Saturday, 26 July 2014

Emotional Processing: T2 article dated 27th July 2014

Last week we had a funny experience. We ran into one of our students at a shopping mall and he seemed visibly upset. He asked us if we were angry with him.

Our conversation went something like this...

Student: If you are upset with me, please tell me what is my fault!

Us: But why would we be upset with you? We last met six months back when you came over and we had such a good time…. We haven't met since, so why would we be upset?

Student: I don't know! You tell me.… Last week you were getting into your car and I shouted out to you several times, but you did not hear me. I messaged you on WhatsApp but you didn't answer. ( Visibly upset and almost teary)

Us: We did not see or hear you. We must have been in a rush…. And my WhatsApp isn't working as I am using a different phone now. Don't you know that we care about you? If we were upset about something, wouldn't we at least let you know?

Student: I know you would! That's why I was upset when I didn't get any reply from you! I was so disappointed when you did not see me and I could not talk to you.

Us: Ah! You could have just dropped by. It's always nice to catch up.

We all are constantly processing information and the way we do it is radically different from one another.
As we gather information, we process it subjectively with our feelings. The problem is when we revisit a past experience, we think that we are witnessing the event itself. What we actually revisit are our "interpretations" of what had occurred.
Our student took it for a "fact" that we were upset, which was in reality a subjective interpretation.
Unfortunately, these interpretations bypassed his primary emotion of feeling disappointed at not being able to talk to his favourite teachers, and gave rise to secondary feelings of being rejected. This feeling of rejection can turn into the next "fact" — "they rejected me" — and give rise to a set of secondary emotions like anger, sadness or hate.

Primary emotions are often intense and short- lived; they make us feel vulnerable. To escape feeling vulnerable, we try to give ourselves reasons and justifications for feeling this way. And in the process we move further away from the "fact" and into secondary emotions. The closer one is to their primary emotions, the closer they are to the reality and in turn more empowered.
The major component of primary emotions is "I feel", while that of secondary emotions is " You make me feel" or " This makes me feel". Had our student acknowledged that he was feeling disappointed at not being able to meet us and stayed with those emotions, maybe he would have simply dropped in and met up.

As the graph shows, the more we process emotions and move towards secondary emotions the more we move away from the 'fact axis'.
Now let's look at it from a slightly different angle. Shiraz and Tanya have been best friends since college.
Tanya was involved with another man who cheated on her. During that phase of turmoil, Shiraz was a pillar of support for Tanya. Both fell in love eventually and got married.
Tanya is very grateful to Shiraz and acknowledges the fact that he was always there for her. But even after five years, Tanya is bitter about her ex- boyfriend. She keeps thinking about how she should have been more careful and how she could have responded. Instead of staying with the primary emotion of hurt and pain at what happened, she processed it to "I was betrayed". This led to the next set of emotions — anger and hatred. Instead of dealing with the pain, she turned it into hatred for that person. And as she revisits her past, she finds more justification to hold on to the hatred.
No wonder, Shiraz feels that Tanya is never there for him. Though Tanya loves Shiraz, her hatred for her ex consumes most of her mental space, making her emotionally unavailable for Shiraz.
In our hurry to escape our primary emotions, we end up complicating things even more.

Sometimes it's important to be present in the NOW and stay with the primary emotion and experience it fully. You can practise the following exercise to understand how we process, analyse, interpret and get carried away from the NOW. Only with practice, patience and awareness can one get better at it.

Pick up any mundane everyday object, for example a pen or a cup. Hold it in your hands and allow your attention to be fully absorbed by the object. Observe it. Don't assess or think about it, or study it intellectually. Just observe it for what it is. Each time your mind drifts to any association, memory, analysis or interpretation, gently bring your focus back on just "seeing". You can increase the duration gradually.

Conscious observation can really give you a feeling of " being awake". With time you may notice how your mind quickly releases thoughts of past or future, and how different it feels to be in the moment. Conscious observation is a form of meditation: subtle but powerful.

Dr Sangbarta Chattopadhyay and Dr Namita Bhuta are medical practitioners, psychotherapists and life coaches Share your problems with them at dr. sangbarta@ gmail. com

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