So Much For Soft Hearted and Squishy Headed

There’s a popular stereotype which says that people who worry about the homeless, racism, poverty and other social ills have soft hearts and squishy heads. Those who do not share their concerns will often accuse them of abandoning logic for emotionalism. Because emotions are for silly women, queers and other people not to be taken seriously, of course.

However, my friend Sonya (hi, Sonya!) recently passed on a study which shows that, scientifically speaking, this stereotype is dead wrong. Researchers using brain scans found that rather than being driven by emotions, people who are concerned with issues of social justice make greater use of the logic centers of their brains than people who do not:

Using a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) brain-scanning device, the team studied what happened in the participants’ brains as they judged videos depicting behavior that was morally good or bad. For example, they saw a person put money in a beggar’s cup or kick the beggar’s cup away. The participants were asked to rate on a scale how much they would blame or praise the actor seen in the video. People in the study also completed questionnaires that assessed cognitive and emotional empathy, as well as their justice sensitivity.

As expected, study participants who scored high on the justice sensitivity questionnaire assigned significantly more blame when they were evaluating scenes of harm, Decety said. They also registered more praise for scenes showing a person helping another individual.

But the brain imaging also yielded surprises. During the behavior-evaluation exercise, people with high justice sensitivity showed more activity than average participants in parts of the brain associated with higher-order cognition. Brain areas commonly linked with emotional processing were not affected.

The conclusion was clear, Decety said: “Individuals who are sensitive to justice and fairness do not seem to be emotionally driven. Rather, they are cognitively driven.”

This goes a long way towards explaining some of the facebook conversations I’ve had lately. You know the kind; someone saying something idiotic responds to factual evidence that their claims are wrong by jumping to their next talking point or looking for some petty inconsistency in your argument rather than deal with reality. They aren’t being logical, but are driven by the emotional imperative to avoid being wrong. Ahem.

You can read more about the study (conducted at the University of Chicago) here.

Angry Men and Crying Women

In the last few months, I’ve realized something about men and women and why we often struggle with each other. It might not be THE problem, but I would venture to say that it’s certainly been A problem. And figuring this out has been really helpful to me, so I thought I’d pass it on to y’all. It all has to do with the way we express our pain.

Generally speaking, there are two ways we experience the emotion of being hurt – through anger or sorrow. They look very different, but they are basically the same thing. So a person who is raging and lashing out at the world is essentially the equivalent of someone who is wailing with grief. This is really obvious for some of you, but I suspect that I am not the only person for whom this is a bit of an eye opener.

Most of us are trained – usually unwittingly – to express our hurt in a gender acceptable way. If you are man, you are allowed to get angry. If you are a woman, you are allowed to cry. It’s not universal, of course. But it’s common enough that it’s true more often than not.

We’re all familiar with people telling little boys not to cry. It’s a bad habit. It cuts them off from a legitimate and necessary means of experiencing and expressing his pain. On the other hand, some room is made to allow the boy to be angry. He can kick the dirt and throw down his helmet after losing a game, but can not sit down and sob.

It’s not talked about nearly as much, but little girls are often punished and disciplined when they get angry. Anger from a girl tends not to be seen as an expression of pain, but as a sign that she is out of control. And that’s not allowed. A good little girl is always in control of herself, willing to submit to what is expected of her. If she is hurting, she can cry in her room or to mom until she gets over it. But if she complains, throws something or has a temper tantrum, she is swiftly punished. Refusing to allow a girl to get angry cuts her off from a legitimate and necessary means of experiencing and expressing her pain.

So. men tend to get angry and women tend to cry. Again, it’s hardly universal, but it’s common enough. Now let’s go back to how many of us see anger and sorrow working in the real world. Many parents rely on anger to discipline and control their kids. And, of course, angry people frequently say and do things that cause harm to those around them.

Both men and women grow up with this model of anger, but we experience it very differently.Men often find anger empowering. Women find it frightening. Women find crying emotionally cathartic – a way to move through negative emotions. Men may feel helpless, irritated and embarrassed when someone is crying.

For a woman, anger is often very frightening.  This makes sense because for women anger is associated with being controlled by someone who may be willing to hurt you. We may even go out of our way to avoid situations in which anger is expressed. For example, research has found that women are much less comfortable with disagreement in regular conversations than men. We prefer to sit around and talk about what we agree on and may keep our disagreements to ourselves, even when it would be helpful and appropriate for us to voice them.

Boys don’t appreciate being controlled and hurt by an angry person any more than girls, I’m sure. But since boys are allowed some experience with anger, he will often learn to see it as a legitimate tool for exerting control. The fact that in anger he may hurt someone he loves may be a source of shame and guilt. But without the ability to express hurt through sorrow, the best many men can do is suppress hurt so as to reduce the likelihood of hurting someone in anger.

