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Emotional Complexity

The complexity of emotions goes well beyond biographical history.

Emotions emerged over a much longer evolutionary history than language. Along the way, they developed considerable complexity that can easily confound social interactions. A few of the elements that make emotions so complicated are habituation, inhibition, constriction, and disinhibition/excitement.

Habituation. If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing over and over and over and over. Emotions readily form associations with each other, such that the experience of one causes the experience of others. By adulthood, most of our emotional responses are conditioned “scripts” that the brain follows automatically. These can be efficient and benign, like responding to criticism with renewed effort. But many emotional habits limit growth, confound our best interests, and direct us against the better angels of our nature. They can make it seem like a button has been pushed within, dictating unfortunate response, such as snapping at a loved one when distracted or becoming depressed or angry when bored.

Habituation leads to countless misunderstandings in social interactions as parties respond in their respective habits rather than to the actual information being conveyed.

Inhibition. Some emotions act as inhibitors of others, such that the experience of one blocks the experience of another. I would be ecstatic about winning the lottery, were it not for the distress caused by the death of a loved one.

Shame and fear are the most potent and universal emotional inhibitors. I cannot experience love if it smacks of the probability of rejection or augurs my inability to sustain it. I cannot experience sufficient interest to achieve my fullest potential if I sense the shame of failure or the risk of harm, deprivation, or isolation. Inhibition slams on the brakes, freezing behavioral motivation in its tracks.

Constriction. Throbbing mental logjams result from emotional sequences with conflicting or incompatible motivations. We’re moved to do something and not do it or to do something that makes it impossible to do what we want. For example, the avoid motivation of fear blocks the approach motivation of interest or compassion. My fear motivates retreat, when I want to experience more of the object of interest. This creates shame, which motivates blame, which stimulates anger, which motivates punishment, which raises the likelihood of harm or failure, creating more inhibitory fear and shame. The most common way of sidestepping this type of constriction is to give up the interest completely (“let it go”) and watch it congeal into resentment and depression.

A particularly tragic form of constriction occurs in those who feel strong impulses to connect more deeply to loved ones, only to have those impulses blocked by the shame of inadequacy or unworthiness. The result is a painful constriction of desire and shame.

Disinhibition. Excitement emerges from the temporary disinhibition of shame or fear. There needs to be shame or fear associated with a response to produce excitement. The emotional rush we get from successful performance of any kind depends entirely on the possibility of failure. Tasks done with ease, with no possibility of failure, are not naturally exciting. The thrill of athletic contests rises and falls with the possibility of the favorite team losing. The favored team winning by a lot is run of the mill and hardly an interesting contest. But if the game is close, with the heavily-favored team in danger of losing, it becomes exciting. Excitement increases when formidable barriers are overcome, such as a major upset or a come-from-behind drive for the winning score. Overcoming shame inhibition provides the excitement of the unfortunate “rescuing” behaviors that begin many relationships by “saving” the alcoholic, the hurt and lonely, the depressed and anxious, the victim, the abuser, the loser, the politically incorrect.

The excitement that sex holds for humans goes far beyond the relatively brief arousal and climax cycles we share with other mammals. Unlike other mammals, humans heap mounds of shame onto sexual experience. The rapture of sexual excitement owes to the feeling of acceptance in the context of possible rejection or failure. As the subtle backdrop of rejection or failure declines, much of the excitement of sex goes with it.

The context of shame responsible for sexual excitement need not exist within intimate exchange; it can also lie in comparison to other social contexts. For example, disrobing in the presence of a significant other is exciting because it would be shameful in the presence of others, say, in the lobby of the hotel. (It’s not exciting for nudists.) One important element of possessiveness in intimate relationships is preservation of the excitement of intimacy, which appears likely to decline if it loses exclusivity.

Excitement produced by temporary disinhibition of fear occurs on amusement rides that create sensations of falling, in some athletic endeavors, at horror movies, and in high-risk behaviors such as speeding and fighting.

Virtually all forms of acting out, including unsafe behavior and criminal activity, as well as the seduction of taboos, rise from the excitement of temporarily overcoming shame and fear.

Some disorders of sexual performance originate in failures to disinhibit shame, creating a disgust reaction to sexual behavior. Failures to disinhibit fear cause crippling anxiety.

Other disorders of sexual performance result from too easily disinhibiting shame, leading to premature orgasm or excitement that dissipates with signal retreat in foreplay, when the aroused state persists long enough to be perceived as the norm.

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