Amber woke up in an irritable mood. She figured something must be bothering her and started thinking about her relationship with her boyfriend. “He doesn't really care about me. He's always focused on doing what he wants. He can really be a jerk.” When he called her later, she was very cold and unresponsive to his inquiries regarding what was wrong. This escalated into an argument. Amber hung up saying to herself, “See, he really is a jerk.”
The problem with this scenario is Amber reacted to her mood by finding something she was irritated about and magnifying it. She did not consider other possibilities for her mood. For instance, she had been out late the night before and her sleep schedule was disrupted which could have caused the irritability. As a result, she created a self-fulfilling prophecy about her boyfriend She treated him as if he were a jerk which then escalated into conflict confirming what she believed.
However, if she had approached him in a different way, the outcome may have been very different. If she had said, “I'm feeling irritable today. I don't really know why” instead of being passive-aggressive, they may not have had an argument. This is an example of emotional reasoning.
Emotional reasoning is the belief that if you feel something, it must be true. For instance, “If I feel guilty, I must have done something wrong.” But sometimes we feel guilty when someone makes an accusation. Or, people who are highly empathetic may feel guilty when they observe something that someone else has done.
Although emotions are important, this type of belief emphasizes the emotion over the evaluation of the emotion. We need to determine the validity of our emotions before we act on them. Sometimes emotions occur because of our physical state (as in the above example). Sometimes they occur because a present situation is similar to a past situation and we are reacting to the past. Sometimes emotions occur because of how we feel about ourselves generally. Sometimes we misinterpret emotions.
Not all emotions are accurate and directly related to our present situation. Therefore, we need to recognize them, interpret them accurately, and evaluate the evidence.
1) Information. Emotions provide us with information. Much of what we experience in the world around us is non-verbal. Our brains constantly interpret all this information that we gather. Much of this information is interpreted at the sub-conscious level. As such, it tends to affect our emotions without our awareness.
2) Release. Emotions provide a release for us. When we cry, laugh, get angry, we release tension we may be experiencing. This mechanism helps us cope with the stress of our lives.
3) Communication. Emotions provide a means of communication. Notice how often gestures, facial expressions, or posture is used to express information in a conversation. Most of these non-verbals have emotional content. In fact, it is very difficult to express non-emotional content through body language.
1) Information. The logical part of our brain also provides information. It processes the evidence and examines the facts.
2) Evaluation. Logic helps determine what information is valid based on the available evidence. It allows us to determine the validity of an emotion. If Amber had used her logical brain to evaluate the evidence before reacting she might have determined “Wait a minute. He often spends time with me and is very considerate of my needs. I don't usually feel this way about him. Maybe this isn't about him.”
A research study many years ago examined how people interpret their emotional states. What they found was that people tend to use environmental cues to explain what they are feeling unless they have information that provides an explanation.
The study involved giving subjects an injection of adrenalin that caused them to feel physically agitated and then placing the subjects in a waiting room with another subject. Half of the subjects were told what physical symptoms to expect from the injection and the other half were not given an explanation.
The other subject in the room was actually an actor who was part of the experiment. The subject-actor started expressing a great deal of anger, “Why are they making us wait? Don't they think our time is valuable? They are very inconsiderate.”
The subjects were then questioned about their experience. Those who knew the injection would cause agitation and other symptoms indicated that they were feeling the effects of the injection but didn't report any significant emotional reactions. However, those who were not given an explanation reported that they felt angry.
The subjects who had not been given any explanation used the cues from their environment to explain the agitation they were feeling. The major cue was someone else's anger about the situation. Therefore, they came to believe they were angry, too.
1) Recognition of Tendency. Some people have a greater tendency than others to be emotionally reactive which means they are responding with emotions prior to evaluating the emotions. Try to recognize whether you have this tendency. Then, you will at least be able to say, “Maybe I'm engaging in emotional reasoning. I need to look at the evidence.”
2) Determining the Evidence. When you are reacting to an emotion, ask yourself what is the evidence that supports the emotion and what is the evidence that is contrary to the emotion. In particular, determine if there could possibly be any other causes for the reaction you have. Could something from the past have been triggered? Or, is there something physical you are experiencing that could explain your feeling?
3) Evaluate the Emotion. Based on the evidence you have examined, is the emotion valid? If the emotion is valid, is it an appropriate intensity? Sometimes it may be something that is bothering you but your reaction is out of proportion to the actual event.
4) Challenge the Emotion. If the emotion is not valid or the intensity is out of proportion remind yourself of the evidence that you have examined. As with all cognitive techniques this practice of examining and challenging the emotion needs to be repetitive until you are able to accept the challenge to your thinking.
We use both the emotions we gather from our interactions in the world and the logical examination of the evidence to accurately interpret our experiences. One without the other can create problems.