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Anger

How to Overcome Self-Obsession That Blocks Emotional Growth

Self-obsession begins when feelings prevail over reality.

Key points

  • Feelings are important signals about possible realities.
  • They emerge in response to mental activity (thoughts, imagination, memory, dreams) and environmental stimuli.
  • They seize attention so we’ll act on the unconscious motivation, for which the unconscious arousal component of emotion has prepared us.
  • Between the signal and the conscious decision to act, lots can go wrong.

Most of what I learned about emotions in graduate school is wrong, and that was my specialty. The explosion of research in neuroscience and brain function in recent years makes it hard for laypeople and professional clinicians to keep abreast. A good place to start, if you’re so inclined, is the work of Joseph LeDoux, Daniel Kahneman, and their associates.

Signals

Feelings are important signals about possible realities. We must assess them without confusing them with reality. The smoke alarm is not the fire.

The prefrontal cortex interprets the emotional signal, assesses it, and decides whether and how to act on it. But it operates more slowly than emotional signals, making it susceptible to confirmation bias—processing information that verifies the signal, overlooking evidence that contradicts it.

Self-obsession occurs when we construe the internal signal as reality.

The following are common problems of feelings-signals and the ways we interpret them. The noted corrections (italicized) involve slowing the process to allow the prefrontal cortex to assess and decide on a beneficial course of action, to give it a fighting chance to escape the prison of self-obsession.

Rigidity

The most pervasive emotional problem is rigidity of response. It happens to everyone to some degree, due to the habit-forming tendencies of unconscious associations. When feelings grow inflexible, we become generals fighting the last war, responding not to current events but to complex associations of the past. An inflexible emotional system limits growth and development. Rigidity underlies most emotional disorders. In the extreme, it leads to self-destructive and anti-social behavior.

Traditional psychotherapy sought to make the emotional system more flexible by exploring (speculating on, really) how it became rigid. More recent therapies focus on building more flexible habits, in recognition that theorizing about what got us into a hole won’t get us out of it.

Most feelings follow tacit judgments and intensify or diminish according to interpretations. For example, if my autopilot judgment is that my partner is unreliable, I’ll interpret her distraction as passive-aggression, which will make me resentful.

Practice looking for evidence to counter your initial response. Regard interpretations as hypotheses in need of testing.

My partner is dependable in all important ways. Instead of accusing her, I’ll gently remind her of what she said she would do. She realizes that she forgot and assures that she will keep her promise straightaway, proving the passive-aggressive hypothesis false. The correct interpretation is that, like me, she’s a busy human who occasionally forgets.

Conflicting Interpretations

Anxiety over a spouse staying out late invokes interpretations of accident and injury, stimulating compassion and motivation to help. The conflicting interpretation is infidelity, stimulating jealousy and motivation to punish. The flowers on the table mean that she loves me at one moment, that she’s feeling guilty about loving someone else the next, that he’s sweet and thoughtful, that he’s setting me up for manipulation, that he found a cheap deal at the florist.

Choose the most benign interpretation realistically possible.

Intolerance of Uncertainty

Few interpretations have certainty. When uncertainty about an emotional response stirs anxiety, a confusing cascade of feelings often results. During this cascade, projections, the essence of self-obsession, dominate perceptions of others.

Accept that uncertainty and ambiguity are natural and unavoidable. Act on probability, rather than possibility.

Self-validating Signals

“If I’m angry, you must be doing something wrong.”

“If I’m afraid, you must be threatening.”

Problems occur when we construe feelings as reality. This is like assuming that the smoke alarm is the fire, instead of a signal that a fire might possibly begin. Like emotional alarms, smoke detectors are "better safe than sorry" systems, calibrated to give false positives. We don't want the smoke alarm to go off after the house is in flames. We react to the alarm by checking out the signal to see if there’s a fire or just something cooking. No one would hear a smoke alarm and scream, “We’re all gonna die!” Yet we assume that emotional signals represent certain reality.

Validate the feeling and assess how close to reality it is.

