www.yourtango.com/experts/beinghuman/what-are-emotions-control-feelingsI originally published this article on YourTango.com in a modified form under the title "How To Figure Out The Reason For Your Emotions." You can find that article here.
We’ve all been there. It’s 7:31 on a Friday night and you and your boyfriend are heading out to meet friends at a bar. You’re applying a quick coat of mascara when he yells to you, “We have to be out the door!” You check your watch - you had agreed upon a 7:30 departure, okay, okay, what’s one minute? But your boyfriend becomes insistent saying, “You’re always late,” and, “You looked fine 20 minutes ago.” He’s hovering, watching your every move like it’s causing him great pain, rolling his eyes, chiming in with minute-by-minute updates.
Anger surges. Inside, you collapse. Whereas a minute ago you were looking forward to going out, now you wish you could go back to your own apartment. You snap back at your boyfriend, “Always?”
You sense your boyfriend's energy shift - his posture becomes stiff, shoulders curving around his body, palms facing backwards. His gaze is piercing and intense. When he speaks, the quality of his sweet, loving voice has disappeared and it’s as if someone else is talking to you through tight lips. He says, “Yes, you always do this,” and it’s as if he stabbed you in the heart.
By the time you meet your friends at the bar (three minutes early because you know a short cut), you and your boyfriend are not talking to each other. You run in to give your friend a big hug and stay by her side the entire evening.
How did this happen? How did the Friday you were looking forward to turn into you feeling distressed and seeking protection? And him feeling angry and anxious?
What happened to you?
Your sensations - how you experience seeing honey’s posture, him glaring at you, hearing honey’s angry voice - inform your thoughts.
When we humans feel threatened, our focus goes external to identify the danger. We instinctively react physiologically first to protect ourselves. Our rational selves go offline and we rely on our primitive wiring that can only react with fight, flight, or freeze. All we feel is fear. You can’t remember that you have words and choices. Your survival instinct is choosing for you.
Our bodies never lie. Your eyes lock on his glare, you hear his wordless sighs and his tight voice when he speaks, you hold your breath, your heart beats faster.
Your emotions result from that input. You feel stunned, hurt, and speechless at first. These feelings are unconscious and instinctive survival impulses. You’re not perceiving your sweetheart in that moment, you’re reacting to a tiger about to eat your head off! All you care about in that moment is not feeling hurt.
This is normal for all of us. This perception makes you do and say things without stopping to rationalize or access your logic. Sensations create emotions and together those feelings inform how we read a situation.
What happened to him?
Something is happening inside your lover that made him erupt. It’s a reaction to you, but it’s not defining you as right or wrong, good or bad.
Each of you is operating off a script you learned when you were younger. Let’s say your boyfriend has a thing about punctuality because his mom was always late to pick him up from school. When he has to wait even a minute for you, he regresses to feeling like the insecure, anxious and helpless 8-year old waiting for his mother in the pick-up line.
When you react to his 8-year old’s anxiety, you trigger his anger.
What happened to both of you: His 8-year old meets your 8-year old
That man standing in front of you, who makes you laugh and who you love, has checked out and is feeling like the 8-year inside him. How he remembers feeling as an 8-year old waiting for his mother informs his perception of you being one minute late.
And let’s say that when you hear his chastising tone it takes you back to a time when you were confronted by anger and didn’t know why you were being attacked. You regress to your trusting 8-year old self who wants to be loved.
You’re no longer yourself in the present, he’s no longer himself in the present. You’re no longer in his apartment; you’re on the playground. It’s two 8-year olds uncomfortable with each other and not feeling safe.
How do you come back?
Because you are connected in a heart-felt way, when you or your honey goes Neanderthal, you blindside the other by disconnecting from your bond.
Sensations are how you each feel inside your own bodies. It’s all the information from your five senses (seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, touching) as well as your breath, muscles, and heartbeat.
Emotions take cues from sensations. That’s what we experience. We can change our experience by changing our focus.
The clue that you’ve returned from your 8-year old experience and are back as yourself is when you remember who you are and are able to respond instead of react. So, how do you get there?
Falling into an old painful emotion is natural when you are shocked and feeling helpless, but it’s temporary. Find your inner resources to come back.
And by the way, visiting Neanderthal land doesn’t just happen to boys, it happens to all of us – you can use this story with reversed roles.
Human suffering and human existence are innately intertwined. This fact is addressed in many disciplines, most notably The Four Noble Truths of Buddhism[i]. Without examining what is painful, we cannot fully know reality. It requires courage to feel physical or emotional discomfort, but only when we allow ourselves to feel everything can we move through and beyond suffering.
Let’s examine the suffering in the following situation:
Third-Grade You scarfs down the rest of your lunch as you see your best friend shooting hoops with another kid.
“Hey you guys! Can I play?” you yell as you near the basketball court.
They look at each other before answering.
“We’re playing one-on-one,” your friend says, passing the ball as they dive back into their game.
When you get home from school, you dash into your older brother’s room.
“I learned a magic trick today!” you say, flopping on his bed. “Wanna see?”
Your brother doesn’t look up from his phone. You get out the deck and prepare the trick.
“Pick a card, any card.”
You reach out the deck to your brother, but he swats your hand away, sending the cards scattering to the floor.
“I’m busy, Go away.”
You pick up the cards and head to your room, where you lay on your bed staring up at the ceiling for several minutes, before signing into a video game and losing yourself in a solo quest.
