DO EMOTIONS MAKE US? AND WHAT TO DO ABOUT IT

emotionSpend enough time listening to people and one thing becomes very clear: people seem to really be involved with the negative experiences in their lives. Not just the intense, sometimes crippling, life-threatening dramas that can give a person PTSD. Not just the abuses that happen over long periods of time that wear down our psyche. It really seems as if you ask someone to pull up memories of their lives, they will have many more stories of negative experiences than positive. Those negative experiences seem to dominate the developments of who we are.

An optimist may choose to say that that it is our facing of adversity that allows us to grow. Negative experiences are the building blocks of character and developing us to be the best of who we are. Kahlil Gibran would say, “… the deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain.”

Very inspirational quotes, but even in the most ardent optimist there is a little pessimist who sees the world as a bleak and harsh environment fraught with danger. A pessimist would certain let that little Negative Nelly out of its box to let everyone know that bad things happen for a very justified reason. No matter where you fall on the optimist/pessimist spectrum: every acknowledges that a lot of negative experiences remain foremost in our understanding of ourselves and our determination of who we are going to become. We certainly have some strong positive memories but rarely do they have the influence that our negative ones.

ARE WE THE SUM OF OUR NEGATIVE EXPERIENCES?

Actually, in many ways there is some truth in that last statement. For our day-to-day lives, we remember more than 57% of our warm memories and only 40% of our negative memories are kept in our memory (they have been doing this research since the 1930s). We are able to reminisce our personal histories with a mostly positive view of ourselves and our experiences. Even when something negative happens, we will reframe it to be a positive or humorous experience. Nevertheless, when it comes to strong emotions the tables flip.

Each strong experience doesn’t just record some data, but activates the amygdala where emotional processing occurs, and possibly activates our primal “flight or fight” responses. Even when we can intellectually process a memory, the emotional experience has already augured itself in our understanding and response. Evolution has also intensified the emotional responses of stress and fear many times more powerfully than positive emotions.

Think of a fish that swims into two coral reefs. One has the best food ever and lots of mates. The other has a hungry eel. It is much more important for a fish to remember where the eel lives than where the food is at, because you can find more food, but you can’t find more lives.

HEDONIC TREADMILL

There have been lots of studies on the “hedonic treadmill.” Imagine you get a new car. Your joy with your new care is intense, but as time goes on and the new car becomes just “your car” the intense joy eventually goes away. You return back to your baseline of happy.

Nico Frijda suggests that states of pleasure are always contingent on continuously renewing the appetite of satisfaction. So we have an appetite for happiness but find ourselves continually becoming hungry again after short periods of time. Frijda’s “Law of Hedonic Asymmetry” suggests also that negative emotions are often self-sustaining because our brains understand we live in a world where we may require a response in order to survive. Thus there is an asymmetrical relationship to positive and negative emotions.

WHAT DO OUR EMOTIONS HAVE TO DO WITH OUR IDENTITY?

If we think of our childhood as a big block of wood, there are many factors that determine how that wood is worked to become the person we are today. There are predispositions of personality (like the nature of the grain and knots in the wood). There is also the environment that may be conducive or non-conducive for carving. Our parents are our artisans for the few six years are so and then more and more people (family, peers, teachers) start to have their influence. Eventually, we are old enough to carve and polish ourselves.

c09a8ca3bd0b4306e66bed17b7642c48But each experience builds on the other. The more intense the experience the more sincere the development and memories that will form to aid us in making decisions on who we are as an individual. As we saw before, when experiences are very intense, our emotions store their own memory.

Emotions are tricky things. They are sub-routines that short cut our responses. A person with no emotional response to a man throwing a punch at our face must cognize the experience and formulates a plan; however, someone who has had an experience of being punched may recognize the patterns of behavior. He does not need to think because the rapid response of the amygdala triggers our flight or fight response and we will run away, block the punch or punch back without much thought needed.

Those sorts of automatic response are also found in our automatic thinking. We will form opinions and ideas about the world from our experiences that sometime be based on emotional responses that may have little or no conscious evaluation. We don’t know why we feel the way we do about something—we just do.

