For far too many people, the world is a place full of boulders. Every day, they bump into these boulders, feel frustrated and then perhaps defeated and then stressed out. What would it be like if they could actually experience the world as a place of opportunity instead of obstacles? Wouldn’t that provide much more opportunity for a life that would be happier and calmer?
Let’s take a closer look at what often happens when life’s little challenges are seen as major problems. Imagine that you buy a new bicycle and discover after riding it for a week or so that some of the nuts need tightening. You go to your toolbox and grab your wrenches. None of them fit properly on the nuts, and perhaps you feel tension rising inside you. After all, you’ve had these wrenches for years and they were used successfully by your father before you. Frustrated, you call the store where you bought the bike and demand to know what is going on. Perhaps you are silently steaming at all the time that you are wasting on this. Finally, someone explains that the bike uses metric fasteners, and your tried and tested Imperial measurement wrenches will not fit properly. At this point, some people will feel so upset they might try to return the bike to the store, demanding one that is made using fasteners that their wrenches can fit. They might be verbally abusive with the clerks, and vent loudly to all who will listen, perhaps even waving their arms about in the air.
What’s really going on here? Is this reaction appropriate to the situation? Is the store to blame for the type of fasteners used on the bike? Would someone be justified in feeling all upset and angry over this situation? Is there some sort of crazy conspiracy to annoy them? Or is something else going on, beneath the surface?
As some of you may have guessed by now, trying to return a bike because your wrenches don’t work is an overly intense reaction for the situation. However, when someone is in this state of mind, with emotions being felt intensely, there is no point in trying to reason with them. After all, their body has already shifted much of its resources to the survival part of the brain and body core, and little logical thinking is possible (or happening) at this moment.
Why would someone get so upset over the fact that metric fasteners were used? The answer lies in their stored emotions and memories. Because their emotional kettle is almost full to the brim with emotional responses to situations in the past when they also felt similarly, it does not take much fresh frustration for the kettle to boil over. We humans constantly access our stored data banks to evaluate each new situation. We look in the data bank, which holds visual, verbal and emotional memory components, to see if we’ve seen this sort of situation before. If we have, we then tend to automatically respond in the same fashion as previously, without thinking.
If we have a very pleasant memory of feeling good when someone gave us a gift of flowers or chocolate, for example, we”ll access those stored memories and emotions in a flash when we see these same things again. This can be very useful and enjoyable when what we access is pleasant or heartwarming. On the flip side, it can be rather disheartening if what we recall are unpleasant or painful stored feelings and memories.
So, when you are confronted with a situation which appears in some way to be similar to a prior negative one (and even more so if there are numerous prior ones), it is normal to have the same feelings arise, and for your kettle to boil over. This boiling over can be expressed in anger, frustration, sadness, pain, guilt, etc. And, until such time as you empty that particular kettle, you are going to keep adding to it with each fresh situation.
Empty the kettle
Releasing stored negative or unpleasant feelings is the only way to experience fresh negative situations without them becoming overwhelming. People often try to suppress these built-up feelings as a coping mechanism for when they get too strong, but that is a stop-gap measure, and it does not work. Those feelings lie just beneath the surface, waiting to be triggered and to join in with the recent ones, overflowing from the kettle.
Releasing these stored feelings, or emptying the kettle, if you will, is actually not that hard. However, given our well documented human tendency to avoid unpleasant feelings, the process of emptying the kettle is not so intuitive. To empty a kettle of stored pain, for example, requires that one not only acknowledges the existence of the stored feelings, but that one remains present to the discomfort they bring long enough for them to dissipate. There are techniques such as AER which are designed to accelerate this dissipation process, but they are not so widely known yet. Most people keep stuffing down the unpleasant feelings, hoping they will go away on heir own and then suffering when they don’t.
Just buy or borrow a metric wrench already!
For those who are not emotionally engaged in the situation, it is easy to suggest logical and rational solutions, such as buying some new wrenches. However, these suggestions are falling on ears which are only tuned into fight, flight or freeze type responses – people who are in an emotionally intense situation are not going to even hear what the other is saying, let alone be able to think about it or act upon it. Don Ferguson, a therapist who works with couples, remarked at a Smart Marriages conference in 2008 that talk therapy does not help those suffering from trauma, as it addresses the prefrontal cortex while the intense emotions and memories are mainly stored elsewhere in the brain. When dealing with stored emotions and feelings, talk therapy usually has little effect, offering a sort of drive-by relief at best. In fact, constant surface level recalling of traumatic incidents by talking about them can re-inforce those brain circuits, keeping the stored emotions well energized.
While we might not feel much pity for people who engage in dramatic expressions of their discontent when the world does not go the way they want, we can at least try to see that they are being pushed in a certain direction by their stored emotions. Yes, like everyone else, they need to take responsibility for their actions and empty that kettle so their over-reactions become more moderate and appropriate responses. Their reaction to what life serves up each day, which looks to them like a stream of constant problems which are almost insurmountable, is a result of unresolved past issues. There is no need to analyse these responses – they feel anger about something, for example, and that is the kettle to be released, before it boils over again.
There is also little to be gained in trying to figure out why someone feels a certain way while that feeling is present. The feeling puts them into an intense emotional state and at that point, they are literally incapable of rational thought. Empty the emotional kettle and the possibility of analysis of the situation arises. For many people, though, as soon as you drain the emotions from a kettle, there is little interest which remains in the situation and what was a hugely important situation a few minutes earlier. Without a lot of emotional content, the situation becomes benign or even banal.
Learning how to release stored emotions, emptying those kettles, is not hard. Using this approach to situations in which you feel frustrated means you stop finding yourself stressed out over what are really minor situations, but which appear larger when that kettle is full. You’ll also be less likely to wave your arms about, mad at the world, and getting all stressed out.
Copyright 2009 Robert S. Vibert, all rights reserved.