When people with an emotional investment in their thinking are challenged or disrespected, there is an instinctive arousal as they unconsciously perceive a threat to their survival. But why do people feel such a primal emotion when there is no actual attempt to kill them?
My doctoral research was in identity politics and how we become glued to our sense of self. This sense of identity can be so powerful that we may be prepared to die for it. We can see this throughout history where people volunteer for death to maintain their ideology, religion and nationality.
The power of this sense of identity comes from the social and psychological safety it provides. Think of any cultural clan — lads, ladettes, greens, tories, bikers, Trump-ists, Obama-ists, bankers, goths, billionaires, vegans — and notice the psychological glue that binds them to that identity. It is not superficial. Through the processes of identification, internalisation and socialisation, it develops into a deep biological and neural groove. Our identity provides a primal sense of security, a compensatory safety in a world where most infants, children, teenagers and adults experience endless micro-aggressions and mini-traumas, as well as full blown abuse.
Enmeshed in this sense of self are our ideas and our opinions. Any challenge to our thinking can therefore be experienced as a threat to our identity and to our survival. Disrespect my clan and you disrespect me.
In my home town of Glastonbury I know people who were once friends, but now avoid each other because of their disagreements over vaccines. On both sides they are so emotionally invested in their thinking that the biological imperatives of survival are triggered the moment they start discussing the topic. We can clearly see this too in politics, community processes, religion, identity and culture wars. These types of argument are deeply confrontational and uncomfortable.
Education, Mindfulness and Emotional Intelligence
One solution of course is good education. Education not knowledge.
At its best education teaches us how to enjoy thinking, how to explore and develop knowledge. Opinions based in beginner’s knowledge mature into thoughtful explorations, knowing that there is always new knowledge. New thoughts and perspectives are harvested through conversation, research, contemplation and being open to new insights. The further we go in education the more we appreciate the elasticity and infinite scope of knowledge and ideas.
Mindfulness and meditation are useful too. They provide strategies that help us work with the feelings that may be triggered by challenging thoughts. Sitting in the calm of meditation we can bring into our awareness those thoughts that usually provoke and trigger us. Vaccines. Governments. Global warming. Difficult family members. Identity politics. Trump. The meditation strategy is straightforward:
We bring the provocative thought into our awareness.
We notice the uncomfortable arousal.
We compassionately welcome the feeling. We breathe into it. We calm and integrate it.
In this way we train our body and neural grooves to stay calm when experiencing challenge.
Noticing these feelings and managing them wisely is the heart of emotional intelligence.
The first year groundhog day problem
Psychotherapy of course can be very helpful too in disengaging our thoughts from the unconscious, instinctive arousals of threat and survival.
Imagine if politicians — for example the Labour Party extreme left or the Conservatives extreme right — enjoyed the benefits of psychotherapy. They would learn to have some distance from their feelings, opinions and glued-in identities. Emotional devotion to ideologies would be a thing of the past.
This approach would also be relevant to religious gatherings, conclaves and synods, so that fundamentalists would temper their passions.
But there can also be a negative side to psychotherapy when it comes to conflict and disagreements.
I have experienced this in psychotherapy training centres, in intentional communities and in many couples. When discussing hot topics, we can get caught up in endlessly recycling our emotions. We can justify this by asserting that the release of our emotions is not only therapeutically beneficial, but also a vital and ‘authentic’ part of group process.
This is what I call the ‘first year groundhog day problem.’
In psychotherapy and counselling trainings, the first year is usually about helping students recognise that emotions and feelings are driven by unconscious dynamics. In the first year we learn to identify and express these feelings, rather than deny and repress them. Feel it – Express it – Release it.
In the second, third and fourth years, we then become skilled in recognising, managing and maturing these unconscious dynamics.
But some folk stay stuck in the first year, endlessly recycling their emotions, justifying their behaviour as necessary and healthy, when in fact it is immature. In this scenario groups, organisations and couples get stuck in emotional process. There is little clear thinking and painfully slow progress.
This does not mean that there is no space for creative passion, especially in the face of abuse and injustice. But this passion needs to be conscious and guided by clear, reflective thinking.
There is a place for emotional process.
And there is a place for intelligent discussion.
It can be difficult and exhausting to do them together.