Following your feelings makes you human. Right?
Published on September 3, 2011 by Christine Meinecke, Ph.D. in Everybody Marries the Wrong Person
Oh, my! We feel so attached to our negative emotions! Some of us believe that we can’t help how we feel. Some of us fail to discern that our emotions are separate from and just one element of who we are. And some of us even imagine that taking command of negative emotions makes us heartless and soulless – less human.
Reptiles, mammals, and humans
The brains of all living creatures are pre-programmed to prioritize survival. One of the many ways that humans differ from other mammals and reptiles is this: Human self-talk plays a role in determining our response to perceived threats. While most modern people rarely experience perceived threats to life, we often experience perceived threats to self-determination, self-esteem, peace of mind. Such threats are non-life-threatening and usually referred to as stressors. However, if we tell ourselves – “This is awful, horrible! I can’t stand it!” – the situation might as well be life-threatening because our brains signal for the fight-or-flight response.
Human nature and higher nature
It is, of course, human nature to react with negative emotions when we perceive any type of threat. Happily, we are also equipped to transcend instinctual reactions and to self-regulate emotions. When we do so, we demonstrate our higher nature.
In groundbreaking research, neuroscientists have identified an area of the brain that is key to emotional self-regulation. If the particulars interest you, look for articles about the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) or the orbitomedial prefrontal cortex.1 One such researcher, PECASE winner2, Dr. David Amodio, made a major contribution by stressing subjects in the laboratory then documenting differences in their tendencies to either follow fixed patterns and, thereby, engage in errors of commission or to break from the habitual and engage in appropriate responses.
Realizing your higher nature in relationships
The appropriate response in loving relationships is not the instinctual, fear-based, negative one. The appropriate response is one that reflects activation of our capacity to inhibit negative emotions and to engage in constructive behavior. Although we may often find it necessary to redirect our negative first reactions, practice increases the likelihood of appropriate responses.
Exceptional situations: If you are in an abusive relationship.
Getting to rational
After we inhibit negative emotions, we can engage in rational thought. Rest assured, being rational does not make one heartless and soulless. In fact, the opposite is the case. Numerous researchers have documented findings relevant to this concern.3 For example, did you know that the left hemisphere, the seat of the rational mind, is also the hemisphere most inclined toward positive emotions? What is more human (in a good way) than feelings of love or empathy and rational responses such as compassion, patience, respect, inclusiveness.
Getting to rational involves getting to a neutral or positive emotional state then planning and carrying out constructive responses. Often, this requires inhibition of fear-based feelings such as anger, anxiety, jealousy. Taking command of negative emotions – not following feelings – makes us human in the most positive sense. For more about how to do so, see previous posts: Bad Advice: Follow your heart and How to Train Your Dragon.
1. Louis Cozolino, The Neuroscience of Psychotherapy, Second Edition (NY: Norton, 2010). This book will get you started. Extensive research is available.
2. Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers, The White House, 2010.