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.


People With Goals

Over the years, I have come to expect a flash of insight in my learner, the moment when s/he connects the dots, realizes that the origin of emotion lies in thought and suddenly comes awake.

Emotion is thought.

People are not disturbed by things; they are disturbed by their view of things.

As my learner and I progress through our learning adventure, however, that awakening is often replaced with bewilderment and frustration.  The noose of complacency lowers and strangles the life right out of what was once a grand opportunity for change.

People with goals, it seems, begin to achieve them by first searching for a higher level of intellectual insight.  They read; they listen; they exchange stories.  They look for shortcuts.  They ruminate over how much displeasure they can anticipate.  They try to minimize the expectation of discomfort by buying patches, pills and recorded lectures; they read reviews and search for testimonials; they fall for gimmicks, purchase miracle cures from infomercials and eat  strange, exotic concoctions.

“Was it hard?  What did you do?  What worked?  How can I do it without discomfort?  Avoid failure? How can I live exactly the way I live now and still achieve my goal?”

Seeking information does nothing more than confirm our suspicion that a goal to change our behavior is in order.  We learn that smoking is bad for your health; people cannot maintain optimal health and be fifty pounds overweight; you will benefit from having a hobby, a passion, an activity – a life force.  There is no shortage of compelling information to encourage change. People, most often, already know these things, anyway.  They just seem to want to verify it all, before committing to doing something about it; again. Confirming suspicions may be the very thing you are doing as you read this article.

You are acquiring intellectual insight.

Regardless of how much people learn, they often surrender the necessary commitment to behavior change for the safety and comfort of familiarity, doing what they have always done in place of the goals they set for themselves.  Intellectual insight, however, is not enough to meet the challenge of reaching a goal.  There must be a compelling, corresponding commitment to behavior change.  Essentially, you can’t buy an ab-cruncher, a synthetic cigarette, a diet book or treadmill and just look at it.  Well, I guess you could.  A lot of people do.

When people with goals fail to achieve their aspirations, the phenomenon of guilt sets in.  Guilt is a manifestation of perfectionism – the belief that we must always succeed, always meet the expectations we set for ourselves, live without showing weakness or failure.

“I am bad.”

“I am a failure.”

“I cannot succeed.”

“I will never change.”

“I am a shite!”

It’s all quite predictable.

The phenomenon of failure is ever-present in the way people enter into a marriage.  Couples often have a belief from the start that the marriage will likely end in divorce.  Why wouldn’t it? People learn early in their lives that married people divorce when they have difficulties.  We even explain the phenomenon of divorce to children in a way that it is a likely option for them one day.  “Mommy and Daddy just couldn’t get along, so we won’t be living together anymore.  It’s not your fault.  We just argue a lot, so twill be better if we split up.” Although the philosophy of marriage is a celebrated institution in our world culture, the committment to compromise, patience and forgiveness is often a goal that is left unachieved.  Marriage is NOT an achievement.  Marriage is a goal that is expected to last a lifetime.

Most of my learners are quite happy with the benefit they receive from having improved knowledge, better intellectual insight.  People are not, however, often willing to commit to the long haul – to make a focused effort to use their acquired wisdom for anything more than to talk about it and hang their clothes from its handles.  Completing the connection between intellectual insight and behavior change will always be the enduring challenge, regardless of the goal.

Thinking and behavior must coexist if we are to expect achievement.

If you cannot realistically commit to changing your behavior, if you envision yourself failing before you even start, don’t set the goal in the first place.  Don’t get married, don’t quit smoking and eat until you can’t eat anymore.  If you cannot honestly commit to the burden of behavior change, you will not only save a great deal of money, but you will avoid having to dispose of all your belongings at discount prices.



Let’s take a journey.

I have often wondered how I would begin a discussion of human psychology and emotional intelligence from scratch – to leave nothing to chance – to build fresh; to have a tabula rasa, rather than sifting through all that sticky gray matter that makes a jumble of everything.

We can only imagine.

I was meeting with an intern last week and the realization crawled over me, like a smudge, that our learning adventure hadn’t really amounted to much more than the time we had spent together.  I had filled his mind with intellectual insight, but I forgotten to pack the practical skills.

Essentially, he could pass a test.

As much as I tried to fight it, I couldn’t deny the distinct quality of criticism I heard in his voice when he said, “I’m almost ready to go on my own.  Just a few more weeks.  I just don’t feel prepared.”

