There is a high school around the corner from us in Brooklyn. A couple times a day students spread out around the neighborhood, laughing and cutting up in the unique way of adolescence.
Yesterday, I passed a pair of teens who I presume were dating. The girl was very upset with the guy. She was screaming at him about a small misunderstanding that had caused some offense and hurt feelings. After taking the abuse for a few quiet minutes, the fuse seemingly ran out as the boy started screaming back at her. He kept screaming, “Stop yelling at me!”
In a world that idolizes emotions, we often find ourselves in a game of emotional one-upmanship.
A few years ago, I was working at a church in Texas. There was a very divisive issue happening within the church, threatening to cause a split. The pastors were meeting with groups of people in homes to talk through all sides of the issue.
My war-torn head pastor was looking pretty beat up in the hall one weekday and I asked him how he was holding up with all the town halls. And he told me, “You know, the hardest thing about this is to not match the emotion of others.”
This is what was happening with the teen couple. And it is prevalent in our society. One person’s anger ignites another’s. We adopt offenses and take up all of the crosses around us.
Emotions are indicators. They are alarm bells that let us know something is going on. I wonder if being around a person expressing emotion triggers a competitive nature in us. The part of us that wants to make life always about ME can’t stand it when someone else takes center stage. Perhaps it is our victim mentality. We feel something outside of our control slipping in and we want to fight it by dominating it.
Whatever the cause, it is clear that matching emotions is an epidemic within our relationships.
We are not talking about empathy here. Like most things, our perversions have a base or a guise in something good. We are called to mourn with those who mourn and rejoice with those who rejoice. But there is a huge difference between coming alongside someone in true empathy and bashing against them in competitive emotion.
Empathy is a beautiful thing. When we are empathetic, we are lifted beyond ourselves (not outside of ourself, but beyond it). We are transported into the realm of WE, sharing burdens as a participative community.
In the context we are talking about it, matching emotions is very much the opposite. It is hijacking another’s emotions to make them about ME. It is our attempt at overriding their emotion by making it our own, reaching out in theft and pulling something deep inside of our own-self that does not truly belong to us.
The great lie of emotional one-upmanship is that we can control another’s emotions by beating it. It is a defensive behavior born from our fear of victim mentality and our inability to properly handle our own emotions.
One of the reasons emotions are so untrustworthy is because they work on hairpin triggers. Seeing someone express an emotion excites emotion within us. Our emotions are so reactive that when we see one in someone else, we immediately want to mimic it. And our culture has taught us that stronger emotion is power. We win by being the most emotional voice in the room.
We can’t really prevent the rise of emotion from happening. But when it does, we have two choices. We can give in to this temptation, matching and raising emotions in a poker game where there is really no winners. In this iteration, we end up going all in on the smallest of things, we have to in an out-of-control game of raising stakes.
On the other hand, we can force ourselves to pause, to consider the emotions of others and to be aware of the whys and hows of both theirs and our own. The only way to reconciliation is to differentiate between our emotions and those of others. Otherwise, we will fight to swallow their emotions or allow ours to disappear under their superiority. Each is as unhelpful as the other. The road to reconciliation is calmness, absorbing and organizing our emotions so that we might control our responses to them more effectively and with a heart for unity.