Soul Sculpting Project: Emotions: Who’s in charge here, anyway?
Who Done It? It’s late afternoon. You are driving home from a full day of meetings. The meetings generally went well, driving is easy today. You feel calm as you review the day. Then a slight unpleasant shift occurs. It begins in your digestive system. At warp speed your mind registers this shift and begins to search the files to explain the situation and help you decide what to do about this new sensation of unpleasant. In this rapid file search your mind finds data that says: meetings can cause unpleasant. Your mind recommends the emotion “frustration”.
“Hum,” you think, “maybe today’s meetings didn’t go as well as I thought.” Your mind begins the task of creating a story based on the data of meetings + digestive discomfort. Your frustration grows as you follow this story line and look for new data about problems in the meeting. With this new data your frustration transforms into anger. Now your head begins to ache. Your mind notes this new unpleasant sensation, checks the files and finds the association of meetings + headaches.
You arrive at home and before you even open the door your are surprised to smell a favorite meal cooking. Your stomach begins to churn. Your mind takes in this new data and suggests that you are hungry and bit dehydrated.
As you eat your meal the unpleasant sensation in your digestive system is replaced by a pleasant sensation. Based on the data of good meal + pleasant sensation your mind suggests the emotion of contented.
What just happened?
What triggered the original sensation of unpleasant during your drive? Was it the meetings or your hunger. What created the headache? The meetings or dehydration? How true were the stories you created about the day’s meeting?
What is the appropriate emotion for this situation? Calm and contented or frustrated and angry?
I grew-up thinking that emotions happened to me. I thought emotions were an automatic response provided by circuits in my brain.
Scientists who study emotions are presenting some eye-opening findings that have completely changed my understanding of emotion. These scientists say:
There are no emotion circuits in our brain.
Emotions do not happen to us.
So where do emotions come from?
We are the creators of our emotions.
How do we do this? We have two sources for this amazing creation feat:
1. our basic body sensations, alert – calm and pleasant – unpleasant.
2. the stories we create.
Consider our Who Done It? You began with the emotion of calm, an appropriate emotion for an easy drive and generally good meetings. Then your body experienced the sensation of unpleasant.
You mind instantly became a detective, rapidly scanning the current situation of your easy drive and your recent day of meetings. Your mind found that in the past some meetings had been associated with unpleasant sensations in your digestive system.
Your easy drive seemed to be the less likely suspect for the unpleasant so your mind guessed that meetings were the culprit. (Notice that your mind completely missed the files of: time of day, hunger/ dehydration.)
With this suggestion that meetings can cause digestive unpleasant you began to search for new data in your memory bank and you created a story to support the hunch. The stories you spun became very convincing – you are a great story teller.
You adopted emotions to correspond with your stories based on your list of appropriate emotions to feel after bad meetings.
The Appropriate Emotions List
Where did this list come from?
Our list of appropriate emotions comes from our family, friends and culture. We began to learn this list as an infant. As we matured, our emotions list grew and became more refined.
Just as we learned language from our family, friends and culture we also learn what emotions to assign to situations that happen in us and around us.
One of the reasons we know of this cultural influence is that appropriate emotions lists vary from culture to culture.
Two ways to create emotions
1. In our Who Done It? we took a body sensation (unpleasant digestion), created a story to explain this sensation (meetings) and then adopted an emotion to fit the story (frustration/anger). The body sensation was the trigger.
2. This process can also work in the the reverse. We can start with a story and then our body will join in by creating pleasant or unpleasant sensations to fit the story and chosen emotion.
Why do emotions feel like they are happening to us?
Because our ability to create emotions is so rapid. The speed of this ability is beyond our casual detection.
We are creator of our emotions
This is good news. We have power.
- We can learn to change our emotions.
- We can develop the skill to create the emotions that we want to have.
Where does faith and our connection with God fit in with emotions?
I suggest that one way is to recognize that Christians, like Paul, assumed that we are responsible for our emotions.
In Ephesians, for example, Paul considered anger an appropriate emotion for some situations, but he encouraged people to regulate the expression and duration of this emotion. “Be angry and do not sin. Don’t let the sun go down on your anger.” (Eph. 4:26)
In his letter to the Philippians Paul repeatedly instructed readers to choose the emotion of rejoicing. This letter was written from a Roman prison where the emotion of rejoicing was not seen as the appropriate emotion for the situation.
Paul had a lot of data available to make up a tragic story, but he intentionally found a way to create a story of hope. “I want you to know that what has happened to me has really served to advance the Gospel.” (Phil. 1:12) The whole Imperial prison guard now knew the Gospel and other Christians outside the prison had become more bold to spread the good news.
Paul had used the process of creating emotions by starting with a story and then choosing a positive emotion – rejoicing – to fit the story.
The Holy Spirit Helps
We have the responsibility to control our emotions, but as Christians we are not left alone with this task. The Holy Spirit is our helper. When we are filled with the Holy Spirit the fruits of that filling are some very positive emotions. Love, Joy, Peace are three for starters. (Galatians 5:22)
Soul Sculpting Project: Taking Charge of Our Emotions
1. Invite the Holy Spirit to join you.
2. Observe your emotions. Ask: How is my body feeling? What stories am I telling myself?
3. Ask: What emotions would I like to feel in this situation?
4. Select one time when your emotion is not what you want to feel.
Choose a change.
A. Change what is happening in your body. Example: drink water, stretch.
B. Change the story you are telling yourself. What is another way to see the situation? Create a different possible story-board. (Here I usually object with, “But this first story is totally true!” Actually my stories are seldom totally true. There is usually another angle.)
So Who Done It? Who caused the original unpleasant sensation? Was it the mild-mannered meetings who seemed innocent at first glance, but when you examined their record you found a suspicious connection. Or was it the infamous Mr. Hunger/Dehydration, a known creator of unpleasant?
You have just finished a good meal, what will you do now?
Will you stick with the data: meetings + unpleasant sensation = a frustration/anger emotion? You have just invested time into making-up stories that confirm that connection.
Will you say, “My original story that today’s meetings were generally good is more likely true. My unpleasant feeling came because of my hunger and dehydration. So I am going to choose the emotions of calm and contented.”?
Which would you choose?
For more on the science of emotions see the work of Dr. Lisa Feldman Barrett, How Emotions are Made.