The Chicken or the Egg Emotional responses BY: Troy Murphy |April 2012
Do we feel first and then think or do we think first and then feel? Scientific studies capable of mapping the path of synaptic firing provide insights into our biology. Fascinating answers emerge from past speculations. In the late 1800’s American psychologist William James theorized we are afraid because we are running from the bear rather than running from the bear because we are afraid. While this theory of the thought-emotion-behavior continuum is over simplified, it provides fodder for thought, challenging the generally accepted idea we experience, logically think and then react.
The appearance of a unified mind is deceptive. Consciousness filters, combines and adjusts many sources of information before we compose a unified cohesive story. This complex process compiling information from external triggers, internal emotions, and memories organizes a confusing world. The general principle is that we experience first, analyze the experience and then respond. Our belief in this logical thought process proceeding action provides the foundation for harsh judgments, critically condemning uncouth behavior. We imply illogical behavior stems from faulty thinking. We often respond logically; running from a bear is logical; but logical action fails to answer questions regarding motivating factors proceeding logical reaction. Humans wouldn’t survive without logical survival oriented responses; but some survival strategies don’t serve long-term goals.
We often react illogically. Our actions are detrimental to long-term objectives, with no identifiable survival benefits. We act stupid and then use mental gyrations to justify the behavior. Hidden survival oriented motivations push unwanted behaviors.
Our thoughts create order—even to illogical actions. The immediacy of response forces action before we have sufficient facts. Our mind bridges the gaps of the unknown. When a partner triggers strong emotions, our heart rate increases, our breathing deepens, and our blood pressure rises; our body prepares to meet a threat. The physical reaction demands a reason. In the heightened emotional state, our thoughts clarify the reason. Without a definable reason, we limit learning and access to complex resolutions requiring more than an automatic response. Survival and competition demands realistic interpretations. Are we in danger of assault, abandonment, or violation of rights? Our organism seeks safety, security and survival. We survive by predicting danger and opportunity. The emotions push towards opportunity and flee from threats.
Without capability of thought, many living organisms respond to outside events. The event triggers a survival oriented response. Our consciousness doesn’t eliminate this survival mechanism—thoughts add to the mechanism. Sometimes thought improves other times corrupts the original impulse. Biological reactions, founded on faulty assessments, may motivate destructive behaviors. These behaviors, when given time, must be assessed and inhibited by logical thought. Partner’s sometimes legitimately deserve to be angry, but our automatic defensive response may agitate, prevent reconciliation, and drive us from our ultimate goal of intimacy. So we soothe our shame, soothe our soul, knowing our partner loves us and act in the partnerships long-term interest.
Emotions may be a relic from memorable past, where we were hurt and forced to make meaning of chaos. The meanings then become entrenched in present emotional interpretations; partners become unlucky recipients of reactions they didn’t deserve. Most social interactions are vague. Motivations behind words and emotions hide in the darkness of the unknown complexities. We seldom accurately identify our own motivations; and grossly interpret the motivations of others—personal biases strongly influence judgments. The biases write the story. Our stories explain the emotions obliged to confirm the biases. If I believe myself to be victim, then the stories I create support victimhood.
We must contend with critical emotional moments with sureness. We can’t habitually make costly choices without thought. We must pause, when feasible, and move towards intentions instead of react and justify. These critical moments, furled with emotion, destroy relationships.
Emotions provide valuable information. We must gracefully accept emotional responses but understand their fallibility. A child raised in emotional impoverishment experiences greater sensitivity to threats. Their stumped emotional growth will overreact to mundane events, sparking painful feelings. Past hurts stored in cellular memory, jumps to life, demanding protection.
Strong emotions invade weighty conversations without warning—the heart starts pounding and perspectives narrow; the moments we need the clearest thoughts. These emotional explosions seldom generate desired outcomes. We act badly, speak harshly, and the form a coherent story to excuse damaging behaviors. We affix derogatory labels to our partner justifying our emotions; the vilifying label solidifies as our partner responds defensively to our attacks—a destructive cycle, difficult to break. Unhealthy reactions whittle away the foundation of love, security and attraction.
Successful relationships artfully navigate destructive emotions, stirring clear of the dark alleys of justifications. We can avoid dangerous dead-end negotiations by mindfully checking interpretations for self-protecting biases. We employ defense mechanisms—all of us. We can’t prevent the brain from this normal function; but we can recognize the limitations of thought. A clearer understanding of ego-protecting games exposes dangerous justification.
When we create a healthy balance between the rational and the emotional mind, we can access rich sources of information. Without careful observation, we will continue to follow paths leading away from the desired goals. Stop! Think! Choose! ~Troy Murphy