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LESSON 5:  EMOTIONS

 

It’s impossible to talk about communication without acknowledging the importance of emotions.  Think about it:  Feeling confident can make the difference between success and failure in everything from giving a speech to asking for a date, whereas insecurity can ruin your chances.  Being angry or defensive can spoil your time with others, whereas feeling and acting calm can help prevent or solve problems.  The way you share or withhold your feelings of affection can affect the future of your relationships.  On and on the list of feelings goes:  appreciation, loneliness, joy, insecurity, curiosity, irritation.  The point is clear:  Communication shapes our feelings, and feelings influence our communication.

 

Because this subject of emotions is so important, we’ll spend this lesson taking a closer look.  Just what are feelings, and how can we recognize them?  How are feelings caused, and how can we control them, increasing the positive ones and decreasing the negative?  When and how can we best share our feelings with others?

 

What Are Emotions?

 

Suppose an extraterrestrial visitor asked you to explain human emotions.  How would you answer?  You might start by saying that emotions are things that we feel.  But this doesn’t say much, for in turn you would probably describe feelings as synonymous with emotions.  Social scientists generally agree that there are several components to the phenomena we label as feelings.

 

Physiological Changes

 

When a person has strong emotions, many bodily changes occur.  For example, the physical components of fear include an increased heartbeat, a rise in blood pressure, an increase in adrenaline secretions, an elevated blood sugar level, a slowing of digestion, and a dilation of pupils.  Some of these changes are recognizable to the person having them.  These sensations are termed proprioceptive stimuli, meaning that they are activated by the movement of internal tissues.  Proprioceptive messages can offer a significant clue to your emotions once you become aware of them.  A churning stomach or tense jaw can be a signal that something is wrong.  Developing an awareness of these indicators can help you to identify, deal with, and control your emotional responses.

 

Nonverbal Reactions

 

Not all physical changes that accompany emotions are internal.  Feelings are often apparent by observable changes.  Some of these changes involve a person’s appearance:  blushing, sweating, and so on.  Other changes involve behavior:  a distinctive facial expression, posture, gestures, different vocal tone and rate, and so on.

 

Although it’s reasonably easy to tell when someone is feeling a strong emotion, it’s more difficult to be certain exactly what that emotion might be.  A slumped posture may be a sign of sadness, or it may signal fatigue.  Likewise, trembling hands might indicate excitement, or they may be an outward sign of fear.  As we’ve already discussed, nonverbal behavior is usually ambiguous; and it’s dangerous to assume that it can be “read” with much accuracy.

 

Although we usually think of nonverbal behavior as the reaction to an emotional state, there may be times when the reverse is true—when nonverbal behavior actually causes emotions.  Research by Paul Ekman uncovered instances when experimental subjects were able to create various emotional states by altering their facial expressions.  When volunteers were coached to move their facial muscles in ways that appeared afraid, angry, disgusted, amused, sad, surprised, and contemptuous, the subjects’ bodies responded as if they were having these feelings.  Interestingly, the link between smiling and happiness was not as strong because, Ekman speculates, smiles can represent so many different emotions:  happiness, anger, sadness, and so on.

 

Cognitive Interpretations

 

Although there may be cases in which there is a direct connection between physical behavior and emotional states, in most situations the mind plays an important role in determining how we feel.  Think about the physiological components of fear:  racing heart, perspiration, tense muscles, and elevated blood pressure.  Interestingly enough, these symptoms are similar to the physical changes that accompany excitement, joy, and other emotions.  In other words, if we were to measure the physical condition of someone having a strong emotion, we would have a hard time knowing whether that person was trembling with fear or quivering with excitement.  The recognition that the bodily components of most emotions are similar led some psychologists to conclude that the experience of fright, joy, or anger comes primarily from the label we give to the same physical symptoms at a given time.  Psychologist Philip Zimbardo offers a good example of this principle:

 

I notice I’m perspiring while lecturing.  From that I infer I am nervous.  If it occurs often, I might even label myself a “nervous person.”  Once I have the label, the next question I must answer is “Why am I nervous?”  Then I start to search for an appropriate explanation.  I might notice some students leaving the room, or being inattentive.  I am nervous because I’m not giving a good lecture.  That makes me nervous.  How do I know it’s not good?  Because I’m boring my audience.  I am nervous because I am a boring lecturer and I want to be a good lecturer.  I feel inadequate.  Maybe I should open a delicatessen instead.  Just then a student says, “It’s hot in here, I’m perspiring and it makes it tough to concentrate on your lecture.”  Instantly, I’m no longer “nervous” or “boring.”

 

In his book Shyness, Zimbardo discusses the consequences of making inaccurate or exaggerated attributions.  In a survey of more than 5,000 subjects, over 80 percent described themselves as having been shy at some time in their lives, whereas more than 40 percent considered themselves presently shy.  Most significantly, those who labeled themselves “not shy” behaved in virtually the same way as their shy counterparts.  They would blush, perspire, and feel their hearts pounding in certain social situations.  The biggest difference between the two groups seemed to be the label with which they described themselves.  This is a significant difference.  Someone who notices the symptoms we’ve described and thinks, “I’m such a shy person!” will most likely feel more uncomfortable and communicate less effectively than another person with the same symptoms who thinks, “Well, I’m a bit shaky (or excited) here, but that’s to be expected.”

