Here is an old Scottish fable I just made up:
One day, in the days of knights and damsels, Sir Thrustalot slew two black knights and a dragon before Happy Hour. To celebrate, he and his friends enjoyed a feed of haggis at the local Scottish inn. It was from there they spied through the window a vagabond stealing a saddle from a horse. Sir Thrustalot hoisted his trusty sword into the air and cried, ‘I shall send to purgatory that wretch WITH MY SWORD!’
He ran outside and skewered the poor thief.
While dragging the body off the road, Sir Thrustalot’s companions suggested that perhaps death was a penalty too harsh for such a crime. As they re-entered the inn debating the matter they discovered two men walloping each other. Sir Lancelot bellowed, ‘I shall break up this fight WITH MY SWORD!’
He promptly ran his sword through the chest of the man nearest to him, killing him instantly.
‘Why did you do that?!’ cried the man’s shocked opponent. ‘Why did you kill my brother?!’
Sir Thrustalot’s companions were also appalled. They heatedly remonstrated with Sir Thrustalot, who patiently pointed out that he had successfully broken up the fight.
Before the matter was resolved, our hero spied through the window a comely woman walking by. He shoved aside the protestors crying ‘Oh what a fair, sweet damsel! I shall impress her WITH MY SWORD!’
He strode out of the inn swinging his sword in an artful way. For extra oomph he sliced a sleeping cat into two neat halves. Sprayed with cat’s blood, the damsel shrieked and ran away.
I can’t describe what happened next because I haven’t made that bit up yet, but you get the idea. On the battlefield Sir Thrustalot had found himself to be an excellent swordsman, and his skills had saved his life many times. He had come to believe that his sword could solve all problems. He even shaved with his sword. (There, I made that up too.) But using a sword to solve all his problems created even more problems for him. For each different problem he needed to use a different method.
I used to work at the counter for the Department of Housing in Sydney. Our hardworking staff were there to find emergency accommodation (a hotel room or boarding house) for people who had nowhere to sleep.
One day, a young couple jumped the queue and screamed to be assisted. That puzzled me. After all, we were there to assist them; they only had to wait in line. Later, I expressed my bewilderment to a co-worker. He explained to me: ‘These people have learned that if they yell loudly enough, people will help them. Today they are frightened they will have nowhere to sleep, and they believe that if they ask nicely they will be ignored. They are yelling because they think it will get results.’
I pointed out that their method was counter-productive and would hinder their efforts, and our efforts, to find them accommodation.
‘Nevertheless,’ said my co-worker, ‘yelling is the only way they know to get what they want.’
In the same way Sir Thrustalot dealt with different situations with the one method, this young couple habitually solved their problems with their one method. It had worked for them on occasions in the past so they persisted with it. They chose to not find more appropriate ways to meet their needs, which is probably why they were in living in a car.
Someone at Speakers’ Corner once asked me for a favour and I refused politely. (It was a favour not in keeping with my values.) He persisted in asking me. He tried to deceive me and bully me. For a while I couldn’t understand why he was so upset. After all, I had done other favours for him, and I had declined his request respectfully and with every right to do so.
He continued to express his anger with me, week after week. Why didn’t that anger dissipate?
Then it dawned on me: he dealt with all situations using the one method: anger. No doubt he was feeling other emotions: hurt, perhaps? Shame? Disappointment? Frustration? Whatever it was, he was converting what he felt into one emotion: anger, because that was his way of getting results. That’s the emotion he created within himself to get things done. As a result, anger had become his default emotion.
And, by converting everything into that one default emotion, he couldn’t deal with the emotions he was actually feeling. That’s why he continued to be angry, week after week after week after week. He was ignoring all his other emotions, and if you are not aware of an emotion, it will lead you.
‘. . . there is a tendency among some men to convert any and all emotional experiences into anger. Feeling anxious, jealous, sad, embarrassed, or ashamed, these men tend to display nothing but anger. You see the justification of this emotional funnel system again and again on television and at the movies. A man’s wife or friend is hurt or killed, but masculine men are not supposed to experience vulnerable emotions like sadness and grief – the natural reactions to psychological losses. Instead, they can only experience anger, and they do not react by merely feeling, they must also react by doing, which usually translates into hunting down and hurting or killing the perpetrator, thus doubling the amount of violence that takes place.’
Anger isn’t the only default emotion a person can have. Someone might experience their isolation as anxiety, their anger as anxiety, resentment as anxiety, confusion as anxiety . . . Result: an anxious person. Some people convert disappointment to despair, fear to despair, powerlessness to despair . . . The result?
You guessed it.
The key: if you tend to convert your emotions to one habitual emotion, be aware of it. Discover what it is. Then get into the habit of looking beyond that default emotion and searching yourself for what you really are feeling. And then, instead of being led by those emotions you can begin to deal with them in a constructive, appropriate manner.
Your life will change considerably for the better.
Do you have a default emotion?
Step 1. Ask yourself: ‘Do I often get angry? Do I often feel despair? Do I get lonely often? Feel unworthy often? Do I often withdraw from people? Or feel some other emotion, often?’
An example: despair might be the default emotion for someone feeling lonely, flat or guilty.
If necessary, ask a perceptive friend. Or monitor yourself for a few days, using a logbook.
The first key in this book suggests we label our emotions. Label your emotions regularly and you will find your default emotion (if you have one).
Step 2. Make a list of the times when you felt that emotion. For example, if in Step 1 you answered ‘I feel despair often’ make a list of past incidents prompting that emotion:
I felt despair when I
– failed the test,
– was mocked by the children,
– was ignored by my friend,
– lost money,
– found my job painful,
– was rejected.
Step 3. For each example search for other emotions you may have felt. List every emotion that comes to mind, including the enjoyable emotions. Repetition is fine. For example:
When I failed the test I also felt disappointment, fear, humiliation, insecurity, relief.
When I was being mocked by the children I also felt powerlessness, humiliation, (Etc.)
When I felt ignored — (And so on.)
Step 4. If you find the same word popping up, notice it. For example, you might find yourself often feeling shame, or embarrassment.
It is beyond the scope of this book to go further, but if you are now aware that you regularly feel one particular emotion in varying situations, you have taken a stride in the right direction.
The next time you feel your default emotion, remind yourself that you are probably experiencing other emotions as well. Search for them. Label them. Get to know yourself.