DRMacIver's Notebook

Some Useful Emotion Management Principles

Some Useful Emotion Management Principles

I was talking about anxiety management a bit on Twitter, and it occurred to me that it would be useful to write down a bunch of general principles that I use for understanding emotions.

These principles aren't necessarily true, but I've found them useful. I'd say that they're probably... about 90% true. They're worth using as defaults for understanding things, but they probably have some hidden preconditions and missing features that I have not fully mapped out yet.

  1. One of the primary features of emotions is a disposition to act in a particular way.
  2. A disposition to act is not an obligation to act.
  3. These dispositions are experienced, at least in large part, through your body, so paying attention to your body helps you understand your emotions.
  4. There are no "bad" emotions, in the sense that there always a situation where the disposition prompted by the emotion would be appropriate.
  5. In a given context, an emotional reaction may or may not be appropriate.
  6. Emotional reactions are learned pattern matching in response to particular events.
  7. When an emotional reaction is active, you can retrain those patterns into ones that better suit the situation.
  8. Retraining requires you to acknowledge that the emotion might, in principle, be a valid reaction in context.
  9. If you ignore an emotion, it will tend to increase in intensity to get you to act on it.
  10. Learning to act competently on dispositions can improve emotional experiences.
  11. If an emotion is debilitating or otherwise interferes with your life, that's often a sign of some sort of dysregulation in how you are managing it.

Let me unpack each of these.

Emotions as dispositions towards action

A disposition in this context is an inclination towards a certain class of things, an inclination to act in a particular way.

When you are angry, it is because you are being prompted to act angrily. You are getting ready to have a fight, and you are orienting yourself towards actions that are useful for that.

Some people (e.g. Antonio Damasio I think) argue that emotions are these dispositions. I'm somewhat agnostic on this question, in that I think our use of the word "emotion" is variable enough that it's not clear to me that "What are emotions?" is a well-defined question, and any attempt to promote it as a definition is probably a lost cause. However, regardless of what theory of emotion we end up with, understanding the dispositions associated with an emotion is key to understanding that emotion.

Here are some other examples of disposition:

(Side note: I realised while writing this that it was much easier for me to figure out what the dispositions associated with negative emotions are. Given that part of my goals right now are to improve my experience of positive emotions, I find that very interesting)

Dispositions are not obligations

When you get angry, you are not being forced to act angrily. You can feel angry without acting angry (although people will probably be able to tell that you are angry. This is not necessarily bad). But the emotion of anger includes, as a key feature, a dsposition towards angry action - you are inclined to shout at someone, to attack them, etc.

An important skill in emotion management is to acquire a bit of a separation between disposition and action. To pause and say "Actually, I know that emotionally this is the way I am disposed to act, but should I do that?"

Importantly, this is not suppressing the emotion. That has to be an honest question, to which it is possible that the answer is allowed to be yes.

Dispositions are experienced bodily

We act in the world through our body, so experiencing a disposition is, in large part, experiencing an arrangement of our body (including our senses) to act. If we are disposed to fight, we will feel our body tensing to fight. If we are curious about something, we might feel our attention physically drawn to it.

Learning this is basically what Focusing is - learning to pay attention to your bodily dispositions towards particular actions, as a preliminary step towards understanding the emotional reactions that underly them.

There are no bad emotions

We have these dispositions because they are useful. If you are experiencing a disposition, there are circumstances under which that disposition is the right one. If you feel afraid, that is not bad in and of itself, because there are circumstances under which a disposition to get out of the situation is a good thing.

We (for some suitably culture specific value of we) tend to think of negative emotions as being bad for a couple of reasons:

These all give us a bad relationship with a particular emotion, but they primarily result in a conflation between the disposition, the situation prompting it, and the actions it prompts. The disposition in and of itself is neither bad nor good, and sometimes it will be exactly the right thing to have.

Emotions may promote inappropriate action

Suppose you say something, and I mishear you and think you have insulted at me, and I respond in kind, and a fight results. That is an example of an inappropriate reaction - I have misunderstood the situation, I have acted in a way that is (arguably) appropriate if the situation were as I understood it.

This is what an inappropriate emotional reaction is like: You have responded with a disposition because the situation makes you think it is the appropriate one, but you are in some way mistaken about the situation.

Emotional reactions are learned pattern-matching

Generally your emotional reactions are based on very simplified models of the world. For example, social anxiety might be a learned reaction that all social situations are unsafe and you have to be on high alert and monitor for threats. A bad experience with men might cause a disposition to be on your guard around all men.

