Emotions and Control

In November, a Christian gelato store owner temporarily put up a sign refusing to serve attendees of Skepticon IV because he had briefly visited the convention, witnessed a satire of Christian revivalists, and been offended. In response, there was an uproar on the internet against the gelato store owner which led to him apologizing. I was one of those who thought his apology did not go far enough because he defended the fact that he took offense at the mockery whereas I didn’t think it was legitimate he should take offense at satire. I argued that we needed to challenge not just his actions, which he took accountability for, but his emotional reactions that led to those actions, which he did not take accountability for. This led me to defend the idea that we could blame people for their emotions at all. This all went down in the following posts: 

On Not-Pologies, Forgiveness, and Gelato

Yes, We Can Blame People For Their Feelings, Not Just Their Actions

Why Bother Blaming People At All? Isn’t That Just Judgmental?  

The Emotions You SHOULDN’T Blame Anyone For Having

DuWayne Brayton is a frequent and valued contributor in the Camels With Hammers comments section. He so strongly dissented from my characterizations of the emotions and my discussions of how to address them that I offered him the opportunity to write a guest post explaining his views, cross-posted on his blog. Below is a reprint of his post, “Emotions and Control” from his blog Traumatized by Truth. Consider showing your support for his efforts by reading his article on his own blog.

Emotions are complicated, confusing and often contradictory. This means that emotions can also be extremely frustrating. When there is a lot happening in your life, it can become very stressful, a veritable roller coaster of emotions. When there is a lot happening and some of it is negative, the emotional roller coaster is virtually a foregone conclusion – no matter how stable you might have become. Now for most of us this really isn’t that much of a problem. The holidays end, crisis’s come to an end and we fall back into the familiar rhythms of our lives. For others of us, things are, well, different. But we’ll address that later.

Daniel Fincke wrote last month about how we should blame people for feelings that cause negative actions. That is a very simplified explanation and there really was a great deal more to it that is well worth reading, but the gist of what I am going to talk about is expressed in that sentiment. What Daniel would like, is to see people held and ultimately hold themselves accountable for the emotions that drive their actions. While this is certainly a worthy goal, it is not only not easy, it is simply not plausible – at least not in so many words. Indeed, due to the nature of those changes – coupled with the natural maturing process most of us go through, it is generally going to be counterproductive to pressure people to change their emotions.

Yes, it is possible to change what feeds our emotions. It is even possible to fundamentally change who we are, so that when negative emotions are roused, they are relatively mild – making our reaction to those emotions easier to control. What is important to understand from the outset, is that those two processes are completely different. The former is about changing what we believe about aspects of reality we are
likely to encounter. The latter is essentially a process of changing how seriously we take ourselves and the world around us.

I would like to clarify, before I go into the problems with those changes, that there are many people for whom such changes are either not possible, or for whom such changes are going to translate to something very different. I am mentally ill and the nature of my neurological problems is such that I cannot make changes that will have any dramatic effect on my emotions. I can and do take medications that help control the severity and to some degree, the variability of my emotions, but that is only changing the degree. Like many other people with a variety of mood disorders and some other mental illnesses, changing my thoughts and fundamentally changing myself is never going to have the effect it has on most people.

That is not to say that I don’t believe I should be held responsible for my actions, nothing could be further from the truth. What I cannot reasonably be held responsible for is my emotions and because of that, I
foster relationships with people who will do me the kindness of really holding me accountable for my actions. Because the only thing that I actually can control is my actions and the best way to do that is to
make sure I am acutely aware of my actions. And this is really the key with Daniel’s belief about blame – the best we can ever do for those around us, is to hold them accountable, blame them, if you will, for
their actions. Whether the hypothetical person who is acting inappropriately is mentally ill or not, it is just easier to deal with people on a behavioral level.

For example, say you’re helping a friend move. Someone set a very special vase in a precarious position and while you are on the backwards end of carrying a bed through the door it falls and breaks. Now it’s entirely reasonable for your friend to be upset, if something special of yours broke, you would be upset too. But let’s say your friend starts yelling at you. He claims you never really wanted to help and that this is just your passive aggressive way of asserting that. He calls you an asshole and questions your friendship. He also hedges his bets on the insults and also questions whether you’re just clumsy and/or stupid. He goes on to explain that all of you – ie. his friends – are all the same, all of you always want and never really want to give back. None of you actually likes him.

We’ll assume this is a good enough friend that you’re still going to sit down for a beer after everything is in the house. We’ll also assume that given your own ability to master your own emotions, you didn’t just tell him where he could stick that broken vase and leave. First of all, how should we react to that situation when it first happens? Then there is the question of how to deal with it when everyone has calmed down. Obviously your friend was way out of line and engaged in behavior that no one should have to put up with coming from anyone, much less a friend.

Given the facts of that scenario, it is obvious that your friend has a significant problem with anger. Were he more emotionally mature, he wouldn’t have melted down like that. And there’s no question that his thoughts are pretty irrational. So what he needs to do is get rid of those irrational thoughts and make the fundamental life changes that will help him get less angry. The questions are: What is your responsibility in this scenario? and What is going to be the most productive course of action? There are a lot of variables involved with the negative behaviors you experienced, some of which are known, many of which are not. And many of the unknowns may be unknown to him as well as yourself.