Energy swirled around me like a protective force field. My eyes popped from my head and burrowed into their opposite sockets; my tongue rolled from my mouth like a carpet; my head pulsed with every beat of my heart; red, swirling lights erupted from my ears and, like a desperate man on a window ledge, I made a swan dive of assumption, concluding that every intern I had ever trained was flawed!

I went from confidently good to marvelously bad, in seconds.

“How could this be?” I cried.

“I can’t tell you.”

“What can we do now?”

“I don’t know.  I’m sure I can pass the licensure test.”

“Great! But can you help an actual person?”

“I don’t know.”

I had been providing my intern with an abundance of qualified opinion for nearly two years. I had not, apparently, been providing a great deal in the way of technique.  My intern was a walking textbook with little or no clinical skill!

“Let’s start over.” I said, confidently.

“We don’t have that much time left.”

“Let’s try.  Erase your mind!”

“I can’t do that.”

Try! Hurry! Push!”

“I’m hurrying.”

“Push harder!”

My intern and I were suddenly strangers who had, together, missed the same bus.

The fact is, I make a lot of assumption, particularly about how much or how little people know about human behavior, human emotion and, well, everything in between that and the moon. I can be discussing cognitive psychology, emotional intelligence or kitty litter and I nearly always begin at some point further up or down the road from my listener. Unfortunately, I usually find out later that I had been, essentially, talking to myself.  At the same time I learn that I had been perceived as quite patronizing or far too confusing, too complicated – possibly even drunk.

So let’s just start fresh and lay a new foundation for learning.  I promise not to be confusing, obtuse or mystifying.  It’s all straight shooting from here on, partner. In the event you believe you already have a foundation, a framework for understanding emotional intelligence, bio-psychosocial adjustment and the principles of cognitive-behavioral therapy, buy the vacant lot next door and lay a new foundation there.

We’re starting from scratch.

Logically, we should begin our discussion with the movie Cowboys and Aliens (2011), a story set in the Arizona Territory in 1873.  I can think of no better place to start the construction of our more reliable foundation for learning. Over all, this movie doesn’t offer a lot in the way of improving emotional intelligence except for the last few minutes; but you will see what I mean.  First you will need a quick rundown to understand my point – once I make it.

Imagine alien spacecraft sporadically attacking the small town of Absolution, Arizona and abducting its citizens.  The aliens, who look a lot like termites, fly their ships close enough to the ground to lasso people and drag them into their open hatchways and whisk them away to who-knows-where. Toward the end of the movie, the heroes discover the aliens’ intended use for the abducted townsfolk. Without spoiling the movie for those who haven’t seen it, suffice it to say that the abducted are discovered aboard the mother-ship and have had their memories erased, or sucked out or somehow wiped away. I wasn’t paying enough attention to know exactly why the termites were doing that to the kindly townsfolk. When they were freed, however, I was more interested and paid closer attention.  With the exception of recognizing their own names and the faces of their loved ones, very little of the abductees’ memories remained intact.

The part of the movie that captured my attention most was the final scene involving a boy who, at the start of the movie, was portrayed as an unrepentant spoiled brat. He turned out to be one of the abductees. Free of the aliens to resume his life with his memories erased, the boy was suddenly quite manageable, sociable – pleasing to know.  Everything was new to him – every experience, every question, every answer, every demand and every request.  He had no preconceived notion of how people should behave or how they could be expected to treat him.  If someone had walked up, kicked him in the throat and then helped him to his feet, he would have come to know that as an accepted social custom. His mind was a tabula rasa – an empty slate – making his former personality a thing of the past – something that didn’t need to be sifted through, dissected, understood or interpreted in order to help him improve his emotional health. He just needed new training, new memories of social experiences – only this second time we can only hope would be better than the first go round.

Mental health for the masses would be an easier thing to achieve if it weren’t for the storehouse of emotional memories we carry around inside our heads.  If we had some way of erasing all the stored experiences, events and encounters we use to make assumptions about ourselves and others and how we choose to respond to emotional stimuli, help would be much easier to provide (and my intern would be fully prepared).  Our emotional memories, however, often get in the way of our rational, more level-headed reasoning and impede the progress of therapy.  We can spend hours, days and years just going through all of our memories, as if doing so would someone bring us to some better understanding of our lives today.

From birth we are exposed to continued and constant social and emotional training.  Like the boy in the movie, our brains absorb social custom, behavioral tradition and a system of belief in ourselves and others that takes priority over how we interact with others. Everyone has h/er own emotional training and, therefore, h/er own expression of emotion. Mental health is a matter of confronting those established beliefs and creating a more manageable, more flexible and less damaging frame of reference for the expression of emotion.