 

We’ll take a closer look at ways to reduce unpleasant emotions through cognitive processes later.

 

Types of Emotions

 

So far our discussion has implied that although emotions may differ in tone, they are similar in most other ways.  In truth, emotions vary in many respects.

 

Primary and Mixed Emotions

 

Emotions are rather like colors:  Some are simple, whereas others are blends.  For example, jealousy can be viewed s a combination of several different emotions:  distress, anger, disgust, contempt, fear, and even shame.  Likewise, loneliness can include feelings of anger toward self and others, estrangement, and depression. 

 

There’s a lot of discussion about just which emotions are “primary” ones and which are “secondary”—or mixed—ones.  However this debate resolves itself, it is pretty clear that many emotions do need to be described with more than a single term.  To understand why, consider the following examples.  For each one, ask yourself two questions:  How would I feel?  What feelings might I express?

 

An out-of-town friend has promised to arrive at your house at six o’clock.  When he hasn’t arrived by nine, you are convinced that a terrible accident has occurred.  Just as you pick up the phone to call the police and local hospitals, your friend breezes in the door with an offhand remark about getting a late start.

 

You and your companion have a fight just before leaving for a party.  Deep inside, you know you were mostly to blame, even though you aren’t willing to admit it.  When you arrive at the party, your companion leaves you to flirt with several other attractive guests.

 

In situations like these, you would probably feel mixed emotions.  Consider the case of the overdue friend.  Your first reaction to his arrival would probably be relief—“Thank goodness, he’s safe!”  But you would also be likely to feel anger—“Why didn’t he phone to tell me he’d be late?”  The second example would probably leave you with an even greater number of mixed emotions:  guilt at contributing to the fight, hurt and perhaps embarrassment at your friend’s flirtation, and anger at this sort of vengefulness.

 

Despite the commonness of mixed emotions, we often communicate only one feeling . . . usually the most negative one.  In both the preceding examples, you might show only your anger, leaving the other person with little idea of the full range of your feelings.  Consider the different reaction you would get by showing all your emotions in these cases and others.

 

Intense and Mild Emotions

 

Another way emotions are like colors is in their intensity.  Any emotion can range from its mildest to its most intense state.  It is important to choose not only the right emotional family when expressing yourself, but also to describe the strength of the feeling.  Some people fail to communicate clearly because they understate their emotions, failing to let others know how strongly they feel.  To say you’re “annoyed” when a friend breaks an important promise, for example, would probably be an understatement.  In other cases, people chronically overstate the strength of their feelings.  To them, everything is “wonderful” or “terrible.”  The problem with this sort of exaggeration is that when a truly intense emotion comes along, they have no words left to describe it adequately.  If chocolate chip cookies from the local bakery are “fantastic,” then how does it feel to fall in love?

 

Influences on Emotional Expression

 

Most people rarely express their emotions, at least verbally.  People are generally comfortable making statements of fact and often delight in expressing their opinions, but they rarely disclose how they feel.  Why is it that people fail to express their feelings?  Let’s take a look at several reasons.

 

Culture

 

Over 100 years of research has confirmed the fact that certain basic emotions are experienced by people around the world.  No matter where a person is born and regardless of his or her background, the ability to feel happiness, sadness, surprise, anger, disgust, and fear seems to be universal.  People from all cultures also express these emotions in the same way, at least in their facial expressions.  A smile or scowl, for example, is understood everywhere.

 

Of course, this doesn’t mean that the same events generate an emotion in all cultures.  The notion of eating snails might bring a smile of delight to some residents of France, though it would cause many North Americans to grimace in disgust.  More to the point, research has shown that being around strangers and risky situations is more likely to frighten people living in the United States and Europe than those in Japan, while Japanese are more apprehensive about relational communication than Americans and Europeans.

 

There are also differences in the degree to which people in various cultures display their feelings.  One of the most significant factors that influences emotional expression is the position of a culture on the individualism-collectivism spectrum.  Members of collectivistic cultures (such as Japan and India) prize harmony among members of their “in-group,” and discourage expression of any negative emotions that might upset relationships among people who belong to it.  By contrast, members of highly individualistic cultures like the United States and Canada feel comfortable revealing their feelings to people with whom they are close.  Individualists and collectivists also handle emotional expression with members of out-groups differently:  Whereas collectivists are quite frank about expressing negative emotions toward outsiders, individualists are more likely to hide such emotions as dislike.  It’s easy to see how differences in display rules can lead to communication problems.  For example, individualistic North Americans might view collectivistic Asians as less than candid, whereas a person raised in Asia could easily regard North Americans as overly demonstrative.

 

Gender

 

Even within our culture, the ways in which men and women have expressed their emotions vary in some significant areas.  Research on emotional expression suggests that there is at least some truth in the cultural stereotype of the unexpressive male and the more demonstrative female.  As a group, women are more likely than men to express feelings of vulnerability, including fear, sadness, loneliness, and embarrassment.  Men rarely express these sentiments, especially to their male friends, although they may open up to the woman they love.  On the other hand, men are less bashful about revealing their strengths and positive emotions.  Neither stereotypical male nor female notions of emotional expressiveness are superior.  Because the styles can be quite different, the challenge communicators face is how to coordinate their own style with others whose notions of appropriate emotional expressiveness are different.

