Intense feelings cloud
Options multiply with space
Fight or Flight gives way
To doing the Next Right Thing
Two choices is not enough
So, here is what most of May is going to look like on Defying Atrophy, in case any of you need a warning to avoid it…
A couple months ago I read a book called “The Velvet Rage – Overcoming the Pain of Growing Up Gay in a Straight Man’s World”, by Alan Downs. It was one of those “life changers” for me.
Toward the end of the book, Dr. Downs has a chapter of various “Skills for Leading an Authentic Life”, which are not necessarily “gay life skills”, so anyone of any orientation could/should benefit from looking at these with me, unless you’ve already got it all figured out, in which case, “Well done, you!” For myself and the rest of us, I’m going to take one “skill” a day and blog about it. Some may be brief, some may be more protracted, who knows?
Here is today’s:
Never react while feeling an intense emotion.
When feeling an intense emotion, ALWAYS delay taking action until after the emotion has subsided.
And yet, how many of us do it? Over and over and over.
Well, I do it, anyway. Most of you are probably smarter than I am.
For the remaining few of you who still struggle with me, I’m going to ramble for a bit.
My initial thought was about “big” things, like “don’t go buy a $50,000 truck while you’re depressed about quitting your job” (did that one) or “don’t break off your engagement to be married in the middle of a heated argument”(didn’t do that one). As I looked more at the wording of the skill, however, I was struck by the word “react” and realized that I need to think about and apply it to the more mundane aspects of daily life.
Action → Reaction.
It’s not just the big things. Newton’s third law of motion says “Every action has an equal and opposite reaction.” I’m sure my quantum physics friends will be quick to jump in and tell me this is no longer accurate, but until peer review, I’m going to let it stand. But let’s think about “equal and opposite”. If someone punches me in the face, a “logical” equal and opposite reaction would be to punch them back in the face. Same force; opposite direction. But what if I manage to apprehend my anger (intense emotion) after being punched, and then react with an “equal and opposite” manner once I am able to think clearly? I then find I have multiple options. I COULD still choose to go back and punch a face. Maybe that face needs punching. Although, in general, I think you will find it harder to be physically violent when intense emotions have been removed from the “reactive” half of the equation. Options now may include things like a) recognizing you DESERVED a punch in the face and the “energy” expended will be in apologizing and mending your ways, b) seeing the hurt or misdirected anger in the person who punched you and responding with empathy, c) taking your bygone anger and transforming it inwardly as enduring indignation and resentment, d) calmly responding to the person with questions and concern, or e) none of the above – you fill in the blank. The point I want to make here is you ALWAYS have options, and the further you are from “intense emotions”, the more options you will have and the more likely you are to select a more productive and restorative option.
Those of you who read me have heard this before:
don’t allow yourself to be forced into binary decisions
The presence of intense emotions will increase the likelihood of seeing ONLY this or ONLY that as possible reactions
Emotions come from a different part of the brain than our rational decision-making faculties. This is not to say we should always ignore the “fight or flight” instinct. If you are being attacked by a bear, you don’t have time to let the cerebrum process what’s coming from the limbic system. You’ll be dead. But honestly, when was the last time you were attacked by a bear? Seriously, when was the last time you REALLY needed “fight or flight” for survival? We have largely civilized ourselves out of the need for that instinct. I’m simply saying in many (most?) situations, we ought to let things get past the basic limbic system (fight or flight reaction – the “old” brain survival mechanism) and allow the cerebrum (the center of higher level critical thinking) to weigh in before reacting.
Strive to change “either/or” to “what are my MANY response options in this situation?” THEN recognize that some of those options are healthier than others.
And let me be clear ONE MORE TIME: it doesn’t mean you don’t feel emotions or ignore emotions. It means you step away from the intensity of emotion in the moment, allow your higher brain functions to receive and process the emotion, examine options, and then act on what appears to be “the next right thing”.
Regarding “the next right thing”… I’m about to get another “organ” briefly involved here. Your heart almost always knows what the next right thing is, even if you won’t always admit it to yourself (or others). I’m not talking about the blood-pumping organ in your chest, obviously. The “heart” is your sense of self that wraps it all together; some might call it the soul. It can be trusted. Too many times we have been told not to trust our hearts. There are even Bible verses people will wield regarding this: “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?”. I don’t intend to get theological here, but as a Christian, I can tell you how this verse is being isolated for misuse and misinterpreted if you’d like. Message me privately.
I’ll say it again: Trust your heart. Or, to combine one of the skills we’ve already looked at (Skill #1): Ask yourself what the “person you would become would do” and then trust your heart.
Away from intense emotions.
Got all that?
Yeah, I’ll work on it, too.