Emotions. Or what do paint, prejudice, and traffic lights have to do with each other?
Recently a friend of ours was embroiled in a bit of a controversy with some other friends of theirs. As they attempted to explain the details of what was going on with my husband and me, I realized that we didn’t agree with their assessment of what was going on in the story. My friend argued that since we didn’t know all of the back history or have as much experience with these people, we just couldn’t see clearly what they saw was true. One of us said that our lack of history was the very thing that allowed us to see objectively what was happening, without the bias of knowing how personalities played in and how history might be affecting it. Our friend was stumped for a moment and apparently didn’t agree, and we moved on to other topics. Weeks later, when we met up again, this friend said that our assessment of the situation had proven to be fairly accurate. She confided that she knew her emotions were getting in the way of seeing people fairly, but that she felt so strongly that her side of the argument was correct, she had a burning need to defend it. It was only after the emotions had simmered down on all parties that everyone involved was able to concede that they were all judging each other unfairly, and the truth of the matter was somewhere closer to the middle.
Our friend is certainly not alone in this; we’ve all been there. We’ve all had the experience of feeling completely, unequivocally right about something, only to find out later that the truth was some distance away. In the blink of an eye, the benefit of perspective without the muddy filter of emotions allows us to see more clearly all that we missed in our amped up, emotionally charged state. It’s what the poet William Blake was pointing to when he penned the line, “If the doors of perception were cleansed, everything would appear to man as it is: infinite.” We all think our own “doors” are crystal clear and allow us to see the world with perfect vision. The truth is our personality, past experiences, upbringing, and even our physical health put a thin coat of opaque prejudice shaded paint on everything we see and experience that directly influences how we feel about them. Everyone thinks that their door is the clearest and that everyone else’s must be thick with paint, particularly when they don’t agree with us. It’s the reason we love to insist that we aren’t racist, sexist or elitist, even as our own behavior in those situations betrays us—we are blind to our own filters, in the same way, you become “blind” to the smell of your own perfume. It simply becomes a part of you.
So if everyone has these filters and most of the time we can’t see them, how can we know when our vision is skewed? The answer is so simple, it’s often overlooked: it’s the emotions themselves. Emotions are the barometer on the dashboard of our physical engines, and they warn us of overheating long before we ever recognize it through our thinking. When the heat of anger, the burn of vindication, and the fire of hostility kick in, it’s a virtual warning system that your thinking is leading you off the path of rationality, wisdom, and peace. The moments that you feel you need to defend emotionally or strike back at someone are the alarm bells sounding that it’s time to take a step back until cooler heads can prevail. The agitation that you feel when you are caught up in a situation you feel you need to change is like the rumble strips on the side of the highway, alerting you to the fact that you are driving off course. There is some science behind this: some scientists have pointed out that when you are smiling, the facial muscles cause an increase in the flow of air-cooled blood to the brain, a process that produces a pleasant state by lowering brain temperature. The opposite is also true that frowning decreases blood flow and can raise brain temperature, causing you to feel overheated, stressed, and frustrated physiologically. The expression on your face can let you know whether or not you may be thinking clearly!
Of course, unless you walk around looking in a mirror all day or have a pop-up sign alerting you to stop when emotions are stirring, it can be hard to remember the facts about what’s going on and be rational. All you need to know is this: Emotions are like a traffic light. Pleasant, healthy emotions are a green light signal to keep on moving. The slow burn of irritation, feeling the need to take a deep breath before you speak means you should take caution and be aware. The more intense the emotion, the hotter the burn to jump up and take control that pull for the immediate control means that your inner red light is flashing like crazy. Understanding that your emotions play a big role in your perception of reality doesn’t mean you just rid yourself of those feelings and go through life as a robot, and it doesn’t mean that you never get to speak up for yourself or a cause in which you believe. It just keeps your rational thoughts in perspective against the backdrop of the emotional current that would love nothing more than to drive you 100 miles an hour headfirst into hysterical mayhem. It allows you to act reasonably about the things you do care about and increases your ability actually to make an impact on them since your actions won’t be marred by outbursts for which you later have to make amends.
If you’re ever caught staring into the thick haze of emotional turmoil and everything seems like it will never be clear again, keep the words of the ever-expressive Steven Tyler of Aerosmith in mind: “It’s amazing with the blink of an eye you finally see the light…it’s amazing when the moment arrives that you know you’ll be all right.”
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