What “Anger Management” and Emotional Control Actually Mean

I write a lot about how reason trumps emotion, when the two conflict. One reader wrote me with the following question raised by a friend, a question he can’t answer: ‘If reason and intellectual focus are the tools to change patterns and emotions, then how come people just don’t ‘change’ when they apply reason to the emotion?’

Emotions are an automatic form of thought. They are not directly volitional. But the origins of one’s thoughts are. A simple example might be that you hear a noise in the house. You have the emotion of fear or panic — not voluntarily, but as a direct result of hearing a noise you initially believed to be an intruder. Upon investigation, you observe a tree branch banging against the window.

The emotion of fear/panic converts to an emotion of relief, immediately and involuntarily.

This example shows how emotions are the direct result of thoughts, ideas, premises or assumptions. In this particular example, the emotion immediately converts upon the application of reason/factual observation. Most of the time it’s not so quick and simple, because there are other variables involved. The lack of such simplicity, however, does not prove that reason has nothing to do with emotion.

To the person who says, ‘My reason doesn’t instantly change my emotion every time. So reason isn’t the answer,’ my counter-question is: ‘What do you offer as an alternative?’

The Freudian therapist offers decades of four times-a-week psychoanalysis where no criteria for outcome is defined or detected.

The behaviorist will simply pen you up in cage, or in a concentration camp, and apply what some external authority deems the proper stimuli in order to elicit the response deemed most fitting. 

The neuropsychologist will balance your neurotransmitters in an unspecified way, although in practice this rarely (at least without cognition) produces dramatic results and sometimes creates entirely new problems.

The reader continues:

‘The argument stated differently, people would just be able to modify their behaviors by applying their mind to the emotion and ‘poof,’ the new emotion would begin to form. But clearly we know this is not the case.

‘Let me apply an example here. A man has anxiety when seeing a beautiful woman in whom he is physically interested. This emotion comes as a form of anxiety. It has the effect of stopping him from acting. He tells himself in the moment, ‘Just go, there is nothing to fear here, just do it, this is an old pattern, you are seeking to gain a value you desire.’ He negatively judges the emotion and identifies it as wrong, yet he still fails to act and the opportunity is missed. Here we have the emotion overriding the intellect. Therefore something other than reason would be needed to reprogram that emotion, in that context.’

Reason involves the testing of hypotheses. If one feels fear or terror in a situation that is actually not dangerous, then one is free to test a new hypothesis. ‘I feel that there’s a danger here. I feel that I’ll be humiliated if I talk to this woman, and that I’ll be worse off than I was before. This may or may not prove true. I can put it to the test, despite my fear, and see what happens—not after just one try, but numerous tries in different cases.’

Reason does not consist only of thinking. It also consists of repeated actions to test the validity (or lack thereof) of one’s conclusion. To attempt to apply reason to emotions without any behavioral change or hypothesis-testing would be like trying to advance scientific knowledge without ever doing any experiments—and then criticizing the scientific method for failing you!


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