It’s fair to say that perhaps the four most important things in your life are
- What happens
- What you think about it
- How you feel about it
- What you do about it
The first, as often as not, is beyond our complete control, when not also completely beyond our control. But the second and third—what we think and how we feel about what happens and what (can) do about it—are, in general, far more “discretionary”, i.e., “up to us” (unless, for example, we are on or need to be on stupefying meds), and have great bearing on the fourth life element—our response actions.
We cannot choose our parents—they “just happen”, but we can choose our thoughts and feelings about them. In a tight job market, it’s hard to be choosey; but it’s easier to choose how we think and feel about the job, any job, once we have it, and then, to choose what we do about it.
Emotionally Making 1=2
However, choosing the wrong thoughts and feelings about a bad situation or bad job is very likely to make matters much worse. Where there was one problem, there are now two to be dealt with: the bad situation and the bad feelings about it. If the bad feelings, in turn, generate more bad feelings, about them, the stage has been set for a highly toxic and growing pyramid of negative feelings about negative feelings—all on top of the initial bad situation.)
Just as we should never permanently consent to anything that permanently impairs our capacity to consent, e.g., consent to be lobotomized into a permanent volitionally vegetative state in which we can no longer give proper consent, we should not allow negative feelings to impair our capacity to turn them off or to prevent their proliferation.
The Character and Forms of Bad Emotions: a Failed Smoke-Alarm Model
By “bad feelings”, I do not mean merely “unpleasant” feelings. I mean feelings that, in addition to being unpleasant,
- make things worse
- perpetuate themselves
A toothache is a “bad feeling”, but responded to promptly and wisely it neither makes things worse nor perpetuates itself. That’s one example of good “bad feelings”.
“Bad feelings” should function like properly functioning smoke alarms: They should tell you that something is wrong and that you must do one of two things—either listen to the alarm and investigate what is causing it, or do your best to turn the alarm off, if you cannot find any legitimate reason for it.
What they should not be allowed to do is to stay on forever; to create panic and set off even more fires (in the stampede to escape, by knocking over or dropping a burning candle), or to be set off when the bad feeling is a false alarm (that may set off a cascade of even more false alarms, like a spreading, terrifying and false rumor).
Making the same mistake with good situations and jobs is likely to have the same bad effect, but with a greater tinge of irony: Instead of making a bad situation worse, needlessly catastrophizing or otherwise reacting negatively will make a good situation bad or horrible.
More Emotional Sins Than Emotions
There are as many possible emotional mistakes or “sins” as there are emotions—actually, many more than that, once combinations and permutations of emotions are factored in. Permutations—ordered sequences of emotions—can horribly misfire if mis-sequenced.
For example, a friendship is likely to terminate if, instead of feeling and expressing the sequence “(fear, joy)” upon hearing of a friend’s heart attack and recovery, you strangely reverse it, i.e., feel “(joy, fear)”, in that order. Likewise, if upon getting a promotion, you initially feel worried about your ability to cope, but later feel confident and upbeat, your job is far likelier to last longer and proceed more smoothly than it would if the order of those feelings were reversed.
A high emotional IQ (EQ) requires not only consistent selection of the most appropriate emotions, but also wise selection of their sequence. (Of course, mis-sequencing emotions also means mis-selection of the individual emotions, as well as of the sequence.)
7 Deadly Emotional Sins (the First 3)
Such complex compound emotional bad choices aside, the most common emotional mistakes are simply bad choices of simple emotions. The following are seven such emotional missteps that can ruin everything, or make it all much worse:
1. Hurt-Disappointment Confusion: One of the biggest, yet most common emotional “sins” or mistakes is to feel “hurt” when feeling disappointed will suffice—which is almost always. You are passed over for a promotion, your “significant other” dumps you and makes you feel like the “insignificant other”, your best friend is smearing you behind your back, or your kids forget your birthday. The unreflective reflex response is to feel “hurt”—which usually means experiencing the incident as a blow to “self-esteem”, with accompanying self-doubt. It also usually means self-pity. In general, it is not only an over-reaction, but is also the totally wrong reaction, especially given the fact that disappointment is a much better and easier emotional choice.
