woman holding up two masks

Are We Responsible For Our Emotions?

woman holding up two masks

Are We Responsible For Our Emotions?

A beloved client recently suggested that I listen to the above episode of the podcast Invisibilia (if the embedded player isn’t working, try refreshing the page, and if that doesn’t work, you can listen here). I’m so glad he recommended it. One of my favorite experiences as a human being is the moment when I realize that something I was relating to as unassailable fact, is revealed to be a conditioned belief. As a science-nerd and a Buddhist, there is something exciting about watching a heretofore invisible seam in my conditioning begin to crack open. I love that sense of possibility as I reach through the crack and, with fumbly fingers, begin to feel my way into greater intimacy with the Real. I suppose one might expect fear there too, as the ground of what one knows shifts beneath one’s feet, but that’s not what I find myself feeling in those moments. I think that perhaps because of my propensity for suffering, I’ve never been as scared of the unknown as I am of the idea that my current known is all there is.

I’ve never been as scared of the unknown as I am of the idea that my current known is all there is.

In the case of this podcast, the “fact” being de-conditioned was the idea that our emotions are hardwired. Like most psychologists in my generation, I was trained in the Paul Ekman school of emotion, which says that there are six universal emotions that appear with the same facial expressions across cultures: happiness, sadness, fear, anger, disgust, and surprise.  You may recognize five of these from the rather brilliant film Inside/Out, on which Paul Ekman served as a consultant.

Following from this assumption that emotions are hardwired, comes the theory that our environment triggers universal emotional experiences inside of us.  A lion lunges out from behind a tree and we feel fear, which we understand under this paradigm to be an objective phenomenon. Fear is fear is fear.

According to Lisa Feldman Barrett, author of How Emotions Are Made, this theory is just plain wrong. She makes a compelling case for the idea that our emotions are culturally constructed experiences that we do rather than something that simply happen to us. As a psychotherapist, I’ve been long aware that what we believe affects how we feel, but Feldman Barrett’s theory is still revolutionary. It’s one thing to imagine our thoughts flipping a “sadness switch” that looks basically the same in everyone, and entirely another thing to open to the possibility that what we believe actually shapes our emotional experiences from the ground up. I imagine that the truth probably lies somewhere between the Ekman camp and the Feldman Barrett camp, however, just for the moment, let’s see where Feldman Barrett’s claims might lead.

There are a lot of directions we could go from here, but I want to follow one particular point that is brought up in the podcast–if Feldman Barrett is right, are we responsible for our emotions? And, if so, what does that mean for us? The answer to the first question seems clear–if at some level, we are making our emotional experiences as they happen inside us, then, yes we are responsible for them. The second question seems less straightforward.

One direction we can go with that sense of responsibility is to blame, dismiss, and invalidate the person who is having the emotion (whether that be oneself or someone else). We can call this the “suck it up” direction. It will probably be no surprise to you that as a psychotherapist, this direction seems wholly uninteresting to me. It is so uninteresting, in fact, that I’m just going to leave that cognitive trudge for another day.

I’m much more interested in another direction. Paul Gilbert, creator of Compassion Focused Therapy, has been quoted as saying that the way our brains lead us again and again into suffering isn’t our fault, but it is our responsibility. Framed in this way, responsibility can be seen as restoring our agency and offering us the possibility of change.

the way our brains lead us again and again into suffering isn’t our fault, but it is our responsibility

Since listening to the podcast, I’ve been thinking about the ways that in my therapy with clients and in the ways I have endeavored to love myself, I tend to focus more on “it’s not your fault” than on “it is your responsibility.” My intentions are pure. So many of us are steeped in shame around what we feel, which leads us to try to avoid our emotions through reactive behaviors such as isolation, numbing, blame, and aggression. When I help my clients to feel the truth of “it’s not your fault,” they can begin the journey out of shame and into self-acceptance, but what if my focus also subtly strips them of the agency they might feel in building a new emotional life?

I’ve been thinking about how my cultural conditioning has shaped my own emotional experience. My thoughts turned to how I experience love and the absence of love. Here, in the United States, we place significant focus on getting and acquiring, and this affects how we think about love. As an experiment, I tried two Google searches: “how to get love” and “how to give love.” Unsurprisingly, the first search returned 13 times as many results. We all know the pain of not getting the love, acceptance, and belonging that we want or need, right? This is one of my least favorite human experiences and like most people, I will numb against it, fight against, intellectualize around it–do just about anything to avoid feeling it. Mindfulness and self-compassion have helped me to work with this habit of resistance and to begin to befriend myself in this experience of lack-of-love pain. As a result, I have experienced a significant reduction in suffering. That said, what if I could go deeper by looking at the conditioning that is the invisible architect of the emotion? As an experiment, I began to ask myself: what if instead of being groomed (by my parents, by an infinite number of romantic comedies, by well meaning self-help books, by thousands of advertisements seen across a lifetime) to see this emotion as the pain of not getting love, I had been conditioned to perceive this emotion as the pain of not giving love? I’ve been playing with this thought experiment all week. What would I think, feel, and do if I believed that to avoid some of the worst pain I feel in this life, I had to make sure to give enough love each day–to myself and to others? What if every time I felt that familiar heart pang, my first thought was, “Uh oh, did I give away enough love today?”

What if every time I felt that familiar heart pang, my first thought was, “Uh oh, did I give away enough love today?”

I find myself thinking of a guided meditation by the late Ayya Khema, the first western woman to become a Theravadin Buddhist nun. In the meditation, she invites us to imagine a flower garden growing in our heart, from which we can draw flowers to give to all those we meet. At one point, she instructs us to notice that the more flowers we give away, the more grow in their place. I find this to be true. Although my conditioning directs me to relate to love as a scarce resource that I must secure from those I meet in order to avoid pain, my experience shows me that the more “flowers” I give away, the better I feel.

I like the imagery of Ayya Khema’s instructions because the idea of a garden in the heart brings with it the sense of cultivating, tending, curating, nourishing, and protecting. I would like to take responsibility for what takes root and grows in my heart. Wouldn’t you? The thought experiment I ran is one of an infinite number of ways we can play with the beliefs that shape our emotional life. Our emotions are incredibly important. Without them, we would be lost in an overwhelming field of infinite data points, each with equal salience, all competing for our attention. Our emotions paint the meaning on our rational experience and help us make an endless number of decisions throughout our waking hours. Our emotions can be powerful allies and when we are tending the garden of our hearts, we can trust them to guide us, enrich us, and connect us.

Feel free to share your thoughts below.  We always love hearing from you!