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Mental Schemas #15: Emotional Inhibition

Handling negative emotions

This post is part of a series on schema therapy, an approach to addressing negative thinking patterns that was devised by Dr. Jeffrey Young. You can find an introduction to schemas and schema therapy, a list of schemas, and links to other schema articles on The Willpower Engine here.

A person with an Emotional Inhibition schema holds back emotions in situations where it would be healthier to express them–feelings like anger, joy, affection, and vulnerability get stifled. This schema is based on trying to act rationally and impersonally at all times, regardless of what’s going on inside. Someone with this schema may feel embarrassed or ashamed to feel or express certain emotions or may fear disapproval or losing control. If you find it difficult to tell people how you feel or see yourself coming across as wooden, you may find learning about this schema useful.

Where emotional inhibition comes from
People with Emotional Inhibition schemas often grow up in families where expressing emotions is frowned upon, mocked, or punished. Often the whole family–sometimes supported by the culture the family comes from–adopts a similar pattern of keeping emotions hidden at all times. In this kind of environment, hiding emotions becomes an act of self-protection. As the child grows, the habit can be very hard to break, so that someone raised this way can grow up continuing to be unable to express emotion even in situations where it’s perfectly safe and entirely constructive to do so.

Overcoming an Emotional Inhibition schema
As with any schema or personal limitation, the first step is to be able to see the problem as a problem. A person who is used to holding back emotions may not appreciate on a gut level the value of expressing them appropriately. It can help to think through the consequences of this kind of expression. For example, what is likely to happen if you tell a friend that you’re angry that they didn’t show up to an event you’d agreed to go to together–will the friend stop associating with you, or will careful expression of these feelings help clear the air? What are the consequences of telling a family member “I love you”? Is it likely to cause trouble if you laugh out loud in a busy restaurant?

In at least one way, overcoming an Emotional Inhibition schema is more difficult than overcoming other schemas: because Emotional Inhibition encourages handling everything rationally, trying to rationally assess one’s own thoughts about feeling inhibited can drag a person deeper into the Emotional Inhibition mindset rather than showing the way out. A person who falls into this snare can benefit from emotional experiences.

Using experiences to overcome emotional inhibition
Any experience that gives a person practice in constructively expressing emotions can help break down a habit of emotional inhibition. By definition these experiences tend to be uncomfortable–after all, people who do this are pushing back against deeply ingrained habits–but realizing this in advance and recognizing the discomfort as a sign of doing the right thing can be helpful.

Some examples of experiences that help with expressing emotions include group therapy, where a highly supportive environment can make it easier and more comfortable to talk about feelings; role-playing; confrontational sports like wrestling and martial arts (Olympic-style Taekwondo has a great sparring component); and dancing or dance lessons.

Spending more time with people who are comfortable expressing their emotions and using them as role models and guides can also make a positive difference.

As with any personal concern, if a schema or other personal issues feel too large or unyielding to handle alone, working with a qualified cognitive therapist can be a way to break through. You might be interested in finding a therapist qualified to work in schema therapy or some other kind of cognitive therapist.

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Anger: Keeping Your Cool with Preparation and Self-Awareness

Handling negative emotions

This is the second article in a series on anger. The first article was Monday’s “Anger: Does Venting Help or Just Make It Worse?

One of the tricky things about dealing with anger is that our immediate mental response system for dealing with threats–run by a primitive part of the brain called the amygdala–doesn’t wait for us to understand what’s going on. This is pretty reasonable: if you’re a primitive human being and you’re being attacked by a Smilodon, you don’t want to be thinking about whether to react or not: you want to be immediately jabbing with your spear or running away (fight or flight). This is why people can be startled even by things that they know intellectually aren’t dangerous, like a loud noise in a carnival haunted house.

But Smilodons are extinct these days, and while the fast-track fight or flight response is still useful sometimes, as when we jump out of the way of a falling object, at other times anger and fear responses are very bad news. For instance, if someone is scared or upset and says something ill-considered to us, we may have a hard time not immediately responding in kind and turning a offhand comment into an argument.

