Who’s in control: you, or your emotions?
Many futurists are eager for—or dreading—the moment when computers start programming themselves. They call it “the singularity”. Runaway technology. Curiously, it doesn’t seem to have occurred to most of them that humans already have the capacity to program themselves, and some humans have been doing it for a while now. It’s called “transcendence”. It’s another milestone on the road to Enlightenment. Unlike runaway technology, it’s a good thing; it leads to more control over your life, not less.
You can rewire your own brain to take it to the next level. In this article, I’m going to explain one possible improvement to your brain’s performance. This is the first of several others I’ll explain. This particular one is a HUGE win.
Think of it from an evolutionary point of view. A reptile can only react to its experiences in about 6 different ways. You can remember them because the mnemonic code for all the active ones start with the letter “F”:
- Food (it can eat something it finds)
- Flight (it can run away from danger)
- Freeze (it avoids drawing attention to itself)
- “Fornicating” (wink, wink)
It can also Ignore things that are neither opportunities nor danger.
If a lizard has a problem, it can’t solve the problem unless the solution involves one of those responses. Those are the only possibilities. It can’t come up with a creative, novel solution. It’s like a non-intelligent robot that can only respond with hard-coded routines.
Mammals mostly have similar reactions, except that they are modulated by emotions: anger, fear, sadness, disgust, and happiness. Those are the basic emotions; other emotions are those basic emotions in specific contexts. Love, for example, is being happy when that special someone is around, afraid that you might lose that person, and sad when they are gone. Hate is anger that is triggered just by thinking about the thing you hate; they no longer even have to do anything to provoke it other than just exist. Jealousy is fear and anger of losing something that makes you happy to someone else.
Emotions channel into reptilian responses. Anger for example gets you ready for a fight. Fear prompts you to flee or freeze.
We need emotions and other strong impulses like our sex drive because they motivate us to live out our lives. Without them, we’d have “lobotomized” behavior. The problem is that they’re not enough to solve all of our problems in the best way possible. They’re mechanical rather than intelligent.
Mammals have some ability to come up with novel solutions to problems. How much depends on the species. Humans are on the high end of the scale. But most of the time, most people think like an animal. They react more than act, and act mostly on impulse and habit.
Strong emotions over-ride the creative, rational part of our brain. Think about a time when you really “lost it” with rage. Or panic. Now imagine that while you are so agitated, you have to solve some really hard math problems requiring a great deal of concentration. You probably couldn’t do it. Strong emotions shut down the most advanced parts of the brain. When we’re seized up with strong and especially negative emotions, we lose access to our higher cognitive abilities and revert to primitive instincts.
This is why professional fighting-men (I mean the ones hoping to live out a reasonable life-span, not cannon-fodder) often cultivate some form of emotional discipline. They have to be able to retain access to their training and discipline instead of reverting to primitive fighting instincts. Monks typically have even higher levels of emotional control. Of course, in some cultures monks are warriors; they cultivate martial arts to defend themselves. But you were not meant for a cloistered life; you were meant to strive against adversity, make love to women, and raise children. What I propose instead is the emotional discipline of the monk embodied in the warrior.
Reversion to reptilian levels of thinking happens with any strong or persistent negative emotion. If you’re terrified that your boss is thinking about firing you, you’re more likely to avoid him (flight and freeze) than schedule a friendly chat with him to negotiate a mutually-satisfactory resolution.
Persistent positive emotions can adversely impact our performance too, but that’s not usually much of a problem. It’s rare to be too happy; we don’t have a positivity bias. Just for the record, it’s worth noting that excessive happiness clouds judgment by triggering over-confidence. That’s why we have a negativity bias instead; better to tread cautiously than happy-go-lucky into an ambush by a tiger (or nowadays, a mugger).
These are natural reactions. It’s possible to change your own programming to have more optimal reactions:
If the emotion doesn’t help the situation, let go of it instantly, or avoid it altogether.
If the emotion is appropriate, keep reason in control.
Having discussed this in forums I realize that there is an obstacle to understanding what I mean: men tend to have a strong ability to hide emotions, and most of us have some capacity to over-ride our impulses to act on our hidden emotions. When I brought this up, that’s what all of them thought I was talking about. They think that emotional mastery means bottling up your emotions so that you don’t get into trouble, or other people use them against you. They couldn’t imagine any other possibility.