You don't necessarily have access to these simplified models. There's not necessarily a conscious part of your brain that goes "This is a party. Parties are THE WORST. Therefore I now decide to be anxious." - the anxiety generally starts preverbally, and the thoughts come after (although the thoughts can in turn promote action).

It can be useful to think of your mind having a subsystem that is "the bit that decides to be anxious" (or angry, or delighted, or...) which is monitoring the world for certain features and putting you into the particular disposition when its conditions are met. The subsystem is not necessarily particularly intelligent, and you have a lot of these subsystems going on so they don't necessarily have a lot of resources available to them, so they're trying to do the best they can on a limited budget, and they sometimes get it wrong.

Active emotional reactions can be relearned

Because emotions are learned pattern matching, changing your emotional reactions is a matter of relearning that pattern matching. You want to take the subsystem and get it to respond better in some circumstances.

This seems to be much easier when the emotional subsystem is activated. I don't want to say you can't do it when it's not activated (and certainly you can lay useful groundwork for this process), but it's not something I've been able to do.

"Activated" doesn't necessarily mean when you're in the situation in question (although I do often use it there) - it can through a process of imagination, talking it out, thinking about the prompting situation.

Once you're in this state, you can gently start to question the premises of the emotional reaction. Draw your attention to certain aspects of the situation, explore whether this is the right disposition for you to take in this context.

For example, social anxiety can be relearned around people you have much stronger evidence are safe. The level of anxiety you experience when talking to a close friend should be lower than the level of anxiety you have talking to someone at a party, and drawing your attention to the things that make it so can help relearn the emotional reaction.

Ignoring an emotion intensifies it

One thing that doesn't seem to work is to try to suppress and ignore the emotion. Emotions are there to dispose you to act, so will often rise to the level of intensity required to get you to act. If you repeatedly suppress an emotion and pretend it's not there, it will tend to get worse over time rather than better.

Relearning starts with accepting the emotion in principle

Because ignoring the emotion doesn't work, and because emotions are dispositions to act, you need to acknowledge it as potentially valid.

What this means is that you need to start from the premise that if this is the correct disposition to have in this scenario, you would act on it. If you're actually being attacked, it's OK to be angry and act angrily. If there's genuine risk in the situation, it's OK to be anxious and act to reduce that risk.

Starting from the premise that the emotion might be valid, and exploring the question of whether it is, allows you to work with yourself rather than creating internal conflict, and maximises your chance of successfully retraining the emotion.

Learning to act competently on dispositions

One of the big problems we often end up with emotions is that we're not very good at acting on them not in the sense that we ignore them, but we act on them in ways that don't actually improve the situation.

Anxiety and guilt are two big examples of this. If anxiety causes us to panic and make the situation worse, we have not reduced the risk in the situation, so our level of anxiety goes up rather down. If we feel guilty and avoid the whole situation to avoid feeling that guilt, we end up feeling more guilty rather than less.

Learning skills in a safe environment (when the emotion is not active) that we can apply in these cases helps us fix this: If cleaning makes us anxious, creating a safe environment in which to learn a bit of cleaning skills will help the next time we have cleaning anxiety. If we feel guilt about a particular situation, talking through the situation and deciding on some practical steps you can take to improve it (or indeed deciding that you don't need to feel guilty about it at all).

The ideal situation is that we have the emotional responses that dispose us to act in the right way in the right context, and learning to act in the right way is a key part of that that we can manage separately from the emotional responses themselves.

Debilitating emotions are probably dysregulation

If your emotional reactions are so strong that they prevent you from acting, something has gone wrong (except in the rare specific cases where preventing you from acting is what they're supposed to do, as in the freeze trauma response). Emotions are dispositions towards actions, but if those dispositions get too overwhelmingly intense they may stop you from acting.

I don't have too much experience with this side of things (my problems are, if anything, at the opposite end of the spectrum - I don't tend to have intense enough emotional reactions), so I'm wary of offering too much advice in this space. I think all of the above principles are still likely to be useful to you, but I'd recommend also looking into Dialectical Behavioural Therapy and possibly the literature on cPTSD. Meg-John Barker's piece on the subject is good, and provides pointers to further literatures.

(The literature on cPTSD may also be useful even if you don't experience overwhelming emotions. Certainly I've found it so.)

Further Reading

These are the principles underlying most of my emotion work right now. You can read some more of my thoughts on the subject in:

If you'd like to read more qualified people's thoughts on the subject the books I've read that are most directly relevant to this are:

I can't necessarily promise you'll get the same things out of these resources that I did - there's a lot of surrounding additional reading, discussion, and experimentation, but they're all good books that I've found quite helpful.