 

Differences between the sexes also exist in the sensitivity to others’ emotions.  Psychologist Robert Rosenthal and his colleagues developed the Profile of Nonverbal Sensitivity (PONS) test to measure the ability to recognize emotions that are expressed in the facial expressions, movements, and vocal cues of others.  Women consistently score slightly higher on this test than men.

 

Of course, these gender differences are statistical averages, and many men and women don’t fit these profiles.  Furthermore, gender isn’t the only variable that affects emotional sensitivity.  Another factor is whether the other person is of the same or opposite sex:  People generally are better at recognizing emotions of members of the same sex.  Familiarity with the other person also leads to greater sensitivity.  For example. dating and married couples are significantly better at recognizing each other’s emotional cues than are strangers.  A third factor is the difference in power between the two parties.  People who are less powerful learn—probably from necessity—to real the more powerful person’s signals.  One experiment revealed that “women’s intuition” should be relabeled “subordinates’ intuition.”  In opposite-sex twosomes, the person with less control—regardless of sex—was better at interpreting the leader’s nonverbal signals than vice versa.

 

Social Conventions

 

In mainstream U.S. society the unwritten rules of communication discourage the direct expression of most emotions.  Count the number of genuine emotional expressions you hear over a two- or three-day period and you’ll discover that emotional expressions are rare.  People are generally comfortable making statements of fact and often delight in expressing their opinions, but they rarely disclose how they feel.

 

Not surprisingly, the emotions that people do share directly are usually positive.  Communicators are reluctant to send messages that embarrass or threaten the “face” of others.  Historians offer a detailed description of the ways contemporary society discourages expressions of anger.  When compared to past centuries, Americans today strive to suppress this “unpleasant” emotion in almost every context, including child-raising, the workplace, and personal relationships.  Research supports this analysis.  One study of married couples revealed that the partners shared complimentary feelings (“I love you”) or face-saving ones (“I’m sorry I yelled at you”).  They also willingly disclosed both positive and negative feelings about absent third parties (“I like Fred,” “I’m uncomfortable around Gloria”).  On the other hand, the husbands and wives rarely verbalized face-threatening feelings (“I’m disappointed in you”) or hostility (“I’m mad at you”). 

 

Surprisingly, social rules even discourage too much expression of positive feelings.  A hug and kiss for Mother is all right, though a young man should shake hands with Dad.  Affection toward friends becomes less and less frequent as we grow older, so that even a simple statement such as “I like you” is seldom heard between adults.

 

Social Roles

 

Expression of emotions is also limited by the requirements of many social roles.  Salespeople are taught always to smile at customers, no matter how obnoxious.  Teachers are portrayed as paragons of rationality, supposedly representing their field of expertise and instructing their students with total impartiality.  Students are rewarded for asking “acceptable” questions and otherwise being submissive creatures.

 

Inability to Recognize Emotions

 

The result of all these restrictions is that many of us lose the ability to feel deeply.  Just as a muscle withers away when it is unused, our capacity to recognize and act on certain emotions decreases without practice.  It’s hard to cry after spending most of one’s life fulfilling the role society expects of a man, even when the tears are inside.  After years of denying your anger, the ability to recognize that feeling takes real effort.  For someone who has never acknowledged love for one’s friends, accepting that emotion can be difficult indeed.

 

Fear of Self-Disclosure

 

In a society that discourages the expression of feelings, emotional self-disclosure can seem risky.  For a parent, boss, or teacher whose life has been built on the image of confidence and certainty, it may be frightening to say, “I’m sorry.  I was wrong.”  A person who has made a life’s work out of not relying on others has a hard time saying, “I’m lonesome.  I want your friendship.”

 

Moreover, someone who musters up the courage to share feelings such as these still risks unpleasant consequences.  Others might misunderstand:  An expression of affection might be construed as a romantic invitation, and a confession of uncertainty might appear to be a sign of weakness.  Another risk is that emotional honesty might make others feel uncomfortable.  Finally, there’s always a chance that emotional honesty could be used against you, either out of cruelty or thoughtlessness.  Later, we’ll talk about alternatives to complete self-disclosure and circumstances when it can be both wise and ethical to keep your feelings to yourself.

 

Guidelines for Expressing Emotions

 

Emotions are a fact of life.  Nonetheless, communicating them effectively isn’t a simple matter.  It’s obvious that showing every feeling of boredom, fear anger, or frustration would get you in trouble.  Even the indiscriminate sharing of positive feelings—love, affection, and so on—isn’t always wise.  On the other hand, withholding emotions can be personally frustrating and can keep relationships from growing and prospering.

 

The following suggestions can help you decide when and how to express your emotions.  Combined with the upcoming guidelines for self-disclosure, they can improve the effectiveness of your emotional expression.

 

Recognize Your Feelings

 

Answering the question “How do you feel?” isn’t always easy.  As you’ve already read, there are a number of ways in which feelings become recognizable.  Physiologic changes can be a clear sign of your emotional state.  Monitoring nonverbal behaviors is another excellent way to keep in touch with your feelings.  You can also recognize your emotions by monitoring your thoughts, as well as the verbal messages you send to others.  It’s not far from the verbal statement “I hate this!” to the realization that you’re angry (or bored, nervous, or embarrassed).

