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.
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Elizabeth Rona. Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, #M13521