That’s NOT what I am talking about. I am talking about something 99.99% of men can’t do (yet), because it’s an ability that has to be developed; it’s analogous to the fact that humans aren’t born with an instinct to swim. Letting go of emotions or sometimes even avoiding them altogether by choice doesn’t come naturally. Maintaining reason over emotion is even harder, in fact impossible without extensive re-wiring of the brain. Your limbic system floods your brain with emotion-regulating hormones; they impact the whole thing.
Hiding emotions is purely cosmetic; you’re still tempted to act on them. One disadvantage with simply over-riding the impulse to act on an emotion is that your capacity to do so is quite limited. One really bad day, and you’ll get over-whelmed. That’s one way murders and suicides happen. Another disadvantage is that even to the extent that you don’t get into a fight, or run away from a problem, simply over-riding the reptilian impulses doesn’t resolve the problem; it’s still there, waiting to snare you again along with all the other unresolved problems accumulating in your life.
Imagine the following scenario:
You come home after a hard day at work, walk through the door, and say “Hi honey, I’m home!” Then you hear in response “Don’t you ‘hi honey’ me you no-good son of a bitch!” in a decidedly angry tone of voice.
Most men would start trembling with fear at that point. Maybe turn right around and hide until whatever it is blows over. That’s why their wives eventually divorce them out of the blue; they are unhappy due to years of built-up anger they never resolved.
Some men would respond with anger and start a shouting match. That will only trigger the divorce that much quicker. Or worse, he “snaps” and physically attacks her…maybe even kills her. To avoid that, most men just hold it in, trapped in the situation, not knowing how to resolve it.
Whether afraid or angry, a lot of men end up ashamed. They feel bad about themselves being treated like this.
Exceedingly few would stay calm and say “I see something’s bothering you. I’d like to help. Let’s talk about it after you cool off.” There’s no point trying to talk it over while her brain is still flooded with mood-regulating hormones. Of course she might be spoiling for an immediate confrontation, but she’ll give up if you don’t respond to her provocations. The more you can master your emotions, the more you can be the master of the household.
Your wife is not a saber-toothed tiger; flight or fight are not the best ways to resolve the problem. Resolving the problem requires communication to synchronize your mental models of reality, and negotiation.
Similarly with the dissatisfied boss. You’re not allowed to ambush him in the parking lot and beat him up; you’d get in really big trouble for that. So most men opt to flee (avoid him) or freeze (do nothing and hope it will blow over).
You might retain just enough fear of losing your job to be motivated to resolve the boss’s dissatisfaction, but you don’t want to just hide from him; you need to retain access to rational thought processes so that you can come up with a plan to solve the problem. Like the situation with the angry wife, it will involve communication and negotiation.
Negotiating any solution other than just firing you, with someone who holds all the cards, is going to have to involve some real creativity. You’re going to have to come up with an offer that’s compelling to him.
Now imagine this: you work in a high-level, high-intensity job where hostile people are coming at you all day. Maybe you’re a trial lawyer dealing with high-stakes patent claims. And it’s all nothing to you but an exhilarating challenge. You don’t dread it; you engage it. This is life! Of course you don’t have to engage that level of challenge, but the more you can handle, the more choices you have regarding what kind of life you do want to live, and the more satisfaction you can take from it.
Mastering your emotions helps you to deal more effectively with:
- Angry customers
- Dissatisfied boss
- Angry or unhappy wife or girlfriend
- Non-compliant child
- Obstacles and setbacks to personal and professional goals
Another benefit is that men who master their emotions tend to be respected more than men whose emotions master them. It’s because needing emotional “energy” to face a problem implies being less in control of his own life, whereas not needing it implies being more in control of his own life. People unconsciously notice the difference, and treat you accordingly.
Learning to master emotions is a way to take your life to the next level:
- More satisfying and resiliant relationships
- More professional success
- Successful parenting
Do those sound like benefits you’re interested in?
Keep reading my posts. Soon you’ll be able to get them by email. Subscribers will have access to premium content where I explain exactly how to take your life to the next level by mastering your emotions.