Understanding how emotions work is fundamental to being able to control our own.
In part one of Dissecting Emotions, we saw that:
What we experience as “reality” is far from neutral and objective
Our brain uses this biased information to tell our body which emotions to feel
Our emotions are entirely real
>>> Therefore, to change our emotions we need first to change our thoughts/feelings, otherwise we’re just shooting the messenger
If you’ve missed that post or want to go back to it you can check it out here.
There is another aspect of how emotions work that I didn’t mention last time, yet it is SO IMPORTANT.
But first, let’s go back a little bit.
We know that the brain’s main job is to keep us alive.
However, there are so many potential threats and dangers out there in the world that, over millions and millions of years, the brain has developed some tricks to be able to do its job whilst preserving as much energy as possible. Otherwise, we'd die of hunger while our brain spends the whole time interpreting the world around us.
Our brain doesn’t like new things. Novelty can be dangerous, it can kill you, and it’s very time and energy-consuming to work out whether it is a real danger or not. On the other hand, our brain LOVES what it already knows (since it knows it’s safe) and therefore loves habits and patterns.
>> This is why it is so difficult to break out of habits and patterns of behaviours.
Last week we saw that the brain 1) selects information it gets from the world, 2) interprets it, 3) runs simulations and 4) makes predictions.
All this happens so fast we aren’t even aware of it, and without this system, we would not be very good at jumping out of the way when we’re about to be run over by a car. We wouldn't be able to make any decisions either, come to think of it. In other words, it’s a very useful system.
But what happens when the brain’s predictions are wrong?
This is where it gets interesting.
The brain can adjust its interpretation and prediction in line with the new inputs that it is picking up. However, neuroscientists say that, often enough, it will, instead, filter the new inputs to fit the prediction. This is where emotions can be self-fulfilling, with the brain only seeing what it already believes to be true.
>> In other words, the brain will often filter the world so that reality fits our emotions
When we feel emotional, our heart and mind feel like they're one. But in truth, it's the brain that determines how we feel.
Let’s take an example with our horses.
Luci, our grey mare, is terrified of injections. We assume that she has had an awful experience in the past. That trauma is so strong that she will spot a needle a mile away, even if it’s for another horse. She recognises the vet, and she recognises any movement that may look like we want to give her an injection. Over time, we have managed to find ways to inject her in a way that she does not expect it, and since she feels no pain she doesn’t mind. But regardless of having had several pain-free experiences of injections, if we approach her in a way that she can anticipate we’re about to inject her, she gets extremely upset.
In theory, if Luci’s brain was more objective about the data it picks up, it would have eventually interpreted that injections don’t hurt. And it won’t tell her body to feel fear, or anger, or defensiveness.
But that’s not how the brain works. In fact, we know from experience of working with traumatised horses that it might take THOUSANDS of times where Luci doesn’t feel pain when she’s injected for her to change her reaction to the situation.
As prey, horses’ sense of danger is highly developed. That’s why they are very much creatures of habit. And changing a habit, even for a more beneficial one, can be very difficult.
I thought so too.
This is why trying to change an emotion is futile.
You MUST focus on what is going on in the brain and you must take agency over the filter that your brain is applying to your reality.
The idea is not to distort reality to fit the way you want it to. The idea is to try and see reality as it truly is.
This is another good reason to go back to the exercise I mentioned last week. We need to break down situations in a way that stops the brain from doing its autopilot thing. That way we can have much more useful thoughts, emotions, and therefore reactions.
I’ll use Luci’s injection example again, using Brooke Castillo’s model.
In this model, we focus on describing the circumstances as objectively as possible, using neutral words, so that our interpretation/thought can also be as objective as possible.
>> If my brain has already decided that the situation is negative, I will not be able to stop negative emotions from taking over. So I made a conscious effort to be as objective as possible on the situation, which helped me feel emotions that are more apt to this situation and acted accordingly.
In the Old Me scenario, I would have felt right to feel anger because, according to my perception of things, Luci was being an absolute pain. The emotion would have been self-fulfilling. But in the New Me scenario, I made the conscious effort of trying to be as objective as possible in describing the situation to myself. This helped me stay objective and not let emotions take over.
Understanding that our emotions are often self-fulfilling, with our brain choosing to see what it already believes to be true, is one of the reasons why our emotions feel so strong and overwhelming. It is only once we become aware of the filter that our brain uses to interpret reality that we can start to understand our emotions better and gain agency over them. Taking the time to break the situation down and consciously interpreting circumstances will go a long way in helping emotions remain under control.
If you want to read more about the science behind all of this I recommend you check out the following articles: