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Fight or Flight: Setting the Emotional Agenda


Fight or Flight: Setting the Emotional Agenda

Written by: Alan B. Bernstien, LCSW

A number of years ago, David Brooks quoted the philosopher Reinhold Neibhur: “Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore we are saved by love. No virtuous act is quite as virtuous from the standpoint of our friend or foe as it is from our standpoint. Therefore, we must be saved by the final form of love which is forgiveness.” This quote intrigued me deeply as it came close to a perspective I have been exploring for a number of years: how to express ourselves emotionally in an active rather than a reactive manner.

Let me explain: when someone is rude to us, for example, we have an instinctive desire to respond in kind. This is rooted deeply in our primitive emotional makeup. We do not “choose” to be rude in response, what occurs is a spontaneous emotional reaction. Similarly, if someone accuses us of something, especially if the accusation has elements of distortion or misreading, we instinctively feel defensive and reactive. There does not seem to be a choice—we spontaneously experience ourselves as being taken over in response. Without miring our discussion in biology, we could argue that the experience feels so “natural” that it is biologically based in preserving our safety. We spontaneously sniff the surroundings to decide whether to fight or flee.

So why would anyone explore what feels spontaneous and natural? And why would anyone—even if they wanted to—control an impulse?

The reason I bring this up is based on my belief in psychotherapy as an avenue for studying and exploring ways to expand our opportunities for making choices in our lives. This is not to diminish spontaneity. Instead I see “choosing” as an expansion of character where spontaneity can coexist with setting an emotional agenda.

Let me give you a recent example from my personal life. I go to a yoga studio which is friendly and low key. Having forgotten my shorts one day, I asked if there was a pair I could borrow or buy. There was none for sale, but the young lady at the front desk suggested I look in the laundry room as frequently people left shorts behind. Alas, there were none, but another member of the studio had an extra pair which he lent me. The next time I returned to the studio, however, the owner confronted me aggressively, saying no one was allowed in the laundry room and he didn’t want his shorts lent out in any case. I was both stunned and dismayed by his tone and approach—after all this was a “friendly” place. I began to react defensively but decided to hold off. I merely assured him that I hadn’t intended to use his shorts. However, after I returned home I began to rethink the encounter. If I defended myself the next time I saw him, and pointed out the mistakes in his understanding of what had taken place, I would be prolonging a state of discomfort for myself—and probably for him as well. In fact, my connection to the studio as a place of comfort and nurturance would be disturbed.

I decided that the next time I saw him I would reestablish the pleasant rituals we ordinarily followed and see what happened. As I said hello and shook his hand warmly he seemed visibly relieved. He apologized for his outbreak and we slid back to our usual connections of yoga related duties—signing in and paying for a mat. He informed me that others had “borrowed” his shorts in similar circumstances and not returned them and that had predisposed him to jump into action. As I thought about our encounter I surmised that he had been nervous about his behavior and not sure about how to approach me. By restoring a tone of civility I enabled both of us to find our true voices. In effect, rather than responding “instinctively” through defensiveness and sarcasm, I had the opportunity to reset the emotional agenda to one that was truer to our connection.

As I understand Neibuhr’s comment, the more we approach our impulses as guides to action, rather than commands, the closer we come to operating in a state of thoughtfulness, and potentially, love. This requires the desire—and the skill—to operate with a tolerance and interest in our impulses as well as the maturity to choose ones which bring us closer to our emotional agendas.

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