Yet we do have the power to override our amygdala-driven gut reactions, and two of our best weapons in this fight are preparation and self-awareness.

Preparation in this case means putting ourselves in a mood to defuse instead of magnify negative feelings. One of the best ways to do this, notes Daniel Goleman in his book Emotional Intelligence, is to look at people toward whom you may be feeling angry “with a more charitable line of thought,” which “tempers anger with mercy, or at least an open mind, short-circuiting the buildup of rage.” In other words, thinking about what circumstances may be driving people to do things we don’t like rather than focusing on our mental condemnation of those people for doing those things creates an opportunity for compassion and keeping our cool.

As for self-awareness, this is an approach I’ve praised in other articles, such as “Mindfulness and Deer Flies.” Being aware of our own emotions gives us the opportunity to do something about a situation using our thoughts, for instance by noticing and repairing broken ideas. Lack of self-awareness–that is, acting without considering why we’re acting or what we’re feeling–closes off that option to us completely. When we’re not aware of our own emotions, we are mostly slaves to our own emotional habits.

This series will continue in the next week or two with more information about and strategies for dealing with anger.

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Anger: Does Venting Help or Just Make It Worse?

Handling negative emotions

“Let it out,” goes the common wisdom. “If you don’t vent your anger, it will just keep bothering you.” This kind of advice dates at least back to Freud, who believed that negative emotions build up like water behind a dam and must be released if a person wants to get relief. But psychological research in more than a century since Freud’s time has not supported this idea: instead of letting go of anger, venting may really be a way to hang onto it.

The problem with theory that venting anger helps stems from the idea that emotions build up and are retained in some kind of raw state. But emotions consist of a variety of kinds of activity throughout the brain and the rest of the body (see “How emotions work“), especially in the specific thoughts we are thinking (like “People like that shouldn’t be allowed to drive!” or “I look like an idiot in this shirt”) and in various chemicals released in our bodies, like testosterone, which tends to increase aggressive and arousal; adrenaline, which kicks off our fight-or-flight response; and seratonin, which helps regulate mood–to name just a few. Realizing that emotion is largely made up of fleeting thoughts and temporary chemical states, it begins to be clear that we can’t really “store” emotions in the same way that our bodies store nutrients or even in the same way we store memories. It is possible to keep anger (and other kinds of damaging emotions) going over a long time through self-talk, but this is just another form of “rumination,” the same kind of thing we’re doing when we vent anger.

Rumination, what we’re doing both when we vent anger and when we keep reminding ourselves of it, means “chewing over” an emotional experience we’ve had–re-experiencing it. Acting angry to vent an emotion is therefore a way of dwelling and obsessing on the emotion that we’re trying to get rid of. Even doing nothing is, it turns out, a more effective way to deal with anger than venting.

There’s a good body of psychological research to support this idea, much of which tries to find the benefit of venting anger and finds no evidence of it. If you’re interested in reading more on the subject, for instance, you might want to the Dr. Brad J. Bushman’s paper “Does Venting Anger Feed or Extinguish the Flame? Catharsis, Rumination, Distraction, Anger, and Aggressive Responding.”

So if venting doesn’t help to fix anger, what does? Focusing on someone or something you love is one approach: see “Antidotes to bad moods and negative emotions.” Another is to become aware of your self-talk and to repair broken ideas: see “All About Broken Ideas and Idea Repair.”

Look for more articles on the topic of anger over coming weeks. I’ve dug up a variety of information on the subject that I hope you’ll find as interesting as I find it.

Photo by amanky

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Principles for Prioritizing, Part III: Feelings and Finding the Top

Strategies and goals

This is the third article in a short series on prioritizing. The first article in the series, “Principles for Prioritizing, Part I: Moving Targets,” includes links to other articles on the site about organizing and prioritizing and is followed by “Principles for Prioritizing, Part II: Unimportant Tasks.”

