Understanding Emotions and How to Process Them
The adaptive and maladaptive processing of emotions.
Posted January 28, 2017 | Reviewed by Lybi Ma
The mental health of our society is far from ideal. Rates of stress, depression, and anxiety are increasing. The data on college students is especially troubling. There are likely many reasons for this increase, including a fast-paced, rapidly changing society, higher levels of loneliness and isolation, misguided attempts to medicate negative feelings, and existential confusion about the truths of the human condition. But perhaps the central reason I see is that people seem deeply confused about the nature of negative emotions and how to process them.
A central focus in my work as a clinician is teaching individuals how to understand their emotions and how to adaptively relate to and process them. The purpose of this lengthy five-part blog is to
- Explain what emotions are
- How to place them in the matrix of human consciousness
- How maladaptive emotional processing occurs
- How adaptive emotional processing occurs
- How we can foster more adaptive emotional processing in society going forward.
Part I: Defining Emotions
What are emotions? They are part of the experiential system, which can be thought of as the core consciousness system. Core consciousness refers to your “theater of experience” that coordinates your behaving in the world and includes three broad domains. First, there are sensory-perceptual experiences (seeing trees, hearing music). Second, there are drives (good things you intuitively want to approach and bad things you intuitively want to avoid). Third, there are emotions, which are “response sets” that prepare and energize action in response to perceptions and drives.
For example, consider a mouse exploring new terrain, and imagine that it gets a whiff of a cat. The perception of a cat in the vicinity activates the motive to avoid the cat. This will likely first cause the mouse to freeze in an attempt to avoid being detected, and then if the mouse senses the coast is clear, it will run back to where it came from. The fear will diminish as it returns to a safe haven and its “distance” from the cat increases. We can see that fear energized avoidance behavior, which is why it is a “response set”. Emotions become active when we perceive changes that relate to our needs or goals.
A second key point: there are differences between individuals in their emotional temperaments. Although all mice have negative emotion systems, some mice will have negative emotional systems that are much more sensitive, easily triggered, give more intense responses, and are more difficult to sooth after activation. Because we are mammals, the same holds for people.
With this basic map, we can say some key things about emotions that should be understood by every educated adult. I bring up education because our current schooling on emotion is grossly underdeveloped. My three children will go through their entire K-12 training and will not get a single hour on understanding human emotions. It is ridiculous (said with emotion!).
- Emotions are a central part of core consciousness.
- Emotions provide information about one’s core goals and needs.
- There are two broad systems of emotions, negative and positive. Negative emotions signal threat to needs and goals and energize avoidance. Positive emotions signal the opportunity to meet needs and goals and energize approach.
- Emotions prepare an individual for action.
- There are differences in emotional temperaments. Some mice (and people) will have negative emotional systems that are easily triggered, generate more intense reactions, and are harder to sooth. This is called trait neuroticism.
Part II: Placing Emotions on the Map of Human Consciousness
If human minds were like the minds of mice, then this brief synopsis would largely sum up what we need to know. However, unlike mice, humans have a whole additional dimension of consciousness, called the self-consciousness system, and this system complicates the picture significantly. The self-consciousness system reflects on and responds to the primary core experiential system. Thus, while a mouse just feels fear, an adult human can recognize that they are feeling fear and make judgments about that feeling and whether or not they want to feel more or less of it.
Humans also have an explicit public self-consciousness system. That is, they know that other people can see their emotional reactions if they act on them and they must then consider how others will respond to their emotions. It is because of these different streams of consciousness that emotional processing can become very conflicted in humans.
Why? Consider the following example. Johnny is age 7 and learning how to ride his bike. He falls and scrapes his knee and runs over to his dad, crying. Think about the impact of his father’s response if he says, “Stop crying. Boys don't cry. Don’t be a wimp!” As opposed to, “I am so sorry you are hurt! Let me give you a hug.” The different responses mean very different things for how such feelings will be expressed in the future. And, as Johnny grows into an adolescent, it will have strong implications for how he privately judges his own feelings.
Here is a working map of human consciousness, called the tripartite model. It is central to understanding emotions and the reactions and conflicts that people have about them. As you can see, there is an experiential self, which is where core emotions reside, there is a private self, which is the narrator explaining and judging the core feelings, and there is a public self, which is what folks share with others.
The central point here is that there is a powerful, complicated relationship between primary emotions as generated by the experiential system and how they are judged and related to by the private self-consciousness system and by the public/interpersonal system (reactions of others).
