Misplaced Affectivity

I don’t want to be at the mercy of my emotions. I want to use them, enjoy them, and to dominate them. — Oscar Wilde

It’s been said that emotionally immature people are irascible, self-centered, or exhibit difficulty controlling their emotions in multiple contexts. Semantic debates aside, petulant personality types accentuate emotions that override their capacity for amicable and effective interactions. I would argue that super-normal emotional reactivity happens when other forms of cognitive development (i.e., critical or analytical thinking) are neglected. Nevertheless, strong emotions can be advantageous when properly siphoned.

Managing your emotions doesn’t say anything about one’s aptitude for “deep feelings;” rather, it suggests that the best use of any emotion requires self-regulation. Learning to create value with emotions by channeling your feelings efficaciously relies on the art of all things systematized. After all, other people’s emotional investments matter just as much as yours. Regardless of how emotionally profound, sensitive, or ethically justified someone might feel themselves to be, a level of discipline is necessary for cashing out on impassioned preoccupations.

Freud pointed out that the ego’s job is to realize it’s not the only id in the sea, and Lacan reminded us that you can’t always (or never) get what you really want. Although impetuousness has its neuroanatomical correlates, placing a cognitive buffer zone between activating stressors and behavioral responses can loosen the grip of an over-reactive mind. Emotional trip wires can be disabled or avoided altogether once the episodic memory bank is sufficiently scanned via contemplating a history of situational consequences. Preemptive agreements (e.g., Ulysses contracts) encourage the habit of strategic behavior management while accepting the liabilities of enthusiasm. In addition, Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy comes with a wonderful heuristic for avoiding the fallout of emotional and behavioral temerity.

Strong emotional proclivities have allowed us to create profound art, literature, film, and music; but they’ve also generated culpability for incidents involving road rage, crimes of passion, and varieties of impulsive experience. Finding a proper geometry between reason and passion will ensure that gut reactions won’t overshadow everything above the neck. If you have a propensity towards untethered fervidity, behavioral science is probably worth investigating. That being said, establishing emotional equanimity doesn’t mean you have to be restricted to the affective range of Steven Wright as you walk through the gates in search of your remaining baggage.

Smoother Sailing

An English officer is conducting an exam interview with a candidate for the Royal Navy.

Examiner: “Suppose you’re the captain of a tall ship and the wind is blowing you towards the rocks. What would you do?” Sailor: “I’d tack to starboard and ask for more sails.” Examiner: “All right, but what if there’s more wind blowing your ship towards the rocks?” Sailor: “I’d continue to tack to starboard and add another sail.” This went on for a while until the examiner asked impatiently, “Where are you getting all these sails from, son?” Sailor: “The same place you’re getting all that wind from, sir.”

My father was a former enthusiast of balmy weather, marine tranquility, and unruffled yachting. Ironically, he was less than steady-going when it came to operating automotive vehicles. During family trips to the beach in a 1972 Ford station wagon, he would employ his annoying habit of accelerating and slowing down unnecessarily—subsequently “driving” my mother crazy. To be fair, cruise control wasn’t a standard feature in cars until a global oil crisis eventually popularized auto-pilot locomotion, but it fascinated me how psychomotor agitation can manifest itself in unusual ways.

A familiar phrase in recovery-based therapy is “trust the process.” Without asking the obvious question about what exact process we are supposed to be trusting, I would circumvent this platitude and point out that we’re always in process. From circadian rhythms to the planet’s gravitational trajectory that generates oceanic tides, processes are both necessary and unavoidable—regardless of whether you trust them or not. Furthermore, stability is dependent on the consistency of patterns and maintaining temperate velocities within a dynamic range. However, abrupt changes in the weather are sometimes less troublesome than abrupt changes in our emotional barometer. Discovering our optimum range of functioning, both internally and interpersonally, keeps us from treading water in the self-imposed slavery of our insatiable appetites or drowning in conflict.

Pathology is generally determined by the amount of friction you create for yourself or others over time. It’s better to know in advance what you can realistically manage before heading for the tempestuous waves of overcommitment. Mental hygiene is just as important as your dental hygiene, and taking time to concede the limitations of resilience will allow you to prioritize solutions before capsizing in the wake of oncoming stressors. For example, you could blame Poseidon for inundating you with unmanageable tsunamis, but it might be worth acknowledging the physics of plate tectonics, the reality of unpredictable circumstances, and how to prepare for navigating the inlets of future trauma.

If Cthulhu devours your sails while the wind continues to blow you towards the rocks, you may need to man the oars at a steadier pace to keep your vessel away from unceasing winds.

