Are unpleasant feelings a valuable doorway to personal insight, or are they the destructive byproduct of misdirected survival instincts? Two best selling books square off on opposite sides of this debate.
In Emotional Agility, psychologist and TED Talk favorite Susan David encourages us to seek the wisdom in our sadness, anger, and heartbreak. Conversely, in Positive Intelligence, neuroscientist Shirzad Chamine argues that mental anguish is the equivalent of physical pain – useful as a warning, but unhelpful and unnecessary once its message has been received.
Both authors agree that we should not ignore difficult feelings, and suggest tactics to manage them. From this common starting point, they diverge completely.
“Too much stress on being positive is just one more way our culture figuratively overmedicates the normal fluctuations of our emotions,” David writes. In her view, unpleasant feelings are normal and healthy. The problem, she explains, is that people tend to either Brood over bad feelings, or Bottle them. In either case, the feelings grow stronger and remain unresolved. The Brooder reviews the situation over and over, endlessly pouring mental energy into it. The Bottler refuses to acknowledge the feelings, pretending they will go away. Of course, they don’t, in the same way that a person trying to stick to a restrictive diet continually thinks about forbidden food. David’s suggestion is to use her four-step process to understand what our bad feelings are trying to teach us. In theory, every bad feeling has a function (“What’s the func?” David instructs the reader to ask), and once we grasp that function, we can learn the lesson, let go of the difficult emotion, and move on.
In contrast, Chamine draws on neuroscience to explain that unpleasant emotions arise in a completely different part of the brain than pleasant ones. He explains that the cortex (”the PQ brain”) generates good feelings, and is the seat of what Chamine calls the Sage – our true self. The limbic system (”the survival brain”), creates fear, anger and other bad feelings, and is home to self-destructive clusters of behavior that he calls Saboteurs. In Chamine’s opinion, feeling happier and managing stress more effectively is largely a result of diverting mental resources towards the PQ Brain (strengthening the Sage), and away from the survivor brain (weakening the Saboteurs).
Chamine compares the occurrence of stressful emotion to touching a hot stove. “A moment of physical pain should alert you to remove your hand to avoid further damage,” he writes. “A few seconds of psychological pain should similarly alert you to shift your mind to the Sage mode so you can deal with the situation without further distress and damage from your Saboteurs. If you don’t shift your mind, it is like keeping your hand on the hot stove and continuing to feel the pain that was only initially useful.”
While David identifies brooding and bottling as the two counter-productive emotional management strategies that most of us engage in, Chamine lists ten patterns of behavior, which he personifies as Saboteurs. While there is a slight overlap between this approach and the “modular mind” hypothesis (popularized by the movie Inside Out), he does not explicitly draw the connection. In Chamine’s system, all the Saboteurs are bad for us. They sabotage our relationships, our health, and deprive us of the full measure of enjoyment in our lives.
The main Saboteur is called the Judge. By finding fault with our circumstances, ourselves and other people, the Judge continually finds reasons for us to be miserable. Once the Judge latches onto something, it activates one or more of the other saboteurs. These have names like Controller and Stickler, and are associated with behaviors such as nagging and criticizing. You can take an online quiz to assess your dominant saboteurs on Chamine’s website.
Because the saboteurs are based in “the survival brain,” their original purpose was to keep us safe. We all developed them, to some extent, in childhood. Even people raised in stable, loving homes experienced stressers during childhood, and the saboteurs are the defense mechanisms that developed in response. For example, a child whose father was moody and prone to outbursts of anger might develop a strong “Hyper-Vigilant” saboteur. By constantly being on the alert for signs of impending danger (“Is dad in a bad mood?”), this saboteur would help the child navigate an unpredictable family dynamic. When that child grows up, those Hyper–Vigilant behaviors could lead to endless worrying, jealousy, and insecurity.
While David states that all feelings are valuable and worthwhile to explore, Chamine argues that feelings rooted in saboteur behavior actually don’t help us at all. You may be entirely justified in feeling anxious about your maxed-out credit card, but while David would encourage you to let those feelings guide you towards a meaningful solution, Chamine says that you won’t actually be able to find a solution until you let go of the anxious feeling. In other words, you can not solve a problem effectively while you are upset about it.
According to Chamine, all of our wisdom, creativity and positive emotions spring from the PQ brain. When the survival brain is engaged, the PQ brain is starved of resources.This is reminiscent of the “elephant and rider” analogy, or Dr. Dan Siegel’s well known “hand model of the brain” According to Dr. Siegel, if you imagine your fingers wrapped around your thumb, your fingers represent your cortex (elephant “rider”), the more developed, evolved part of your brain. Your thumb is the limbic system and other more primitive structures (“elephant”). When you “flip your lid,” your cortex is disengaged and your limbic system takes over. This is why it’s useless to have a conversation when you’re angry. You’re physically unable to think rationally until you calm down.
From this standpoint, emotion is largely a function of brain chemistry. Being calmer and happier does not depend on sorting out your issues, it depends on interrupting the flow of hormones feeding the limbic system, and stimulating activity in the cortex. Like any other physical activity, Chamine says that consistent exercise is the way to improve.
Chamine calls these saboteur-interrupting exercises “PQ reps.” Just as a weightlifting regimen might prescribe certain number of exercise repetitions per workout, Chamine prescribes 100 PQ reps per day. He goes into substantial detail about these in the book, but the basic idea is to focus attention on the sensations of the body – touch, breathing, etc. – for 10 seconds at a time. Each 10 second session counts as one PQ rep.
Diligent practice with PQ reps will pay off in the development of what Chamine calls the Sage. Just as the saboteurs are the personification of our self destructive habits, the Sage is the personification of our true potential as wise, caring and creative individuals. Essentially, the Sage is who we really are. The saboteurs are the worn-out behaviors that get in our way.
David does not offer an equivalent hypothesis. In her approach, our difficult emotions are simply part of being alive. They can be handled either effectively or not, but there is no way to avoid or reduce them. According to David, the question is simply, “Who’s in charge? The thinker or the thought? Are we managing our own lives according our own values and what is important to us, or are we simply being carried along by the tide?”
According to Chamine, however, “All your distress in the forms of anxiety, disappointment, stress, anger, shame, guilt – all the unpleasant stuff that makes up your suffering – is generated by your own Saboteurs … Activate your Sage to deal with the situation and you will feel quite different.”
Both books are enjoyable and well written, but David’s book is grounded in her background as a clinical therapist. It is, in other words, an opinion. And, like many therapists, she is more interested in exploring feelings then solving them. Although she does propose that emotional agility is about owning your feelings rather than being owned by them, it is difficult to imagine anyone choosing to “own” their regret, anxiety and grief rather than wanting to short-circuit them.
While Chamine’s Saboteur and Sage terminology are his own, his assertions regarding the origin and development of feelings are based in neurology, endocrinology, and biology. According to him, you can explore the origins of your feelings more effectively when you’re not at the mercy of them.
Professor David seems like a caring and highly intelligent counselor with a deep insight into human emotions. If she is right, we can all learn a thing or two from our bad days.
Dr. Chamine is a dedicated researcher who is proposing a major shift in the way we all deal with the things that bother us. If he is right, we don’t need to have bad days at all.