Part III: How Maladaptive Emotional Processing Occurs
With this map of emotions and human consciousness, we now have the framework needed to understand how humans process feelings and what gives rise to maladaptive versus adaptive processing. In some ways, maladaptive processing is easier to understand, so let’s start there. Hopefully you can see, via the tripartite map and the example of Johnny, why there often might be conflict between core feelings and one’s private identity or public display of behavior. If self or others judge negative feelings (sadness, fear or anxiety, anger, guilt, and so on) negatively, then we can see immediately that there can be conflict, either interpersonally (others judging the self) or intrapsychically (self-judgment of one’s own feelings).
Before proceeding to spell out some trouble that follows from judging feelings, I want to be clear here that there are very good reasons to sometimes judge feelings negatively (I return to this at the end of this blog). Feelings are primitive, animalistic response sets that orient the individual toward action. Shame orients you to submit, anger to punish others, fear to run away. In contrast to such simple impulses, human society often requires complex, long-term responses. If one were to act on raw emotional impulses, trouble can follow; thus, there is often good logic that drives our judgment of “overly” emotional responses.
That said, however, the judgment and inhibition of feelings come with a cost. We can see this when we consider what happens as individuals try to repress, distract, avoid or suppress the emergence of the feeling. Such an unprocessed state does not just disappear into the ether. Instead, to continue with the theater of consciousness metaphor, it is jammed in a closet backstage (in one’s subconscious mind; here is a post on defining various domains of mind and consciousness). But if the function of the emotion is to communicate information about needs and goals, then the emotion has not served its function and there are good reasons to believe it holds its “potential” and will continue to exist in the background of consciousness, in a state of what we might call “unfinished business”.
Let’s consider what happens if someone is trying to block negative emotions all the time. More and more mental energy will go into jamming more and more emotions backstage. Moreover, the self-consciousness system will very likely use increasingly harsh and critical language to inhibit the feelings—“Stop feeling this way!” “What is wrong with you!?” “This is pointless, stop being so stupid”. Not only do these elements inhibit the original feeling, but they also generate core feelings in and of themselves. That is, the core feeling self will feel wounded and judged by the self-consciousness system, which creates a bad intrapsychic cycle, a cycle where an individual turns against themselves, which can easily lead to depression.
Hopefully, this brings into view how the maladaptive processing of emotions might result in clinically significant problems. Here are two more pieces. First, as noted in the description of basic emotions, people differ in terms of the sensitivity of their negative emotion system. This is called “trait neuroticism”. Individuals high in trait neuroticism are thus particularly likely to struggle with these problems because they are regularly having stronger negative feelings than those around them, which can create complicated interpersonal dynamics, especially if folks don’t have a good frame for understanding this (often, they do not).
A second important point is that as the negative emotions are inhibited and not processed, there is an increasing vulnerability that they will be triggered and released uncontrollably. This is what's going on when someone unexpectedly flies off the handle with rage or has an anxiety attack or a depressive crash or a profound experience of self-loathing that results in a suicide attempt. They have been trying to hold back these feelings, but eventually, enough triggers build and the “unfinished business” in the backstage closet is filled to the brim, and all those stuffed feelings come rushing out “on stage”.
In such a moment, an individual becomes all of the feeling and often cannot help but to act on the powerful negative emotional impulses. Of course, such raw, painful, impulsive displays tend to cause more problems than they solve. And this only engrains the maladaptive process, because, after such an episode, many individuals will want to lock down their emotions even more, setting the whole thing up to repeat.
Part IV: Adaptive Emotional Processing Means Finding the Emotional Sweet Spot
Given this formulation of what maladaptive emotional processing looks like, my hope is a picture can begin to form regarding how to adaptively process one’s feelings. The maladaptive elements involved:
- Failure to understand what emotions are
- Excessive inhibition and denial of negative emotions, often coupled with self-criticism in an attempt to force the inhibition
- An excessive, under-regulated display of emotion after attempts to block or inhibit fail.
We can reverse this formulation to arrive at the key adaptive ingredients, which include:
- The effective education and awareness about what emotions are and the domains of human consciousness that result in conflict
- Fostering in individuals and relationships, the healthy awareness and attunement to feeling states and the information regarding needs and goals provided by them
- The adaptive regulation of the impulses associated with strong feelings, in accordance with long term goals and valued ways of being.