And thus our emotional selves create and influence our identity in very significant ways. Negative emotions have more influence than our positive because our evolutionary need to survive. As we get older we can work on making wiser and more conducive choices but emotions and childhood experiences are difficult to change because they are so deeply set inside our brains. Often, people opt to believe that “that is just how I am” rather than “those are really difficult habits and thoughts to change.”

SO ARE THOSE SMART/GOOD PEOPLE SO DIFFERENT?

I have met many people who have come to me, Buddhist monastics, personal heroes, psychologists, priests, etc.; and found themselves sorely disappointed when no one has lived up to the idealized versions of who they thought that person should be.

I am certainly no saint. I understand a lot about the human condition, but I am bound by the experiences that have made me who I am today and work to refine myself towards the person I hope to be. It is always about the journey and not the destination: making progress not achieving perfection.

Understanding how and why we become what we become gives valuable insight.

SO WHAT CAN I DO TO CHANGE YOU

  1. Spend time asking 5-level questions. Why do you think and feel the way you do? Where did that thought come from? When did you first have that thought? Who do you want to be and does that thought fit in with that? How do you want to respond in the future?
  2. Gratitude. There is no difference between obstacle and opportunity. Be grateful for as many things as you can think. Start a practice of mindfully building those consciously created positive memories. Keep the fading ones with you by writing them down to reference. Overpower your naturally powerful negative experiences with kindness.
  3. Let go. We do not forgive to let other people off the hook for doing wrong to us. We forgive to let ourselves off the hook from the responsibility of carrying all that negative energy.
  4. Remove isolation. If you ever see a turtle or hermit crab when they are in danger, they hide inside their shell for safety. Negative energy does that to us as well. We tend to isolate ourselves emotionally and physically. So force yourself to be social. Fight the urge to “shell up” and be a little uncomfortable by reaching out and being active.
  5. Give. We talked about how fleeting happiness when getting gifts, but when we give (gifts, our time, our hearts) to others with no other motive other than the happiness it brings—we find that (almost always) we can have a sustained sense of happiness created. That is because love given is much more rewarding than love received. In Buddhism, this is called “dana” and it is part of a significant part of practice: to give.

 

Actually, in many ways there is some truth in that last statement. For our day-to-day lives, we remember more than 57% of our warm memories and only 40% of our negative memories are kept in our memory (they have been doing this research since the 1930s). We are able to reminisce our personal histories with a mostly positive view of ourselves and our experiences. Even when something negative happens, we will reframe it to be a positive or humorous experience. Nevertheless, when it comes to strong emotions the tables flip.

Each strong experience doesn’t just record some data, but activates the amygdala where emotional processing occurs, and possibly activates our primal “flight or fight” responses. Even when we can intellectually process a memory, the emotional experience has already augured itself in our understanding and response. Evolution has also intensified the emotional responses of stress and fear many times more powerfully than positive emotions.

Think of a fish that swims into two coral reefs. One has the best food ever and lots of mates. The other has a hungry eel. It is much more important for a fish to remember where the eel lives than where the food is at, because you can find more food, but you can’t find more lives.

HEDONIC TREADMILL

There have been lots of studies on the “hedonic treadmill.” Imagine you get a new car. Your joy with your new care is intense, but as time goes on and the new car becomes just “your car” the intense joy eventually goes away. You return back to your baseline of happy.

Nico Frijda suggests that states of pleasure are always contingent on continuously renewing the appetite of satisfaction. So we have an appetite for happiness but find ourselves continually becoming hungry again after short periods of time. Frijda’s “Law of Hedonic Asymmetry” suggests also that negative emotions are often self-sustaining because our brains understand we live in a world where we may require a response in order to survive. Thus there is an asymmetrical relationship to positive and negative emotions.

WHAT DO OUR EMOTIONS HAVE TO DO WITH OUR IDENTITY?

