A Neuroscientist’s Strategy for Controlling Your Emotions
It turns out there’s a right way to second-guess yourself
It happens lightning-fast. Someone on my Twitter feed makes a big announcement about their career — a cool new staff writing job or a book deal—and before I have a chance to think about it, I’m seething with jealousy. Or am I? I love freelancing, I remind myself, and I’ve never actually wanted to write a novel. Maybe I wasn’t actually jealous, and my brain just thought I was supposed to be.
It might feel like your emotions pop up automatically, but according to renowned neuroscientist Lisa Feldman Barrett, author of How Emotions Are Made, you have a lot more power over your feelings than you think. And that understanding alone is one of the most important tools for gaining control of the feelings that keep you down and hold you back.
Emotions, Feldman Barrett argues, aren’t hard-wired in your brain. Instead, they’re made in the moment. Typically, feelings are the result of three things: your body, your past, and your environment. Using physical sensations, memories, or present stimuli as context clues, your brain forms emotions as “guesses” in response to circumstances. And as with all conjectures, your brain isn’t always right the first time.
Annoying as that reality is, it helps to remember your brain’s entire purpose: to keep you alive. Your emotions tend to jump to extremes in order to protect you, even if those feelings don’t exactly serve you in the moment.
Imagine, for example, you got in a fender-bender a few years ago — and now, every time you ride in a car or hear screeching tires, your brain triggers your fight-or-flight response (and the overwhelming emotions that come with it) because it’s guessing you’re in danger. It’s a fair guess, but it may not be the right one.
Or, say your last boss used to criticize you a lot, and you feel shame about it. Now, you have a new job, but you feel like you don’t deserve it, and you’re always feel worried your supervisor is going to take a jab at you. Is it more likely your brain is wrongly guessing about what to feel, or that your boss is actually a jerk who sees the worst in you?