This analysis gives rise to the “Sweet Spot” formulation of adaptive emotional processing. A sweet spot is something found between two poles. The two adaptive poles, in this case, are:
- Awareness and attunement to one’s feelings on the one hand
- The adaptive regulation of strong feelings on the other.
The goal, then, is to create an intrapsychic and interpersonal environment that is conducive to emotional processing that is aware and attuned to feelings, but also capable of adaptive regulation.
Let’s return to the example of Johnny falling off his bike and his father’s response. The first response (“Stop being a wimp!”) is clearly problematic, given the sweet spot formulation. It is overly inhibitory, lacks awareness and attunement, and is punitive. This kind of criticism has a high potential for Johnny internalizing a problematic relationship to his feelings.
The second response (“I am sorry you are hurt) is a good start, but depending on what follows, it may also be problematic. It is high on awareness and attunement to the expressed feeling, so that is good. But how does it do in terms of adaptive regulation of the primitive impulse of emotional pain? Potentially, not very well. A scraped knee is just a scraped knee; it is not the end of the world. As an adult, the father should know that and he should then work to guide Johnny to understand that.
A more complete response would be, “Oh, I am sorry your hurt your knee. Let me see it. It is just a scrape. A little blood. I know it hurts, but it won’t kill you. It happens to everyone when they are learning to ride a bike. You are tough, you can handle it. Do you want to try again or are you done for the day?”
We have the adaptive regulation of the feeling, after a statement of awareness that is attuned to what the feeling was communicating. Functionally, the adaptive regulation comments are similar to “don’t be a wimp”, but it does so with a positive focus on the advantages of not being overly impacted by a scraped knee. Johnny can “approach” being tough because that is adaptive, rather than shaming himself into avoiding looking like a wimp.
V. Fostering More Adaptive Emotional Functioning in Society
An examination of our society shows a dramatic swing in the pendulum regarding how we think about negative emotions and who is responsible for regulating them. Not too long ago, society basically assumed life was brutal for many, and the sentiment essentially was “tough sh*t”. Each individual was responsible for dealing with their own pain and life was hard for many, and so you just needed to suck it up. I believe folks who lived through the Great Depression and World War II had this mindset.
Over the past 30 years, the pendulum has swung far the other way. Many folks are sensitive to negative emotions and there are many settings in which the negative feeling states are seen as justified in their totality (see here for some information about this changing culture). This can create serious problems and I will share two real-life examples that horrified me. One was when I was signing up to be a soccer coach for 8-year-olds. It started off in a reasonable way. I was told that soccer, at that age, was supposed to be fun. I agreed completely.
Then I was told that the focus there was on “positive coaching”, which translated into the rule that I could not in any way criticize a child’s play because this might hurt their feelings. I could only say positive things about their behavior. Now the responsibility for any negative feelings is placed with the coach and the message for everyone is that criticism of any kind (even from a loving coach who is trying to foster growth), is “damaging”. Talk about a nightmare implication for society. (See here for a link on us becoming a society of wimps).
Another example was even more horrifying. A couple of years ago, I was attending a presentation in a room filled with psychologists. The presenter was giving a talk on how to get one’s message across and was talking about the “target” audience for the message. A psychologist raised her hand and said, “I work with traumatized individuals. We ask that people do not use the word “target” because there are painful associations with it.” The dumbstruck presenter stammered that he would try to keep that in mind. In terms of emotion, I felt shame for being a psychologist at that moment and also for not raising my hand and offering a strong rebuke of such insanity.
I think we are seeing an increase in emotional problems in part because our society has become more sensitive to them, but we have not provided good education about them, nor explained why we need both awareness and attunement to feelings and the adaptive regulation of feelings states.
What we need going forward is better education about emotions and the domains of human consciousness and why we often have conflicts about our feelings. We should be clear that emotions are information, and that we should teach folks to use them to solve problems and, in most cases, not think of emotions as the problem to be avoided.
To do this, we need to foster in each individual, a curious accepting attitude that allows for awareness and attunement to one’s feelings (and the feelings of others) and the information about the needs and goals they communicate. At the same time, we need to recognize that emotions tend to energize primitive, short-sighted impulsive actions, and humans live in a complicated age. Thus, we must learn to adaptively regulate the more problematic action-oriented aspects of feelings, and effectively merge them with our long-term goals and valued states of being.