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HITTING THE PAUSE BUTTON

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Anybody can become angry – that is easy; but to be angry with the right person and to the right degree and at the right time and for the right purpose and in the right way – that is not within everybody’s power and is not easy. – Aristotle

It’s easy to get caught up in emotions, to follow the flow and intensity of our impulses. It’s natural… animal… primal. And without intervening with our consciousness, it can be dangerous. This is how we operated throughout much of human history… which is why most of human history was so terribly, horribly violent.

It’s also what characterizes violent criminals.

But it’s not how most of us today usually operate, because we have a choice. Over time, particularly through the Enlightenment, we’ve culturally refined our ability to choose – and that ability is central to what makes us human.

When we feel like reacting with anger, fear or hurt feelings – anything that feels like it’s an automatic, purely emotional response – we can react without thinking, blindly following the tides of our emotions.

Or we can choose to do something different.

Stephen Covey, in his book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective Families, talks about this ability to choose as being a “pause button.”

When we feel like reacting to a situation, instead of going right into the reaction, we can “press the pause button” and consider what we genuinely – from our consciously chosen values and priorities – want to do.

During the ‘60s, ‘70s and well into the ‘80s, the idea that we should “let our feelings out” was a common message in psychology that found its way into popular culture.

This had a positive side. Our emotions are where we live. Awareness of our feelings deepens our experience, and can help us understand one another and even think more clearly. Love, joy, excitement, elation, satisfaction, peace, warmth… These all bring us essential information about how people and events are affecting us. Our emotions are how we experience the meaning of life.

There is a downside to emotional expression, though, in two ways:

  1. It can be harmful over time to practice “releasing” anger. Anger doesn’t actually release, it just intensifies. It becomes a well-worn path; a stronger habit.
  2. Feelings are useful if we integrate them with our conscious awareness. Without conscious awareness, our feelings can guide us all over the place. Maybe some good places, maybe some bad places, but almost never the places we consciously want to go.

When we practice getting angry, we get very good at getting angry, with all of the interpersonal and health problems this can bring.

These days, a powerful expression of anger is almost like our appendix: a vestigial remnant of a bygone function. There is very little use for a full-blown blast of anger for most people most of the time.

The pure emotion of anger may have served a stronger purpose long ago when the world was a much more violent place (and the world has been far more violent than it is today. See Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of our Nature and Lawrence Keeley’s War Before Civilization).

Anger is a response to trespassing: a sense that a boundary has been violated in some way. Once we identify what we’re angry about and what action would best deal with the situation, continuing to fuel the emotion of anger does little good.

Beyond asserting our boundaries, expressing anger is often the least effective strategy for resolving conflict, in part because – above a certain level of escalation – our higher brain functions recede, along with our capacity to understand one another.

How we interpret our anger can also make the difference in how it affects our heart. According to research by Kennedy and Kok (cited in Barbara Fredrickson’s Love 2.0), if we feel angry and we frame it as an emotion, our heart rate and blood pressure will jump in unhealthy ways.

But if we instead interpret our anger as an “instinctual response to an imbalance of resources,” our reaction will be less intense and we won’t get the same damaging effects on our heart.

In the first case, we abandon ourselves to our emotions; in the second, we can consciously assess them.

Our emotions are important, but they are not infallible guides. They are often a result of neural pathways we have established in our brains over years of practice. They can be automatic reactions to what we may believe is going on – before we even get a chance to think.

One of the common features of criminals is that they don’t stop to think about what they’re about to do. They tend toward immediate gratification – basic reactions of pleasure and pain – and haven’t developed the interest in or awareness of the long-term consequences of their actions.

Which brings us back to Covey’s “pause button.” If you feel yourself swept up into a tide of emotion in reaction to something somebody has said or done, you may decide to express your feelings… or you may not. The pause button is the key to our conscious awareness; it allows us the time and space to observe and choose.

You may decide that you really do want to let someone have it with a verbal lashing. In that case, make sure you do so with full conscious awareness that this is your choice… and accept the consequences (and there will be consequences).

Or you may decide to try to better understand the other person, what happened and how best to handle it. There will be consequences to that, too, but you’re likely to be happier about them.

In any case, use your conscious awareness to put a step between yourself and your automatic reactions. The next time you feel drawn to vent your emotions, give yourself a moment first. Press the pause button and decide what you really want to do.

P.S. My new Master’s Course in Happiness is designed to help you learn the skills and habits that will help you build a flourishing life now. I’m offering this to TTP Members at a special one-time, discounted rate. Just enter promo code MH1PROMO. Thanks..

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