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Thursday, October 4, 2012

Taming the beast of Emotion is the first step towards mental growth

Mind adopts various practices to function effectively, but while doing so, it also creates a beast that tries to takeover every situation. It therefore has to be tamed. Because, as we have discussed earlier, without mental growth, even intellectual growth stops. And without taming emotions, we cannot grow mentally. Let us understand why emotion beast has to be tamed and how.

Minds need the power of Emotions

To take quick unconscious actions or decisions, mind uses emotions. When we, for instance, wear a black pant instead of grey, we are using our 'emotion'. Or when we decide that we are not going to ask for help from a friend, because he is condescending, we are using emotions to take a decision. When we are backing our friend in the fight with another person, we are using emotions to help us take the action. When we are using our friends to clarify doubts about the subject, our emotions are helping our learning. When we are studying late night for an exam, emotions are propping us to study even when we feel sleepy.

Emotions also misguide us

Many times emotions help us take the right decisions. However, they also misguide us. When we have to ask help from a condescending professor ( not a friend), our first emotional reaction is to ignore the professor. We have to avoid the emotional cue to seek help. When we are agreeing with the friend blindly to grease hands of a traffic police, ignoring our strong beliefs of right versus wrong, we are doing damage to our belief system.

In other words, sometimes you have to heed the emotion and flow with its direction, such as when we are using it to study at night even while feeling sleepy. But sometimes, like in case of asking help from a nasty professor, we have to avoid to flow with the emotional cue and manage to find a way to ask for help from the nasty professor. If we do not tame the beast of emotion, we take wrong actions.

Taming the beast therefore is important

Without taming the beast of emotion, we either flow with the emotion at wrong times ( such as when we are mad at anyone who has brushed our motorcycle in the traffic) or refuse to go against the flow even when it is right for us ( such as when we have to ask questions to a nasty professor despite the fear of embarrassment).

Without taming the beast of emotion, we continue to take make wrong choices, ignore important information, and simply create difficulties for ourselves. Without taming the beast of emotion, we react like Pratham who left  a good job because he flowed  with his emotional cue. Without taming the beast of emotions, we justify emotions to take wrong decisions. By taming emotions, we use the emotions as inputs to take right decisions.

Steps in taming the beast of emotion

Taming emotions means taking four steps to dissolve or resolve the emotion. Each step is critical. One cannot avoid a step and jump to the next.

Step 1 is to accept the emotion as-is. We often intellectualise emotions, assuming that we should not 'feel' an emotion. For instance, when we dislike the professor for forcing us to stand in the class for not answering a question, we must feel the 'down' emotion fully and completely without any ifs and buts. Or when we feel 'down' when our parents praise our brother, we should accept the emotion first. We should not rush to explain the kind of emotion we are feeling or why we are feeling. Neither we should intellectualise it by saying that the 'teacher was 'wrong' or my parents were 'right' in praising brother for the right incident.

Most of the emotions 'dissolve' when we feel them fully. For instance, if we are stressed because of the oncoming exam, we can dissolve the stress if we sit calmly and feel the emotion of stress fully. Or when we are anxious about the friend not calling on mobile, we can dissolve anxiety if we accept the feeling of anxiety fully. Sometimes, accepting emotions fully dissolves the emotion. No more processing is needed. On the contrary, if we damn the emotion inside and do not express it, it remains inside and expresses itself without any warning. If you are angry at your mother's constant 'reminders', and cannot express it, your anger will get provoked on a completely different incident with your mother.

Step 2: Only after the emotion is accepted as-is, we should try to name the emotion in order to resolve it.

For instance, can the emotion of being 'down' ( in the above case) named as the emotion of 'hurt' or 'frustration' or 'anger'? Are we angry because our professor insulted us infront of the class friends, or are we hurt because he exposed our ignorance?Or are we frustrated with ourselves that we could not answer the question despite knowing the answer? If you have learnt to accept your emotions uncritically (which is step 1) without any defense, you will know which of the three emotion is strong?

This stage is equally critical. Being able to name the emotion helps the resolution of emotion. In odd situations, you may experience a mix of two emotions that you cannot segregate easily. 

Step 3 is unravel the underling belief of emotion by peeling layers beneath the emotion. As we said, sometimes, this step of resolution may not be necessary if the emotion dissolves.

Continuing the above case further, if you conclude that you are feeling the emotion of 'hurt' when professor asked you the question, you must examine the underlying belief that is generating the emotion of 'hurt'. Do you believe that 'being seen as ignorant is a sign of incompetency' or 'not knowing something is a sign of stupidity' ? Your belief is generating the emotion. These beliefs act like unconscious thumb rules that generate the emotion. Some of these unconcious thumb rules ( or beliefs) have long term significance. For instance when you do not want to chose 'drawing as career', because your belief is that "drawing is just a hobby', then you need to dig deeper to find if your belief is standing on the legs of 'facts' or on the legs of 'assumptions or conclusions'.

Mind uses beliefs to help it take quick decisions. Mind keeps unproven and untested facts as assumptions or conclusions in the bucket to make this quick decisions. Daniel Kahneman calls this type 1 mind. We cannot hope to re-evaluate our every belief practically. But some beliefs need to be re-evaluated if we have to keep our winning habit intact. Especially the beliefs about creating outcomes, wealth , social structures, governance and career-success have to be re-checked early in life. Rechecking, and correcting the belief is a laborious process and becomes difficult to correct it later. That is why it is important to adopt the right 'winning' beliefs at an early age. How does one verify if the belief is right? Right beliefs are the beliefs that are closer to 'as-is reality'.

Step 4: is to verify the 'fact index' of belief. If the belief is based not on 'fact' ( as determined by scientist and researchers), we have to let go that belief, even if we strongly believe in that belief.

For instance, does small class-size benefit child education or not? Surprisingly, researchers have not been able to find strong correlation between class size and child education. So, even if we like to believe that small class size facilitates child education, it is not yet true. In social arena, we hold many such beliefs, despite their lack of evidence. Unlike physical sciences, social sciences are prone to many verification errors that slowly come to light. Our mind needs to remember this if it has to preserve its capacity to process rationally. If we forget this, mind mixes facts and assumptions together. Slowly and surely, it hampers intellectual growth, because instead of seeing as-is reality, we start seeing the reality through our biased eyes !


On the one hand, emotions affect our choices, decisions and conclusions instantaneously. They help us live our life on 'auto-pilot' and leave our conscious mind ( what Daniel Kahneman calls type 2 mind) to grapple with intellectual issues. On the other hand, wrong reliance on emotions have to be guarded because they prevent our mental growth ( which in turn impacts our intellectual growth sooner or later). Emotions affect our mental growth in two ways. One, because they color our feelings ( as good or bad), our type 1 mind cannot process an event accurately. And two, by influencing our beliefs, they unknowingly impact many decisions and choices taken by type 1.

Incorrect processing of emotions are the biggest source of blunders in a student's life. Even if you can take help on the third and fourth step from a mentor or coach ( like your parents), first two steps of resolving an emotion have to be learnt and practiced by you. Otherwise, like Pratham , you will be blind to your own actions ! Instead of using coach to understand yourself better, you start using mentor or coach to justify your actions or to control the damage that is resulting from the actions.

Source: Nathaniel Branden: Disowning Self and Daniel Kahneman: Thinking slow and fast

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