How to handle the laws of emotion
Q: Sam and I have always worked on our relationship, reading books, and attending workshops and seminars. We've resolved a range of problems over the years, but there is one destructive pattern that seems impossible to change. Sometimes, something is said or done that triggers an extreme reaction in one, or both of us. The anger, fear, and blame expressed is so intense you'd think we hated each other. What's going on?
A: In this society, rational thinking is favoured over emotion, especially in business. On the other hand, we often find that, while we know intellectually that something is irrational, we are unable to reason our way out of feeling fearful, guilty, or resentful about it.Dr Diana Wais is a therapist, and executive coach with years of experience. She offers strategies for escaping emotional vicious cycles in personal relationships and in the workplace. She outlines her ideas in a TED talk, "Emotional Laws Are the Answer For Better Relationships".
Wais laments the failure of schools to teach life lessons. We learn the laws of physics, and know that jumping off a 10-storey building is a bad idea, but we are not taught the emotional laws, so we continue to encounter intractable problems,
Nobody plans to be unhappy in love. When people marry they expect it to be forever. Yet a disappointing number of relationships fail, often with a lot of rancour. This painful outcome stems from our ignorance about the laws of emotion, and the power of unconscious triggers.
Wais illustrates how identical situations can have different outcomes. A man calls his wife to say he will be two hours late for dinner. In scenario one, the wife gets angry and upset, and fears her partner is having an affair. In scenario two, the woman responds with sympathetic concern for his wellbeing. The only difference lies in each woman's emotional schema. The first woman's last marriage was destroyed by infidelity, while the second woman had a loving father who worked two jobs to give his family a good life. These women had different trigger buttons.
Wais explains that a trigger button works because there is an emotional receptor field for it. The trigger button is like the visible part of an iceberg. We are often not consciously aware of the huge emotional field that lies below the surface, endangering the ship of life.
Like wearing coloured glasses, our emotional schema affects how we see the world. Thus, our reaction to the same trigger can be very different, but most of us are not even aware we are wearing glasses. This dynamic is exacerbated by the fact that two people in a relationship can have very different triggers, and receptor fields.
When you get triggered, you tap into a reservoir of anger, fear and shame that has little to do with the present situation. No amount of rational thinking can stop this because your emotional brain is in control. You become defensive, you stop listening, and you behave immaturely.
Fortunately, through awareness and practice, you can heal your receptor field. The first step is to ask yourself what you are afraid of, and what lies beneath this. Be aware of what is happening. Can you identify what you are really reacting to? What do you need to heal? If you find this difficult you might benefit from seeking the assistance of a counsellor.
Once you have a handle on your own emotional schema it is easier to avoid getting triggered. If someone calls you stupid, and you feel you might be, you overreact. If you are confident that you are not stupid you will think "what's up with them?"
When you are confronted by someone who is behaving badly because they have been triggered do not buy into it. Respond with love and empathy to what it is they need. Your kindness will bring down their defences, soothe their fears, and defuse the situation so that you can go back to relating in a healthy way.
About Last Night Blogs are written by Maureen Mathews, published by Fairfax media and kindly shared on Bliss for Women. If you wish to ask Maureen a question you can email her through email@example.com using About Last Night in the subject of the email.
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