Patterns of emotional negativity

Trapped in a bad pattern? Start a new one with good friends.

I feel drawn to write more around the unhelpful pattern I was writing about last time, which was about how the habit of avoiding strong negative emotions (or even all strong emotions) spirals downwards, and how this is reinforced by our social conditioning.

When I was training to practice hypnotherapy, which I did for a short time in the early 80s, we were introduced to a technique called ‘abreaction’. Clients, under hypnosis, would relive traumatic events in their imagination, be encouraged to steer into, rather than away from, the emotion, and then encouraged into a kind of cathartic release – hitting something soft with one's full strength is the classic one for anger; uninhibited weeping and sobbing works pretty well for grief; etc. The idea of abreaction goes back beyond Freud; catharsis comes from the effect of drama on the ancient Greeks. How can this be therapeutic? The explanation still makes sense to me: we all have a natural mechanism by which, immediately after a traumatic event, we replay the event in our memory, sorting out the real danger from what is just accidentally associated with it; and if this works well, we are left with a useful response to what is actually harmful, while being at ease with what should not cause a problem. If this natural reflective restorative process is interrupted, then the person does not get a chance to sort out what should be learned and what should be forgotten, and unhelpful emotion can be triggered by events that don't call for those emotions. When the therapeutic process works well, we suppose that the client has got close enough to the original state just after the traumatic event for the natural learning processes to work, as it should have done in the first place.

What is easy to imagine for one-off traumatic events appears more complex for feelings that arose from long experience, and it may take more dedication, and perhaps a good psychotherapist, or a healing relationship or environment, to work through. I think we all recognise that until we ‘learn lessons’ in life, similar events continue to trouble us. What I was saying last time was that journalling can be therapeutic, through recalling what has happened recently and making sense, learning what needs to be learned. A similar process may be happening with some dreams – noting that Jung and others have used dreams extensively in psychotherapy.

When there is nothing processed that has to do with the difficult feelings that have come to the surface, we cope instead, in various ways that don't get to the root of the difficulty: food, alcohol, medications, other drugs, and anything that distracts us: media, games, etc., perhaps in combination with projecting the emotions onto other people.

This brings me on to a particular pattern which troubles me. In schools in particular, it is a well-known principle (for boys at least) that you have to fight back if you want to have any social status, rather than running away. Probably for many reasons, I never got to fight back against any bullies, physically. But I did get to be good at chess: something I could beat others at.

You could generalise this pattern to the principle of not letting anyone put you down. I've noticed this surfacing many times in different contexts, and I may have rationalised it as a generally sensible thing to do: I don't like power relationships. The problem I see comes from expecting this pattern to be in play. If you're looking out for it, the danger is you'll see it in more places than it really is. If one sees an attempt to dominate where another person is not trying to do that, then the response may be seen in turn as an attempt to dominate, even though the intention was to stay in balance. Clarifying intentions can help.

Where then? I'm struck again by the subtle wisdom of turning the other cheek. My interpretation of this saying (from the Sermon on the Mount), is that turning the other cheek (and the other examples in context), far from being examples of lamely accepting humiliation, actually mean that you aren't playing the same game as the person who first struck you on the cheek. If you were playing the same game, then in order not to lose status you would need to strike back, as in “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth”. In contrast, opting out of that game, and choosing a more loving way of being, is being strong in a different, more subtle way. I think I would have benefited from someone explaining that to me, a long time ago.

So this is complex. We need to notice that we have strong emotions; recognise the patterns from which they emerge, whether those patterns are rooted in society, in distant childhood, or are more recent; deliberately or consciously step out from that pattern, and recentre into a place of deeper value; and then act from that chosen better place. Similar patterns run through much of human life.

Pretty challenging? It needs practice. Good friendships of virtue can help as well.

Topics: Complex psychology; Personal development

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