Imagine driving down the road and suddenly a large vehicle cuts into your lane causing you to slam on the brakes. Your car is not hit, but a large piece of gravel strikes your windshield. You hear a loud smack, and a crack begins to form. If you live in the Canadian prairies this is not very difficult to imagine as this happens several times each winter. Often this sets off a chain of events that result in the strong desire to escalate the situation by speeding up and cutting in front of the offending driver. Anger, road rage, outrage! How dare they drive so irresponsibly and recklessly!
While all this happens, deep down sits another emotion, unaddressed, still wandering around in the subconscious: fear. Fear is hanging out even though anger and outrage are effectively smothering it. Fear, the most logical emotion to experience when we hear a loud sound is left completely unattended. But why?
Anger That Smothers
When we are young, we learn various ways to deal with the events and emotions that bring us the most distress. Whatever works, usually sticks. Sometimes we even bring in other emotions as secondary defenders to push those other, more distressing emotions, aside. Anger is often the most effective at this – it can smother nearly anything, and it does so efficiently and effectively.
Where Does it Come From?
The emotions we experience are often influenced by external sources. While there is some continued discussion about the universality of certain emotions, there is less debate about the effects of cultural influence on our emotional experience.
Some emotions are acceptable in some cultures, others are not. As a man in North America, I can be angry, mad, even outraged. I am less likely to say that I am upset, hurt, or even sad. An angry woman is illustrated by stereotyped memes and even a culturally specific name: “Karen”. This implies that she is not allowed to be angry or outraged in the same way I am. She would be culturally allowed to remark that she is sad, anxious, or hurt though.
Subconsciously, we submit to this cultural influence on our emotions and only acknowledge those which are considered “appropriate” to our worldview. This is why fear is often not recognized, much less addressed. To be fearful is to be weak, incapable, frail. There are a whole host of situations in which culture dictates that we must not acknowledge the fear we experience – so we replace it with a secondary emotion and pretend that it is the primary emotion.
Outrage For Now
In Alberta, there is a lot of outrage being exhibited as we have regressed back into stage 1 of the Covid relaunch plan. A whole host of opinions are being expressed as there is a venting of anger. What I don’t see is a lot of recognition of what we are communally experiencing. The dominant emotion we are witnessing is outrage. Outrage that the government is imposing greater restrictions, outrage that greater restrictions come too late, outrage that restrictions have come too soon, or are not enough and so on. Outrage that freedom is being impeded and outrage that some people are acting like freedom supersedes safety. It seems like there is no end to the outrage or the conflicting opinions and “facts”.
Getting Curious, Getting Specific
Whenever I sit with a client who is convinced that the emotion they are experiencing is one thing and only one thing – I know it is important for me to be curious. It’s time to ask some questions, not challenge, but be curious and explore the emotion this person is experiencing. After a short while other emotions begin to come to the surface, things they had not thought about before. They begin to shift on their chair, soften and relax. They even begin to think differently about their experience, seeing things in a new light. I don’t tell them what to think, I don’t tell them what they are thinking. I just get curious and explore what they are telling me.
I’m not convinced the outrage we are experiencing is accurate. It is there, but I do not think it is the primary emotion. New restrictions mean rising numbers of cases. New restrictions mean negative impacts on business. It means a threat to financial and job security. It means the risk of adverse effects in infection is higher. It means connecting to others is more complicated. New restrictions mean something is changing. New restrictions mean control – lost or imposed.
Outrage isn’t going to help us figure out our next steps, outrage will only help us avoid a common discussion on a shared experience. I am also not convinced that we fully understand the other side. I know I don’t, yet I often pretend as if I do. I spend a lot of time deciding that the other side is feeling a specific emotion before I address the emotion I am experiencing. I say they are afraid – I don’t say, I am afraid.
If we are going to determine the steps forward, we need to first get an accurate understanding of what we are experiencing and not waste our time on the theories or inaccuracies of the other team. Such activity and deflection only serve to instill us with the belief that we are correct. We are missing out on recognizing the driving emotion in the situation and thus we are employing the wrong emotion to the wrong end.
Get Back in the Car
Let’s return to the road. Pretend instead of speeding up and cutting off the vehicle in front of you, you instead acknowledge the logical assumption that that loud sound and the cracked windshield have you experiencing a little (or a lot) of fear. Fear is not bad. It is not evil; it is not wrong. Fear is important and it can keep us safe, as long as we take the time to explore our fear. In this case, we are afraid because we were spooked by a loud sound. A loud sound indicated potentially reckless driving that may have endangered our wellbeing and safety. When we look to the back seats where our children might be sitting, they also might be experiencing fear. Our children are looking at us to see how we are going to deal with our fear. Slowing down, even pulling over to assure them of safety while acknowledging how scary it is, might do a great job of informing our next actions and moving forward with a wise response.