Sometimes we get caught in an intense emotion and it makes us miserable, to say nothing of the people around us… Last Sunday, I returned from an inspiring workshop and as I walked up the path to my front door, breathed in the unmistakably noxious smell of mothballs. It was coming from my next-door neighbour’s yard. Even when I sealed myself indoors, the fumes managed to creep into my home causing headaches and inflaming my whole respiratory system. But that’s not all that was inflamed; I was angry. The internal judgments were flying. “Who chooses to expose themselves–and others– to poison that mutates cells? What is wrong with this person?? And hadn’t I talked to her about the very same thing several years ago? Obviously, she doesn’t care about people, animals or the environment…. “ And so it went.
As psychologist Paul Ekman notes, when we are gripped by intense emotion, we interpret what is happening in a way that fits with how we are feeling and ignore information that doesn’t fit with our view. So, when I am angry about the mothballs, it isn’t easy for me to consider that my neighbour’s actions might have come out of ignorance. I will only selectively recall past knowledge about that person and perhaps remember similar instances of feeling intruded on or even unsafe, because underneath my anger, I was afraid. I was unnerved by my body’s intense reaction to the fumes.
Ekman has spent decades studying emotions across cultures and refers to the experience of being caught up in intense emotion as a “refractory state, during which time our thinking cannot incorporate information that does not fit, maintain or justify the emotion we are feeling.” This state can be very positive if it only lasts a couple of seconds. It can help focus our attention on a particular problem and help us access relevant information to help guide immediate and subsequent actions. (In my case, it got me moving indoors pretty quickly!) It becomes problematic when the refractory period lasts for minutes or even hours as it can give rise to inappropriate emotional behaviour, such as telling off my neighbour, or giving her the cold shoulder. An extended refractory period can end up having even more serious consequences by biasing our view of the world and of ourselves. In this instance, if my refractory state lasted longer, I could conclude that “people are selfish” and “the world isn’t safe.”
There are many factors that affect the power of an emotion trigger and the length of the refractory period, including individual personality differences. Although most of us won’t end up physically hurting ourselves or others, most of us will occasionally say or do things that are hurtful. Sometimes the harm is toward others, sometimes to ourselves, and sometimes both.
If we are to stop emotional behaviours that harm ourselves and our relationships, if we are to change how we are feeling, Ekman counsels that we need to be able to develop a different type of emotional consciousness. Even as we are feeling the emotion, we can question whether we want to go along with what our emotion is driving us to do or choose how we will act on our emotion.
My mindfulness practice helped me to observe the urge to write an angry email, complain to others or report my neighbour’s actions to the city (it’s actually illegal in Canada to use mothballs outdoors because of their toxicity– you gotta love this country!) It also helped rein in my urge to tiptoe over in the dark with a flashlight and pick up the mothballs on the sly!
Lucky for me (and my neighbours), mindfulness practice actually lessens both the intensity of the refractory period and its duration. (See Goleman’s Destructive Emotions.) Mindfulness really decreases our suffering and in this case, helped me to see the humour in my reactive fantasies.
I had to remind myself of that tonight as I returned from my evening walk to find that my other neighbour had scattered the darn things all over his garden…
Marian & Brett