3. How important something feels isn’t always a good indication of how important it is
To gauge how important something really is, it helps to put it in the context of what you really want in life. What are your key priorities? Going by gut feeling can sometimes lead us in the wrong direction because a task may be appealing or exciting or seem important because we’re wrapped up in it, when in fact it isn’t as important as other, less dramatic tasks. Try to judge the importance of an item from a distance, when you’re not deeply wrapped up in the task itself, by thinking about what effect it is likely to have in your life.

To get out of an obsession with a particular task that isn’t really a priority, allow your attention to focus on something else for at least a few minutes: have a conversation with a friend about a subject of mutual interest, or do a small task that’s unrelated to the one you’ve been involved in. These few minutes allow your brain to reorganize so that it’s not focused on that one possibly unimportant task, and let your physiology reset so that you’re not swept up in the biochemical side of emotion. In this state of mind, you can consider that appealing task in the context of all your other priorities.

4. The most important goal of prioritization is to find your top few tasks–especially your top one task
If you have a 200-item task list, it’s not particularly important to get all of your items prioritized so that, for instance, items 183 and 184 are in the proper order. Realistically, you may never get to items 183 and 184, and even if you do, circumstances are likely to change by the time you get there. The most effective way to prioritize is to care just about the top few tasks for the moment, so that you know what to start doing immediately and have one or two things queued up after you finish that first item. Doing this allows you to do what a task list is meant to help you do: focus on the one thing that it would benefit you most to be doing right now.

Finding those top few tasks may mean skimming over all 200 (or 20, or 2,000) items in your task list, but when skimming, the only thing to be thinking about is “what here would it be really good for me to tackle very soon?” The tasks that meet this criterion can then be sorted through with the question “Which of these would be most beneficial to do right now?”

That list of “very soon” things should never be more than a half dozen items long unless they’re very small items if you want to make good use of your searching. Anything more than that, and priorities are likely to change before you get to all of the items. Prioritize for the moment.

Photo by Chris JL

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When Is It Time to Make a Change?

Handling negative emotions

In my recent article “Dealing With Problems That Can’t Be Fixed,” I promised to follow up with a discussion of things that can be changed. If a situation is bad, there are circumstances in which we can’t do anything about it–for example, for most of us the recent Deepwater Horizon oil spill was such a situation (although even in instances like this we’re not completely powerless, as I’ll discuss in my upcoming article on ways we can affect the world). When we have little or no opportunity to change a situation, then in a way the situation is no longer our problem; instead, our challenge is to address our own feelings about the situation, as discussed in last week’s article.

But what about situations where we do have some control, influence, or future prospects? If you hate your job, does that mean it’s time to quit your job, or time to change your attitude toward your work? (See “6 Ways to Be Happy at a Job You Don’t Like“). If you’re having a lousy marriage, does that mean you should divorce, or that you should work on finding ways to be happier together? If you’re failing your first year of college, should you stay even though you think your chances of succeeding are slim or quit?

Questions that point the way
Although there’s no one simple answer to questions like these, often it comes down to one of three options:

  1. Stay and work on it
  2. Stay and reconcile yourself, or
  3. Leave.

These choices don’t apply to every single situation, but they do to most. Which one we choose depends on questions like the ones that follow. Asking questions like these helps us focus on key issues about our situation.

By the way, it’s best to answer these questions out loud–whether to yourself or while talking with a friend–or in writing, since this will lead to more specific, focused responses than quiet thought would do.

  • Do you have direct control over or responsibility for the problem? Note that this includes situations that feel out of control but that you are the sole actor in, such as eating habits or organization.
  • If you don’t have control, do you have some direct influence? Is there someone you can talk to, a request you can make, or an action you can take to encourage things to go in the right direction?
  • If you don’t have direct influence, do you have indirect influence? For example: if you want to be promoted, are there things you can do to stand out better at your job? If you want to be picked for a team or performing group, can you expand your practice schedule?
  • How much does this problem really matter? This isn’t always the same question as “how much do you care about this problem?” because it’s possible for us to get really worked up about things that may not necessarily be very important. (See “How emotions work“)
  • How much impact will your efforts be likely to make? If you’re worried about a situation in your neighborhood, you’re likely to be able to have more direct impact than if the problem is national or international, for instance. This doesn’t mean that you should only direct your efforts towards small or local things, only that it’s worth considering how big your contribution can be.
  • If one or more other people are involved, are their aspirations the same as yours? If they’re not, are you necessarily in conflict, or is it possible there might be an approach that could work for everyone, or at least for more people than the existing options would help? I’m not talking about compromise here, although I don’t deny that has some value in its place, but instead about getting away from the idea that when two people don’t agree, they necessarily have to duke it out. An excellent resource for learning how to work with someone who’s opposed to you is psychologist Marshall Rosenberg’s Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life. Another great book for navigating difficult negotiations is Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes are High. If you’re really interested in learning how to make constructive solutions in the midst of conflicts, either or both of these books can be invaluable.
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Dealing With Problems That Can’t Be Fixed

