What kind of crackpot was this?


I am hyperaware.

People are forever telling me I should stop analyzing everyone and everything and just relax: You think too much. You shouldn’t think so much. Relax, will you!

I am often left thinking about what one would do instead of thinking. Is there such a state of mind as not-thinking?

Coma perhaps?

I spend a lot of time thinking about that.

Growing up, emotion was not celebrated in my home. The more we avoided it, though, the more unavoidable it became. I learned early that emotion was a weakness, foolishness.  Like showing your cards before the end of a hand of poker: Where’s you poker face? Stay calm. Don’t let ‘em see you sweat.

My family viewed emotion as a form of manipulation. Crying meant giving up. With the exception of stubbornness, anger and criticism, there was very little touching, kissing, embracing or spontaneous emotive behavior. For me, growing up was like walking an angry Chihuahua on a very short, heavy leash.

My father expected perfection.

He was often left disappointed.

Being human interfered with that objective.

As a child I became somewhat of a sponge, emoting vicariously by provoking others to react to me – burping loudly in the lunchroom, eating chalk, throwing burrs into woolen hats, clowning and teasing. These were my emotional conduits. I discovered people could be set ablaze with emotional color, particularly when aroused through conflict or struggle. At the doctor’s office, I watched as the other children (my sister in particular), waited for their vaccinations. Bee stings, the injections were called, had a different effect on each child. Some were stunned with fear; crying and pleading. Some bargained; some implored. Some played with toys, while others slept. My sister stared at the examining room door, waiting for the nurse to come out and shout: Sandra! Is Sandra here? When her name was finally called, she bolted upright, eyes bulging from her head, frozen with fear.

Same situation, entirely different reaction.

I found it amazing even at that young age.

To this day I cannot imagine why anyone would tell a child something felt only like a bee sting, in order to calm them before an injection. As if that similarity would somehow help reduce or even eliminate a child’s anxiety.

I remember the House of Horrors at Nantasket Beach.

Come on, it will be fun.

I looked up in horror at the clown’s left eye hanging over its cheek, bobbing back and forth, keeping time with its tongue.

I don’t wanna.

I noticed very keenly how boys my same age went inside, not even hesitating, grinning at me as they ran up the ramp past me and into the dark black hole that served as the clown’s mouth.

Baby.

And, of course, there was baseball.

By no stretch of the imagination should I have ever been allowed to play anything involving a ball. I was so near-sighted I couldn’t distinguish a ball that was landing on my head from one a mile in the air. Each time I took my turn at bat, confident that I would never hit the ball anyway, the Killian brothers sat on the bench and, as if synchronized, put their arms over each other’s shoulders and began to cry.

My father watched from the stands.

The team on the field sat on the ground, smiling, waiting for me to strike out.

I did hit the ball once (or maybe it hit my bat); but instead of excitement, I remember feeling fear and expressing confusion. I froze in place, ran from home to third base (which had less to do with my poor eyesight and more to do with my level of interest in the game), while the Killians matched expressions of terror.

And the ball soared into the outfield.

How is it that each of us can be presented with the very same stimuli and concoct so many different expectations, so many varying reactions?

Incredible.

I spent a good part of my life studying the phenomenon of emotion. When I entered college, I was introduced to a system of mental health designed not to make people happy but, instead, to increase emotional intelligence, all achieved through better thinking. At the time, I didn’t even know that emotion was a product of thinking. I thought my emotions were natural, like my eye color. Thinking implied that I had some measure of control over that aspect of myself.  Something I had always thought I didn’t control at all.

I can think, so I can think differently!

If I think differently, I can feel differently.

The theory relied upon helping others hear their own self talk. Hear what they say to themselves just before they choose an emotional response.

Choose an emotional response?

I was so moved by this new idea, I attended a conference in Chicago organized to teach this emotional thinking technique. While I waited for everything to get started, I remember hearing a commotion in the back of the room.

It’s him. Look, it’s him. That isn’t him. Yes it is!

I turned to see a small, very thin and frail man heading up the aisle, carrying a can of juice and a cookie. He didn’t really say or do anything unusual. But everything about him provoked an emotional reaction. Grumpiness wafted after him like dust. He grinned, but his grin was somewhat sinister, boyish. His long nose and horn rimmed glasses made him look unapproachable, yet he shook hands with those who reached out to welcome him, showing a certain measure of enthusiasm and caring.

The man may have passed for a janitor, the guy who adjusts the audio equipment, or the president of some impoverished eastern European nation.

He was no one and everyone, all at the same time.

His clothing was disheveled and he was hunched over, as if carrying a sack full of lead on his shoulders. He ascended the single step to the stage, carefully shuffled across to his seat and sat down in front of the assembled audience. He paused for a moment, squinting through his glasses at everyone in attendance, as if looking painfully into the sun. He tapped the microphone, pushed his glasses up closer to his eyes, leaned to one side and farted!

I was horrified.

This man was going to teach me about emotional intelligence? What kind of crackpot was this?

He continued squinting over his glasses, while inspecting the microphone and looking out over his audience. In his nasally New York accent, he groused, “If I have a seizure, someone come up and feed me this juice.”

It was 1992.

His name was Albert Ellis.

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7 responses

  1. Pingback: Your Questions About Emotional Intelligence Book

  2. Hi Michael,
    I am always looking for new insights and views and your blog on emotional intelligence is new to me and quite interesting. I have always seperated people into two classes: thinkers and feelers. But the idea of thinking about emotions never occured to me. Like you I find myself interested in how you can have the same situation happen to two people and get two totally different reactions. Psychology in general has always interested me though….so I was glad to find someone such as yourself was following my blog. Thank you and I definitely look forward to following your blog.

  3. Fantastical content material. Just what I was trying to search for!
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