Here’s how it works: The next time you feel “hurt”, e.g., you catch your business or other partner cheating on you, before you wallow in hurt, imagine how you would feel if your round of golf got rained out or your yoga class got canceled. You’d be disappointed—nothing more. No self-doubt, no disempowering self-pity.
Likewise, if you are dumped, betrayed, ignored or passed over, try “reframing” the incident as a happening that justifies disappointment, and forget the hurt. Shift the focus from impacts on you to perceptions and observations about the people or situations that caused the incident. You’ll feel much better, less confused by what went wrong and how—and, importantly, much smarter in shifting your gaze from the setback’s emotional effects on you to its objective causes.
2. The Illusion of “Self-Esteem”: “Hurt” is, as mentioned above, generally associated with damage to or loss of “self-esteem”, as though we independently esteem ourselves in a self-created vacuum and on an emotional island. This is an illusion, and a harmful one, because it prevents insight into the real determinants of our (dis)comfort with ourselves and self-ascribed social, economic, moral, etc., status, while fueling the toxic dynamics of “hurt”.
“Self-esteem” became such a big deal, in part because of Eric Fromm’s well-intentioned ideas, in the hugely popular The Art of Loving, about “self-love”—a central one being that we must love ourselves before we can love others, which makes about as much sense as saying that we have to lift ourselves by our arms before we can lift others that way, or that we can’t make others laugh without making ourselves laugh first. Rubbish—but influential rubbish that is but one step away from saying that we cannot esteem others unless we esteem ourselves (as though I am really two people: the esteemer and the esteemed, the loving and the loved—more rubbish.)
Damage to and worry about one’s self-esteem are both needless concerns about an illusion. The reality is that what passes for a self-created sense of self-esteem is nothing more than an estimation of where one stands in real or imaginary hierarchies that one chooses, aspires or is somehow forced to belong to. A so-called loss of self-esteem is nothing more than a revised self-assigned hierarchy score—in the form of a lower or failing grade, one rung or more down some ladder(s) that you choose or are forced to make important.
So instead of agonizing or gloating over losses or gains of some abstract self-esteem, keep things real and reflective: Ask yourself what the real impact of some happening is on the real or imagined social, moral, economic, etc., hierarchies to which you (wish to) belong, and, just as importantly, whether belonging to those hierarchies and having status in the eyes of others is so important or wise, after all.
Often, you will find that neither the consequences nor the hierarchies are all that important, e.g., when a kid feels a loss of “self-esteem” because he doesn’t have the Nikes his friends have. Falling for conventional perceptions of “self-esteem” obscures and obstructs this constructive, reflective process and opportunity—at any and all ages.
3. Anger-Frustration Confusion: Anger should be reserved for your enemies. For everyone else, frustration is the appropriate emotion to choose when others annoy, thwart, inconvenience or otherwise make things difficult for us—yes, “choose”, since your brain, if intact, will allow you to reflect on an emotion (at least the emotion you just felt, if not the one that’s sweeping over you in the heat of the moment).
You should be angry with your boss, a colleague, your spouse, your kids or the guy driving too slowly in front of you only if you truly and rightly believe that (s)he is acting from malice or contemptuous disregard of you or your feelings. If a child’s crying is driving you nuts, feel free to respond with frustration—a measure of the gap between what is and what you think ought to be. You’ll find it’s much easier to maintain a relationship, or at least an insightful understanding, with a non-enemy who frustrates you than with someone (by my proposed definition, an enemy) who has angered you.
If an employee is just not getting the hang of a task, feel free to feel frustrated, but give the anger a pass, unless you believe the employee is actually willfully trying to frustrate or irritate you and to sabotage his or her own job.
Don’t get angry with the employee or the child, for once you feel or vent anger, you transform your relationship forever, into a hostile or suspicious one, because you have irreparably categorized the target of your anger as having an “evil will”, which, if detected even once, will have proven it exists in that person, and therefore as solid grounds for enduring suspicion and dislike.
Next: in Part II, defanging the other four deadly emotions.