Emotional Immunity

Pediatricians and immunologists will confirm that healthy children are born with immunity to certain environmental pathogens (innate immunity). However, a child’s immune system also develops over time based on increased exposure to harmful microorganisms (acquired immunity). As an adult, macrophage cells perpetually scan the body for invading antigens while sending messages to helper T cells that prompt the body’s white blood cells to create antibodies. This arms race of virulent pathogens versus host cells is a non-stop competition for space in biological systems.*

Similarly, human emotions are affected by a never-ending cascade of environmental stimuli; some traumatic, some pernicious, some prosaic, and others exhilarating. Developing resilience requires the construction of an emotional immune system capable of identifying activating life stressors while carefully calibrating the correct behavioral responses. The more exposure one has to life’s unpredictable range of experiences, the more availability one has to adaptively process the outcomes of various events. My personal aphorism and pragmatic default position has always been, “Wisdom is not experience, but rather the interpretation of experience.” How an individual interprets and assimilates life’s occurrences often determines one’s ability to preemptively avoid attaching emotions to uncontrollable outcomes.

The philosopher George Santayana once commented, “Life is not a spectacle or a feast; it is a predicament.” Although this statement may appear disheartening in its declaration of unsentimental realism, a lesson can be imparted regarding the importance of adaptation while developing strategies for navigating stressful terrain. How do we learn to incorporate the experiences of suffering in ways that give us leverage to assess and overcome future obstacles? Are all stressors worth solving (or even capable of being solved)? How do we prioritize our daily concerns while learning to alleviate unnecessary, long-term anxiety?

The word dianoetic means to engage in discursive reasoning rather than reacting with emotional intuition. Likewise, dianoetic therapy is a way of evaluating the degree of stress in our lives, its primary causes, and our options for being selectively indifferent to non-critical hardships by limiting our emotional attachment to outcomes by way of being rational. In contrast, hedging our emotional well-being on the results of a future event is one way to guarantee disappointment, disillusionment, and possibly despair. The more familiar we are with alternative responses to stressors, the more likely those alternatives will emerge in consciousness as plausible coping mechanisms.

Just as the human microbiome depends on the cooperative equilibrium of billions of microorganisms, seemingly inconsequential imbalances often become the precursors to pathology. Similarly, learning to recognize how we successfully responded to unfortunate circumstances in the past presents us with a guide for relying on our emotional immunity to maneuver through challenging life predicaments without losing composure. In other words, in the arms race of tragedies we must develop an arsenal of confrontational strategies.

Alex Lickerman, M.D., has written an ambitiously titled book, The Undefeated Mind, related to similar ideas of developing resilience and discovering our own formula for achieving emotional equanimity. Steeped in the philosophical underpinnings of Nichiren Daishonen’s Buddhism (a thirteenth-century subset of traditional Buddhism), Lickerman explores what it means to combat adversity while discovering contentment in the face of rejection, illness, suffering, and loss. Despite the provocative and principally questionable title, The Undefeated Mind offers a comprehensive overview of the concept that acceptance does not equal browbeaten acquiescence and misfortune does not have to result in nihilism. After all, the first (and often unmentioned) principle of Buddhism is that life involves suffering and a non-anesthetized awareness of pain is required for understanding the fragility of existence. Strength is often equated with physique, but tenacity more often relies on mental endurance. Despite our vulnerabilities and need for “licking our wounds,” we must avoid what the psychologist Daniel Gilbert refers to as affective forecasting (predicting how we’ll feel in the future). None of us can predict how life circumstances will affect us several years from now and each day brings distance between what was once a dire crisis and what may now be an uncomfortable memory. The basic principle of resilience development involves using our memory of previous experiences as a GPS device for adjudicating current stressors and building a library of internal mechanisms for survival in turbulent waters.

Nonetheless, emotional immunity does not mean that our tolerance won’t be profoundly compromised; after all, some levels of agony or disenfranchisement may exist within a realm that requires acceptance of another type altogether. To be clear, I’m not endorsing naïve optimism of the ilk so eloquently critiqued by Barbara Ehrenreich in Bright-Sided, or the late Christopher Hitchens in his brutally honest biographical account of living (and dying) with cancer entitled Mortality. Rather, a realistic approach to processing extreme difficulties often depends on context, availability of resources, interpersonal support, and severity of circumstance. It is the type of acceptance described in existential philosophy that ultimately makes life more bearable during insurmountable periods of misery, but our perspective may demand creative action more than contemplation to offset the impact of trauma.

A healthy immune system should be robust enough to recognize external threats without turning on itself by overcorrecting responses to innocuous pathogens. Likewise, emotional immunity requires parsimony by minimizing energy spent on trivial nuisances to retain ammunition for the things that matter most.

Whatever reserves of adaptability and deflection from psychological harm we may cultivate, it is worth remembering that none of us are immune to change.

*For a highly-recommended book concerning the development of biological immunity, read Why We Get Sick by Randolph M. Nesse, M.D., and George C. Williams, PH.D.