The Ostrich Syndrome
©Arlene R. Taylor PhD www.arlenetaylor.org
“That does it!” Jake was in full roar. Amy had failed to stop for gas on her way home. Admittedly that was unhelpful. But so was Jake’s ranting, raving, and flailing of long arms that put at risk within reaching distance. Nancy placed her hands over her ears and burst into tears. This too was unhelpful but it was part of their typical pattern. Jake would get frustrated and exercise his lungs; Nancy would get flustered and exercise her tear ducts.
“Heaven to help us!” exclaimed great Uncle Herman, still spry at 87. “The car it needs some gas. So, fill ‘er up!”
“Amy should have!” Jake bellowed.
“So, send her now,” great Uncle Herman said and added, “She’s seventeen? Maybe still some child. She’ll learn.” Silence. He turned to Nancy. “So, this is so bad you have tears?”
“When Jake yells I cry....” Nancy’s voice trailed off.
“So, he makes the huge noise like a bull elephant and you cry! Your eyes they are connected to your ears or vhat?” Great Uncle Herman raised an eyebrow and a shoulder.
“I don’t have time for this nonsense,” Jake began.
“Nonsense for sure,” great Uncle Herman agreed, interrupting. “So, you vant to spend your energy in tears?” He looked at Nancy who was wiping her eyes. “So, you vant to spend your energy in loud?” He looked at Jake who looked a trifle uncertain, opened his mouth, and shut it again. “Look at your vatch, man,” great Uncle Herman directed. “Pick some time. How long you vant to waste on the angry?”
Jake looked at Amy, then at Nancy, and finally at his Rolex. “Two minutes,” he replied after a pregnant pause. He was actually starting to feel a bit foolish. The situation seemed both ludicrous and ridiculous and he was having difficulty keeping his face straight.
“So, be you livid for two minutes,” ordered great Uncle Herman. “Go outside. Valk. Den Amy to get gas!” He turned to leave the room, shaking his head and muttering, “Big vaste of energy all dat yelling and crying!”
Great Uncle Herman was right. Many people expend vast amounts of energy yelling and crying, often over a little blip on the screen of life. When negative behavioral patterns continue year after year, I picture those individuals as suffering from The Ostrich Syndrome, their heads stuck in the proverbial sand box, at least in terms of managing their emotions and feelings.
Not only do human beings vary tremendously in their perception of emotions but also in their ability to identify, articulate, and manage them effectively—a challenge that ranks right up there in everyday living. A first step is figuring out the difference between emotions and feelings. Although these words are frequently used interchangeably, they are not synonyms in terms of brain-function. Emotions and feelings even follow different pathways in the human brain!
Emotions Versus Feelings
Emotions are physiological changes that occur in response to an external or internal stimulus (e.g., a thought). They function as cellular signals designed to get one’s attention much as an orange highway flag is designed to alert a driver to a situation up ahead. When in the grip of a strong emotion the human brain is in a biochemically-altered state that comes complete with typical facial expressions, physiological markers, gestures, and actions. Candace Pert, the researcher who first identified opiate receptors in the human brain and who was interviewed in the documentary “What the Bleep?” believes that each core emotion may even be connected with a specific neuropeptide (brain chemical).
Although beliefs differ regarding the number of core emotions, scientific evidence exists that facial expressions registering at least joy, anger, fear, and sadness are inborn and can be observed on the face of a fetus during gestation. Emotions translate information from the subconscious into conscious awareness and provide energy for constructive action. In this sense all emotions are positive, although the actions exhibited around them may be negative.
Feelings, on the other hand, reflect one’s subjective interpretation as the brain tries to make sense of the physiological changes that resulted from the emotion. Human beings create their own feelings based on past experience, learned behaviors, personal belief systems, and thought patterns to name just a few. It’s empowering to realize that no one can force you to maintain a specific feeling over time. Others can provide a stimulus that triggers an emotion but you take it from there in terms of feelings and behaviors.
This means that while you may not be responsible for every emotion that surfaces, generally you are responsible for the feelings you choose to maintain—because your brain created them—and the behaviors you choose to exhibit (e.g., there may be cases of neurochemical imbalances that impact free will).
Table 1: Following is a list of core emotions, along with a summary of their purpose, and examples of undesirable outcomes that can result from mismanagement.
