He watches football all day, she sulks; he silently glares, she shouts; he insults, she slams the door. Recognizing emotional patterns provides an opportunity to intervene, extinguishing the unproductive with purposeful action. We can interrupt damaging cycles. With skillful planning, we activate our wise mind to manage the difficult, inviting promising futures from the ashes of the destruction.
Emotions are dumbfounding; logical to a point, but sometimes identifying the cause leaves us grasping for straws in the stacks of complexity. Firstly, the blurred cause of feelings (whether excited or depressed) leans upon conceptual explanations, evaluating environments, experiences and socially expected responses. Then, we assign meaning, causes, and rightness—a subjective practice. In psychology, we refer to this process as affective realism. Consequently, our interpretations appear as fact.
Upon entering a new relationship, a young friend remarked, “I just want to run to the mountains and scream.” She never successfully navigated the attachment cycle—attraction, romance, commitment, vulnerability. Therefore, new opportunities spiked fear. She didn’t know how to act. Her past failures created increased anxiety. Sometimes, our patterned responses are destructive; we yell at the person we love, steal from the company employing us, or eat foods that depress. Why do we self-sabotage?
See Self Sabotage for more on this topic
Emotions and Learning
We learn to identify dangers and opportunities through experience; our minds leap or shrink, primed to act depending on the coloring of the past. These connections are highly subjective, igniting reactive responses whether the response is appropriate for current trigger or not.
Anger, sadness, shame and guilt erupt, signaling importance. Sometimes these emotions appropriately point to approaching danger. Generally, the event triggering the emotion rightfully deserves attention and action, responding to the emotion is important for our safety, security and acceptance; other times, the blaring warning of emotion is askew; there is no danger. Therefore, we need to explore the emotion for wisdom, not blindly obey the impulse to act.
The Power of Reflection
The wise learn to pause, and objectively examine the absurdities. However, only through mindful awareness can we restore productive behaviors by challenging misguided motivations, examining if an action is conducive to goals. Often, without mindful observation, even dramatic and destructive patterns are missed, excused and repeated.
Feelings come quickly, serve their warning and depart; our thinking often exasperates and delays the process. Our thoughts give feeling deeper meaning, turning the small trickle of feeling into a catastrophic explosion of emotion. Once identified, we can change the narrative.
Reflection on Emotional Patterns and Regulation
One of the key benefits of reflection on emotions is it provides a handle on emotional experience to assist in regulations. Hendrik-Jan De Vuyst, et al. wrote that “research suggests that the act of generating awareness of one’s emotional world is a necessity for adaptive emotion regulation and an important contributor to our general well-being. Awareness of emotional patterns, for instance, helps us to recognize their recurrent situational nature, to which we can then modulate our reactions in an adaptive way” (2019).
Basically, the more we mindfully examine our experience, the more aware we become of the individual emotions and the flow of emotional patterns. This awareness allows us to intervene and regulate some instances of emotion. Research suggests that “reflecting is usually necessary for properly processing vital experiences” (Cova, et al., 2019).
Changing Harmful Emotional Patterns
Changing patterned reaction is difficult. They are automatic and often unrecognized. The event, the feelings, the thoughts, and eventual emotions effortlessly flow. Recognition of unhealthy patterns always precedes successful intervention. Our mind lost in habit quickly explains, mitigates and absolves reoccurring transgressions. Somewhere change must be made or the troublesome patterns will continue.
We can learn to new patterns. Our brains are capable of significant changes. Accordingly, we can replace maladaptive habits with new healthy ones. We can find peace where we once use to suffer. Anxieties can melt and confidence take hold. There is hope. There is help.
Cova, Félix; Garcia, Felipe; Oyanadel, Cristian; Villagran, Loreto; Páez, Dario; Inostroza, Carolina (2019). Adaptive Reflection on Negative Emotional Experiences: Convergences and Divergence Between the Processing-Mode Theory and the Theory of Self-Distancing Reflection. Frontiers in Psychology. DOI: 10.3389/fpsyg.2019.01943
De Vuyst, H. J., Dejonckheere, E., Van der Gucht, K., & Kuppens, P. (2019). Does repeatedly reporting positive or negative emotions in daily life have an impact on the level of emotional experiences and depressive symptoms over time?. PloS one, 14(6). DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0219121