Relationship Guide: Episode 4- Your Emotional World
This article is intended to be an exploration into some of the important things that impact how communication is impacted by our feelings. Often, when relationships appear to be negatively impacted by simple but persistent breakdowns in communication, we focus on certain rules and practices. Following basic rules in loving communication is a great way to get started, but in my work with couples this is most often only the beginning of deeper parts of our work. Learning a new way of interacting can create new awareness and direct us to attend to our inner world more than ever, as we struggle to follow the rules of communication or practice new strategies as we interact. The deeper and more lasting work involves developing a greater understanding of the connection between our actions, thoughts, feelings, beliefs, assumptions, attitudes, past experiences, and environment and those of our partner. We can truly focus our attention on things that give us authority over our lives, so that we can be a positive force in our relationships instead of being held captive to our emotions and the muddy ruts of past frustrations.
As you read on, I am hopeful that you will be exposed to some ideas and how they interconnect within the world of love and communication. The concepts are fairly straightforward for many, but how they impact our relationships and our experiences with different feelings and behaviors is complex and worth mindful consideration within your unique experience.
Interaction and Decision versus Automatic Reaction
Our brains seem to work pretty consistently to predict outcomes, whether those predictions are accurate, or not. Rational thought seems to give us the greatest path toward accuracy; however this gives us little room for exceptions. Emotions are also very central to our experiences, and they play a very strong role in this, as they serve as signposts or labels on the file folders of our experiences. They tell us what may be important to us and can inspire us to move or act at the same time. In the most primitive, animalistic parts of our brains, feelings are quite useful to promote quick reflexes that might make the difference between survival or illness, death and injury. As social creatures, though, being expedient is not necessarily the greatest virtue. In fact, being expedient is part of being rash, thoughtless, and abrupt--Which very few of us seek to embody in any of our relationships. So, a well-balanced balanced human being accesses feelings without reacting to them and makes decisions based on some degree of rational thought.
I have witnessed increases in trust between people who recognize this duality of mind early in work and seek to make room for a communication style that integrates the emotions and thoughts of both parties. This works specifically when they make a practice of strategies that challenge the parties to engage their experiences, needs, wants, hurts, ideas and communicate (that is listen first, share, and respond sparingly) to their partners in a manner that is supportive of each others' efforts.
A primary issue is that the advanced and special, more human part (versus animal part) of our thinking brain operates with the capacity for reason, but that becomes less influential over our behavior (meaning we react versus choose more readily). In short, when we are overcome with emotion, there goes a lot of our humanity, and with that goes our ability to love and accept love effectively.
A lot of effective communication is about creating an optimal setting for closeness, so I tend to work to help people understand the more vulnerable, "blue" (sad) emotion beneath the "red" (angry) expressions. Even though raw emotion may feel true, it can be possible to process those feelings and determine the needs and upset beneath the feelings. Also, it is far easier to receive support and understanding from others when you demonstrate more control and express less hostility. So much about safety and trust in relationships is about predictability, so it follows pretty clearly that if you are in a state of anger or intense rage you are significantly less likely to receive a great response from others! Because the emotional world is complex and dynamic, I invite people to maintain a continuous practice of exploring their emotional world, toward exposing the vulnerable feelings beneath the raw reactions through consistent practices in journaling, prayer, meditation, and different types of breathing. These practices are for everyone and although they are helpful toward recovering from a crisis situation, they are useful toward prevention as well.
So...What is actually going on when we are overwhelmed?
All of us come from a complex relational history. Our environments were varied and a major aspect of those differences is the tendency for some of us to have been treated in a less-than-perfect manner by the chorus of caregivers or adults in our childhood (parents, extended family, siblings, teachers, mentors, neighbors, church leaders, coaches, etc.). Get used to the fact that your personality, identity, preferences and aversions are a cumulative result of your adaptations to these relationships in concert with your needs, modeled behaviors attitudes and ideas, as well as your own observations and philosophies. This evolved part of who you are is a considerable amount of what you project forward in relationships, because it informs how you feel, what you think, and therefore how you act (they are inter-related). Also, this part of you is likely what your partner, friends and family enjoy about you and what might occasionally annoy them (or worse).
This is because our responses to the heaviest emotional states is not always immediately within our awareness, nor is it always easy to focus move from awareness to intentionally making decisions about our responses. This is the difference between reacting vs responding or even better automatic reactions compared to value-based, intentionality.
This is more important than one might think, especially as the prevailing wind of society seems to give some form of ordained power to our emotions, without completing the entire discussion about the actual role of emotions in our lives.
