Reflections on Seeing the Influence of the Emotional System
In an era of societal polarization, how can I understand the power of the emotional system to manipulate me? One way is to take time to think and write about an emotional event. This is my purpose here. A good example occurred when my granddaughters wanted to go to the Woman’s March in Washington, D.C., and have their voices heard. It took time to understand that their request activated a fear response in me based in old memories of the impact of the Vietnam War, WWI and WWII on my family life. What were the emotional triggers preventing me from acting with greater emotional maturity and living more optimally? When am I vulnerable to losing self in relationships?
Initially, feeling anxious and not knowing what was going on, I started asking them and me questions. What does it mean that one takes a stand? How much thinking and how much feeling goes into this kind of a stand? Can anyone take a stand for self and not be against others? What happens when you are against others? Will those who are different become the “enemy?” If so, how long before one’s family members become the enemy? If we want agreement from others, how much are we controlling others? Can I understand more about emotional reactivity? Will talking about my reactivity around the March help me move a bit away from automatic responses? What can I learn?
Differences in the Ability to Feel Safe
Different generations, different faiths, different social positions, different values – all these differences exist and are highlighted during times like this. Our brains are stressed with these differences. Our physiology responds and is on high alert or shuts down. The reactions can produce damaging cortisol and increased adrenaline. The fear about the other becomes chemical, reinforcing the feeling that those who are different are the enemy. Differences breed fear and translate into becoming afraid of others. Wait, perhaps this is not rational? How can we stand up for what we believe, relate well and respect the values of others?
Our emotional system does not routinely answer these questions. Waiting gives time for reflection and helps to recognize the drivers of fear and to begin to integrate our thinking and feeling systems. One can ask what part of our brain is running the show. Can we sort out facts from the use and abuse of fear? The pause-reflection process helps.
The march developed in opposition to the direction of Donald Trump. Many friends and family warned me not to go. They recalled the 1970s when fear, anger, tear gas and the shooting of students marked the resistance to the Vietnam War. I hesitated to go due to memories and to the influence of those who were telling me not to. Asking questions, thinking about the past and identifying the anxiety helped me to see this emotional process. I could then hear my granddaughters’ hopes for standing up for a better future. They wanted to express their opposition to Trump and his tweets. They are concerned about the environment, civil rights, and being rational about immigrants. Standing up for one’s values always sounds good, but it can also fuel the reactivity in the emotional system. It fueled my anxiety and that of the social group that is a part of my relationship system.
Arriving at the Capital we found friendly, energetic strangers. Most had signs stating their purposes, many of which were funny. No one was angry or threatening. The closer we got to the stage, the more we saw there was no room to march. Stuck behind the stage, surrounded by the muted sound of the milling crowd, I moved towards the walled off VIP area. The girls were unsure about this idea but I thought there might be a way to get information or find a way around the crowd. We found our way to the fence. The security people told us the situation was hopeless. There was no plan for this large of a crowd. Eventually the man next to me tried to get his friend David’s attention. I joined in. “David, David.” David came over and said, “Jump over.” My new friend said he could not. I put my leg up on the fence and said, “I can.” Everyone laughed. “OK, you can come too.” I grabbed Madeline and Isabelle and in we went. Being able to be separate from the crowd and think for myself was a relief.
Once over the fence there was room to breathe. Alicia Keys was singing, “Girl on Fire” then Janelle Monae led a chant; “Say her name…. Sandra Bland.” Angela Davis spoke eloquently and quietly of sacrifices needed to gain respect for minorities. After that surge of emotional lyrics came the super woman in orange football player pants. Madonna welcomed us to the love revolution, “It took this horrific moment of darkness to wake us the f--- up.” Hopefully, a better tweet will emerge. There in the shadow of The National Museum of the American Indian, we welcomed the spokespeople for the original at-risk group. Will this march bring greater awareness and cooperation? Will it build to a political force to advocate for positive change? Will people retreat and spin more devil stories about the others? Was the march a work of art, like a Buddhist mandala, where at the end of the day the sand art is blown into the wind?
Reactivity and the Brain
One automatically responds to emotionally perceived threats. The threat can be a sound, or a memory. As we acquire language we can explain our reactivity often as feelings. The explanation of how we feel may be real or imaginary but it gives our intellectual system the ability to reason with and then increase or dampen our reactivity. Instinctively we are influenced to strive for pleasure and avoid pain. Emotions are primitive and often out of awareness. Older parts of the brain can direct us to preserve the status quo, most often by scapegoating the vulnerable. We are often blind to the more primitive emotional guides for behavior. There has been little need to be aware if the greatest threats to our survival came from animals in the jungle. The higher parts of the brain encourage us to care for the young, talk, and be playful. The newest part the neocortex looks for patterns and apply a kind of statistical analysis to evaluate the problem and offer solutions. We know the brain itself does not perceive the outside world objectively. Therefore, we test to see what is “out there” and what we might do to solve problems with some chance pf success. By being aware and integrating the three parts of the brain we have the best chance to find a mature direction for self.
Change in One’s Impact on the System
We can learn to “see” the emotional system as it controls our functioning. One can remember that when you say “I am for ‘x’,” the ‘y’ must arise. It is not personal. By defining to the group what I value, others will oppose. When attacked, there is a push back. This is the way of systems. Changes come about slowly. One step forward, a half-step back. Eventually the system finds a new balance. Once triggered and recognized, the automatic arousal of fear can be overcome.
Reflections on Living Optimally: Observing One’s Response to the Emotional System
While my initial fear of the January march was based in memories of the past, the more rational thinking system could overcome these fears and hear the principles for which my granddaughters were advocating. This improved our relationships. I learned more about them and how they think and they learned a bit about me. The joyful crowd offered evidence that going to the march was a good decision. No, we were not in a war. However, when caught in the crowd, there was threat, engendering the feeling that “this is a hopeless situation.” As soon as the thinking system developed a plan, as to what I was going to do, resistance to the plan surfaced. I used the energy of the feeling system to go against the negative response to the plan and was playful with the security people. At the same time my thinking system needed to calculate the risk of playfully putting my leg up and over the fence. The calculation worked and David responded positively.
This story is just one example of living optimally. Clarifying the natural functioning of the emotional system and understanding stressful triggers enabled me to think and respond with greater clarity. The granddaughters experienced not only a never-give-up moment, but also a grandmother who could slowly think in the middle of emotionality. Relationships and life experiences do improve with increasing knowledge of the emotional system. The outcome is a better defined people who can articulate that “this is me and this is what I will or will not do.”
The following quote by Murray Bowen, MD is from a conference in Green Bay, Wisconsin, April 19–20, 1990, six months before he died. Currently at the National Library of Medicine, the videotape is available on the Bowen Archives website:
Individuality comes from inside self. You don’t take it to the group to find out. If you do not know where you stand, then ask your neighbor. How are you going to stand up if you do not know yourself? Most people do not want to bother.