DRMacIver's Notebook

Emotional reactions as legacy code

Emotional reactions as legacy code

One of my most popular tweets ever:

“Minds are basically computers” is wrong if you think of computers as abstract turing machines but spot on if you think of computers as a horrible assemblage of kludges bridging incompatible legacy code which only work because critical bugs are masking other critical bugs.

I think a lot of our emotional reactions are like this: They are a lifetime of legacy that we have learned and implemented, and they mostly fit together well enough to work, but they are kludgy and unwieldy and often in need of some serious refactoring.

Adlerian psychology maintains a distinction between aetiology (the study of the causes of things) and teleology (the study of the purposes of things), and maintains that in order to change you should ask not “where does this behaviour come from?” (to which the classic psychotherapy answer is “trauma”) but instead “what purpose does this behaviour serve?”. e.g. someone might experience social anxiety in order to prevent them from talking to people, which serves as a protective mechanism against being hurt by those people. The aetiology might be that they learned they would be hurt by people as a child, but the teleology is the protective mechanism.

Adlerian psychology seems to go as far as to say that trauma does not exist, which I think is a bit much, but a useful synthesis of the two ideas of aetiology and teleology is this: An emotional reaction serves a purpose, but that purpose is not necessarily still relevant.

When you have an emotional reaction in a situation, you can ask what purpose it serves, but the real question is where did I learn this and what purpose did it serve there?

For example, many reactions were learned in childhood, where you were surrounded by very different people and had a very different power dynamic. You might have had abusive parents, you might have been bullied at school, and in both of those circumstances you were trapped unable to leave. The protective emotional reactions that you learned there are very different from the ones that you need as an adult with more control over your own life and who you associate with.

Looking at this prior context allows you to examine the emotional reaction critically and decide whether and how to change it. If coherence therapy is to be believed, this can best be done when the emotion is active. When it is active, you can relearn a new and better version of it.

A principle I’ve been trying to adopt recently is to notice emotional reactions as they occur and, rather than dismissing them or leaning into them, instead ask “Where does this come from?” and try to understand it and think about whether it’s needed in this scenario.

Learning Focusing was a big help for this, and understanding how to recognise triggers was a good next step for knowing when to deploy it (essentially: If you have a physical reaction to an emotional event, that’s a trigger. They don’t have to be big scary flashbacky things, those are just the extreme end).

A thing my friend Alex suggested which I’ve been partly implementing off the back of this is to apply Marie Kondo style decluttering to these reactions: Thank them for their service, tell them they have done their job in protecting you but that they are no longer needed, and let them go.