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posted: 11/8/2013 12:31 PM

Dealing with feelings that don't fit the situation

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"Hey, what are you so upset about?!"

"I don't know, but something is sure bothering me."

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It probably happens to all of us. We find ourselves in a situation that ought to be only mildly irritating or threatening or painful. Yet the emotions of anger or fear or hurt that we feel are unexpectedly powerful and sometimes overwhelming.

There often appears to be no apparent reason for such emotional overreaction. Yet our strong feelings are certainly real and just about impossible to ignore.

Actually, such feelings can make sense. Their logic, however, is likely not to lie in the present, but rather in the past.

Emotions are generated by our cognitive (i.e., thinking) response to our environment. Granted, to us our feelings usually just seem to arise spontaneously. Yet, such apparent "instant emotions" are always the result of an identifiable cognitive process. It is simply one so deeply ingrained and so imperceptibly quick that we are most often unaware of it.

I guess we could call this process an "experience-cognition-emotion sequence." Many of these sequences are developed in early childhood. And, as we grow older and broaden our experience, still others are added.

As they are practiced and perfected, such sequences eventually seem to become part of our basic personality. That's often good. I'd hate to have to consciously think through to my emotional response every time someone gives me a hug. I just want to feel good!

On the other hand, such unconscious sequences also can get us in trouble. For example, I was rather chubby and clumsy as a child and adolescent. Naturally, I did rather poorly at athletics. In fact, I soon came to believe I would never develop the physical coordination and conditioning necessary for any sort of sport.

I also assumed others were as frustrated by this as I was. Athletics soon became associated, for me, with feelings of inadequacy, worthlessness, shame and rejection.

Eventually I actually developed some degree of coordination and conditioning, and wound up being able to do reasonably well in many physical activities. Yet, however the facts may be different, my emotions remain the same.

Each time I attempt a new activity or sport, I again experience those same childhood feelings of inadequacy, worthlessness, shame and rejection. Though they may not fit my adult experience, such feelings certainly make sense in light of my past.

Of course, sometimes our "illogical" emotions have roots in more immediate experiences. Let's say we are reprimanded by the boss at 9 a.m. We conclude that he is being unjust, and feel both hurt and angry.

At 9 p.m., our spouse correctly points out that we forgot to feed the cat. And we instantly explode in a rage that is all out of proportion to the situation.

Chances are, our spouse just got a dose of the anger generated by our boss. We are unaware of the experience-cognition-emotion connection between the two seemingly separate incidents, but it is there. We could probably even identify the sequence in the first incident, yet also would be unaware that we inappropriately carried it over to the second.

What does all this mean? Well, for one thing, it suggests we need to monitor, somewhat, our emotions in any given situation. And if they don't seem to fit, then we'd probably better try to figure out where they do fit.

Now, as you'd expect, such emotional awareness is often a matter of hindsight. We usually sense that our feelings don't quite fit the facts only after we've expressed them (and it often takes someone else to point it out to us).

But better late than never. If we can even begin to identify some of these experience-cognition-emotion sequences that give us problems, we can also start to change them. Whether our out-of-sync emotions arise from sequences that are 20 years old or 20 minutes old, we are always better off if we know it.

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