Emotional Reflexes, Bees, and the Artillery of the Soul
As children, we build ideas about how the world and relationships work. After an injury when I was small, I was getting stitches in the emergency room. My parents tell the story that while the medical team worked on me, I was happily explaining to them about how nurses grow up to be doctors. That was how I thought the world worked. Someone eventually informed me that doctors and nurses are not developmentally related, and what I understood about doctors and nurses shifted.
A lot of times, we develop beliefs about relationship based on how relationships happen around and to us. As young children when we got into trouble, Mom or Dad might have said, “What were you thinking!? What’s wrong with you?” Being children, we don’t have the ability to challenge the notion that there might be something wrong with us. To a child, Adults define what “Normal” is. So we begin to believe that when we make a mistake, it is because we are defective somehow. If we were “normal”, we would have known better.
Fast-forward to adulthood. If nobody ever explains this scenario to us, if no one ever reshapes that belief or tells us otherwise, chances are that we still believe it on some level. We likely operate as though what we do is a direct indication of who we are. If I lie, then I must be a liar. If I fall for a trick, I must be a fool. If you don’t like me, it’s because I’ve caused you to dislike me. If you hit me, I did something to deserve it.
These defaults operate consistently and automatically. When I was small, I got stung twice in the eyelid by a yellow-jacket. It was very painful, and my eye was swelled shut by the next morning. I have never liked anything with wings and a stinger ever since. I still have a powerful physical reflex when I hear a buzz near my ear. I learned that bees are dangerous.
As an adult, I know that bee stings are not as painful as my emotional reflex tells me, but I do know that they can still hurt pretty bad. What I know, however, does not matter when I hear that buzzing sound, especially when it’s close to my head. I still have a tendency to run away while swatting at whatever was making that noise.
These defaults are powerful things. We don’t choose them, we just live by them. The trouble is that sometimes, these defaults are simply not true. They are real, and they are potent, but they are often based on faulty information. The fact is that the mom or dad mentioned above was wrong: making a mistake or doing something foolish was not matter of something being wrong with me. It was a matter of being a child and not knowing how the world works. They reacted and spoke as though the child should have had the knowledge and foresight of an adult.
When I was in the military, I was assigned to an artillery unit. My first night on a live-fire mission was pretty awful. Every time the crews fired the cannons, I nearly jumped out of my skin. After a while, I could anticipate the commands that led up to the pull of the trigger, but try as I might, I just couldn’t get my body to quit jerking around when the shot went off. My body was reflexing to the concussion as if to say, “Something is coming for you, kid. You are gonna die.” It took a while of rehearsing and experiencing the concussion and the jumping, but eventually the jump reflex passed. My body had to learn that this sudden noise and the accompanying shockwave were not actually a threat to me.
Unlearning our emotional reflexes can follow a similar pattern. We can come to understand and truly believe that mom or dad was wrong, but the emotional reflex is still there, and it is still powerful. The feeling will still kick in, and sometimes we have a hard time remembering that it is real but not true.
The unlearning happens through practice. We can eventually grow to recognize the lie and speak the truth to it: (my identity is not actually based on my performance). We will still have the reflex, and after a while, we learn that this feeling does not actually have the power to define me. I can make mistakes. I can even look like a fool, and I will still be OK. All of our efforts to avoid the feeling actually prolong it. I *have* to feel the concussion over and over again in order to learn that it doesn’t actually have the power to harm me.
I’ll say it plainly: this process sucks. It almost never happens as quickly as we want it to, and it is almost never linear in healing. We go back and forth. We continually recognize new areas where this same old thing is in play. We have to keep fighting with this painful feeling, and we often feel like the fact that we have to fight this hard with it means that we are somehow defective. Then we realize we’re doing it again.
But eventually, with work, with awareness, and with the help of trustworthy friends and lovers, we come to believe the truth, and the reflex fades in potency. We experience a freedom and confidence that we never imagined, and eventually that freedom becomes our new “Normal”.
By Jonathan Hart, LPC