On the other hand, sorrow tends to be a pretty private emotion. Even small girls will go off by themselves to cry. Many kids can go their whole childhood hardly ever seeing an adult cry. When a woman cries in front of a man, it’s because she’s in pain and she trusts him enough allow him to see that. Her expectation is that he will do what other women do and offer expressions of concern and comfort to her while she is obviously in pain. However, a lot of men have little or no experience with crying people who aren’t children. He doesn’t know what he’s supposed to do, but he knows the woman is going to get angry with him if he doesn’t respond well. Often he feels that a woman who is crying in front of him is trying to manipulate or control him. (Interestingly, researchers have found that in the presence of a woman’s tears, men’s testosterone levels drop. A crying women literally makes a man feel less “manly”.)

Odds are good that I’m describing things that most of you have experienced and observed yourselves. And no doubt some of you figured out long ago how to navigate this difference between men and women. But I do tend to be a bit slow to catch on, so realizing that anger is essentially the same thing as sorrow has been eye opening for me.

Although I’m pretty dang tough (for a girl 😉 ), anger has always made me uncomfortable. Being able to tell myself that anger is no different than sorrow, from an emotional perspective, has helped enormously. It has allowed me to make wiser choices about how to deal with and respond to anger. I’m less likely to get emotional or defensive. If someone’s really angry, I see them as someone who is really hurting rather than just as someone who is really scary. I don’t know what to do about anger except try to protect myself. But hurt? I know how to deal with someone who is hurting.

If my husband listened to anything I said, he might be able to tell me what this looks like from the male perspective. But I would imagine that it might be helpful for a man to see a crying woman as kind of the female equivalent of a buddy who’s letting off steam. Which might make it easier to realize when she just needs someone to be present, listen and maybe offer some encouragement.

Undoing this whole knot is a bigger task than I can take on here, obviously. But I do think it’s an important issue. Problems between the genders go back to the Garden of Eden. But we were made to live together as a whole, not in conflict with each other as warring factions.

A friend of mine recently told me that she had a revelation that there is a serious imbalance between male and female which is causing serious problems for humanity. I think that this area is a great example of that imbalance. When men can only get angry and women can only be sad, that’s an imbalance. It affects individuals, couples, families and even communities and cultures. Heck, world history and current events probably make more sense when you consider that everything has basically been run by people whose only tool for dealing with harm done is anger.

Clearly, world events are well beyond most of our control. But perhaps finding more balance, understanding and empathy within the context of our intimate relationships is as good a place as any for change to start.

Some Feelings Just Have to Be Felt

Ever held  a beach ball under water?  You can do it for a while, maybe even quite a while, but eventually the ball will pop back up to the surface and wildly careen off.  It’s pretty much the way our emotions work as well.  You can hold them under, but they don’t go away.  Unless you can hold them under until you die (gee, doesn’t that sound like fun?), they will keep finding a way to come to the surface until you deal with them.

Some years ago, I became committed to walking through rather than trying to hold down my negative emotions.  Life is hard enough and if there’s anything I am sure of, it’s that I don’t want to be managing, healing from or trying to ignore hurts from decades earlier when I get the the latter half of my life.  So, I have found all sorts of ways to work through things as they happen rather than putting them off and hoping they’ll just work themselves out.  I share a lot of these strategies on this blog.

Usually I manage to work through the emotional fall-out from the events of my life pretty quickly.  But sometimes I’m upset or anxious or angry and despite my best efforts, I just can’t seem to move past it.  I have learned that when this happens, that is an emotion demanding to be experienced.  And if you shove it down now, it will just come back later.

So, when talking and praying and distraction and empowering actions just aren’t getting the job done, I will give myself a bit of time to just go into full drama mode.  After stashing my cell phone, computer and car keys elsewhere, I’ll go off by myself and let it rip. (I’m not a fan of taking action in the middle of high emotions.  Usually that just means you do something stupid and regret it later.)  I’ll yell and rant and punch the air and sob ridiculously.  I’ll think up outrageous ways to set things right (asking God to hit my husband with a bus, anyone?).  I will pull out all the stops with my hyperbole.  And then, after awhile, I’m done.  I’m sick of it.  I have genuinely had enough of the emotion, don’t want to deal with it anymore and I’m ready to let it go.   When it’s done, I can pick myself up, laugh at how outrageously ridiculous I can be and move forward in freedom.

People who have feelings . . .

Research is discovering that we decide what to think and then look for reasons to believe that what we already think is true.  In other words, we don’t make decisions or have opinions because of facts, reason or logic.  We use facts, reasons and logic to support what we’ve already decided.  So if it’s not reason that we are using to make our decisions and form our opinions, what are we using to decide?  Emotions.  This isn’t a mistake or a problem – it seems to be how we are designed to function.  And it’s suprisingly effective system.  People with brain damage which prevents them from experience emotions tend to make terrible decisions and really struggle to function.

