Escaping the Emotion Prison

Most of what goes on in our brains happens outside of our awareness. And while we typically have access to the end product of mental processes in the form of thoughts and feelings, it really is difficult to get a handle on how those products come about.

We are, in a sense, prisoners. Just as on an assembly line, whatever hits our sense organs—particularly our eyes and ears, which allow us to become aware of distant threats and opportunities—runs through several stages of processing. It may then seem as though we cannot escape what comes out at the end, or can we?

Imagine the following situation: you are shopping for some groceries, and your attention is fully focused on choosing a dessert for your family dinner at home. Suddenly a voice from behind shouts, “get your stupid shopping cart out of the way!” What happens in your brain, and how does this matter?

I readily admit that what I will describe now is not meant to capture everyone’s experience. Far from it! For most of my life, I have known that part of my personality—the way my brain interprets and responds to my environment in habitual ways—is to seek for ways to make myself seem more likable. I do so in part to increase the chance of receiving positive attention, and in part to decrease the risk of being on the receiving end of aggression and violence by others.

So, in my brain, the sentence and tone would lead to the interpretation that I must have done something wrong: how dare I leave my cart in the path of other people? In consequence, I best act as quickly as possible to correct the mistake. This, by itself, would not be a problem, I guess. On some level, such a remark is probably meant to convey precisely that. What is, however, a problem is how my emotions signal to myself that I have acted in a way that suggests wrongness. And this signal could be described as either guilt or shame, depending on whether the focus of my attention happens to go to what I did or what kind of person I am as a result of doing it.

The example above is, of course, contrived and not particularly impactful—for most people at least. What if instead you imagine having overlooked an important piece of information on a report at work, which now costs your business a good chunk of income for the next quarter, and your boss yells at you about how useless you are as an employee for making a mistake? The cause, a lack of attention to a specific detail, seems quite similar. What differs greatly are the consequences. And the strength of our emotions generally reflects how much impact we infer for our life and wellbeing.

Coming to the question of inescapability… Is there nothing we can do to avoid feeling this way about things we understand are failings and mistakes in our behavior? As BrenĂ© Brown lays out in her book, Daring Greatly, one important variable towards increased resilience stands out in her research on shame: the capacity of seeing one-self as worthy and fundamentally lovable. Carl Rogers described this as unconditional positive regard, an attitude one can learn to apply to one-self.

How exactly does this matter then? In the original example, there are several unobserved and quite frankly difficult to observe automatic inferences baked into how the brain processes our environment. One key assumption is that whenever we make mistakes, we are not worthy of being loved. It is part of our experience from an early age on that, as we fail to act according to our environment’s demands, we are being punished. And given our desperate need for support during infancy, it is little surprise that our brains learn to interpret criticism as a source of threat: when we noticeably fail, we risk losing connection with the people on whose good-will we rely.

Unfortunately, the mechanisms that evolved to protect us from the experience of such risks—particularly the possibility that our family or tribe will exclude us from the community—pose important limitations on how we can deal with mistakes. In other words, evolution has created a prison, built of feelings of guilt and shame. And this prison is reinforced throughout much of our lives, by systems of expectations, punishments, and rewards.

How does unconditional positive regard for one-self, this capacity of seeing one-self as worthy of love then help? My intuition is that it takes away a link in the invisible chain of inferences that our brain makes: whenever we realize that we have made a mistake, one critical inference is that by making a mistake, we are at risk of no longer being included in, or of being loved by, the community. And our sense of self depends on feeling loved as a source of wellbeing. Without feeling loved, we feel disconnected, adrift in a world where no-one can make it completely on their own.

If we can start from a position that we truly believe, deep in our hearts, that we are worthy of love, and that this is true even if we make mistakes, then making a mistake no longer has this impact. It does not mean we no longer make mistakes. Instead, it does mean that—rather than responding to mistakes out of fear, or anger, or some other shielding mechanism BrenĂ© describes so well as our emotional armory—we have the ability to respond to a mistake by inquiring into how we can learn from it, and how the people affected by our mistakes can support us in making the best of the situation as it currently stands. We no longer feel locked into the prison, cursing ourselves in our heads, whether we do so with words or piling on more and more guilt and shame, culminating in anxiety and depression.

It may seem dangerous getting out of this prison. We know it well. It has protected us from real risks and dangers. And instead of relying on this prison that is our own sense of guilt and shame to fulfill the role of protection, we must learn how to rely on our compassion—for ourselves and others—to guide our responses, especially when we realize we did make a mistake. And I believe that’s really worth learning.

What practical steps can you take to learn how to see yourself as worthy of love? In my own experience the following stand out as particularly helpful:

  • In relationships, test out the waters with people by disclosing small mistakes. If people are not willing or able to extend you their love knowing that you made a mistake, I believe that finding friends who do is an important piece in creating a network of connections, so you can feel safe at times when you do need external validation—which still happens for me…
  • Whenever you realize you made a mistake, that is when you do feel bad about something you have done or failed to do, ask yourself this question: what need was I trying to meet when I did (not) do what I now see as a mistake? That is, try to place as much attention on the positive goal you were aiming for, no matter how poorly. And then become aware that whatever you did was not done out of malice or bad intentions.
  • For behaviors in others that you observe, which make you think that they are doing things wrong, or that indicate that they are bad people, try to follow the same process. In short, to the extent that you can learn to shift your attention away from wrongness towards the deep humanity we all share, our needs, I believe you will be able to learn to see yourself in the same way: someone frequently acting less than perfect, and yet lovable all the same.

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