This is the key problem with trying to blame people for their emotions – or at least with trying to get them to change their emotions. There are a lot of variables involved and some of those variables might make trying to get someone to make the changes that can improve their emotional reactions counterintuitive. The best thing to do is to deal with the behavior. How you go about that is dependent on the known variables. First and foremost, deal with the irrational thoughts.

One of the best tools for dealing with irrational thoughts are automatic thought worksheets, but they are only useful to people who recognize they are having irrational thoughts, or are committing irrational actions. These are generally used by people who are suffering depression or anger issues and help specifically deal with responses to emotions. You should keep in mind that they are not likely to change the emotions a person experiences, they will merely help them learn to deal with those emotions in a healthier fashion.

The best way for most people to deal with the negative behaviors of a friend is to simply point out that what they have done was inappropriate. Generally if you want that to be effective, you’re going to want to do what you can to tactfully take the edge off the shame. Shame is an important teacher, but face management can often lead someone to retreat into isolation or, as is often the case, more anger. Anger is a very common response to feelings of shame and may ultimately be at the root of the hypothetical outburst we’re exploring here. It is always in the best interest of the friend you may be helping, to provide them with some room to save face.

In many cases, simply recognizing an excuse they haven’t made is plenty. In the context of this scenario, recognizing that the breaking of the vase is good reason for them to be upset would be ideal. Make it clear that their behavior was absolutely unacceptable, but understandable just the same. Obviously you will know better exactly what your friend is going to react best to – some people will get angry if you try to make excuses. But for the most part, taking the edge off the shame is going to make it much easier to positively address what happened and foster lasting, positive change.

If this is a chronic problem, or if this friend isn’t a particularly good friend, another solution is simply to cut them loose. Losing friends can be a powerful teacher and if real changes are made, friendships can be renewed. And while I don’t suggest just cutting them loose without warning, I recommend against moratoriums. They can and should be used in some circumstances, but they should also be used quite judiciously. What is far better is to simply make it absolutely clear that you will not tolerate being treated that way. If the problem persists then you tell them you are no longer interested in continuing the relationship.

Of course a point may come when they ask you for help. One excellent option would be to recommend they find a forum for people with (in this case) anger problems. Unless you too have this problem, you cannot relate to their problem and shouldn’t try. Having gotten pissed a few times until you grew out of it just doesn’t cut it. The possible exception to this would be if you have family with similar problems and have been forced to deal with those issues all too personally. One very useful question to ask them is what is making them so angry. Odds are good that they “don’t know.” If they have a pathological anger problem, there is really no way for them to know. If the problem isn’t pathological, it is likely that the underlying cause for their anger is something they can’t control, can’t resolve and are therefore trying to ignore. Another possibility is just a lack emotional maturity.

Whether or not you choose to take the edge off the shame and assuming that you actually want to help, offer to be a sounding board for the rationality of their behaviors. Ask them to tell you what they were thinking when they exploded, why they exploded. Empathize with their anger, if they had a reasonable excuse for getting angry. Validate their feelings, but not their actions – assuming their actions were inappropriate. And rather than wait for them to call you when they get angry, call them or meet with them on a regular basis and ask. Most importantly, don’t judge them. If you can’t not judge them, don’t try to help them. Finally, don’t do anything more than indicate whether their actions and thoughts are rational and be supportive.

You cannot be your friend’s therapist, you should never try to be. If the problem is extreme enough, encourage them to see a therapist if at all possible. Therapists aren’t just for those of us who are mentally ill. They are also great for helping people work through situational mental problems. Ultimately it is not a matter of their being trained that makes a psychologist the better choice than you for being a therapist. The key is that they are impartial and aren’t going to put an existing relationship at risk. The training is useful, don’t get me wrong, but the critical point is that a therapist cannot be a friend. If you try to combine those roles, one or, more likely, both parties are going to end up the worst for it.

The very reason that I am going into psychology is that I believe absolutely in helping others achieve maximum flourishing. I believe it is a moral imperative – a personal moral imperative to not only be the best person I can possibly be, but to do everything in my power to help others be the same. One of the tenants of my life has been to love other people, something I picked up from my understanding of Christianity and have carried into godlessness. I don’t like people, for the most part. For many different reasons, people do a lot of ugly things to each other. But I cannot help but love them just the same – it is a part of who I am. This sort of loving “in spite of” is made easier by my awareness of my own capacity for hurting others.

What this loving of others means to me, is an intense desire to reduce suffering in others – whether I like them or not. Of course the best way to reduce suffering is to help others be the best they can be, as well as striving to be the best *I* can be. The most functional, evidence based approach to helping others achieve maximum flourishing is by dealing with their behaviors. Because when behaviors are addressed, their emotional reactions are likely to follow and if they don’t – if the emotional reactions are due to pathology, then behaviors are still the best chance for fostering maximum flourishing. And even in the case of emotional pathologies, the underlying emotions will almost certainly get better.

To be clear, emotional maturity doesn’t mean that people magically stop getting angry about things they feel strongly about. It is the intensity of our emotional reactions and more importantly, how we respond to those reactions that changes. It is only by changing our beliefs about a given thing that can change our emotional response to that thing. Blaming people for emotions is a lot like blaming a raptor for wanting to kill and eating rodents. Emotions are a natural response to stimuli and can never be anything else. If your goal is the greatest good, blame people for their actions instead. Because as Daniel notes: “…most of our own flourishing is achieved through actually aiding the flourishing of others…”

Consider heading on over to Traumatized by Truth and offering DuWayne Your Thoughts.

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