Outcome of Mismanagement
Euphoria (awe, elation, bliss) – a signal that something very rewarding or pleasurable is happening. It provides energy to experience special moments that can add spice and excitement to your life.
Euphoria – unmanaged it can prompt you to search for activities that provide a continual high, through direct or indirect self-medication that alters your neurochemistry (e.g., addictive behaviors).
Joy (happiness, enthusiasm, general contentment) – a signal that all is going well in your life. It is a natural state of anti-depression hardwired into the brain. It provides energy to live life in all its fullness—balanced, contented, and productive.
Pseudo joy – false joy can lead to obsessions/compulsions, addictive behaviors, a sense of unreality, frustration, and depression.
Anger – a signal that your boundaries have been breeched (e.g., physical, mental, emotional, sexual, spiritual). It provides energy to create and implement bona fide boundaries. Without anger you may lack the motivation to take corrective action or begin to tolerate the intolerable.
Anger – unmanaged it can lead to bitterness, illness, injury, and death.
Fear – a signal of danger. It provides energy to take appropriate protective action. Without fear you may be unable to protect yourself adequately.
Fear – unmanaged it can kill your ideas, undermine confidence, and escalate into phobias and/or immobilization.
Sadness – a signal that you have experienced a loss. It provides energy to grieve losses, heal past woundedness, and recover. Without sadness you may be unable to grieve successfully.
Sadness – unmanaged it can lead to immune system suppression, depression, and/or immobility (even apathy).
Motivators and Interrupters
Rather than being labeled as core emotions, surprise, disgust, shame, and guilt are often referred to differently. Surprise and disgust are emotional motivators that can arise in combination with a core emotion. Surprise can surface in combination with any core emotion, disgust often in combination with anger, fear, sadness, or sadness.
Shame and guilt are learned reactions that serve as interrupters to remind us of our human limitations. It can be difficult to differentiate between the two. Healthy shame says, Oops, I made a mistake! I can learn a more functional behavior, and make a different choice in the future. Healthy guilt can motivate toward constructive action when one has violated personal values or standards. Contrition is another term that is sometimes used as a synonym for healthy guilt. Contrition involves some remorse for having made a mistake along with some responsibility for the mistake or at least for one’s part in the situation. Neither healthy guilt nor contrition beats one up endlessly for being human.
False shame says, What a putz! You are so inadequate. You deserve to be punished. You have no right to express any emotion the other person doesn’t like. False guilt is a sense that you yourself are a mistake, rather than you simply made a mistake because of being human.
The Emotions Staircase portrays core emotions as a series of steps. I have found this model exceedingly helpful. You will be metaphorically standing on one of the steps at any given moment. With increased awareness of my own emotions and strategies for managing them more effectively, I now spend most of my time on the step of joy and typically move to another step only when the present situation warrants it (refer to Table 1). And where it used to take days or months to resolve anger, fear, or sadness, I can walk back up the stairs to joy in a matter of minutes or hours.
NOTE: While not thought to be an emotion in and of itself, apathy may represent a state of emotional overwhelm in which the individual becomes immobile. Human beings rarely try to commit suicide when they are in a state of apathy. They don’t have the energy! They can be at higher risk for suicide attempts, as they begin to move back up the emotional tone scale and get more energy.
Using the Model
Here is an example of how I use the emotional tone scale model to help me avoid taking things personally or becoming defensive. Imagine that a seminar participant comes up to me at a break and says, “The clothes you’re wearing don’t suit you.” Immediately I brainstorm possible reasons for the comment. Since thoughts can fly across neuron pathways at rates of 400 feet per second, this happens almost instantly:
Sensory preference (e.g., kinesthetic and doesn’t perceive the fabric is comfortable? visual and doesn’t like the color or cut?).
Level of fatigue (e.g., sleep deficit and has less brain energy for monitoring comments before they actually pop out?)
Seminar topic (e.g., the content is triggering some painful memories and, since the reason is never the reason, the discomfort is being expressed in criticism of the speaker?)
None of the above (e.g., the person is simply having a bad day or was dragged along to the seminar and would rather be somewhere else?)
If I want to know more about that brain’s opinion I can say, “Please be more specific.” If not, I can ignore the statement or say, “Thank you for sharing your opinion,” and move on to another topic.
At my first opportunity, I will take a brief inventory. If there has been no negative impact to my brain, I remain at a position of joy, understanding that the unsolicited opinion reflects that brain’s perception only, and may have little, if anything, to do with my reality and the way my brain perceives.
