When smart people do dumb things, it does not mean they are dumb. It means that on that occasion their instinct switched into survival mode, and generated emotions strong enough to overrule logic and common sense. New Years’ Resolutions are usually based on smart thinking and our best interests. When we give up on them, it is because emotional (either negative or positive) arousal – made us do it.
But we can successfully achieve and maintain our resolutions in spite of the interference of our instinct and the emotions it generates. We can be happy in spite of ourselves.
Strong feelings, strong emotions do make us do things. Most of the time, these are things we want to do, but not always. Sometimes we find ourselves doing things that we don’t really want to do, but we do them anyway.
Emotions are Powerful Enough to Override Our Goodwill and Our Goals
Why is this so, how can this be? To answer these questions, think of emotion as an inner state of physiological arousal (e.g heart rate, blood pressure, body temperature). Arousal can be positive, like excitement; or negative, like fear. Regardless of the type of arousal, emotion grabs our attention and magnifies our commitment to action. When we are emotional, we react faster and with more intensity.
The evolution of our survival instinct through natural selection and gene inheritance has placed emotion as our default line of defense in life and death situations. Our species has learned that speed and strength in the heat of the moment are more important for survival than reasonableness, logic, and altruism.
For our survival to depend on it, emotion has to be highly arousing, noticeable and irresistible. This is all good in situations that really are life or death, but not so good in situations that are not. For many of us, most of the important life situations we find ourselves in are important for many reasons but not of life or death importance. How often we think a situation is a life or death determines the degree to which emotions rule our lives and defeat our resolutions.
“This is awful, horrible, terrible, unbearable, …. I can’t stand it …. and it shouldn’t be this way and you shouldn’t be this way” are clues that situations or circumstances are being defined as life or death situations by your instinct.
On reflection, you might think that you didn’t literally mean you “… couldn’t stand it” but at the time, your survival instinct interpreted it that way. Extreme or irrational actions that do not help in the situation you are in, are the evidence of your emotions’ interference.
You can stick to your resolutions if you lessen the interference of your emotions.
How to Lessen the Interference of Instinct Generated Emotions?
Rule #1 Emotions (feelings) can be positive or negative, wanted or unwanted and they can never be avoided. Taking drugs or avoiding situations only delays their onset.
Rule #2 Instinct creates our emotions. Instinct operates unconsciously, automatically via a set of hard-wired neurological circuits conditions that are present at birth and that are modified and changed by ongoing life experience after birth. Different life experience makes the individual impact of instinct on emotion and behavior unique to every individual.
Rule #3 Because instinct operates unconsciously we do not consciously choose our emotions. Believing that we “should” or “shouldn’t” feel a certain way is wishful thinking because our instinct is focused on our survival, not on what we like or don’t like. Our instinct does not care if we are satisfied or happy. It cares that we are alert, on edge and ready for danger.
Rule #4 In the absence of external interference (drugs), you will never have a feeling you shouldn’t have. You are always right to feel the way you do – happy, joyful, anxious, angry, depressed, envious, excited, lustful. You haven’t consciously chosen these feelings, your instinct has. If these feelings help you get what you want, then all good.
If they get in the way of you getting what you want, then you need to lessen their interference. You do this by training yourself to get better at tolerating unwanted feelings. If you can do this, they will cause less interference in your life.
Snakes and Ladders
This game apparently originated in India and was played to give experience in dealing with destiny or karma from a good event (ladder) or bad event (snake). Movement in the game is randomly governed by throwing a dice. There is no skill involved. In the original game, there were more snakes than ladders.
Playing snakes and ladders first as a board game and then as a game of life is one way to get better at tolerating unwanted feelings. When you move, and when you eventually land on a snake or a ladder you will have an emotional reaction. More than likely it won’t be strong but it will be there. Notice what your body does and what you do when it happens.
Of course, the intensity of one’s reaction relates to the type and size of the ladder or snake and where we are in the game. However, our wisdom about this relationship always comes after the event and moment. The impact of instinct on our emotions precedes any conscious effort we make to understand it. At a conscious level, we are always playing ‘catch-up’.
Since we can ‘not react’, we aim to minimize the interference of our emotional reaction after it has occurred. We will make it so much harder for our self if we try to prevent or change our feelings before they happen. That is like trying not to breathe.
Cardiopulmonary resuscitation or CPR is a technique to restart the heart in an emergency situation – a life or death situation. Small CPR, is a technique to reduce the interference of emotion on our behavior in situations that are not life or death. The small c stands for calm; the P for perspective and the R for restoration.
Calming arousal happens quickly when you so something that is actively satisfying. Satisfying to you might not be satisfying to someone else, so practice choosing something satisfying that does not agitate others. Calming has to come first. Without calming, perspective and restoration do not work.
Perspective requires conscious talking to yourself (preferably not out-loud, but sometimes this works in teaching others – such as your kids – how to cPR). You are telling yourself what you want to do that will be useful in your situation. You are reminding yourself of the consequences of your actions and rewarding yourself with thoughts of success.
Restoration relates to observable actions you take after calm and perspective. An observable action is anything that can be seen or heard. Restoration is action you figure will keep you on track to achieve your goal. Having landed on a snake you pass the dice to the next player, rather than throw them into the garden.
RAi – What Everybody Wants and What Makes the World Go Around
In ‘real-life’ Snakes and Ladders, you don’t move by throwing dice. Instinctively, humans equate recognition, approval, and importance with survival. These elements provide our instinct with a sense of support and safety.
Without them, instinct generates ongoing arousal. Any source of RAi (recognition, approval, importance) is highly satisfying. Your movement in ‘real-life’ Snakes and Ladders is determined by RAi – by how much you give (to others or yourself), or how much you receive (from others or yourself).
Daily satisfaction and a sense of achievement come from giving and receiving RAi. Occasionally you will land on a ladder and earn a bucket of RAi from your effort, or just from being in the right place at the right time. Occasionally you will lose RAi in the eyes of others (or yourself) and that’s a snake. When either event happens, you will have an emotional reaction to manage. That’s when cPR may be required.
If you view your life in a framework of Snakes and Ladders, the rules of the game are there to guide you. Satisfaction and happiness come from giving and receiving RAi. Expect to occasionally land on snakes and ladders, and expect to have emotional reactions when you do. You are supposed to be emotional, your survival instinct makes it so. However, with CPR you can manage the interference of any unwanted emotions on your effort and persistence.
New year’s resolutions are goals or directions you have set for yourself. Expect snakes and ladders along the way. Emotional reactions while striving to achieve your resolutions cannot be avoided.
Normalising these emotions prepares you for them and gives you an opportunity to plan the CPR you will use to lessen the interference they cause while you work towards achieving your health, financial and relationship resolutions.
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