The Power of Emotions to Override Rational Thought
Fuel for destructive anger.
Posted Nov 07, 2016
How is it that you fully know not everyone drives with caution and consideration, but you still expect them to do so? How come you still expect your spouse to be frugal when shopping, even though 10 years of history together tells you otherwise? And what causes you to rigidly expect perfection from yourself, when being human means we make mistakes, have weaknesses, and suffer?
The answer to each of these questions lies in “child logic”–a term I have coined to describe logic hijacked by emotion. I use this term without any attempt at disparagement. Rather, it emphasizes that regardless of age or intelligence, we at times engage in magical thinking associated with earlier development. Such logic fuels unrealistic expectations and heightens the potential for destructive anger. It’s as if the emotional brain and the rational brain are not effectively communicating with each other. Whether emotions override logic or the rational brain is ill prepared to correct the surge of emotion. The result is impaired judgment.
As someone who has spent years studying anger and helping people constructively manage it, I’ve seen the destructive impact of expectations sustained by such reasoning. All of us are guilty of this mental distortion, some more than others.
Anger stems from feeling threat and some form of inner pain, such as fear, anxiety, shame, hopelessness, and powerlessness. It’s understandable that we might have some degree of irritation aroused by that driver who abruptly cuts us off. Similarly, we may feel our financial security threatened by our partner’s lack of frugality. And certainly, we may be disappointed with ourselves when we fail to achieve our goals. But the inability to be realistic in our expectations makes all the difference between having feelings such as disappointment and sadness, and experiencing intense anger.
All too often, child logic infuses our expectations with emotions rooted in our wishes and hopes, insufficiently tamed by the facts of reality. It is child logic that supports beliefs such as: “Life should be fair” when “Life just is”; that good efforts should always yield rewards–when they often don’t; and that we should be able to control all aspects of our lives. In effect, it is child logic that may convince us we should always get what we want, that others should act as we believe they should, and that we should not have to suffer–even though all of us suffer.
The impact of child logic is similarly prevalent in the current electoral cycle. Individuals in each party exhibit intense anger and resentment toward opposing candidates. Additionally, others experience anger toward the candidate selected by their own party. There are certainly valid reasons for the electorate to experience anger with regard to income inequality, racial injustice, threats of terrorism, and deficiencies in government. Understandably these events create a sense of threat and other forms of inner anguish that might include fear, anxiety, powerlessness, and hopelessness. However, rigidly maintaining unrealistic expectations only intensifies the potential for destructive anger when they are not satisfied.
Unwittingly, like partners in a marriage that has soured, many people are challenged to look beyond their own immediate interests. The intensity of anger and how it is expressed rests, in part, on the fact that some of the electorate know compromise is essential for a democracy–yet feel it shouldn’t be the case. And yet, maintaining this expectation is inconsistent with a functioning democratic government.
Letting go of unrealistic expectations doesn’t mean the passive acceptance of what is. It may involve recognizing that certain expectations are aspirational rather than attainable. Or, letting go can free us to consider alternative strategies for increasing the likelihood of their satisfaction.
Developing more realistic expectations in our daily lives calls for pausing for reflection. It necessitates being aware of when we are too rigidly holding on to them in spite of a reality that reminds us they cannot be satisfied. It requires that we distinguish between what we really need and what we desire. And, all too often, it demands awareness of how anger can interfere with the willingness to engage in such reflection.
The capacity to recognize when child logic influences our expectations is essential for developing resilience, a key component of well-being. Resilience is a strength that allows us to bounce back from adverse consequences. It consists of recognizing when our expectations are overly influenced by hopes and wishes. Resilience very much depends on the flexibility of thought to let go of certain expectations, when we recognize we have no control over satisfying them. Certainly, this is not always an easy task. It involves grieving and mourning, dealing with a sense of loss that often moves us to sadness and disappointment instead of anger.
Some suggest that not having expectations is the only way to avoid disappointment. However, this attitude seems to be both pessimistic and a denial of a very human tendency. Rather, the real threat posed by maintaining expectations is when we cling to them and when they are overly influenced by child logic. The challenge for each of us is to be mindful when this occurs, as these conditions form the bedrock of destructive anger.