 

Choose the Best Language

 

Most people suffer from impoverished emotional vocabularies.  Ask them how they’re feeling and the response will almost always include the same terms:  good  or bad, terrible or great.  Relying on a small vocabulary of feelings is as limiting as using only a few terms to describe colors.  It’s overly broad to use a term like good or great to describe how you feel in situations as different as earning a high grade, finishing a marathon, and hearing the words “I love you” from a special person.

 

There are several ways to express a feeling verbally:

 

  • Through single words:  “I’m angry” (or “excited,” “depressed,” “curious,” and so on).
  • By describing what’s happening to you:  “My stomach is tied in knots,” “I’m on top of the world.”
  • By describing what you’d like to do: “I feel like running away,” “I’d like to give you a hug,” “I feel like giving up.”

 

Many communicators think they are expressing feelings when, in fact, their statements are emotionally counterfeit.  For example, it sounds emotionally revealing to say, “I feel like going to a show” or “I feel we’ve been seeing too much of each other.”  But in fact, neither of these statements has any emotional content.  In the first sentence the word feel really stands for an intention:  “I want to go to a show.”  In the second sentence the “feeling” is really a thought:  “I think we’ve been seeing too much of each other.”  You can recognize the absence of emotion in each case by adding a genuine word of feeling to it.  For instance, “I’m bored and I want to go to a show,” or “I think we’ve been seeing too much of each other and I feel confined.”

 

Share Mixed Feelings

 

Many times the feeling you express isn’t the only one you’re experiencing.  For example, you might often express your anger, but overlook the confusion, disappointment, frustration, sadness, or embarrassment that preceded it.

 

Recognize the Difference Between Feeling and Acting

 

Just because you feel a certain way doesn’t mean you must always act on it.  This distinction is important because it can liberate you from the fear that acknowledging and showing a feeling will commit you to some disastrous course of action.  If, for instance, you say to a friend, “I feel so angry that I could punch you in the nose,” it becomes possible to explore exactly why you feel so furious and then to resolve the problem that led to your anger.  Pretending that nothing is the matter, on the other hand, will do nothing to diminish your resentful feelings, which can then go on to contaminate the relationship.

 

Accept Responsibility for Your Feelings

 

It’s important to make sure that your language reflects the fact that you’re responsible for your feelings.  Instead of “You’re making me angry,” say, “I’m getting angry.”  Instead of “You hurt my feelings, say, “I feel hurt when you do that.”  As you’ll soon read, people don’t make us like or dislike them, and believing that they do denies the responsibility each of us has for our own feelings.  It also strips us of the ability to control our responses.

 

I think it’s important to add a note here:  while it’s true that each of us is responsible for our own feelings and that we cannot cause feelings in others, it wouldn’t be OK to do a very hurtful thing and then dismiss the hurt the other feels, saying, “Oh well, she’s responsible for her own feelings.  It’s not my fault.”  We must accept responsibility for our own acts as well as our own feelings, and if we do a crumby thing to someone else, we must be prepared to accept responsibility for the consequences of that act. 

 

Choose the Best Time and Place to Express Your Feelings

 

Often the first flush of a strong feeling is not the best time to speak out.  If you’re awakened by the racket caused by a noisy neighbor, storming over to complain might result in your saying things you’ll regret later.  In such a case it’s probably wiser to wait until you have thought out carefully how you might express your feelings in a way that would be most likely to be heard.

 

Even after you’ve waited for the first flush of feeling to subside, it’s still important to choose the time that’s best suited to the message.  Being rushed or tired or disturbed by some other matter is probably a good reason for postponing the expression of your feeling.  Often dealing with your emotions can take a great amount of time and effort, and fatigue or distraction will make it difficult to follow through on the matter you’ve started.  In the same manner you ought to be sure that the recipient of your message is ready to hear you out before you begin.

 

Express Your Feelings Clearly

 

Either out of confusion or discomfort, we sometimes express our emotions in an unclear way.  One key to making your emotions clear is to realize that you most often can summarize them in a few words—hurt, glad, confused, excited, resentful, and so on.  In the same way, with a little thought you can probably describe very briefly any reasons you have for feeling a certain way.

 

In addition to avoiding excessive length, a second way to prevent confusion is to avoid overqualifying or downplaying your emotions—“I’m a little unhappy” or “I’m pretty excited” or “I’m sort of confused.”  Of course, not all emotions are strong ones.  We do feel degrees of sadness and joy, for example, but some communicators have a tendency to discount almost every feeling.  Do you?

 

A third danger to avoid is expressing feelings in a coded manner.  This happens most often when the sender is uncomfortable about revealing the feeling in question.  Some codes are verbal ones, as when the sender hints more or less subtly at the message.  For example, an indirect way to say “I’m longsome” might be “I guess there isn’t much happening this weekend, so if you’re not busy, why don’t you drop by?”  Such a message is so indirect that the chances that your real feeling will be recognized are slim.  For this reason, people who send coded messages stand less chance of having their emotions understood—and their needs met.

 

Finally, you can express yourself clearly by making sure that both you and your partner understand that your feeling is centered on a specific set of circumstances rather than being indicative of the whole relationship.  Instead of saying, “I resent you,” say, “I resent you when you don’t keep your promises.”  Rather than “I’m bored with you,” say “I’m bored when you talk about money.”

