equally distributed. We prefer to envision ourselves as unified wholes. The stability of self diminishes anxiety of the unknown. How we envision our self is the way it is—at least it appears to be that way. In reality, it’s not so simple. New experiences often appear neatly packaged in simple to understand chunks that are consistent with our story of our pasts; but in reality, we are experiencing a new event through the complex lenses of extensive and diverse memories. These lenses shape our perceptions. They form hidden biases that shape our world.
We respond emotionally to experience. Life affirming and survival supporting experiences evoke the emotions of happiness, pleasure and joy. Threatening and security destroying events evoke the discomforting emotions of sadness, fear, and anger. Experiences with the associated emotions are combined in memories. Sometimes automatically other times consciously, we learn to mitigate discomforting emotions. If a behavior hurts, we avoid it in the future. We learn not to touch hot pans, attack bigger and stronger animals, or openly lie and cheat. Actions and consequences combine to help us navigate the wide world of choices.
We also learn how to reinterpret experiences to relieve discomforting emotions. Abandonment doesn’t hurt nearly as bad when we convince ourselves we decided are the abandoner instead of the abandonee. We automatically respond to threats to maintain a sense of security, self-worth, and independence. When there are no viable options, the biological system becomes depressed. Perceptions of helplessness are followed by a depressed system.
At a young age, thought techniques develop to create a sense of power. These techniques are often referred to as defense mechanisms. We all use them—mostly unconsciously. These learned approaches automatically and unconsciously reinforce self-power when threatened. New experiences resembling past experiences trigger past associated emotions, and those emotions trigger the defensive reactions to protect security, self-worth, and independence. Memories from the past quietly play out with the associated emotions behind the conscious curtains of our mind. The emotions are triggered automatically and unconsciously.
Consciously articulating reasons for the emotion is subsequently performed for the benefit of a conscious explanation. The thinking portion of our brain justifies the emotional reaction. The justification process is subject to misinterpretation. The true cause of the emotional reaction often is a relic of past experience. The past causing emotional outburst isn’t glorious. It silently suggests personal flaw. For purposes of stability in personal assessment, the cause for us throwing the frying pan is much easier to attribute to our partner being a no good, selfish ass.
Close examination of our emotions doesn’t always achieve clarity. Some emotions conflict with outwardly proclaimed beliefs. We are often shocked by the secret lives of the most ardent supporters of traditional values. While we all have secret lives, most aren’t so blatantly obvious. Sometimes the conflict is briefly exposed when we get exactly what we thought we wanted but experience limited satisfaction. Other times conflicts are exposed through self-condemnation, "I shouldn't be angry" or "I should be ashamed for feeling this way." Going to battle against conflicting aspects of our complex being doesn’t solve inner conflict. It may even suppress important personal insights. Discounting emotions—battling for supremacy of mind over body—further disrupts the emotional behavioral cycle; we lose trust in the intelligence of our emotions. Even when emotions are misguided through the painful influence of past trauma, the emotions still play a significant role in our protection and development. Emotions are the underlying foundation to self-understanding, empathy, social connection and intimacy, and the creating of authenticity.
Through greater self-awareness, we gradually develop loving ways to integrate conflicting and confusing emotions into our lives. Observe the emotions with curiosity, notice the events that triggered them, and convey the corresponding feelings openly and honestly. We free ourselves from blind driving force of emotions when we acknowledging them—we become a student of our own experience. Through greater awareness, we expand self-understanding and broaden our capacity for compassion. By shifting our relationship with emotions, we loosen the influence emotions have on behavior. This is true freedom. With the greater understanding, we identify faulty thinking patterns (defense mechanisms) that justify behavior. Instead of blindly reacting, we compassionately accept the emotion but critically evaluate which behaviors actually move us towards our intentions.