Invalidating and Denying Signals

“I have no right to feel this way,” or, “I don’t really feel this way,” or, “No one should feel that way,” or, “If I felt that way, I’d be crazy.”

You have a right to feel any way you feel. All feelings are normal, although interpretations of them and judgments that stimulate them are error-prone.

Validate how you feel, but focus on how you want to feel. This will bring experiences of feeling good to implicit memory. When you felt good, you were less self-obsessed and more likely to choose beneficial behavior.

Distortion

Feelings amplify and magnify stimuli. Negative feelings amplify one negative aspect of a person or behavior, ignoring every other aspect. This leads to overreactions and behavior that violates deeper values and long-term best interests.

Appreciate the amplifying properties of feelings and make no important judgments or decisions before you regulate the signal.

Artificial Importance

To paraphrase Sylvan Tomkins: with feelings, anything is important; without feelings, nothing is.

Problems occur when the intensity of emotional signals do not correspond to personal values or advantage, that is, the stimulus seems too important or not important enough. The former is captured by the title of a popular book, Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff. The latter is profoundly misunderstood by its subtitle, It’s All Small Stuff.

Decide the importance of the signal, based on your values and long-term best interests.

Conditioned Signaling

Problems occur when emotional signals disconnect from stimuli, that is, the feeling is conditioned to stimulate other feelings or other coping mechanisms. Examples:

  • Disappointment (sadness) stimulates anger or withdrawal
  • Low physical resources stimulate anxiety or irritability
  • Irritability, usually physiological in origin, leads us to blame a spouse for something, anything.

With no specific problem identified, there can be no solution; the emotional signal can motivate no corrective or empowering behavior. This is like racing a car engine in neutral. In relationships, it's like driving with the steering wheel locked.

Focus on the specific trigger, decide whether the signal is commensurate to it, and look for a solution to improve it. (Blame will never improve it.)

Excessive Inhibition or Dis-inhibition

The former keeps us from acting in our best interests; the latter makes us violate our best interests.

Feelings shouldn't be inhibited or dis-inhibited. They must be regulated by changing the perceptions and interpretations that stimulate them.

Validate the feeling, assess how close to reality it is, and choose behavior in your long-term best interests, which will always be consistent with your deepest values.

Coping Problems

Emotions, particularly the negative ones, feel different on the inside from the way they look on the outside. For example, resentment results from a perception of unfairness. Because self-obsession impairs accurate perceptions of others, we'll be hypersensitive to other people's unfair behavior, while hardly noticing our own. On the inside, you feel wronged, if not victimized. On the outside, you look mean and unfriendly, if not like a victimizer. If you believe people don’t get you, the internal-external disconnect is the likely culprit. People react to what they see, not to what you feel.

Some people try to mask the disconnect by manipulating features of emotional display, such as body language, facial expressions, eye contact, and tone of voice. But it's hardly possible to control all components of emotional demeanor, as they involve involuntary muscles. We'll never appear to be compassionate or even respectful while resentful. Attempts to do so make us look insincere, like bad actors or politicians.

Perspective-taking naturally modifies emotional demeanor and allows reconciliation of internal experience with external manifestations.

The trouble is, strong feelings impair perspective-taking. Self-obsessed by nature, strong feelings make it difficult for us to read and understand the emotions of others and discern the effects of our behavior on others. In lieu of accurate perceptions, we guess and project, based on how we feel at the moment. This can be a disaster in close relationships.

Practice binocular vision—the ability to hold your partner’s perspective alongside your own. Make no judgment until you grasp your partner’s perspective.

The most troublesome coping tactic is using anger as a regulator. When emotions seem out of control, thoughts become disorganized. The adrenaline of anger temporarily reorganizes them, albeit in distorted ways. The resulting behavior is under-think and overkill, yielding solutions like turning off a lamp with a rock. We’re unlikely to act in our long-term best interests in anger.

Practice converting the motivation to blame and punish, inherent in anger, into a motivation to improve, appreciate, connect, or protect.

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