If my brief inventory reveals that I am no longer at a position of joy, that this comment did impact my brain negatively, then I need to take conscious action to resolve that negative impact—since every thought I think affects every cell in my body. This is the typical self-talk process I would use to process that comment and mentally reposition myself at joy on the metaphorical Emotional Tone Scale:
- Question: Where am I on the scale?
Answer: At sadness. That’s appropriate to the sense of “loss” at failing to make a good impression on this participant.
- Question: What factors can I identify that moved my brain to sadness?
Answer: My brain connected the participant’s comment to an event during childhood when I was wearing a homemade, rather shapeless, flour-sack dress. I had felt inadequate, self-conscious, and ashamed of my appearance compared to some of the other children. Some old self-esteem issues had surfaced that prompted me to wonder if I even knew what looked good on me (my sensory preference is auditory, visual my lowest). Also, there were remnants of unrealistic expectations that if I tried hard enough, I could make a positive impression on everyone.
- Question: Is there anything concrete I can do, or want to do, about that brain’s perception?
Answer: Not at this point in time. That brain’s opinion is none of my business unless I choose to take it personally, and I don’t. I like what I’m wearing. It meets my preferences and is comfortable. I take a deep breath and, using the energy generated by the emotion of sadness, move to the step of fear.
- Question: What am I afraid of?
Answer: Feelings of discomfort, anxiety, or inadequacy. Perhaps sometime another individual will make a similar comment and my brain will connect it to past experiences and I’ll feel sad again. I can’t guarantee that won’t happen. However, I remind myself that I am an adult, I can take care of myself, and I know how to implement appropriate boundaries. I take a deep breath and, using the energy generated by the emotion of fear, move to the step of anger.
- Question: What am I angry about?
Answer: That someone (who didn’t exactly look like the cat’s meow to me) had made a judgment about what I wore! What flaming nerve! I can’t be accountable for another brain’s perception or criticism. I remind myself that each brain is different and actually start chuckling at the audacity. I take a deep breath, and using the energy generated by the emotion of anger, and step up to joy.
- Question: What was the gift in this experience?
Answer: More practice making a quick return to joy. Validation that I have the tools to deal with negative/judgmental comments, and that those tools work. I choose how I want to respond. Gratification that I was able to quickly contract with my brain to process the comment at a later time, and avoid allowing it to interfere with my presentation.
Obviously it takes much longer to write this all down compared to the relatively short time it requires to go through the self-talk process. You need to develop your own style, recognizing that you can’t skip any steps on the return to joy. Metaphorically you pass through them going both ways, but during the actual event everything usually happens so quickly that you aren’t aware of this. Your goal is to move to the step that is appropriate for the situation at hand, and then take the necessary steps to return to a position of joy.
Managing emotions optimally is a learned skill. Many didn’t learn that skill growing up because their care-providers didn’t possess the skill. After all, human beings can only share what they know. Children learn their first skills by observing caregivers and role models. If yours were highly functional in terms of managing their emotions, you may have gotten a jump-start on the process. If that was not the case, there is reparenting work to do!
PET Scan studies have shown that the left frontal lobe of the brain is activated when the research participant is experiencing joy. Since the function of will power may be managed in that area of the brain, as well, this suggests that it is possible to choose to live joyfully, to use will power to experience contentment in times of distress, and to find the silver lining in times of crisis. Epictetus, a 7th Century philosopher, reportedly believed that only 20% of the effect to one’s mind/body is due to any given event, while 80% of the effect results from the way in which the individual responded to the event(s).
You are in a much better position to make conscious choices about the way in which you want to manage your emotions and feelings, the actions you decide to take, and the behaviors you choose to exhibit when you:
Have identified your emotional history including the emotional atmosphere(s) experienced during childhood and adolescence
Are able to differentiate between emotions and feelings, theoretically and practically
Understand some of the factors that have contributed to your present emotional tone
You can learn to identify your emotions accurately, recognize the information they provide, and take responsibility for the feelings you maintain and the actions you take related to them (sometimes the appropriate action is to do nothing). You can hone the skill of processing an event with an emotional component (especially one that involves an overreaction) quickly and consciously. As your skill level increases and you learn to talk yourself through the process of living joyfully, you can role model for others and even teach the strategies to young children. What a deal!