There is something terribly wrong with me.
I’ve mentioned before how telling others about your goals can help you reach them, because you then have to meet their expectations and not just your own. It’s relatively easy to let yourself down when you can reassure yourself with all manner of rationalizations about why such-and-such goal didn’t work out – how you “had to” overeat at your friend’s dinner party because you didn’t want to come off as insulting his cooking (and how that then “ruined the entire diet,” so you might as well just eat). Or how you “couldn’t” go running because there was a light drizzle or you had a hard day at work (never mind that moderate exercise would make you feel better at the end of a long day by raising serotonin and endorphin levels). It is harder to let others down and have to look them in the eye…
At least, that’s the theory. And it’s a theory I attempted to utilize when I started this series of blog entries for Mental Health Awareness Month; I publicly stated my intention to do daily blog posts about psychology-related topics throughout the month of May.
But this very practice sometimes (often?) has the opposite effect on me. For instance, almost the moment I related this goal to someone really important to me – someone whose opinion I highly value – I all but stopped posting. Despite all my good intentions, despite the list of topics I’ve been accumulating, I haven’t been composing posts.
…Okay. That’s the emotional response. I had to get that out of the back of my head; it was interfering with my ability to work. Like most emotional responses, it’s highly irrational. And I’ll tell you why by letting my rationality have a look in (hopefully without sounding like I’m making excuses):
- Look, you (my rationality says), give yourself a break. You have a lot of irons and not enough fire. In addition to the 9-to-5 temp job, there’s the editing work, housework, prepping for the move, knitting projects, exercise, packing lunches, sleep… There are only so many hours each day (mental note: work on time management).
- You did say at the outset that you weren’t sure you’d be able to post daily.
- How many nights have you fallen asleep in the early evening, listened to your body, and gone the hell to bed?
- You know this is a “leisure” activity, not a paying one. Ergo, it “should” be one of the first things off the schedule.
- There’s guilt in here over the fact that blogging time could just as easily be editing time – or even knitting time. Both of those activities are paid. [I'm working on one knitting commission with two more in queue.]
- Also, overwhelm at being behind on this and other things. Forget the days you haven’t blogged/whatever and move on to the days you can and will. You’ve already started chipping at the editing backlog; keep it up.
- If you’re writing a blog, you’re not doing all the other things you “should” be doing. So you’re not blogging to avoid that guilt. Annoyingly, not blogging doesn’t always mean you get those other things done. Do something!
- And, paradoxically, I think you’re a little embarrassed. You told that Very Important Person about this and now feel slightly self-conscious. Despite past positive comments about the quality of your writing and not knowing if these posts are even being seen by those eyes.
Okay, thanks, Rationality. Hmm… Guilt, uncertainty, avoidance, self-consciousness, annoyance, overwhelm… Lot of emotive words in that rational run-down. Still, it’s often good for me to take a step back and logically list these things.
Sometimes it just seems like life would be easier if we didn’t have emotions, doesn’t it? …maybe that’s just me… No, come on, you’re telling me you’ve never had your heart broken and wished you could stop feeling it? Or regretted losing your temper? Or even just felt like a completely anxious wreck during a presentation? If only we could just be numb or bury our emotions like the Vulcans in Star Trek† and just get on with things.
But actually, emotions are quite useful, in their way. They drive everything we do, every decision we make. (Heck, consider the fact that my feeling bad about not posting has resulted in this post!) The neocortex or “thinking brain” is a relatively recent development in the human brain; our emotional brain (what some call our “lizard brain”) came first. We feel, therefore we are; logical thought developed later.
The neurologist Antonio Damasio has done some fascinating research into this very topic. In his book Descartes’ Error (I’ll twitch over that apostrophe later), he examines cases where people have suffered physical damage to their brains, often apparently losing the link between their thinking and emotional brains. As a result, they underwent dramatic changes in their personalities. One of the most famous examples of this is a railroad foreman named Phineas Gage, who survived having an iron rod driven through his head but allegedly was never the same person. The hard-working and responsible Gage reportedly became “fitful, irreverent, indulging at times in the grossest profanity (which was not previously his custom), manifesting but little deference for his fellows, impatient of restraint or advice when it conflicts with his desires, at times pertinaciously obstinate, yet capricious and vacillating, devising many plans of future operations, which are no sooner arranged than they are abandoned in turn for others appearing more feasible.” His behavior was described as animalistic and childlike.
One of Damasio’s own patients, Elliot, suffered behavioral and personality changes after the removal of a benign tumor and part of the prefrontal lobe tissue surrounding it. Once a successful businessman, Elliot now spent hours weighing the logical pros and cons of the simplest decisions. His business folded, his wife left him. Damasio found that Elliot could list all the possible ways to handle a given situation but was unable to decide on any course of action. Elliot no longer knew how he felt about any of the options and thus couldn’t attach to any one of them.
Another of Damasio’s emotionless patients had trouble even committing to an appointment time with Damasio. He could list all the reasons why such-and-such a time might or might not work without being able to attach to and decide on one of them. For more on Damasio and these cases, see “No Reason Without Emotion?” and “Feeling our way to decision“.
So, troublesome though they might seem at times, we need our emotions in order to function. The fine line is between letting emotion guide us and letting it rule us. While we cannot make decisions sans emotion, we likewise can’t think rationally when emotion completely takes over (what Daniel Goleman refers to as “emotional hijacking”). Consider even how anger or frustration can make one lash out at a malfunctioning computer; it may only be later, standing over the sparking shards of that laptop, that one notices the rational idea that pieces of a laptop won’t get that presentation done, either, and maybe hitting it with the hammer was not the best course of action. (Hyperbole is fun!)
So rather than wishing you didn’t feel anything, focus on learning strategies that help you remain calm in otherwise emotional situations – or at least help you calm down more quickly. Taking a deep breath into the diaphragm and letting it out slowly is an amazingly effective way to start calming down, as the very act of a few extended breaths like that activates your body’s relaxation response. Notice how you think (not feel) about what’s happening, maybe even list the emotion(s) involved as I did above. Get your thinking brain engaged to help calm down the emotional brain.
And the next time you feel like taking a break and decide to go down to the beach, curl up with a good book, or play with the dog, thank your emotions.
† I have to have a Geek Moment™ here: many people believe that Vulcans don’t have emotions, but that’s not the case. The race has learned techniques to bury their emotions when they come of age because of ancient turmoil they experienced at the hand of extreme emotion. One of my favorite moments of the new film is when Sarek tells young Spock that “emotions run deep within our race; in some ways, even more deeply than in humans.” It’s not that they don’t feel emotions – actually, a Vulcan losing his temper is an awe-inspiring sight to behold – it’s more about repression and tight control. (Paging Dr. Freud…)
HUGE thanks to wpvstp on this forum thread for the linked footnote tip!