Feeling or Thinking; The Chicken or the Egg
Do we feel first and then think or do we think first and then feel? Scientific studies now can map the brain’s response to experience. Fascinating answers emerge from the unknown. Powerful new insights provide understanding to experience, behavior and emotions.
The appearance of a unified mind is deceptive. Consciousness filters, combines and adjusts many sources of information before we experience the unified cohesive story. This complex process makes sense of a confusing world. The filtering and constructing process gives order to the chaotic experience of living. The generally accepted underlying principle is that we accurately see the world as it is and then respond appropriately. This implies we logically respond to outside influences. In many cases, the responses are logical; humans wouldn’t have survived without logical survival oriented responses; but often simple survival strategies don’t serve long-term goals.
Often we respond in ways detrimental to long-term objectives and then use mental gyrations that justifies behavior. We have all heard a friend say—or have said ourselves, “I don’t know why I did that. I don’t know what got into me.” Hidden survival oriented motivations push unwanted behaviors.
We create order. We don’t have all the facts when immediate assessments are required. Our mind bridges the gaps. When a partner triggers strong emotions, our heart rate increases, breathing gets deeper, and blood rushes to the face and organs. A strong emotional reaction demands a reason. In a heightened state, our mind must identify a reason. Without a reason, learning is limited. Personal security depends on understanding. Am I in danger of being assaulted, abandoned, or my rights violated? Our organism seeks safety, security and survival. We survive by predicting both danger and opportunity. The emotions respond accordingly—pushing towards opportunity and pulling away from threats.
Without mindfulness, we emotionally respond without examining the appropriateness of the emotion. Biological reactions are sometimes founded on faulty predictions. Partner’s behaviors sometimes legitimately deserve an angry response; but sometimes an angry response may be inappropriate. The emotions may be a relic from a painful past; partners may be the unlucky recipient of a reaction they didn’t deserve. Most social interactions are heavily laced with vagueness. Ambiguous situations interpretations are strongly influenced by biases. The biases affect the story. Our stories to explain the emotions oblige to our biases; they don’t contradict the biases. If I believe myself to be victim, then the stories I create will support this belief.
These are critical moments. Interpretations occur on both sides of emotional interactions. When we feel an emotional response is inappropriate, we respond with protective defensiveness. The deep needs of social acceptance and security are threatened. A defensive response further elevates relationship tensions. Current problem resolution quickly becomes an argument over long-term issues—such as who is the real victim. These critical moments destroy relationship bonds.
Emotions provide valuable information. We must gracefully accept emotional responses but understand they may be relics of past hurts. A child raised in an impoverished environment will experience greater sensitivity to present threats to security. Misguided interpretations of mundane events spark painful emotional reactions. Hurts remain in cellular memories.
Strong emotions attack often without warning—the heart starts pounding, blood starts flowing and perspectives narrow. These explosions seldom create positive interactions. The coherent story behind the emotional explosion often labels partners as selfish and unloving. Labels legitimize strong emotions but often are determined by our biases rather than reality. Vilifying beliefs solidify as discussions turn nasty. Our partner responds defensively and we respond emotionally to their defensive response. A very difficult cycle to break. Unhealthy relationship-destroying reactions whittle away the foundation of love, security and attraction.
Successful relationships artfully navigate these destructive emotions. A mindful approach identifies approaching emotional dark alleys. We can then avoid these dangerous dead-end negotiations. A mindful observation of the story-telling mind recognizes distorted interpretations. We all employ defense mechanisms. We can’t prevent normal functioning of the brain; but we can recognize limitations. A clearer understanding of ego-protecting games helps to dismiss their influence rather than dangerous justification.
When we have a healthy partnership between the rational-story-telling mind and the emotional-feeling mind, we artfully blend these rich sources of information. Without careful observation, we may follow behavioral paths that lead away from the desired outcome we wish to enjoy.