 

Managing Difficult Emotions

 

Although feeling and expressing many emotions add to the quality of interpersonal relationships, not all feelings are beneficial.  For instance, rage, depression, terror, and jealousy do little to help you feel better or improve your relationships.  The following pages will give you tools to minimize these unproductive emotions.

 

Facilitative and Debilitative Emotions

 

We need to make a distinction here between facilitative emotions, which contribute to effective functioning, and debilitative emotions, which keep us from feeling and relating effectively.

 

One big difference between the two types is their intensity.  For instance, a certain amount of anger or irritation can be constructive because it often provides the stimulus that leads you to improve unsatisfying conditions.  Rage, on the other hand, will usually make matters worse.  The same holds true for fear.  A little bit of nervousness before an important athletic contest or job interview might give you the boost that will improve your performance.  (Mellow athletes and employees usually don’t do well.)  But total terror is something else.  Even a little suspicion can make people more effective communicators.  One study revealed that individuals who doubted that the other person was telling the truth were better at detecting deception than those who were trusting.  Of course, an extreme case of paranoia would have the opposite and debilitative effect, reducing the ability to interpret the other’s behavior accurately.

 

A second characteristic that distinguishes debilitative feelings from facilitative ones is their extended duration.  Feeling depressed for a while after the breakup of a relationship or the loss of a job is natural.  But spending the rest of your life grieving over your loss would damage your effectiveness.  In the same way, staying angry at someone for a wrong inflicted long ago can be just as punishing to you as to the wrongdoer.  Our goal, then, is to find a method for getting rid of debilitative feelings while remaining sensitive to your more facilitative emotions, which can improve your relationships.  Fortunately, there is such a method.  It is based on the idea that one way to change feelings is to change unproductive thinking.

 

Thoughts Cause Feelings

 

For most people, emotions seem to have a life of their own.  You wish you could feel calm when approaching strangers, yet your voice quivers.  You try to appear confident when asking for a raise, yet your eye twitches nervously.

 

At times like these it’s common to say that strangers or your boss make you feel nervous just as you would say that a bee sting causes you to feel pain.  The apparent similarities between physical and emotional discomfort become clear if you look at them in the following way:

 

Event

 

Feeling

 

Bee sting

 

 

physical pain

 

Meeting strangers

 

 

nervous feelings

 

When looking at your emotions in this way, you seem to have little control over how you feel.  However, this apparent similarity between physical pain and emotional discomfort (or pleasure) isn’t as great as it seems to be.  Cognitive psychologists argue that it is not events such as meeting strangers or being jilted by a lover that cause people to feel bad, but rather the beliefs  they hold about these events.

 

Albert Ellis, who developed the cognitive approach called rational-emotive therapy, tells a story that makes this point clear.  Imagine yourself walking by a friend’s house and seeing your friend stick his head out of a window and call you a string of vile names.  Under these circumstances, it is likely that you would feel hurt and upset.  Now imagine that instead of walking by the house, you were passing a mental institution, when the same friend, who was obviously a patient there, shouted the same offensive names at you.  In this case, your feelings would probably be quite different—most likely sadness and pity.  You can see that in this story the activating event of being called names was the same in both cases, yet the emotional consequences were very different.  The reason for your different feelings has to do with your thinking in each case.  In the first instance, you would most likely think that your friend was very angry with you; further, you might imagine that you must have done something terrible to deserve such a response.  In the second case, you would probably assume that your friend had some psychological difficulty, and most likely you would feel sympathetic.

 

From this example you can start to see that it’s the interpretations people make of an event that determine their feelings.  Thus the model for emotions looks like this:

 

Event

 

Thought

Feeling

Being called names

 

“I’ve done something wrong.”

hurt, upset

Being called names

 

“My friend must be sick.”

concern, sympathy

 

The same principle applies in more common situations.  For example, the words “I love you” can be interpreted in a variety of ways.  They could be taken at face value as a genuine expression of deep affection.  Or they could be a spontaneous expression of pleasure in the moment.  They might also be decoded in a variety of other ways, for example, as an attempt at manipulation, a sincere but mistaken declaration uttered in a moment of passion, or an attempt to make the recipient to feel better.  One study revealed that women are more likely than men to regard expressions of love as genuine statements, instead of attributing them to some other cause.  It’s easy to imagine how different interpretations of a statement like “I love you” can lead to different emotional reactions:

 

Event

 

Thought

Feeling

Hearing “I love you”

 

“This is a genuine statement.

delight (maybe)

Hearing “I love you”

 

“S/he’s just saying that to manipulate me.”

anger

 

Irrational Thinking and Debilitative Emotions

 

Focusing on the self-talk that we use to think is the key to understanding debilitative feelings.  Many debilitative feelings come from accepting a number of irrational thoughts—we’ll call them fallacies—which lead to illogical conclusions and in turn to debilitating feelings.  We usually aren’t aware of these thoughts, which makes them especially powerful.

 

1.  The Fallacy of Perfection.  People who accept the fallacy of perfection believe that a worthwhile communicator should be able to handle every situation with complete confidence and skill.