What happened to Little You? What did you need?
Little You glazed over your feelings of rejection. You wanted to be included, and asked for it, accepting your vulnerability. We are all like Little You when we are young, instinctively living from our truthful place without protecting ourselves.
It is when we avoid discomfort, such as the feeling of rejection, that we suffer. The internal reaction to avoid or stop the suffering, whether physical or psychic, leads to more discomfort. It is a natural impulse to stop the pain. In fact, the more we suppress or avoid pain, the more intense the suffering will feel. It can get so bleak that we become blind to our needs, our goals, and, ultimately, our core sense of self.
Conflict avoidance has been called different names in psychology, religion, and pop culture: the shadow, disowned self, id, inner child, inner demons, self-judgment, dark night of the soul, and even midlife crisis. No matter what you call it, conflict avoidance is fear of something. It could be a threat to your survival, your social belonging, or even fear of your own experience, sensations, and emotions.
Is there anything good about being uncomfortable?
This inner torture shows itself to escort you to your true desires. Its presence will recede once you acknowledge it and connect it to your underlying needs. Then, and only then, will clarity appear. Suffering is not to be cast away.
In fact, it’s not possible to be a disembodied being – the body is an integral part of knowing that you are alive. An embodied sense of "even though my heart hurts or my body feels pain, I am here. I am alive, I exist" gently and naturally ushers you from fear to empowerment to clarity.
The neurobiology of inner conflict
Our brain is wired to avoid conflict and seek safety, stability, and homeostasis. Neurobiologically, we all fall on a continuum of conflict avoidance from discomfort to phobia, depending on our childhood lessons. What our parents model gets physiologically coded as “right” and “good” or “wrong” and “bad” and in turn directs your actions, choices, and thoughts. What happens to us experientially as we grow up further influences how we define our emotions.
If whenever you made mistakes your parents spoke to you kindly in a soft voice, you would have learned that you are not defined by your mistakes.
Away from your parents, if you had an accident, witnessed or experienced violence or bullying, were marginalized or othered, your more primitive brain centers responsible for survival, sensations, and emotions would have registered danger and developed a defense mechanism, instructing your nervous system to avoid feelings that trigger similar discomfort or pain. Emotional-phobia is a fear of experiencing your own emotions, as well as others’. Whatever you have labeled “uncomfortable,” “negative,” or “unbearable” will determine what you avoid and what you move toward.
Why is it scary to explore your feelings?
Since your brain is wired to keep you safe, it directs you to avoid that which is unpleasant. You can’t help it; you’re programed to do so.
When you experience even the slightest discomfort, a negative feedback loop takes over: negative emotions lead to suffering, which leads to self-judgment, which leads back to negative emotions, and the vicious cycle sets in. Eventually, it becomes easier psychologically to prevent all anticipated discomfort rather than examine with self-awareness what you are experiencing.
Back to You … As You grew up learning to protect yourself this way, it became a way of relating:
Big You, now 28, brings your girlfriend to your mom’s house for lunch. She has met your mom a few times, but this is a special occasion: your birthday.
The conversation flows easily as you all discuss your girlfriend’s job working for a tech start-up and what vegetables are growing in your mom’s garden.
The energy shifts when your mom asks if you and your girlfriend have considered moving in together.
“Ha,” your girlfriend says, as she rolls her eyes.
You chuckle and ask, “Is there any more lemonade?”
Your mom hops up to get you another glass and launches into a long story about how the lemon tree didn’t produce much this year. “We think it was the drought…”
Was Big You uncomfortable? About what?
Little You ignored your feelings of being hurt and disappointed. You didn’t feel safe saying how you felt, not even to yourself. Over time, your needs receded further and further until you weren’t even aware of them yourself. Ignoring your feelings carried over into adulthood as a default reaction whenever you felt uncomfortable.
Big You avoided your discomfort about your girlfriend’s non-verbal snipe (which is her way of avoiding being direct) by laughing and engaging your mother. In doing so, you displaced your need for kindness and connection with a request for lemonade.
What did Big You Need?
Big You was excited to share your commitment to your girlfriend with your mother. You wanted and expected that feeling to be reciprocated and expressed. You were blindsided by your girlfriend’s reaction, which severed your sense of belonging. You have no control over how your girlfriend behaves or how your mother will react. This is what vulnerability feels like, and where courage is required. The first thing Big You needed to do is to allow yourself to feel the shock of your girlfriend’s put-down. You could have asked her, “What do you mean by ‘ha,’ honey?” Courage, again.
Do you restrict yourself by presenting as “the good girl” or “the nice man”? What is your internal editing system saying “no” to? In the hypothetical, what made Big You chuckle instead of clarifying your mate’s message? These questions all lead to the larger issue that:
Humans are clever avoiders and there are many styles of conflict avoidance. Can you recognize yourself?
If you’ve learned to vault your vulnerable emotions, you need to break into the safe. You’ll have to invite the kind, gentle, fierce warrior in you to stay with your discomfort long enough to go from uncomfortable to aware of your needs.
[i] The Four Noble Truths of Buddhism are:
1. Suffering exists.
2. Suffering arises from attachment to desires.
3. Suffering ceases when attachment to desire ceases.
4. Freedom from suffering is possible by practicing the Eightfold Path
The Eightfold Path is:
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[ii] See John Gottman’s Four Horsemen: https://www.gottman.com/blog/the-four-horsemen-recognizing-criticism-contempt-defensiveness-and-stonewalling/