Emotional Power and Genuine Self-Value17 March 2022
Steven Stosny :
Most psychological distress is triggered by a drop in self-value-you feel devalued-by circumstances, someone else, or yourself. Those who devalue more than they value may tend to drink, eat, or work too much and mistake ego for self-value.
In the helping professions, we need to re-examine from time to time the major things we've learned, lest the streams of biases inherent in routine become a flood.
At this point, near the end of a long life of practice, these are the major things I've learned about helping clients, while making my life more meaningful.
The Immune System of the Self
In a previous post, I described emotional power as the ability to use inherently short-term emotions for your long-term best interests.
Most psychological distress that seems to disempower is triggered by a drop in self-value-you feel devalued-by circumstances, someone else, or yourself. Most of us form the habit in toddlerhood of substituting power for value-we get angry at ourselves and at others. The adrenaline makes us feel temporarily more powerful but not more valuable.
We build immunity to drops in self-value by expanding core value, the human ability to create value and meaning in life. (Examples of valuing emotion states are interest, compassion, affection, love, appreciation, kindness, and enjoyment.) Core value is like a muscle-the more it's exercised, the stronger it becomes, growing ever more efficient at resisting the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.
Emotions are dominated by a series of conditioned responses, some dating back to toddlerhood. For example, on autopilot, we're more likely to blame than improve.
On autopilot, emotions are highly reactive. This makes us vulnerable to every jerk in the world. When we react to jerks like a jerk, what do we become? Unregulated emotion reactivity can turn us into what we despise.
Emotions can be reconditioned through practice by associating drops in self-value with core value. Once the association is conditioned, we will automatically do something likely to raise self-value and reduce reactivity to others. For example, we'll improve the situation or our experience of it, appreciate someone or something, connect to significant others, or protect the well-being of those we love.
Valuing emotions make us feel more humane. We like ourselves better when we are compassionate, appreciative, kind, interested, affectionate, loving, or experiencing joy. Of course, we prefer to share those emotional states with others, but sharing and reciprocation, though desirable, are unnecessary to maintain a sense of basic humanity.
Devaluing emotions lower self-value and make us feel less humane. In general, we like ourselves less when angry, resentful, critical, or contemptuous, although we sometimes mistake self-righteousness for self-value. Those who devalue more than they value tend to drink too much, eat too much, work too much, or suffer too much.
We experience valuing emotions more frequently than we think. Because memories have a negative bias, we're unlikely to remember valuing emotions when they occur in less than a 5-to-1 ratio with devaluing feelings. The negative bias of emotional memory evolved to keep us safe-negative emotions are more necessary for immediate survival. But when they dominate daily life, they could cause health problems and severe impairments to well-being.
We can retrain ourselves to value more than we devalue, just as we've trained ourselves to do the opposite. The magical 5-to-1 ratio is more easily achievable than you might think.
The Motivation of Emotions
Emotions have three components: physiological arousal, motivation, and feelings. The most important in terms of behavior is motivation- emotions prepare us to act. (The root of the word is "to move.") The action they prepare us for can be fit into three broad categories: approach (get more) avoid (get less), and attack (devalue, warn, threaten, intimidate, harm). Motivation is the component most accessible to regulation-deciding which behavior is in our long-term best interests.
Many in my profession focus too much on feelings, the emotional component least accessible to regulation. Focus on feelings tends to justify them, without consideration of long-term best interests. Because feelings are inextricably subjective, justifying them is mired in confirmation bias, likely to get you stuck in painful feedback loops of blame, powerlessness, and diminished self-value.
Binocular Vision in Interactions
Unregulated emotions can create temporary narcissism, where only your own feelings matter. They preclude other perspectives, obscuring the reality of interactions, which is both perspectives together. One perspective of an interaction is incomplete and superficial, laden with bias.
Binocular vision is the most important relationship skill. Without it, interactions are rife with projections and power struggles. Monocular vision makes us want to argue and win. Binocular vision makes us want to learn and appreciate.
(Steven Stosny, Ph.D., treats people for anger and relationship problems. His recent books include How to Improve your Marriage without Talking about It and Love