Rational approaches to emotions

There are a number of schools of thought that teach what might be called a “rationalist” approach to emotions, i.e. seeing that your emotions are a map that’s good to distinguish from the territory, and giving you tools for both seeing the distinction and for evaluating the map-territory correspondence better.

1) In cognitive behavioral therapy, there is the “ABC model“: Activating Event, Belief, Consequence. Idea being that when you experience something happening, you will always interpret that experience through some (subconscious) belief, leading to an emotional consequence. E.g. if someone smiles at me, I might either believe that they like me, or that they are secretly mocking me; two interpretations that would lead to very different emotional responses. Once you know this, you can start asking yourself the question of “okay, what belief is causing me to have this emotional reaction in response to this observation, and does that belief seem accurate?”.

2) In addition to seeing your emotional reactions as something that tell you about your beliefs, you can also see them as something that tells you about your needs. This is the approach taken in Non-Violent Communication, which has the four-step process of Observation, Feeling, Need, Request. The four-step process is most typically discussed as something that’s a tool for dealing with interpersonal conflict, as in “when I see you eating the foods I put in the fridge, I feel anxious, because I need the safety of being able to know whether I have food in stock or not; could you please ask before eating my food in the future?”. However, it’s also useful for dealing with personal emotional turmoil and figuring out what exactly is upsetting you in general, or for dealing with internal conflict.

3) In both CBT and NVC, an important core idea is that they teach you to distinguish between an observation and interpretation, and that it’s the interpretations are what cause your emotional reactions. (For anyone curious, the more academic version of this is appraisal theory; the paper “When are emotions rational?” is relevant.) However, the NVC book, while being an excellent practical manual, does not do a very good job of explaining the theoretical reasons for why it works, which sometimes causes people to arrive at interpretations of NVC which cause them to behave in socially maladapted ways. For this reason, it might be a good idea to first read Crucial Conversations, which covers a lot of similar ground but goes into more theory about the “separating observations and interpretations” thing. Then you can read NVC after you’ve gotten the theory from CC. (CC doesn’t talk as much about needs, however, so I do still recommend reading both.)

4) It’s fine to say that “okay, if you’re having an emotional reaction you’re having difficulties dealing with, try to figure out the beliefs and needs behind it and see what they’re telling you and whether you’re having any incorrect beliefs”! But it’s a lot harder to actually be able to apply that if you’re in an emotionally charged situation. That’s where the various courses teaching mindfulness come in – mindfulness is basically the ability to step a little back from your emotions and thoughts, observe them as they are without getting swept up in them, and then being able to evaluate them critically if needed. You’ll probably need a lot of practice in various mindfulness exercises in order to get the techniques from CBT, NVC, and CC to live up to their full potential.

5-6) An important idea that’s been implied in the previous points, but not entirely spelled out, is that your emotions are your friends. They communicate to you information about your subconscious assessments of the world, as well as of your various needs. A lot of people tend to have somewhat of a hostile approach to their emotions, trying to at least control and get rid of their negative emotions. But this is bound to lead to internal conflict; and various studies indicate that a willingness to accept negative emotions and pain will actually make them much less serious.

In my personal experience, once you take to the habit of asking your emotions what they’re telling you and then processing that information in an even-handed way, then those negative emotions will often tend to go away after you’ve processed the thing they were trying to tell you. By “even-handed” I mean that if you’re feeling anxious because you’re worried of some unpleasant thing X being true, then you actually look at the information suggesting that X might be true and consider whether it’s the case, rather than trying to rationalize a conclusion for why X wouldn’t be true. Your subconscious will know, and keep pestering you.

Some of CFAR’s material, such as aversion factoring points this way; also Acceptance and Commitment Therapy as elaborated on in Get out of your mind and into your life seems to be largely about this, though I’ve only read about the first 30% so far.

Some of my earlier posts on these themes: suffering as attention-allocational conflict, avoid misinterpreting your emotions.

(I have been intending to write a much more in-depth post on this topic for a while, but it’s such a large post that I haven’t gotten around that; so I figured I’d just write something quickly in the hopes of it also being of value.)

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