At times, our strongest feelings can "highjack" our rational minds, placing us within an emotional state so deep that it can be difficult to recognize at first. I refer to these states as emotional flashbacks. Such states tend to produce fairly diverse responses but fall into four distinct categories, related to the type of psychophysiological adaptation that occurs in the moment. This diagram illustrates the response types. It is very helpful to reflect on how your response type may be active at various times, toward hindering effective communication and connection with your partner. This awareness can be the beginning of very helpful work!
Feelings Matter, But...
Feelings matter, but perhaps not the way you may believe, and if you experience a lot of conflict or tension in your relationships the things you consciously and unconsciously believe about your feelings and the feelings of others may have a lot to do with what tends to happen in moments of conflict or dissatisfaction. Psychologists since Freud and Jung have expressed the most basic but true idea about feelings, which should not be overstated or turned into anything more or less than the simple statement that feelings help us notice things that may be important to us or to things that may have been important to us in the past.
The best way to think about feelings when it comes to relationships is this:
If you live by your feelings, your relationships will not go very well, very often. You will be at risk of becoming moody and possessed by your feelings when things do not go well, and you will become so desperately drawn to situations that generate positive feelings that compulsion may replace values or pursuits of higher meaning. If you commit to anything in a relationship, commit to pursuing health, meaning and Love. This will help guide you and your partner, family and friends toward enforcing the general and specific tenets of healthy relationship life.
To understand more about yourself and to take full responsibility for your part in healthy interactions with others, it is helpful to recognize how you feel and respond to feelings as much as possible. Taking a compassionate and patient (yes, you must love yourself and accept your emotions to understand them fully) look at your life and experiences in context of understanding them in how they influence your attitudes and emotions for both good and bad. Think also of the "fight, flight, freeze, or fawn" (4F) responses in real-time can help make sense of what might be going on with you. In all likelihood, you are going to recognize that you spend much of your day in a somewhat neutral place, feeling content, connected, curious, energized, joyful and hopeful. It is when these neutral or positive feelings wane or just disappear that we begin to experience negative emotion. This creates a moment wherein a moody possession by one of our 4 F's could occur. It isn't pleasant, so if you have not yet begun a journey of healing please be understanding and patient with yourself and others in the midst of one of these emotional landscapes. They can be vast, and they are always historically important to the individual in a way that can be quite laborious to explore and master. This is the work of inner-healing.
A helpful approach to understanding the 4F's is to explore a description of each response type and consider which you experience most, then next, and so on. Maybe you never experience certain responses. Perhaps you experience more of certain responses. For instance, I know many people who tend to freeze when they reach a certain point of emotional arousal--due to feeling the presence of some sort of threat. This occurs about as often outside the person's awareness as when they can point it out. It is fairly rare to hear someone state, "I am feeling frozen", a reference to some level of dissociation. It is more common that people in the surround may notice something different or "off" about that person in those moments. Ideally, people would notice that mood state and help the person in the state with a degree of compassion and understanding, but it often happens that people are uncertain about how to interact with a person in this state. This can lead to frustrated conversations or worse. It is often very difficult for a "freeze type" to have frequent interactions with a "fight type" who may have experienced neglect or abandonment in the past and vice-versa. You can probably already imagine the types of conversations that might be had here. Moreover, from this one potential relational combination between 4F "types", you can also see how relationship dynamics such as pursuer-distancer or even more simple high conflict couples might emerge. I believe that these types of people can and often should be together, as they stand the greatest chance of triggering the very things that need to be healed within each. At the same time, I reinforce many times in my practice that no one should ever remain in a relationship where they are subject to mistreatment or where they tend to mistreat another person.
Get help if your relationship involves any form of mistreatment, because it can and often does get better. That help can sometimes be the only safe way for the necessary change to occur.
Emotional Management for Relationships
I've often thought about the many unhealthy relationship ideas and attitudes that are frequently expressed in song and film. At the same time I am quite aware that these modes have significantly more impact on the average mindset about what constitutes normalcy in relationships and emotional expression. Take the simple expression and song title "Love Hurts" for example. This is not at all necessary, nor is it exactly true. What I know to be a lot more true is that pain hurts, mistreatment is painful, and frustrating relationship patterns (a.k.a. "drama") is painful. Real Love is not painful, but it is not well understood by a large number of people, who often suffer in their relationships as a consequence of not understanding. They simply believe, in tragic commitment to mediocrity, that what they have experienced in relationship life is "as good as it gets." This is a lie. Things can get better, but it all starts with a personal commitment to rules and awareness of emotions and behavior. That commitment takes courage and a bit of work, so best of luck! Keep learning and never be afraid of seeking help from an experienced relationship expert.
About the author: Brock Caffee has practiced Marriage and Family Therapy for 20 years. He is in private practice is in Lawrence, KS. He has experience as a lecturer, clinical supervisor and manager. Life experiences include opportunities for insight into the world of parenting, divorce, step-parenting, and addiction recovery.