HOW HUMAN EMOTIONS WORK
Every other person complains of the havoc caused by emotional instability in his/her life. We have all experienced moments in our lives, when we felt under the spell of an uncontrollable emotional energy that lead us to disastrous actions. It makes it imperative to know the true nature of emotions and how they evolved over time in the human animal. This knowledge is essential if we want to constructively use our emotions and get rid of all their destructive tendencies.
If you study the evolution of emotions in animals, you’ll come to know that early animals depended on instincts for survival. Any danger would be felt in the environment immediately, and the animal responded within an instant. Over time in some animals, this feeling evolved into something more profound, a feeling of fear. Early on it was only a feeling of arousal, alerting the animal of any possible danger. With the chemical changes that associated the excited state, the animal became more focused and attentive, increasing its options for response and survival.
In case of primates and other social animals, these sensations evolved into something even more subtle. They became a way of communicating as language had not been developed by then. If a group member felt danger, it had to warn the rest of the group through nonverbal signals. Similarly to show affection or anger, the same signals were used. Specific calls that alert other group members of danger or certain postures revealing sexual interest, certain sounds that expressed anxiety on part of young ones, and need for the mother to return. Just 70,000 years ago humans developed cognitive abilities which is called “The cognitive revolution” after which humans went on to become the most dominant species on this earth. The cognitive brain is the most evolved part of the brain responsible for deep thinking and reasoning.
The Cognito-emotional dilemma
As is evident from this brief history, emotions developed only to help the animal respond to certain imminent threats or other stimuli in the environment. Depending on emotions for long term thinking and problem solving is therefore, a recipe for death. They are originated in the reptilian brain which is the most basic and instinctive brain in humans. But as humans also have a cognitive brain, whenever we feel an emotion we have to interpret it into words in order to make sense of it. But this interpretation is hardly ever accurate. As mentioned earlier, emotions originate in a different part of brain than the cognitive one, it takes deep thought and mindfulness to locate their origin and actual nature.
For example you feel anger at a person A and are motivated to damage him, but it might be deep rooted envy against him for something he has that you have mistaken for anger. To put it even more simply, as we don’t have conscious access to the origin of emotions, as soon as we feel them, we try to interpret them and most often these interpretations are the ones that suit us. So we never quite really get the hold of them. As animals don’t have to interpret their physical sensations, the emotions function smoothly. For us, the split between emotions and cognition is a source of constant friction. Therefore the only solution to making good decisions in life that give long term results is to become more and more rational by mastering your emotional self. Remember neither you can precisely identify the root of your emotions nor can you completely get rid of them, only thing you can do is observe yourself closely and calmly while experiencing these emotions. Firstly, this has a weakening effect on the intensity of emotions, Secondly you can have a better grasp at your feelings and how to handle them.
But in achieving this you first must be fully aware of your own irrational tendencies and what are the external inflaming factors for these irrationalities, so that you can catch them at their root. High grade emotions are triggered by external factors – a person that gets under your skin, or any circumstances that get you all fired up. The level of arousal is higher and our attention is captured completely. The more we think about it, the stronger it gets. Such high grade emotions usually result in some reckless actions with destructive consequences. The most important factor that causes such emotional upheavals is our childhood.
Ticking bombs from early childhood
When we are children we are the most sensitive and vulnerable. The relationship we have with our parents at this time goes with us till the end and has deep effects on our psychology. Similarly any powerful experiences positive or negative are also embedded in our unconscious minds. These experiences can be negative like fear, humiliation or positive like unconditional love. Later on in life if any incident or person reminds us of these regressive memories, it causes a rush of chemicals and hormones associated with the memory.
For example if a young man had a cold, narcissistic mother as a child. As a child he saw her mother’s coldness as abandonment which convinced him of the fact that he was undeserving of any love. Ultimately he would develop a low self-esteem and would be extremely sensitive to people abandoning him. Later on in life, if he is in love with any women and she at any time might disapprove of any of his traits, a trigger point will be hit. He will think now that she is noticing his flaws and is planning to abandon him. Such a fear of being abandoned will cause a powerful rush of emotions, a feeling of being betrayed. He is incapable of seeing the source of his stupidity. He will overreact, abuse, withdraw ultimately leading to separation which he will interpret as abandonment. He reacted to his fears and wounds, not to reality. You can detect this in yourself by recognizing behavior that is suddenly childish in its intensity and is way out of proportion. It would normally revolve around any of the base emotions. Fear of losing a person or losing control. Desperation to latch onto a figure that reminds you of a lost paradise. Anger on an authority figure.
Some people naturally have an unlimited and toxic emotional stamina. They have the ability to trigger powerful emotions in everyone they come across. These emotions can be either positive or negative, but you just cannot resist their emotional onslaught. Such types have an unusual charisma, they can express their emotions very powerfully, which induces similar emotions in the next person. If they are narcissistic, they can be destructive beyond limits. They engulf everyone around them in their emotional dramas and troubles, sucking people deeper and deeper, all of this to get the attention they are craving. The worst victims of these people will be their family members and close friends, as they enjoy a degree of emotional leverage on them.
You can identify these people by their effect on you and others. No one can remain indifferent to them. Either people will hate them or love them, nothing in between. People will be incapable of reasoning with them. They have an obsessive quality about them, which can lead you to extreme actions, either as a follower or an enemy. Either way they are extremely dangerous and you must distance yourself from such people or they will ruin your life. A good strategy would be to see through the front they are projecting and make them realize that you know who they really are. That’s because they try to cast a larger than life, mythic image of themselves, but in reality they are all too human.
To become more emotionally intelligent and make better choices, check out my article on emotional intelligence.