 

Once you accept the belief that it’s desirable and possible to be a perfect communicator, the next step is to assume that people won’t appreciate you if you aren’t perfect.  Admitting your mistakes, saying “I don’t know,” or sharing feelings of uncertainty seem like social defects when viewed in this manner.  Given the desire to be valued and appreciated, it’s tempting to try to appear perfect, but the costs of such deception are high.  If others ever find you out, they’ll see you as a phony.  Even when your act isn’t uncovered, such a performance uses up a great deal of psychological energy and thus makes the rewards of approval less enjoyable.

 

Subscribing to the myth of perfection not only can keep others from liking you, but can also act as a force to diminish your own self-esteem.  How can you like yourself when you don’t measure up to the way you ought to be?  How librated you become when you can comfortably accept the idea that you are not perfect!  That

 

Like everyone else, you sometimes have a hard time expressing yourself.

Like everyone else, you make mistakes from time to time, and there is no reason to hide this.

You are honestly doing the best you can to realize your potential, to become the best person you can be.

 

2.  The Fallacy of Approval.  The mistaken belief known as the fallacy of approval is based on the idea that it is not just desirable but vital to get the approval of virtually every person.  People who accept this belief go to incredible lengths to seek acceptance from others even when they have to sacrifice their own principles and happiness to do so.  Accepting this irrational myth can lead to some ludicrous situations:

 

Feeling nervous because people you really don’t like seem to disapprove of you.

Feeling apologetic when others are at fault.

Feeling embarrassed after behaving unnaturally to gain another’s approval.

 

In addition to the obvious discomfort that arises from denying your own principles and needs, the myth of approval is irrational because it implies that others will respect and like you more if you go out of your way to please them.  Often this simply isn’t true.  How is it possible to respect people who have compromised important values just to gain acceptance?  How is it possible to think highly of people who repeatedly deny their own needs as a means of buying approval?  Though others may find it tempting to use these individuals to suit their ends or amusing to be around them, they hardly deserve genuine affection and respect.

 

Striving for universal acceptance is irrational because it’s simply not possible.  Sooner or later a conflict of expectations is bound to occur; one person will approve if you behave only in a certain way, but another will only accept the opposite course of action.  What are you to do then?

 

Don’t misunderstand:  Abandoning the fallacy of approval doesn’t mean living a life of selfishness.  It’s still important to consider the needs of others and to meet them whenever possible.  It’s also pleasant—we might even say necessary—to strive for the respect of those people you value.  The point here is that when you must abandon your own needs and principles in order to seek these goals, the price is too high.

 

3.  The Fallacy of Shoulds.  One huge source of unhappiness is the fallacy of shoulds, the inability to distinguish between what is and what should be.  You can see the difference by imagining a person who is full of complaints about the world:

 

“There should be no rain on weekends.”

“People ought to live forever.”

“Money should grow on trees.”

“We should all be able to fly.”

 

Beliefs like these are obviously foolish.  However pleasant wishing may be, insisting that the unchangeable should be changed won’t affect reality one bit.  And yet many people torture themselves by engaging in this sort of irrational thinking when they confuse is with ought.  They say and think things like this:

 

“My friend should be more understanding.”

“She shouldn’t be so inconsiderate.”

“They ought to be more friendly.”

“You should work harder.”

 

The message in each of these cases is that you would prefer people to behave differently.  Wishing things were better is perfectly legitimate, and trying to change them is, of course, a good idea; but it’s unreasonable to insist that the world operate just as you want it to or to feel cheated when things aren’t ideal.

 

Becoming obsessed with shoulds has three troublesome consequences.  First, it leads to unnecessary unhappiness, for people who are constantly dreaming about the ideal are seldom satisfied with what they have.  A second drawback is that merely complaining without acting can keep you from doing anything to change. unsatisfying conditions.  A third problem with shoulds is that this sort of complaining can build a defensive climate with others, who will resent being nagged.  It’s much more effective to tell people about what you’d like than to preach:  Say, “I wish you’d be more punctual,” instead of “You should be on time.”

 

4.  The Fallacy of Overgeneralization.  The fallacy of overgeneralization comprises two types.  The first occurs when we base a belief on a limited amount of evidence.  For instance, how many times have you found yourself saying something like

 

“I’m so stupid!  I can’t even understand how to do my income tax.”

“Some friend I am!  I forgot my best friend’s birthday.”

 

In cases like these, we focus on a limited type of shortcoming as if it represented everything about us.  We forget that along with our difficulties we also have solved tough problems, and that though we’re sometimes forgetful, at other times we’re caring and thoughtful.

 

A second related category of overgeneralization occurs when we exaggerate shortcomings:

 

“You never listen to me.”

“You’re always late.”

“I can’t think of anything.”

 

On closer examination, absolute statements like these are almost always false and usually lead to discouragement or anger.  You’ll feel far better when you replace overgeneralizations with more accurate messages to yourself and others:

 

“Sometimes you don’t listen to me.”

“You’ve been late three times this week.”

“I haven’t had any ideas for solving this today.”

 

Many overgeneralizations are based on abuse of the verb to be.  For example, unqualified thoughts such as “He is an idiot (all the time?)” and “I am a failure (in everything?)” will make you see yourself and others in an unrealistically negative way, thus contributing to debilitative feelings.

 

5.  The Fallacy of Causation.  The fallacy of causation is based on the irrational belief that emotions are caused by others rather than by one’s own self-talk.