Handling negative emotions

From all my talk about how idea repair can be used to deal with negative emotions–anger, sadness, fear, etc.–you might get the sense I’m trying to say that negative emotions are always a bad thing. Yet negative emotions can serve the purpose of focusing our attention where it’s needed (see “The Benefits of Feeling Bad“). So when is a negative emotion helpful and when is it just a drag?

If the problem in front of you can be changed and acted upon, then there are some questions to ask, and I’ll talk about these in a near-future post. But if the problem can’t be fixed, then the choice is simply between a) having the problem and being miserable and b) having the problem but being happy anyway.

If you’re in a situation that is not going to change on its own, can’t be changed by you, and can’t be avoided (or is too important to avoid), then the only thing left to do is to change your feelings toward the situation. This requires surrender and being willing to find and repair broken ideas about the problem, something that’s not easy for most of us. After all, we’re generally taught that if something is broken, someone should fix it. Not many of us are raised to deal comfortably with things that can’t be fixed.

Things that will fix themselves or that can be fixed by you but that will take some time to get there also require surrender and idea repair (or the equivalent) if you don’t want to be miserable in the mean time. For example, if you’re in a very bad financial situation that won’t get any better until your house sells, then you have the choice of being miserable until your house sells or of dealing with your feelings immediately, even though the situation will go away in future. Unfortunately, temporary problems often weigh on us just as heavily as permanent ones, and call for the same strategies if we want to stop them from causing pain.

The benefits of reconciling ourselves to things we can’t change come whether the problem is large or small, fair or unfair, permanent or temporary, our fault or someone else’s fault or no one’s fault: letting go of negative emotions that can’t be acted upon creates a happier daily existence and clears the mind to focus on situations where we can make a different right now.

Photo by poritsky

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If You’re Not Happy Where You Are, Where’s Your Mind?

States of mind

As human beings, we have a unique ability: to project ourselves into a future situation, memory, or even an imagined situation, so that we almost feel like we’re there. We can close our eyes and picture being somewhere else, some time else, even someone else. And this can be very handy–or, depending on the situation, it can make life miserable and tedious.

What’s wrong with daydreaming?
The danger of daydreaming about somewhere else we’d like to be is that it tends to make it very difficult to connect constructively with the time and place we’re currently in. For instance, if I’m out mowing the lawn and can only think of going swimming when I’m done, I’m naturally going to tend to be impatient and dissatisfied with what I’m currently doing. While I’m not suggesting that the swimming won’t be nice, nor even that an occasional thought about swimming can make lawn mowing more enjoyable, what I am suggesting is that focusing on swimming for any period of time is likely to make the lawn work feel unpleasant.

You may respond that mowing the lawn is unpleasant–which can be true, but only when we maintain thought patterns reinforcing that feeling. We can experience things as unpleasant automatically just as we’re experiencing a new stimulus, but long-term negative emotions are usually maintained my mental loops: see “How emotions work.”

Getting more happiness right here, right now
Because thinking about wanting to be in another place or at another time tends to make us unhappy with where and when we really are, the most effective way to become happier in those situations–when you’re watching the clock for the end of the work day, or stuck in traffic and wanting to get home, or having financial problems and picturing a wealthier future–is to let go of the daydream and come back to the present. Once in the present, the thing to do is to find something absorbing about that present–a challenging task, an engrossing conversation, or a way to relax–that makes being then and there rewarding. True, burning through a stack of paperwork at the office is unlikely to be as rewarding as playing with the kids at home, but it will tend to beat the pants off sitting there and not getting that paperwork done while becoming progressively more miserable about being stuck there.

