Emotion-driven behaviors

Emotion-driven behaviors are behaviors that increase the intensity of an emotion, despite their intention to decrease the emotion. Think anger and addiction and ineffective interpersonal strategies.

As I mentioned last week, sensitive individuals are often less able to identify and allow their emotions because of the intensity of their emotions and because of the way other people respond to them.

If you felt very strong, confusing feelings while growing up, due to trauma or your biological vulnerabilities, it was unlikely that you had the cognitive skills to understand what was happening and the emotional intelligence to regulate yourself. Many adults also don’t know how to regulate strong emotions effectively. The adults in your life may have tried to make your feelings go away by ignoring you or yelling at you. The urge to either over-control or under-control your feelings under these conditions is very common. Many people have a combination of both. Over-control of emotion includes suppression, withdrawal, compulsions, and perfectionistic control behaviors of your thoughts, feelings, and body (examples: compulsive exercise or restrictive diets). Under-control of emotion includes anger outbursts, self-medicating with alcohol and drug use, and problematic interpersonal strategies like passive aggression. For the last several weeks, we’ve been discussing strategies of over-control, and in general, anxiety disorders can be seen as disorders of over-control. It’s common for people to have both problematic over-control emotion regulation strategies and problematic under-control emotion regulation strategies.

Managing Anger

Let’s discuss anger as our example today. You might think, “I feel angry all the time. I definitely know what anger is.” Just because you’re aware of anger, doesn’t mean you are responding to it effectively. If, in the presence of the sensations that trigger angry feelings and thoughts, you fuel your anger by building a case against the target of your anger in your mind, your sensations will become more intense and your feelings will feel more justified. You will become more sensitive to anger and quicker to anger. Your new, more flexible option would be to practice doing the opposite of your angry urges when anger occurs. More specifically, bring attention to your tense muscles and actively relax then. Bring attention to the way you are fueling your angry thoughts and shift your attention either to another topic or to a new perspective related to the topic about which you are angry. Even in the cases where your anger is justified — that is, when you or someone else has been violated or disrespected — fueling your anger will not help you respond effectively. Notice the feeling of anger is present and calm yourself down so that you can use your mind to decide the most effective course of action.

Notice that this is both similar and different compared to how we manage anxiety. Experiencing anxiety doesn’t have to be good or bad. It can be neutral, just another experience within your body. If you know what to do to relate to it effectively, your response can become something you are proud of that makes you feel efficacious.

If you are sensitive and bombarded with anxiety, uncertainty, guilt, disgust, shame, and anger on a very regular basis, it is very unlikely that you will be able to figure out how to respond to it effectively on your own. Responding effectively is the opposite of intuitive. Your anxiety says, “Alert! Danger! Threat!” and you must say, “This is fine. This not a threat to me.” Your anxiety says, “Urgent! Respond faster!” and you must slow down and do nothing. Some people realize this on accident. For instance, they feel anxious in a meeting, but they get stuck there and get distracted, and dissipates.  So, that lucky person learned, “It’s okay to feel anxious. I’ll just hang out and wait for it to pass or redirect my attention and I’ll be fine.” The sensitized person doesn’t often have this fortunate outcome and needs to be much more aware, much more intentional, and much more strategic.

All this to say, if you have been very sensitive and avoided anxious triggers and then people yell at you about it, your emotions have probably become very intense and staying with them is not intuitive.

Plan for opposite action

To shift into more flexible behaviors, make a plan for opposite action during emotional states where you have a pattern of making your emotion more intense:

“When I have the experience of anxiety, I slow down and redirect my attention from catastrophic thoughts.”

“When I have the experience of anger, I relax my body and redirect my attention away from building a case against the object of my anger.”

“When I have the experience of guilt, I assess whether I’ve done something against my values and whether there is something I can do to make amends. If I’ve done something against my values, I decide what I can do to make amends. If I have not done something against my values, I allow the feeling of guilt and redirect my attention away from self-criticism.”

“When I have the experience of shame, I notice that my shame wants me to hide and isolate. I think who I can connect with and make a plan to connect and share my shame. I set a time (later, when I am not feeling shame) to think critically about the parts of my life narrative that contribute to my experience of shame so that I have the chance to change beliefs that maintain my shame.”

Questions for reflection

  • Which emotions seem to become too intense for you?
  • In what ways might you be accidentally increasing their intensity in the way that you respond?
  • What plan do you need in order to switch to opposite action when these feelings occur?