Up the Down Staircase
©Arlene R. Taylor PhD www.arlenetaylor.org
Feeling always follow thoughts;
to change the way you feel,
change the way you think.
—Wayne Dyer PhD
“I’ve heard that emotions are different from feelings,” said the high school teacher, “although I’m a bit fuzzy on the details. And intellectually I know that my brain creates my feelings as it tries to interpret the reason for the emotion and its meaning.”
Jerod paused, folding his lanky frame into a nearby chair.
“What I struggle with is how to change my feelings and get myself back to happiness in a timely manner.”
“Welcome to the human race,” I said, smiling. “The bottom line is that you change the way you think to change the way you feel, as feelings always follow thoughts. It’s a learned skill.”
In their 2011 book, Joint Custody with a Jerk: Raising a Child with an Uncooperative Ex, the authors point out that when you understand that your feelings are triggered by what you think about an event and not by the event itself, you gain a measure of control. You can change your thoughts, and a change in thoughts often radically alters your feelings. This can alter the behaviors you choose to exhibit, as well, because behaviors always follow thoughts.
“Remind me of the differences between emotions and feelings,” Jerod said.
I summarized the research this way.
According to Candace Pert, PhD (the INH researcher who first identified opiate receptors in the human brain and who was interviewed in the documentary “What the Bleep…”), emotions give you information. Each emotion may be connected to a specific neuropeptide, i.e., a neurotransmitter than impacts mood. Molecules of emotion arise in the brain and body in response to something in your internal environment or external environments, creating physiological changes. Think of these as cellular signals designed to get your attention much as an orange highway flag is designed to alert a driver to a potentially dangerous situation up ahead. Although beliefs differ regarding the number of core emotions, scientific evidence exists that facial expressions registering emotions such as joy, anger, fear, and sadness (at the minimum) are inborn and can be observed on the face of a fetus during gestation.
When in the grip of a strong emotion, you are in a biochemically-altered state that comes complete with typical facial expressions, physiological markers, gestures, and actions. 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.
In contrast, the term feelings is the label for your brain’s personal interpretation as it tries to make sense of the physiological changes resulting from the emotion. You create your own feelings based on past experience, learned behaviors, expectations, personal belief systems, and thought patterns, to name just a few. 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.
A mood is simply a feeling that hangs around for a long time. You also choose the behaviors you will exhibit related to your feelings, although it is recognized that there may be cases of neurochemical imbalances that impact free will.
It’s empowering to realize that no one can force you to maintain a specific feeling over time. Others might provide a stimulus that triggers an emotion, but you take it from there in terms of feelings and behaviors.
Jerod nodded and said, “Right. Now remind me of the Emotions Staircase. I’ve heard you mention it.”
He was referring to a model that portrays emotions as a series of steps, a model that many have found exceedingly helpful. At any given moment, think of yourself as standing on one of the steps. You decide if you will stay on that step or move to a different step.
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 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 Emotions Staircase and get more energy.
I laughed. “Well, I’ve been working on honing those skills for some time now, although there’s always more to learn. With an 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 or an emotion triggers a move. Where it used to take days or months to resolve the protective emotions of anger, fear, or sadness, I usually now can walk back up the stairs to joy in a matter of minutes or hours.” It was my turn to pause. “When something egregious happens, it might take a day or two or even three, but rarely longer than that.”“I take it you’ve learned how to do this,” said Jerod. “That’s the reason I’m here talking to you.”
“I don’t see shame or guilt on the Emotions Staircase,” said Jerod.
He was right. Rather than being labeled as core emotions, shame and guilt (along with surprise and disgust) are often referred to as motivators and interrupters. Surprise and disgust are considered 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 the three protective emotions, anger, fear, and 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’s response is, Oops, I made a mistake! I can learn a more functional behavior and make a different choice in the future.
- False shame’s response is, What a putz! I am so inadequate. I deserve to be punished. I have no right to express any emotion the other person doesn’t like.
Healthy guilt can motivate toward constructive action when one has violated personal values or standards. Contrition is another term sometimes used as a synonym for healthy guilt, signifying some remorse for having made a mistake along with some responsibility for the mistake or at least acknowledging one’s part in the situation. Neither healthy guilt nor contrition beats one up endlessly for being human. Falseguilt is a sense that you yourself are a mistake, rather than you simply made a mistake because of being human.
“Got it,” said Jerod. “Please give me an example of how you walk up the Emotions Staircase.”
I use the Emotions Staircase 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, which is about 200 miles per hour, this happens almost instantly.
I might think:
- Perhaps the person is kinesthetic and doesn’t perceive the fabric is comfortable or is visual and doesn’t like the color or cut
- Maybe the individual has a sleep deficit and has reduced brain energy for monitoring comments before they actually pop out
- Possibly the seminar content is triggering some painful memories and, since thereason is never the reason, the discomfort is being expressed in criticism of the speaker
- Maybe the person is just having a bad day and his/her negativity is leaking out into the environment and all over me (e.g., some people pump adrenalin and gain energy or get a momentary boost in self-esteem from criticizing others)
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.
Today, an unsolicited comment like that would likely not move me off the step of joy because I’m clear that it reflectsthat brain’s opinion—and is really none of my business—and may have little (if anything) to do with my reality and my brain’s opinion and perception. I mean, really, would anyone suppose that I would choose to lecture in clothing that I thought did not suit me?
For purposes of discussion, however, let’s imagine that this comment has a negative impact on my brain. I need to take conscious action to resolve that negative impact, since every thought and feeling impacts every cell in my body. The following illustrates my typical self-talk strategy to process such a comment and mentally reposition myself at joy on the metaphorical Emotions Staircase:
- Question: Where am I on the scale?
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?
My brain connects that 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 surface that prompt me to wonder if I even know what looks good on me (my sensory preference is auditory; visual, my lowest). Also, remnants of unrealistic expectations exist that say, if I try hard enough, I can make a positive impression on everyone.
- Question: Is there anything I can or want to do about that brain’s perception?
Not this 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, and it’s both appropriate and 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?
Perhaps fear that at another time some individual will make a similar comment, my brain will connect it to past experiences, and I’ll sense discomfort 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?
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, step up to joy.
- Question: What were the gifts in this experience?
There is always at least one:
- more practice in climbing the steps to joy;
- affirmation that I have working tools to deal with negative or judgmental comments;
- validation that I choose how I wanted to respond;
- gratification that I am able to quickly contract with my brain to process
- the comment at a later time and avoid allowing it to interfere with my presentation.
“But you need to develop your own style,” I told Jerod. “Recognize metaphorically that you cannot skip steps. You walk up and down on each depending on where you land, 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 return to a position of joy as soon as possible. As you gain skills, you can move along the staircase quite quickly and successfully.”
“As you gain skills...,” Jerod repeated, unfolding himself from the chair. “That’s the key, and I have a sense that I’ll get some practice honing those skills in class this afternoon. Thanks.” And all seven feet of himself disappeared through the open door.
Managing emotions and feelings optimally is a learned skill. During the growing-up years, many didn’t learn that skill because care-providers didn’t possess the skill themselves. After all, human beings can only teach what they know.
Children learn their first skills by observing caregivers and role models. If yours were highly functional in terms of emotional intelligence, you may have gotten a jump-start on the process. (At least you had the opportunity to watch effective role modeling.) If that was not the case, you may have work to do, developing and honing requisite skills.
I was sure Jarod would gain the skills—because he had decided to do so.