Emotional Guidance System
By: T. Franklin Murphy | November 17, 2020
We must listen to our emotions. Packed with wisdom, they guide towards goals and away from harm (for most people, most of the time).
Happiness is the new frontier. Throughout history people have experienced pleasure; but now we almost demand unrelenting joy. This is quite different from the puritan work ethic, or the ascetic lifestyle found in most early religions. We feel entitled to an absence of sorrow. Since discomforting emotions naturally arise in resistance to encounters with our unpredictable world, many have resorted to forceful controlling emotions. Manipulating, controlling and burying feelings to create a positive experience violates the life sustaining purpose of emotion.
Healthy emotional regulation allows for discomfort. Each emotion has a purpose. If we eliminate—or attempt to eliminate—entire ranges of emotions, we obscure valuable emotional guidance. Emotions provide an evolutionary advantage. They alert of dangers and push towards rewards. Blindly manipulating emotions—because they don’t feel good—is hazardous. Without honoring the purpose of discomforting emotions, we confuse the biological guidance system.
Emotions are physical—a biologically inherited hardware, activated and refined by experience. The shots of emotions surging through the body are reacting to a complex mixture of nature and nurture. Culture imprints emotional programming, merging experience with the biological hardware to align with cultural expectations.
Alan Fruzzetti explains, "We need emotions to survive in the world. Emotions orient us, tell us how important things are, signal us about likely consequences of actions, and allow for complexity and intensity in our relationships and other activities" (2006, location 377).
Emotional Guidance System: Our emotions react to external and internal events, signaling the importance of the event.
Our Emotional Guidance System isn't Perfect
Emotions react to faulty beliefs. Erroneous biases distort perception and activate felt responses. We fear the harmless and sorrow over the blessing. The context of experience changes, and previously appropriate emotions misdirect when encountering similar but new circumstances. Healthy living demands we mindfully respond to experience, not haphazardly by blindly following emotional guides. We should acknowledge an emotional push, but then examine its appropriateness before we respond.
Unfortunately, childhoods don't always foster healthy relations with our emotions. Sheri Van Dijk explains, "one of the most common contributing factors to emotion dysregulation is growing up in an emotionally invalidating environment, an environment in which you were taught that your emotions were wrong, inappropriate, or not okay" (2012, p. 4).
Although emotions are imperfect guides, they aren’t random. Emotions flare because they are programmed to respond. An event triggers a response; the event can be internal (a thought, a memory)—or external (an argument or an injury). Typically, an emotional reaction is a combination of external events, and internal connections tied to that event. The jolt from a shadow is easily traced, but many fears have unclear and complex causes. Many people have sought answers to the complexity lying on a Freudian sofa. We feel robust emotions that ignite a powerful response, but only have a gist of the underlying cause. In other words, we are emotionally stirred but don't know why. Instead of living with the unknown, we create theories and gather justifying facts to explain our overwhelming emotions.
Arousal is an automatic and unconscious process; we may never know the real cause. Externalizing causes for heightened emotions by affixing blame, conceals personal contributions from examination. The blame game has some legitimate grounds. Partners say and do stupid things. We can easily identify their stumblings as vital factors creating much of our misery. However, most healthy change must first identify behaviors that are in our sphere of control; the external causes are unpredictable and difficult to mold, leaving us vulnerable to continued arousal from these triggering events. However, when we identify our contribution to the problems, we can limit reoccurrences by initiating change within ourselves.
"Typically, the emotional reaction is from a combination of the external event, and internal connections tied to that event."
Mindfully examining felt emotions illuminates missed internal causes. Occasionally, we discover hurtful past events that altered the feeling experience. Emotions remember the past, current happenings are curiously intertwined with experience, easily arousing our system with certain phrases and places, flooding the present with emotion, interfering and blocking resolutions. By identifying these connections, we can challenge the arousal instead of blindly externalizing the cause. These discoveries don’t immediately eliminate future arousals but help to calm the storms when emotions surface.
Fruzzetti suggests that we can down-regulate the arousal by observing and describing the emotion. (2006, location 449).
When mindful, we are more likely to respond compassionately—instead of defensively—during emotional arousal. By examining complexity, we see emotions in their strength and weakness. Knowing that emotional responses also include the past, we can separate the critical jabs of emotion from the current triggering event and act more appropriately, moving towards important goals. Mutual understanding of these influences allows partners to actively work together with intense emotions instead of being alienated by the shots of anger, jealousy and shame.
How we respond to our emotions shapes experience. The actions following arousal can hinder progression towards intentions. An emotional accusation or insult may damage future intimacy. Our fear, anger or sadness when unmitigated destroys closeness. A general understanding of emotions leads to deeper examinations—a curious exploration.
Until we understand the building blocks behind emotion, we limit our effectiveness to adapt to strong emotional experiences. We can’t simply proclaim, "I am going to be happy" and force our bodies to feel happy. These attempts to force feelings create a disconnection between the body and mind. Our body warns with arousal from internal wisdom but when we reject the message, we create conflict, numbing the mind's receptivity for future messages. Forcing happiness is an unhealthy adaptation to a difficult life full of emotion.
By examining reactionary emotions, accompanying thoughts and behaviors, we find healthy alternatives to the destructive patterns ruining our lives. The emotional intelligence to live an effective life is within reach. We can be happy without ignoring experience and disconnecting from felt emotion. Healthier choices create better futures. Healthier thoughts diminish anxiety, guilt, and sadness while simultaneously encouraging more peace, joy and compassion. This is the path to happiness. Gently directing our lives to create better futures. We welcome happiness; not force it.
(Adapted from Forcing Happiness)
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