Useful daydreams and not-so-useful daydreams
There’s such a thing as constructive daydreaming, a practice that helps you connect with what’s rewarding about your goals, but the difference between this and get-me-out-of-this-moment daydreaming is that constructive daydreaming is a brief visit to something you hope to accomplish, not an extended retreat from what you probably would be best off doing right now.

The essential question boils down to this: what is there about where you are right now and what you feel would be best to be doing right now that can engage, excite, or fulfill you? Find that thing and seize on it, and the hours will pass much more quickly and happily than they would trying to be someplace you aren’t.

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Examples of Broken Ideas (Cognitive Distortions)

Handling negative emotions

A broken idea (called a “cognitive distortion” in the psychological literature) is a thought that creates problems because it’s flawed.

Some examples of broken ideas: “You always interrupt me!” (Always? Every single time?) “People think I look stupid when I dance.” (Everyone does? You can read their minds?) “I look like a mess for this interview! This is a disaster!” (As bad as the Hindenberg or Hurricane Katrina? It’s a disaster and not just an inconvenience?).

Broken ideas tend to play in loops in our minds, and this ongoing commentary often has the effect of causing trouble: disrupting work, encouraging us to act badly, or just making us miserable. I talk elsewhere on the site about how to detect broken ideas and how to repair them and provide an introduction to broken ideas, but a correspondent recently made the very good suggestion of posting examples of each type.

All-or-nothing thinking:
Looking at things as though they’re completely black or white, with no room for neutral or contrary characteristics.
“This job is the worst job I could possibly have. I hate it.”

Overgeneralization:
Taking a few examples and assuming that they describe an absolute pattern.
“My last two relationships ended badly: I must be completely incompetent at love.”

Mental filter:
Ignoring important facts to come up with a faulty conclusion.
“Mom and Dad always paid attention to you and never to me.”

Disqualifying the positive:
Ignoring anything that might get in the way of a negative judgment.
“It doesn’t matter that my boss complimented my work: since I didn’t get the promotion, I’m obviously a failure.”

Fortune telling:
Making assumptions about what will happen in the future.
“All this studying won’t help, and I’ll fail the test.”

Mind reading:
Making assumptions about what other people are thinking.
“Everybody in the audience must think I’m a complete idiot up here.”

Magnification or minimization:
Exaggerating or understating anything about a situation.
“I have to move? This is awful! This will ruin everything I have set up in my life!”

Emotional reasoning:
Assuming that something’s true because it feels like it’s true.
“I know I planned the event carefully, but I know something’s going to go wrong.”

Should statements:
Getting upset because one doesn’t have control or governance over other people’s actions, random events, or basic facts of existence.
“That jerk shouldn’t be driving so slowly in the left lane!”
“I should be able to eat cookies whenever I want to! It’s not fair that my coworkers can do that and not get fat!”

Labeling:
Describing something in a way that prevents it from being clearly seen and often makes it seem much worse than it is.
“I’m a coward and loser, and nothing’s going to change that.”

Personalization:
Assuming that a situation or event says something about oneself personally when it doesn’t.
“I didn’t win this contest–they must think I’m a terrible writer.”

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Everything Sucks. Reboot? Y/N

Handling negative emotions

Every once in a while, I have a day where enough seems to have gone wrong that I’m lodged deep in a lousy mood. Sometimes I’m not clever enough to be aware of this right away, so it persists until mindfulness finally kicks in with something to the effect of “You’re in a bad mood, and there is no reason for it unless it’s somehow helping you. Is it helping?”

It generally isn not helping. So I try to find my way out of that lousy mood using one of the techniques in this post.

The human brain is not very much like a computer. It changes its own structure constantly, stores information in locations scattered throughout the brain, and even runs two different systems (one neural and mostly cognitive, the other chemical and mostly emotional) at the same time. There’s more on this in my article about science fiction and the human brain at Clarkesworld.

