Pesky Emotional Outbursts
BY: T. Franklin Murphy | March 2016
Emotions start a biological reaction preparing the body to respond; but sometimes the response destroys.
Emotions swirl as we crash into others and experience. The collision creating an emotional storm. A clasp of thunder, a flash of light. Our bodies warm and cool as it collides with the world. Our emotions are a biological construction programmed through experience, creating the sensitivities, blind spots and misperceptions. We create security to navigate this unpredictable path by creating narratives that suggest control. We believe in intelligent action. We see behavior as logical and purposeful: We experience something, consciously analyze it, and then choose the proper response. Judging behavior by this simplistic sequence creates a comforting sense of control. Our behaviors appear logical; we act to accomplish a consciously chosen reason. But our post explanation of behavior is often more fluff than reality, relying on protecting justifications making sense of emotionally driven behaviors.
Logically driven behavior presupposes greater control than we actually have. The prisons are full of individuals who righteously believe the appropriateness of their illegal behavior—no matter how heinous the act. They convinced themselves that their response was logical given the circumstances. While most people don’t commit heinous crimes demanding ego-protecting justifications, we do act against principles and then justify. Instead of an unbiased investigation, we start with a conclusion—our behavior was acceptable. We then work backwards justifying the unprincipled behavior. We never consider the inappropriateness. But the behavior wasn’t a logical, intelligently driven behavior; the action was an emotional response with little cerebral cortex involvement until after the deed was committed.
Thoughts, emotions, and behaviors are a complex construction, intertwining and bouncing back and forth, influencing each other without a simple easy-to-follow chain of reaction. Our emotions profoundly affect thoughts; thoughts affect emotions; they both affect behaviors. Behaviors once completed create a whole new chain of thoughts and emotions through the infusion of outside consequences to the overt action.
Scientists, measuring brain activity in milliseconds, detected that emotional reactions start behavioral responses before cognitive brain modules are activated (The Emotional Brain, Joseph LeDoux). Outside events trigger emotion, followed by a physical preparation for a behavioral reaction; then conscious evaluations kick in, creating the coherent story, explaining why we do what we do. The precise measurements of brain activity provide conclusive evidence that emotional reactions precede analytical evaluation. Our thoughts, the late comers to the party, must include the biased inputs from emotions already activated and actions already beginning to occur; emotions and actions that may be illogical, complicating future goals. We act in ways that disrupt, delay or destroy long-term objectives.
We emotionally react to experience—a biological inheritance of living creatures. The emotions prepare the body to embrace or fear external events. The organism through the senses—sight, sound, smell and physical feeling—scans the environment for threats and opportunities. This applies to ancient survival in the African Savanna or modern surfing of Facebook posts from friends (competitors). When the senses register a threat, the biological system reacts; heart rates increase, breathing deepens, muscles tighten, and blood flow delivers additional oxygen to muscles. These bodily reactions are in process when thought struggles to make sense of the input. Flight, fight, or freeze. We are ready!
The explanations we create to hide illogical behaviors vary. We devise ego-protecting shields socially, drawing from culture, family dynamics and past successes and failures. If a thought process provides emotional soothing, we implement it again—the mechanism becoming a staple of our emotional landscape. Children raised in stable families draw from a wealth of healthy responses to emotions. Children raised in dysfunction draw from restricted and distorted examples. Neither childhood is isolated from other conditioning influences but the closeness and repetitiveness of early family life has a tremendous pull on developing young children.
"These volatile relationship exchanges damage closeness; the lack of trust, the unpredictable anger, and the damaging accusation drag down the relationship with anxiety."
We are born with biological functions in place; the body functions process experience through predetermined hard wiring, following natural laws. We live within the confines of biological mandates. But life is complex. Our destinies are not written in stone. We process new inputs of experience, adapting to the outside world, forcing change on the working biological system. Childhoods and deep traumas significantly impact functioning, forming the internal protections and programing of the mind; we may be damaged from unkind experience but not ruined—the story is still being written. The whole transcends the parts (biology and history). The being rises above the firing neurons and synaptic connections. We can direct learning, creating new helpful connections. New thoughts form by changing the old scripts and rewriting the tired old emotional maps that are disrupting our lives. Deep cellular memories binding present experience to past trauma may be imprecise; we can weaken these links, mitigating their power.
A person who experienced significant childhood trauma from a primary caregiver likely will associate fear with dependence, constantly seeking reassurance from companions. The slightest event triggers significant emotions, not because the incident is significant but because associations to painful pasts that were significant. The present incident vicariously becomes a significant incident, coupled with an intense emotion. An emotionally flooded mind must confabulate logical meaning to legitimize the over-reaction, creating balance between the emotion and the experience. A partner who doesn’t immediately reply to a text message (small event) floods the system with emotion, the emotion spurred by associating the simple ignored text with past disloyalties and abandonments; the strong emotions, instead of accounting for past anxieties, is seen independently, demanding an explanation. The mind shuffles through disastrous explanations for the simple missed text.