The problem is that most of us have completely untrained emotions.  Spend an hour with a baby or small child and you will see that humans are born with very strong emotions that are mostly pointed in the wrong directions.  It takes time, effort and attention to train our emotions to respond accurately to the world as it is.  Then, our emotions can be trusted with doing a better job pointing us towards the best decisions, opinions and attitudes for us.

Of course, many of us avoid emotions as much as possible which makes it difficult to even begin to train them  So, the first task is just to take note of our emotions.

Take a day that you know should be pretty low-key and try to pay attention to your feelings for that day.  Ask yourself frequently, “what am I feeling right now?”  Label your emotions: “I am happy, bored, angry . . . “  Try to find more precise descriptions of your emotions if you can.  “I am thrilled, restless, appalled . . . “ Identify things that are triggering your emotions.  The point isn‘t necessarily to change anything right away..  You are just trying to get used to noticing and feeling what your emotions are communicating to you.  Keep practicing whenever you can and in time you will start to notice patterns and problems that you can correct.  But first, just get used to actually noticing your feelings at all.

For a book with some really useful ideas about what to do with all those feelings, check out Much Ado About Feelings.


Much to my family of origin’s dismay, sometimes my life is weird.  And interesting.

For example, earlier this year I had a chance to learn massage therapy from a crazy, old, hippy, Christian massage and hypnotherapist.  He was a bit of a charlatan and con-artist, but a pretty sincere one.  If you asked him, he would tell you the color of your aura, how many angels were following you and that he saw numbers around and over people that told him if you were being true to yourself or not.  (Pretty easy to do – 90% of people aren’t true to themselves!)  His 3 most fervent beliefs would be (in this order):

1. That every human needs to be in relationship with Jesus.

2. That  everyone needs to undergo hypnotherapy (which he calls the deepest form prayer) in order to be set free spiritually and emotionally.

3. That Americans need to be freed from their government.

Did I mention that he spent years living in a nudist camp and believes we’ll all be nudists after Jesus returns?  (Although he never doffed his clothes at the shop unless he was getting a massage.)  And he has an IQ of 160 (according to him and I’d pretty much believe it).  There’s more, but really he’s not the main point of the post.  Its just that he is too weird and wonderful not to share!

The real point of this post is a book that he gave me to read while working with him by Carl Banyan (a highly respected hypnotherapy instructor) which I think is just genius.  It’s called The Secret Language of Feelings A Rational Approach to Emotional Mastery.  In it, Banyan provides the best explanation of our feelings and how to deal with them that I have ever read.  I really do recommend reading the book, but I wanted to share a couple of the core ideas from the book here.

Basically, Banyan explains that our emotions are like warning lights on a car’s dash.  They are there to tell us something, but most of us don’t know what they are trying to tell us.  (One of my sisters made my brother check her car once because there was a constantly flashing light on the dash and it was making her very nervous to drive the car like that.  It was the seat belt light.  Again, not really relevant, but funny.)  So we do our best to ignore the light or make it go away. Maybe top off the fluids and check the gas cap to see if that helps.

What we need to do and teach our children to do, Banyan says, is learn to recognize those feelings, understand what it is meant to communicate, evaluate if the feeling is pointing in the right direction, if there is a possible solution or if you just need to accept the situation, at least temporarily.  He says, “Emotion is pure motivation.  It’s a psychological pressure to act.”  In the book he goes through the basic emotional responses we have, what each is trying to tell us and how to respond productively.  Again, you’d need to read the book for all the details, but a couple of examples of the basic emotions and their messages are these:

1. Anger.  Could also be experienced as hurt or irritation.  Meant to alert you to the possibility that you are being mistreated and need to stand up for yourself.  When you are angry, you should first check if your anger is justified and if there is a solution.  If it’s not justified or you can’t change the situation at the moment, let it go.  If you can do something, do it.

2. Sad.  Sad is telling you that you have suffered a loss.  Sometimes the loss is obvious like the death of a loved one.  Sometimes its a bit more subtle like if something you believed is shown to be false.  Again, the questions are focused on making sure the matter is worth the emotion, seeing if there is anything to be done, and learning how to move on if not.

Emotions are so important to our experience of life.  Part of our culture’s obsessive quest for material prosperity is that demonstrating mastery of money and acquiring something new are quick-fix ways of distracting or comforting ourselves from emotions we don’t know how to deal with.  On  the other hand, a person who has mastered their emotions will be able to enjoy their lives in meager circumstances or in times of plenty.

When I read this book, I was rather stunned at the wisdom and practical instructions found in it.  This is one of those rare books that pretty much every human being would benefit from reading.  Parents in particular will be able to put the information here to good use by teaching their kids what all the lights on the dashboard mean and how to deal with them.  And if anyone needs a massage or some hypnotherapy, I know a very good, albeit rather kooky one just down the road! 😉


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