If we think of our childhood as a big block of wood, there are many factors that determine how that wood is worked to become the person we are today. There are predispositions of personality (like the nature of the grain and knots in the wood). There is also the environment that may be conducive or non-conducive for carving. Our parents are our artisans for the few six years are so and then more and more people (family, peers, teachers) start to have their influence. Eventually, we are old enough to carve and polish ourselves.

But each experience builds on the other. The more intense the experience the more sincere the development and memories that will form to aid us in making decisions on who we are as an individual. As we saw before, when experiences are very intense, our emotions store their own memory.

Emotions are tricky things. They are sub-routines that short cut our responses. A person with no emotional response to a man throwing a punch at our face must cognize the experience and formulates a plan; however, someone who has had an experience of being punched may recognize the patterns of behavior. He does not need to think because the rapid response of the amygdala triggers our flight or fight response and we will run away, block the punch or punch back without much thought needed.

Those sorts of automatic response are also found in our automatic thinking. We will form opinions and ideas about the world from our experiences that sometime be based on emotional responses that may have little or no conscious evaluation. We don’t know why we feel the way we do about something—we just do.

And thus our emotional selves create and influence our identity in very significant ways. Negative emotions have more influence than our positive because our evolutionary need to survive. As we get older we can work on making wiser and more conducive choices but emotions and childhood experiences are difficult to change because they are so deeply set inside our brains. Often, people opt to believe that “that is just how I am” rather than “those are really difficult habits and thoughts to change.”

SO ARE THOSE SMART/GOOD PEOPLE SO DIFFERENT?

I have met many people who have come to me, Buddhist monastics, personal heroes, psychologists, priests, etc.; and found themselves sorely disappointed when no one has lived up to the idealized versions of who they thought that person should be.

I am certainly no saint. I understand a lot about the human condition, but I am bound by the experiences that have made me who I am today and work to refine myself towards the person I hope to be. It is always about the journey and not the destination: making progress not achieving perfection.

Understanding how and why we become what we become gives valuable insight.

SO WHAT CAN I DO TO CHANGE YOU

  1. Spend time asking 5-level questions. Why do you think and feel the way you do? Where did that thought come from? When did you first have that thought? Who do you want to be and does that thought fit in with that? How do you want to respond in the future?
  2. Gratitude. There is no difference between obstacle and opportunity. Be grateful for as many things as you can think. Start a practice of mindfully building those consciously created positive memories. Keep the fading ones with you by writing them down to reference. Overpower your naturally powerful negative experiences with kindness.
  3. Let go. We do not forgive to let other people off the hook for doing wrong to us. We forgive to let ourselves off the hook from the responsibility of carrying all that negative energy.
  4. Remove isolation. If you ever see a turtle or hermit crab when they are in danger, they hide inside their shell for safety. Negative energy does that to us as well. We tend to isolate ourselves emotionally and physically. So force yourself to be social. Fight the urge to “shell up” and be a little uncomfortable by reaching out and being active.
  5. Give. We talked about how fleeting happiness when getting gifts, but when we give (gifts, our time, our hearts) to others with no other motive other than the happiness it brings—we find that (almost always) we can have a sustained sense of happiness created. That is because love given is much more rewarding than love received. In Buddhism, this is called “dana” and it is part of a significant part of practice: to give.
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Categories: mental health, Psychology, Therapy

Author:Sumitta

Born Joshua Hudson, Reverend Sumitta (his ordained name) finished a twenty-year career as a military photo-journalist, and became a Licensed Social Worker with continuing studies in Mental Health, Healthcare Advocate, and Buddhist Minister. Currently, he works as the Director of Psychological Health and Primary Prevention of Violence for the U.S. Air Force. Previously, he served as the healthcare patient advocate for the Veterans Healthcare Administration, and is a License Clinical Social Worker, with a Master’s in Clinical Social Work at the University of Pittsburgh, working as a drug and alcohol rehabilitation counselor, public speaker, trainer and personal/family advisor. His dharma name "Sumitta," which translates to "Good Friend" in Pali.

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One Comment on “DO EMOTIONS MAKE US? AND WHAT TO DO ABOUT IT”

  1. February 9, 2015 at 8:15 pm #

    Reblogged this on Buddhism in Pittsburgh.

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