The fact that no event, happening or occurrence has intrinsic meaning is essential to achieving better emotional health. For example, the act of criticism has no inherent meaning without THE MEANING WE BRING TO THE EVENT. That being said, there is no natural reaction to criticism, only a practiced, familiar and memorable response from our past. We learn to respond to nearly every event that occurs within our awareness and we just keep repeating our response over and over again until it becomes something of a reflex.

It’s a tough slog, this mental health business.  If you can arrange to have yourself abducted by flying alien termites who will suck your memories out of your head and replace them with a nice, clean slate you will be making marvelous progress. Push!

What Am I Afraid Of?

How on earth are we born with so much prospective for emotional achievement, yet we wind up making ourselves throw up, murdering people who don’t cooperate with us, punching people in the throat who speak their mind and making ourselves depressed when we find ourselves cheated on, taken advantage of, lied to and criticized?

Well, the answer to this question, for me, is to ask myself what I am afraid of.  Once I discover the answer to that question, I can often begin to discover the source of nearly any emotional challenge I encounter in myself and others, e.g., “My partner doesn’t love me anymore.  What am I afraid of?  I am afraid I will be alone.  I am afraid I won’t ever find anyone to love me again if he doesn’t love me anymore.  I am afraid I will be inconvenienced, uncomfortable, worried, scared and depressed and I won’t be able to stand that.  I’m afraid that I will be thought of as completely bad and unattractive because my partner rejected me.”

That is a lot to be afraid of.

In an attempt not to continually burden my learner with brain anatomy, suffice it to say that your emotions begin as thoughts, but can be viewed more microscopically as actual physical substances – neurons, brain cells, little bubbles of knowledge that hold the memories of your experiences. Here’s another example of defining the problem and finding meaning:

EI Guide:  So what happened?

Learner:  She stared at me the wrong way.  I could tell she was thinking, You disgust me.

EI Guide:  Goodness, what did you do?

Learner:  I told her to watch her face or I’d watch it for her.

EI Guide:  How did you know she was thinking that particular thought about you?  Maybe she ate something that upset her stomach.

Learner:  Believe me; I’ve seen that face before. I know ridicule when I see it.

EI Guide: I’ll play along.  What was she doing, exactly?

Learner:  Well, I was eating my baked cod and she was looking over at me.  Like she was looking down her nose at me.

EI Guide: How was that a problem for you?

Learner:  She should be looking at her own plate.  She shouldn’t be staring at me. I need to have some privacy when I’m eating. You know what I mean?

EI Guide:  I’m sure I don’t.  But let’s just ask what this means, this looking and staring.  What does it mean to you that she was doing all these things?

Learner:  It means she was looking down at me because of the way I was dressed.  I was wearing jeans and a tube top. This is America.  A man can wear jeans and a tube top if he wants!”

EI Guide:  Exactly.  But what does it mean to you that she was looking at you that way?”

Learner:  It means she thought I was foolish and a joke and that she was better than me.”

EI Guide:  And what would it mean if that were true?

Learner:  That she was right?

Through repeated experience, brain cells connect with one another and strengthen their bonds, forming nuclei – clusters, collections, bubbles of knowledge, like balloons in a bunch that have come together in an agreement to cooperate in order to achieve a particular future behavioral goal. “If I see this kind of facial expression again, it means the person is thinking these thoughts.  If people think these thoughts about me, then I cannot stand it.”

It will take the force of will to overcome this.

Go Suck A Lemon: Strategies for Improving Your Emotional Intelligence

Many of your emotional responses, regardless of how much strength you’ve given them, can be brought down, deconstructed and reshaped. You will just have to learn how to give your knee-jerk response to emotional stimuli less strength – LESS OF A JERK. To do that you will have to commit to reinventing the way you think and behave. With Go Suck a Lemon, you will approach that task by accepting and then adapting to a no-nonsense style of emotional problem solving. You will learn and use a process of level-headed decision-making. You will try to become more efficient, flexible and open-minded when addressing your emotional problems. You will learn that there is always another emotional option. You will learn to make fact-based observations, something most of us are unfamiliar with doing. You will also incorporate in vivo (in life) exposure, i.e., homework, to encourage you to independently act against your learned thoughts and behaviors. In the end, you will become more informed, increasingly more capable and far more emotionally self-reliant. Instead of being your own worst enemy, you will become your own best friend – your own therapist.

We may be strengthened when we learn to be emotionally self-reliant, to free ourselves from emotional helplessness and our dependence on others for our emotional solutions.

It will take the force of will to do that.