Emotional Custom


People, over the course of their lives, acquire an awareness of laws, rights, ceremonial and procedural policies appropriate to the culture in which they live. People commit to memory how they are likely to meet their needs, from day-to-day, within the confines of law and custom. Similarly, emotion is a process of acquisition. To a large extent, just as we learn to speak language, choose certain foods over others, learn the rules of driving and practice religions, emotional learning produces emotional custom.

Children can be a powerful source for understanding the origin of emotion. A child who wants something will quickly recall how s/he got something the last time s/he wanted something.  If the child reaches and doesn’t get what s/he wants, s/he will reach again and add a disturbing whine.  If that doesn’t work, the child may reach, whine and scream.  After a few unsuccessful attempts at that, the child will create a unique combination of reaching, whining and screaming that is fashioned and fine-tuned for meeting that particular need.  If one routine is more successful than another, you can expect that the next time the child wants something, s/he will forgo the prelude (reaching and whining), and just do what worked the last time and just start with screaming.

Behavior change in children comes when the child’s caregiver decides that s/he will no longer tolerate the child’s behavior. Depending on the caregiver’s commitment to the child’s behavior change, things will either get worse before they get better, or they will become much, much worse.

There is no escaping the worst of it.

Ignoring a child’s best attempt to get what s/he wants may, if all goes well, result in an extinction burst – when a child uses every behavioral paradigm s/he can imagine and gets no beneficial result whatsoever. I often hear caregivers describe this process as a meltdown. Ignoring a child’s behavior until it disappears, a phenomenon called extinction, requires a great deal of patience and perseverance – something caregivers with screaming children likely don’t already posses. It is best in that case to build one’s own frustration tolerance before initiating a behavior modification in a child.  If the child happens to win the struggle against behavior change, you can expect h/er behavior to worsen.

Children are wired for learning.   The acquisition of social skill is so important to human survival in fact Nature leaves the process of acquiring emotional custom on-going for the first 25-or-so years of human life. The logic of testing, practicing and establishing emotional custom continues longer than any other open process of brain formation.

As adults, we are not so welcoming of behavior change. In fact, we will defend our premise for expressing a particular emotion at a particular time with a great deal of fervor. Not only is the process of changing how we think and behave not enjoyable, but that type of change requires some level of modification in the structure of the physical brain.  Fortunately we are sometimes successful at changing our behavior. At some point in our lives, however, it may just be inevitable. When our behavior serves no purpose, it will be replaced by something that does.

As I have often said, all behavior has a purpose.

Behavior will extinguish when it serves no purpose.

Emotional change requires a mixture of new thinking and new behaviors – behaviors that the individual is willing to practice in place of h/er undesired behavior.  For example, if you want to quit smoking, you are not likely to replace smoking with peeling potatoes.  People must replace the undesired behavior with one that they believe is a compelling alternate.

People have to like what they are doing instead of what they want to stop doing.

I once broke an undesired behavior by taking a hot shower whenever I had the compulsion to express the behavior I wanted to extinguish.  I know someone who replaced smoking with eating green, sour apples.  The point being, the replacement behavior MUST be something you are willing to do instead.  Your replacement behavior will not often be the same thing someone else did when they succeeded in breaking an undesirable habit.  Patches don’t work for everyone.  Pills probably don’t often work for anyone.  Lectures work for some. Reading this blog may be a potential alternative.  It’s all up to you.  There is no single fix for changing any particular behavior.

When I face adversity and misfortune, and I upset myself, I tell myself, “I am relying on my emotional memory to draw this conclusion and form this emotional reaction to it.”  For example, if I make myself angry, I tell myself, “I am upset because of the way I am remembering.  I am using my emotional memory. What would I feel if I didn’t have this particular emotional memory?”

The answer is, inevitably, “Nothing! except possibly confusion, puzzlement, mystery or maybe complacency.”

Personally, I would rather feel confused, puzzled and mystified in place of anger.

If you want to try this technique, to see if it will work for you, focus your mind on these suggested self-talk statements:

“I am relying on my emotional memory to draw the conclusions I am drawing about this experience.”

“I am upset because I am using my emotional memory to understand this problem.”

“What would I feel if I didn’t have my emotional memory to guide me?”

Take a deep, deep breath into the pit of your stomach – so deep you cannot take in anymore air.  By doing this, you are activating your vagus nerve and impeding your sympathetic nervous response to stressful thinking and, instead, activating your parasympathetic nervous response.

As you let out the air, say, “Nothing.  It would mean nothing.”

Keep deep breathing and asking yourself these same questions until you feel yourself relaxing.

It shouldn’t take long.

It takes thought and a reliance on memory and behavior to make yourself feel emotion. It will take thought, a reliance on my new memories and new behaviors to feel the way you want to feel.


21 responses

  1. Hi,
    How very interesting the deep breathing exercise, I will have to remember that one.
    However I did give it a bit of a try, and don’t laugh, but it actually brought on a yawn. 😀
    The yawn of course had more to do with the very bad weather we are having at the moment, and not enough sleep last night. 🙂

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  4. WOW.

    This is so right on. I wish that every parent could see this, especially those that continually reward their children’s tantrums with attention just to quiet them.

    Thank you so much for this post.

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