 

This fallacy causes trouble in two ways.  The first plagues people who become overly cautions about communicating because they don’t want to “cause” any pain or inconvenience for others.  This attitude occurs in cases such as:

 

Visiting family or friends out of a sense of obligation rather than a genuine desire to see them.

Keeping quiet when another person’s behavior is bothering you.

Pretending to be attentive to a speaker when you are already late for an appointment or feeling ill.

Praising and reassuring others who ask for your opinion even when your honest response would be negative.

 

There’s certainly no excuse for going out of your way to say things that will result in pain for others, and there will be times when you choose to inconvenience yourself to make life easier for those you care about.  It’s essential to realize, however, that it’s an overstatement to say that you are the one who causes others’ feelings.  It’s more accurate to say that they respond to your behavior with feelings of their own.  For example, consider how strange it sounds to suggest that you make others fall in love with you.  Such a statement simply doesn’t make sense.  It would be closer to the truth to say that you act in one way or another, and some people might fall in love with you as a result of those actions, whereas others wouldn’t.  In the same way, it’s incorrect to say that you make others angry, upset—or happy, for that matter.  It’s better to say that others create their responses to your behavior.

 

Restricting your communication because of the fallacy of causation can result in three types of damaging consequences.  First, as a result of your caution you often will fail to have your own needs met.  There’s little likelihood that others will change their behavior unless they know that it’s affecting you in a negative way.  A second consequence is that you’re likely to begin resenting the person whose behavior you find bothersome.  Obviously, this reaction is illogical because you have never made your feelings known, but logic doesn’t change the fact that burying your problem usually leads to a buildup of hostility.

 

Even when withholding feelings is based on the best intentions, it often damages relationships in a third way—once others find out about your deceptive nature, they will find it difficult ever to know when you are really upset with them.  Even your most fervent assurances that everything is fine sound suspicious because there’s always the chance that you may be covering up resentments you’re unwilling to express.  Thus, in many respects taking responsibility for others’ feelings is not only irrational but also counterproductive.

 

The fallacy of causation also operates when we believe that others cause our emotions.  Sometimes it certainly seems as if they do, either raising or lowering our spirits by their actions.  But think about it for a moment:  The same actions that will cause you unhappiness or pain one day may have little effect at another time.  The insult or compliment that affected your mood strongly yesterday leaves you unaffected today.  Why?  Because in the latter case you attached less importance to either.  You certainly wouldn’t feel some emotions without others’ behavior; but it’s your thinking, not their actions, that determines how you feel.

 

6.  The Fallacy of Helplessness.  The irrational idea of the fallacy of helplessness suggests that satisfaction in life is determined by forces beyond your control.  People who see themselves as victims make such statements as

 

“There’s no way a woman can get ahead in this society.  It’s a man’s world, and the best thing I can do is accept it.”

“I was born with a shy personality.  I’d like to be more outgoing, but there’s nothing I can do about that.”

“I can’t tell my boss that she is putting too many demands on me.  If I did, I might lose my job.”

 

The mistake in statements like these becomes apparent once you realize that there are many things you can do if you really want to.  In Lesson 2 we talked about turning “can’t” statements into “won’t” statements.  Once you’ve rephrased these inaccurate “can’ts,” it becomes clear that they’re either a matter of choice or an area that calls for your action, both quite different from saying that you’re helpless.

 

When viewed in this light, it’s apparent that many “can’ts” are really rationalizations to justify not wanting to change.  Lonely people, for example, tend to attribute their poor interpersonal relationships to uncontrollable causes.  “It’s beyond my control,” they think.  Also, they expect their relational partners to reject them.  Notice the self-fulfilling prophecy in this attitude:  Believing that your relational prospects are dim can lead you to act in ways that make you an unattractive prospect.  Once you persuade yourself that there’s no hope, it’s easy to give up trying.  On the other hand, acknowledging that there is a way to change—even though it may be difficult—puts the responsibility for your predicament on your shoulders.  You can become a better communicator.

 

7. The Fallacy of Catastrophic Expectations.  Fearful communicators who subscribe to the irrational fallacy of catastrophic expectations operate on the assumption that if something bad can possibly happen, it will.  Typical catastrophic fantasies include:

 

“If I invite them to the party, they probably won’t want to come.”

“If I speak up in order to try to resolve a conflict, things will probably get worse.

“If I apply for the job I want, I probably won’t be hired.”

“If I tell them how I really feel, they’ll probably laugh at me.”

 

Once you start expecting terrible consequences, a self-fulfilling prophecy can begin to build.  One study revealed that people who believed that their romantic partners would not change for the better were likely to behave in ways that contributed to the breakup of the relationship.

 

Although it’s naïve to think that all your interactions with others will meet with success, it’s just as damaging to assume that you’ll fail.  One way to escape from the fallacy of catastrophic expectations is to think about the consequences that would follow even if you don’t communicate successfully.  Keeping in mind the folly of trying to be perfect and of living only for the approval of others, realize that failing in a given instance usually isn’t as bad as it might seem.  What if people do laugh at you?  Suppose you don’t get the job?  What if others do get angry at your remarks?  Are these matters really that serious?

