Theresa and I are streaming a show that can be summarized as what a soap opera would look like if made by the production crew at Hallmark. Honestly, I pick on it mercilessly and then I easily go back for more. Like I said, soap opera qualities.
In a recent episode, a cougar turns up in the area of the protagonists’ ranch and makes off with a chicken before lunging at two different groups of trail riders. Because it’s Hallmark-style, the cougar gets tranqued and caged for transported to a wildlife preserve. (Was I relieved? Why yes, I was. And yes, I realize it’s fictional.) Only then does the old rancher dude hear the cries of her cub leading to the moral of this story: While the family was imagining the big cat to be malicious, she was really just protecting her babe, as any good parent would do.
[Stage direction: Old rancher tips his hat back, mustache pulled into an appreciative grin while everyone else smiles and sighs while embracing each other in one-armed hugs. End scene.]
Our gremlins have something in common with that cougar. When we’re in the midst of a legitimately emotional experience – anger, frustration, grief – our gremlins jump out of the underbrush baring their fangs so that we’ll rear back our horses and head back to the homestead.
No big emotions here, y’all. The danger is too great.
Except we’ve got a misunderstanding here, too. While the cougar is working from reactive mortal fear for her cub, our gremlins are working (in part, at least) from reactive mortal fear of what we’ll do if we enact those big feelings.
Notice the operative word in that last sentence? If you said “enact,” you get a shiny new belt buckle.
Are emotions and behaviors the same thing?
Emotions are intangible visceral and psychological experiences that are the product of our whole life history up until this point meeting up with a new stimulus. That stimulus could be anything from stubbing a toe to a person being mean to us to a memory arising.
For example, feeling physically ill often triggers me in the emotional realm. My feelings include shame, self-doubt, and even self-recrimination. A gremlin pops up who calls me a hypochondriac. So, the stimulus is feeling sick in some way, and it’s meeting up with childhood history in which a person sometimes gave me negative messages about how and when I expressed physical ailment.
Notice that so far, there have been no behaviors tied in with the feelings. Just the past and the stimulus tangoing inside of me.
Behaviors are, of course, actions. While emotions certainly provoke behaviors – some of our best and worst behaviors, for sure, and most of ‘em in between, too – the actions aren’t inevitably linked to the behaviors.
If, say, I reacted to the shame et al by avoiding doctors and hiding all my ailments or lashing out every time I was sick, it wouldn’t be because I was incapable of choosing another behavior to go with those feelings; it would be because I hadn’t examined those emotions enough to recognize the point at which I could choose another behavior. It would be because I hadn’t uncovered the connection between those emotions and the old hurt that still resurfaces on occasion.
Without that conscious awareness, our emotions do have the ability to run roughshod over us – they shoot right out of the navigator’s seat, delivering critical information to the driver, and instead grab at the steering wheel. In the movies, that plays out with the car swerving dangerously across lanes. Same when it’s inside of us.
The counter-intuitive part of all of this is that while our gremlins work to convince us that feeling big emotions is inextricably and unavoidably linked to behaving in problematic ways, it’s actually avoiding the big emotions that bottles them up like shaken sodas in our guts.
When the carbonation builds up enough, the bottle explodes; when we fling open the top, sugary goop sprays all over the joint. When we instead, release the buildup with tiny, incremental twists to the cap, we avoid having to mop the ceiling.
And remember: A whole bunch of self-compassion along the way is another great tack for keeping the mop in the closet.
The Bigger Badder Crew gets bonus resources and suggestions along with their Monday email, not to mention the weekly opportunity to gather together at Chomp & Chat. My coaching clients get the support of working with things like gremlins, reactivity, and self-compassion in one-on-one, experiential sessions.