Emotion is my middle name…

While biking today I found myself in a situation that I’m sure many people can relate to. I was stopped at a stop sign at an intersection where the cross traffic does not have a stop sign. Basically, in order to turn left, I had to wait until there was a complete break in traffic, or at least a break in traffic on the right while the traffic on my left was turning right. Anyway, there was no traffic at all on my right but a flood of traffic on my left. As the cars approached they all turned right without using a turn signal. Car after car turned without signaling. If just one car used the signal I would know I could cross traffic safely… but it didn’t happen and I felt anger boiling up in my body and I muttered under my breath “I hate people who don’t use their turn signal”.

But that isn’t true, for a couple of reasons.

First off, hate is way too powerful of an emotion to explain my feelings. By mentally using such a strong word to describe my feelings I have watered down what that word means. I’ve removed a word from my vocabulary to accurately express my feelings when/if they actually reach hatred. It is dishonest and intellectually weak. I don’t “hate” people who don’t use a turn signal.

In fact, I don’t even dislike “people” who don’t use turn signals. That one action completely devoid of the intentions of the driver does not provide me with enough information about whether I like them or not as a person. So, without real information about their personality, behavior, and goals, I must default to liking them… maybe even loving them. My default position with people should be to see them in a positive light.

So, a much more accurate statement would be “I don’t like when people don’t use their turn signal”. I didn’t like the situation I was in, both because it caused me inconvenience (a very, very, very small 30-second inconvenience) and because my reaction to the situation was one of anger and frustration. I didn’t like how I reacted, but that is hardly the fault of the driver.

What does a negative response like that get me? I don’t arrive at my destination sooner. Hell, the person who is frustrating me doesn’t even know. They aren’t punished for their behavior, but I punish myself again. My anger only hurts me, it forfeits control to someone else who doesn’t even want it.

I’ve recently come across a lot of talk on emotion. Coincidentally, both the book I’m currently reading (Destructive Emotions: A Scientific Dialogue with the Dalai Lama) and the Coursara Course I’m taking (Positive Psychology) discussed the structure of emotional response. Situations generally go like this:

Step A: An event happens (someone doesn’t use their turn signal)

Step B: An emotional starts (Frustration)

Step C: My body and mind respond to this emotion (Body tightens, pulse increases)

Step D: I respond to emotion

Step D is where we have control and can take many forms. Maybe I realize what is happening and try to evaluate Step A (what event started this, is the response appropriate, how can I prevent it in the future), or maybe I react towards whatever caused Step A (I cuss, I scream, I try to fight). I can also try to calm the emotion through meditative techniques or change how my body feels through deep breathing and focus on other things. The goal is to eventually prevent Step A from turning into Step B (at least when it comes to negative emotions), but that is a big ask. Our emotions are a result of millions of years of evolution and simply aren’t fit for a post-hunter/gatherer society (much less a post-industrial one). It takes a lot of hard work to rewire the brain and overcome the deep emotional grooves that have been made. But, I’m going to try.

My first step is to try and remove negative language from my vocabulary (unless it is accurate) and to properly articulate how I feel. Instead of “I hate people who don’t use turn signals” I want to start thinking “I find it inconvenient when I’m delayed because of the actions of others”. Instead of saying “I would kill for a slice of pizza” I should think “I am really craving pizza and would pay a high price for it”. Exaggeration and hyperbole has its place, but not with internal dialogue. Our mind should seek truth and an accurate view of the world, we should attempt to see and respond to things as they truly are. Hopefully, taking the hyperbole out of my internal dialogue will help with that, hopefully, I can cut negative emotions off at the knees and prevent them from even starting… but at the very least I hope I can intercept them before Step C.

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