 

Before moving on, let’s add a few thoughts about thinking and feeling.  First, you should realize that thinking rationally won’t completely eliminate debilitative feelings.  Some debilitative feelings, after all, are very rational:  grief over the death of someone you love, euphoria over getting a new job, and apprehension about the future of an important relationship after a serious fight, for example.  Thinking rationally can eliminate many debilitative feelings from your life, but not all of them.

 

Minimizing Debilitative Emotions

 

How can you overcome such irrational thinking?  Social scientists have developed a simple yet effective approach.  When practiced conscientiously, it can help you cut down on the self-defeating thinking that leads to many debilitative emotions.

 

  1. Monitor your emotional reactions.  The first step is to recognize when you’re having debilitative emotions.  (Of course, it’s also nice to be aware of pleasant feelings when they occur!)  As suggested earlier, one way to notice feelings is through proprioceptive stimuli:  butterflies in the stomach, racing heart, hot flashes, and so on.  Although such reactions might be symptoms of food poisoning, more often they reflect a strong emotion.  You can also recognize certain ways of behaving that suggest your feelings:  stomping instead of walking normally, being unusually quiet, or speaking in a sarcastic tone of voice are some examples.

 

It may seem strange to suggest that it’s necessary to look for emotions—they ought to be immediately apparent.  The fact is, however, that we often suffer from debilitating feelings for some time without noticing them.  For example, at the end of a trying day you’ve probably caught yourself frowning and realized that you’ve been wearing that mask for some time without realizing it.

 

  1. Note the activating event.  Once you’re aware of how you’re feeling, the next step is to figure out what activating event triggered your response.  Sometimes it is obvious.  For instance, a common source of anger is being accused unfairly (or fairly) of foolish behavior; being rejected by somebody important to you is clearly a source of hurt too.  In other cases, however the activating event isn’t so apparent.

 

Sometimes there isn’t a single activating event but rather a series of small incidents that finally build toward a critical mass and trigger a debilitative feeling.  This sort of thing happens when you’re trying to work or sleep and are continually interrupted by a string of interruptions, or when you suffer a series of small disappointments. 

 

The best way to begin tracking down debilitative events is to notice the circumstances in which you have debilitative feelings.  Perhaps they occur when you’re around specific people.  In other cases, you might be bothered by certain types of individuals because of their age, role, background, or some other factor.  Or perhaps certain settings stimulate unpleasant emotions:  parties, work, school.  Sometimes the topic of conversation is the factor that sets you off, whether it be politics, religion, sex, or some other subject.

 

  1. Record your self-talk.  This is the point at which you analyze the thoughts that are the link between the activating event and your feeling.  If you’re serious about getting rid of debilitative emotions, it’s important to actually write down your self-talk when first learning to use this method.  Putting your thoughts on paper will help you see whether they actually make any sense.

 

Monitoring your self-talk might be difficult at first.  This is a new skill, and any new activity seems awkward.  If you persevere, however, you’ll find you will be able to identify the thoughts that lead to your debilitative feelings.  Once you get in the habit of recognizing this internal monolog, you’ll be able to identify your thoughts quickly and easily.

  1. Dispute your irrational beliefs.  Disputing your irrational beliefs is the key to success in the rational-emotive approach.  Use the list of irrational fallacies we’ve just talked about to discover which of your internal statements are based on mistaken thinking.

 

You can do this most effectively by following three steps.  First, decide whether each belief you’ve recorded is rational or irrational.  Next, explain why the belief does or does not make sense.  Finally, if the belief is irrational, you should write down an alternative way of thinking that is more sensible and that can leave you feeling better when faced with the same activating event in the future.

 

After reading about this method for dealing with unpleasant emotions, some people have objections:

 

  • This rational-emotive approach sounds like nothing more than trying to talk yourself out of feeling bad.  This accusation is totally correct.  After all, since we talk ourselves into feeling bad, what’s wrong with talking ourselves out of bad feelings, especially when they are based on irrational thoughts?  Rationalizing may be an excuse and a self-deception but there’s nothing wrong with being rational.
  • The kind of disputing we just read sounds phony and unnatural.  I don’t talk to myself in sentences and paragraphs.  There’s no need to dispute your irrational beliefs in any special literary style.  You can be just as colloquial as you want.  The important thing is to clearly understand what thoughts led you into your debilitative feeling so you can clearly dispute them.  When the technique is new to you, it’s a good idea to write or talk out your thoughts in order to make them clear.  After you’ve had some practice, you’ll be able to do these steps in a quicker, less formal way.
  • This approach is too cold and impersonal.  It seems to aim at turning people into cold-blooded, calculating, emotionless machines.  This is simply not true.  A rational thinker can still dream, hope, and love.  There’s nothing necessarily irrational about feelings like these.  Basically rational people even indulge in a bit of irrational thinking once in a while.  But they usually know what they’re doing.  Like healthy eaters who occasionally treat themselves to a snack of junk food, rational thinkers occasionally indulge themselves in irrational thoughts, knowing that they’ll return to their healthy lifestyle soon with no real damage done.
  • This technique promises too much.  There’s no chance I could rid myself of all unpleasant feelings, however nice that might be.  No one claimed that rational-emotive thinking will totally solve your emotional problems.  What it can do is to reduce their number, intensity, and duration.  This method is not the answer to all of your problems, but it can make a significant difference—which is not a bad accomplishment.