But even though the brain doesn’t work the way computers do in many respects, it is capable of reboots: shutting down everything that’s currently running–including bad moods–and starting from scratch. However, reboots are not always easy. There are at least two things that get in the way.

The first is called “mood congruity”: this is the tendency of human beings to have trouble really imagining any emotional situation other than the one they’re already in. If you’re in a bad mood and you picture enjoying a nice walk outside, chances are it will be difficult for you to believe in your gut that the walk will be enjoyable–even if you have every reason to think it will be, and even if it generally has been under similar circumstances in the past. Whatever mood we’re in, we tend to imagine the future fitting the same mood. This is one reason the advice “Cheer up! Things will get better” often sounds so hollow. Mood congruity can be overcome, but it’s helpful to realize that the way our brians work, they’re a little limited at imagining an emotion while experiencing a contrary emotion.

Another barrier is that generally speaking, any mental control we have over our emotions happens by thinking (cognition), but cognition can change much more quickly than emotion, because so much of emotion has to do with chemicals like dopamine, cortisol, oxytocin, adrenaline, and others. The chemical states that influence our brains aren’t capable of changing nearly as quickly as our thoughts. We can go from thinking about a horrible tragedy to thinking about a really funny joke and back all within seconds, but our emotional state would not be able to keep up. This means that any mental effort to change mood needs to be kept up for a minute or two at least to allow emotions to catch up with cognition. It also means that idea repair doesn’t have its full effect right away, a subject I’ll be tackling in another article soon.

Knowing the obstacles, what are the techniques we can use to reboot our brains? Well, computers can go through a “warm boot” (rebooting through software only) or a “cold boot” (physically restarting the computer), and the same is true of our brains. A mental cold boot can be accomplished with techniques that completely clear out what’s going on in our minds. Two excellent approaches for this are meditation (which narrows focus to a very specific subject while letting everything else kind of float away) and exercise (which creates a physiological state that tends to help us cut back to a minimum of thinking).

Techniques for warm boots change attention, immediate experience, and/or thinking. Idea repair is one very useful means to do a warm boot. Other methods include emotional antidotes; visualization; and getting into a flow state (or at least distracted by something interesting for a bit).

Regardless of which method you use, rebooting takes attention, effort, and a little time. However, it often doesn’t take any more than that, and while not every bad mood can be banished in minutes, many of them can.

Photo by rofreg

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Self-Control: So Simple, a Five-Year-Old Can Learn It

Handling negative emotions

A few weeks ago, I made lentil stew. My lentils were in a bag on a top shelf, so I reached up and tugged the bag out toward me–not realizing that the twist tie had come undone. Lentils showered down on my kitchen. You’ll be happy to hear that I responded to the situation with a cheerful and accepting attitude.

No, that’s a lie. I cursed a blue streak and got really upset for about 30 seconds before recognizing that for the love of Pete, it was just some lentils and no reason to lose my cool. A little self-monitoring and self-talk brought me back in line, and the whole situation inspired me to try to catch unhelpful reactions earlier in the game.

In this department, a group of kindergartners through third graders who took part in a study called the Rochester Resilience Project may have the jump on me. These were kids who showed early signs of behavior problems in school, and they were given 25-minute lessons once a week for 14 weeks to help them become more aware of their own feelings (mindfulness) and to use thoughts to improve their moods when something went wrong (idea repair).

The results were impressive. Compared to the control group, in which kids didn’t get the training, trained kids had just over half as many discipline problems over the course of the study.

In other words, techniques like being aware of our own emotions and talking ourselves down from negative emotional extremes can be made so easy, a five-year-old can learn and apply them–and do so well enough to make a big difference in school life. If that’s the case, how much more easily are we adults likely to be able to learn and use these things if we’re willing to give them real and focused attention?

The study was documented in the article Reducing Classroom Problems By Teaching Kids Self-Control on the PsychCentral.com Web site.

Photo by Scott Vanderchijs

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