When we feel something strongly, most of the time our awareness stays in the causality of the external factors. We tend to believe that the genesis of an emotion is automatic, uncontrollable and due to external situations, like other people's behaviour or the loss of a loved one or a job. But psychologists like Paul Ekman, who study human emotions extensively, believe that there are many steps before the genesis of an emotion and there are a few crucial steps where, if we are aware, can actually intervene and change the way we feel.
Rubina, in her 30s, came heartbroken.
She was feeling betrayed and cheated by her husband. Here is an excerpt from the first session...
Rubina: I am feeling very angry and hurt by my husband.
Therapist: Yes, I can see that you are very hurt. Would you like to share what happened?
Rubina: Doctor, one thing I can't stand is when people lie to me. And yesterday I found out that my husband was lying to me.
Therapist: I see. You found out he was lying?
Rubina: Yes, I found that he was hiding the truth.
Therapist: Would you like to elaborate?
Rubina: At an office party, there was this girl in his office who, I felt, was hitting on my husband. When I asked him about it around three months back, he just brushed it aside and behaved as if it was the most improbable thing he had ever heard.
But yesterday I came to know that the girl had confessed her feelings for my husband to a friend of hers. It has become office gossip and my husband also knows about it.
Therapist: So you are hurt that your husband did not acknowledge his knowledge about this girl's feelings, to you.
Rubina: Yes. I am very sure that my husband has no feelings for her. He is incapable of having an affair. But I am hurt that he hid that information from me.
Therapist: How are you sure that your husband knew about it?
Rubina: Yesterday there was another get- together of his office colleagues and they were joking about how my husband was avoiding meeting the girl in the office for the past six- seven months.
Therapist: Could it be that your husband was embarrassed, or maybe he just did not want to make you feel insecure?
Rubina: Maybe.... But the bottomline is that he pretended as if I was being ridiculous by suggesting that this girl was eyeing him. I feel I have lost my trust in him.
Therapist: So, is it the trust in your husband which is broken, or is it the belief that he would never hide anything from you which is broken?
Rubina: I think it's my belief that he would never hide anything from me that is broken. I am angry at myself that I thought he would always be truthful to me. I know it's silly but it's important to me. With anybody else, it wouldn't have mattered but I can't take lies from people who are close to me.
Let's understand what really happened to Rubina. Rubina attends her husband's office party and notices a girl, let's say Riti, who was paying a lot of attention to her husband. Her mind evaluates the situation and it creates the...
First appraisal: "Riti is attracted to my husband". She goes and talks to her husband about it but he just plays it down.
Rubina's mind generates the...
Second appraisal: " My husband does not know about it." After a few months, she comes to know that her husband knew this for quite some time, and her mind generates the...
Third appraisal: " My husband deceived me and my second appraisal was wrong." Which is in direct conflict with her
Rule: " I should not be wronged or deceived, especially by people who are close to me." This conflict gives rise to an emotion, which is the feeling of anger and betrayal, and these emotions give rise to an impulse, say in this case, the impulse to confront the husband. This impulse may lead to an action, such as the act of screaming at the husband and storming out of the house. Ekman says if one is really watchful of his/ her mind, there are three levels of awareness which are possible to observe: Appraisal awareness, impulse awareness and action awareness.
If we are aware, we can intervene and change the course of emotion generation by challenging and changing the appraisal or controlling the impulse and therefore choosing to feel differently and act differently.
It is possible to deconstruct an emotion and eliminate its effect if we can change the appraisal, and mend the conflicting rules through our awareness.
Sometimes there are agendas we aren't aware of to hold on to the pain and hurt as well. Consider the case of If we are aware, we can intervene and change the course of emotion generation
Rosaline, who was going through a separation.
Rosaline: Doctor, the exercise you gave me was very helpful. I understand that my husband cheated on me and it makes sense to move on as that person does not deserve me. However, I am noticing that I am not ready to let go of the pain and hurt. If I let go of my pain, I would trivialise my five years of time and effort with this man.
Somehow I'm afraid of devaluing a chunk of my life.
Therapist: So, you feel that you are giving value, worth and meaning to the time you have spent together by holding on to the pain.
Rosaline: Yes! Otherwise it is so meaningless. I know I can let go of this pain but I am holding on to it.
Funny, isn't it?
Before Rosaline can work on her pain and hurt she needs to understand the hidden cognition and reason behind her holding on to her pain. " I need to suffer to give value and meaning to my experience" is her unaware cognition behind the pain. If Rosaline wants to be happy, she needs to first let go this cognition and accept that may be the last five years were not of as much value as she thought it was, and that it is okay. Here also, the self- awareness is the first step for her to reach that acceptance.
(All names and details have been changed)
Dr Sangbarta Chattopadhyay and Dr Namita Bhuta are medical practitioners, psychotherapists and life coaches Share your problems with them at
dr. sangbarta@ gmail. com