Several years ago, I intervened in a loud domestic argument. One partner returned home late from work. The slight tardiness triggered strong emotions in the anxious partner waiting at home. She wasn’t unreasonably late and provided a legitimate reason. The distraught man loudly screamed, “I have to know!” His discomfort demanded unknowable knowledge that her explanation couldn’t provide. Trust was absent, fears reigned and the relationship (unless drastic adjustments to emotional patterns are made) is destined for drama and dissolution.
Unfortunately, we never know; there must be a smidgen of trust. The “have to know” mentality bypasses intimacy, rejects vulnerability, and motivates unhealthy relationship behaviors (spying). Trying to find security without trust, we become suffocating, forcing partners to soothe the chaotic emptiness inside. They can’t fill that void; it’s too expansive, requiring complete disregard of their own self. Because of this man’s heightened fears—relationship dysfunctions—the slightest stimuli sparked emotional flooding, temporarily disabling rationality and demanding outside answers to his inner-turmoil. The only reasonable response to his emotional explosion, in his mind, was she was cheating. Her legitimate explanation was effectively filtered and dismissed. Even if indisputable evidence is provided, the same emotional reaction occurs whenever experience varies from expectation.
These volatile relationship exchanges damage closeness; the lack of trust, the unpredictable anger, and the damaging accusation drag down the relationship with anxiety, forcing each action to be meticulously examined for the possible outrage it may inspire. Instead of anticipating comfort after a challenging day, partners dread going home, where defending the self against unreasonable accusations becomes the norm.
When emotions derail, creating additional weighty strains on stressed relationships, we advance the circumstances for another abandonment—the very situations we desperately fear. Unpredictable explosions to grossly misperceived threats destroy partner’s security, invading their autonomy, and alienating them from their own hopes and dreams. Their security is dependent on pleasing an out of balance person. They must carefully evaluate every thought, behavior, or emotion, not for its own merit, but for how it will be received. The self is abandoned. The lack of security, constantly fearing violent responses to mundane events, strangles the openness essential for intimacy. By unrealistic responses to minor threats, we destroy the trust we desperately seek. The relationship is unstable because we are unstable—a vicious self-confirming cycle. The destructive cycle proves the legitimacy of our fears because the cycle continually destroys our relationships.
From a distance, we easily identify these cycles. But when blinded by the blizzard of strong emotions in the present, our reasoning appears sound; we have a right to be upset. We react to experience, sometimes with ferocious emotional flooding, other times through a simple motivational push. Learning the underlying processes, grants us a more objective view. We won’t catch every emotional wave, but we see some; small improvements multiply, adding to the strengths of a relationship. The smallest change may change the trajectory of the relationship, shifting from a slow decay to a gentle rise.
We want healthy relationships; it’s not that the invited chaos is welcomed. The desired closeness requires skills that might be missing or misunderstood. We can’t expect to read a book or listen to a lecture and emerge a juggernaut of success. The work still needs to be done. Knowledge needs to be integrated. Clear views of self must be established. These relationship adjustments start slow. We must make small changes, adopt new habits of kindness, accepting personal relationship ineptness. We usually possess a wealth of information, just lack skill in the artful implementation of the knowledge. Small changes create better relationships. The small redirections take skill, time, and practice. We still will possess the disrupting demons that encroach on the present, reminding of bitter pasts. Small improvements hone new skills into managing the emotional triggers but don’t necessarily erase the stubborn insecurities still bubbling to the surface and disturbing the calmness.
We must embrace who we are; the bricks of childhood have been laid. We must stop blooding our knuckles on the walls of the past, accepting our personal histories with compassion. The past, no matter how damaging, is now the present, living within our souls. We soothe our cries of “I have to know!” with acceptance of the hurt and scared inner child. The fears can’t be permanently resolved by a partner modifying their behavior. Instead of demanding external explanations to legitimize emotions, we must examine the living energies existing inside. With compassion, we accept these feelings as relics from disrupted pasts that are living in the present. Our work, our healing, our salvation lies in gentle moves, pushing gently to the edge and courageously implementing techniques that soothe ensuing emotions, calming the outburst and succoring our hurt. Once we calm the emotions, we can creatively address the triggering circumstances.
There are no effective shortcuts, the deep grooves of the past resist changes. A loving and patient partner helps, giving compassionate understanding to the difficulties we face, joining forces to work towards healthier futures; but changing these destructive trajectories must be accompanied with compassion, patience and understanding. The pesky emotional volcanoes, erupting and directing behavior, will continue to smolder. With self-compassion, we begin the change. The hurts from our youth were not of our choosing. We endured; we survived; now we can heal. With a few internal changes, external circumstances improve, creating stronger bonds and greater security. Each step provides a more nurturing environment, opening new experiences to titillate to our senses—finally, at last, joy.