Control and Responsibility

Emotions are reactive responses. But in what sense are we human beings able to choose their emotional responses? How, if at all, can the will intervene in emotional behavior?

Aristotle is once again helpful here. Both action and emotion, he holds, are subject to choice in the following sense. We choose to develop a state of character that stabilizes certain dispositions toward action and emotion. Accordingly, how one feels (and acts) may be less a matter of choice at the moment than the indirect effect of choice over time. In the case of emotion, especially, there are few shortcuts. For unlike action, emotion does not seem to engage choice (or will) in each episode. At a given moment, we may simply not be able to will to feel a certain way however skilled we are at posing appropriate emotional, facial expressions, such as a polite smile or a look of interest.

Common parlance includes many expressions presuming that emotions are "up to us" in various ways. We exhort ourselves and others by such phrases as "pull yourself together," "snap out of it," "put on a good face," "lighten up," "be cheerful," "think positive," and "keep a stiff upper lip." In many of these cases, what the person is being implored to do is to take on the semblance of an emotion with the hope that it might "take hold" and rub off on the person's inner state. Practice as if you believe and you will believe. Or, as de Sousa put it, "earnest pretense is the royal road to sincere faith" (de Sousa, 1988, p. 324; also see Ekman; and Tomkins on posed expressions and facial feedback mechanisms). Similarly, we can sometimes fuel the flames of a sincerely felt emotion by allowing it bodily expression. To weep may intensify our grief or make us more conscious of its presence. The James-Lange theory, and its notion of proprioceptive feedback from the expression of emotion, may be in the background here. There are other sorts of actions a person might take that are not a matter of body language or putting on a new face. A person may try to talk herself out of love, but discover that only when she changes locales do the old ways begin to lose their grip. Other times, it is more trial by fire: staying put and exposing herself to what is painful in order to become inured. The latter process involves desensitization.

Sometimes changing one's mood may be more a matter of mental or perceptual strategy. It may be a matter of bringing oneself to focus on different objects and thoughts— trying to see things under a new gestalt or recomposing the scene. Exhortation and persuasion play an important role here. A patient depressed by the possibility of relapse might be reminded of the favorable statistics and the steady progress she has made to date. Seeing things in a new light, with new emphases and stresses, helps to allay the fear. In a different vein, anger at a child may subside when one focuses less on minor annoyances and more on admirable traits. One may work on a more forgiving attitude in general by choosing to play down others' perceived faults or foibles. In certain cases, experiencing emotions is a matter of giving inner assent—of allowing oneself to feel angry or giving the green light to a new interest or love. It is as if something grabs hold, and then it is our turn to have some influence.

Mental training can of course follow a more methodical and introspective model. An individual can learn to take more careful note of the onset of certain emotions and of the movement of mind from one perceived object of importance to another. So Buddhists speak of a watchful mindfulness, an intensification of consciousness such that through awareness and knowledge, one comes to be more in charge (Thera).

There are other methods of effecting emotional change that depend upon so-called "deep" psychology. In psychoanalysis the recapitulation of patterns of emotional response through transference onto an analyst is intended to be a way of seeing at a detached level. The patient relives an emotional experience at the same time as he watches and interprets it. This is the putative advantage of an empathetic, clinical setting: A patient can come to see an emotional pattern in a detached way, free from judgment and accusation and from the crippling emotions that those stances often involve. In some cases, a patient tries to relieve the pain of present disabling emotions, such as anger, anxiety, or shame by coming to see their roots in primitive conflicts and frustrations that may have long been repressed. The goal is not to remove the patient from the vulnerabilities of emotion, but rather to make possible a way of experiencing emotions, including shame and anger, that is less crippling and self-destructive.

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