Thursday, October 15, 2009

You are responsible for your feelings. Or are you?

These days everyone seems to be in favour of people taking responsibility. But in the self-help world, an unusual spin on this idea has become popular: "You are responsible for your feelings." (Sometimes the word "emotions" is used instead of "feelings", and here I'll treat the two terms synonymously.) Now it makes sense to talk about taking responsibility for your behaviour—although it's easier said than done—but what would it mean for a person to take responsibility for their internal state of being? The question hinges on what we mean by the word "responsibility".

Consider the following scenario: suppose you're helping to organize a party and you take responsibility for the drinks. In this case, taking responsibility means looking after, taking care of. Applying this to our feelings makes a good deal of sense. Ultimately, each of us needs to look after and take care of our feelings. Other people's behaviour can of course have a great impact on our lives, but each of us is the only one with direct access to our own feelings. Given this unique position, a passive approach doesn't make much sense. Part of what it means to "take responsibility for your feelings" is embodied in the familiar term from the U.S. Declaration of Independence: "the pursuit of happiness".

But there's another sense to the word "responsibility". The sense of causation—and blame. For example, "Who's responsible for this mess?" and "The Taliban took responsibility for the attack." In what way can you be the cause of your feelings? Well, it turns out there's a very popular model in psychotherapy that suggests just that.


It's called the A-B-C model and it was introduced by Albert Ellis, the founder of rational emotive behavioral therapy, a type of cognitive behavioral therapy. The A-B-C model counters the common notion that people and events make us feel certain ways. Ellis argued that between the activating event (A) and the emotional consequences (C) lie our beliefs (B). Changing our "irrational" beliefs can change how we feel about the events in our lives. While this approach seems reasonable—and indeed studies have shown that it can be very helpful for some people—the A-B-C model has its limitations.

For example suppose you're taking a pleasant walk in the woods when a bear jumps out at you. Your response may have little to do with your beliefs and a lot to do with thousands of years of evolution telling you that you're in mortal danger! Another limitation of the A-B-C model is that while thoughts can influence emotions, emotions can also influence thoughts. The work of neuroscientists such as António Damásio has revealed the intricacy of how thoughts and emotions are intertwined in the brain. The A-B-C model strikes me as a drastic oversimplification. And that's ok; it's only a model after all. An imperfect theory can still be useful.

But the limitations of the A-B-C model often seem to be overlooked in pop psychology. If people's emotions are caused by their beliefs, then can't it be said that they "choose" their emotions? It's not hard to see how this can lead to "blaming the victim". For example, people who have suffered traumatic life events often experience serious emotional consequences. It would be callous in the extreme to suggest that their suffering is "caused" by their own beliefs.

In the end, compassion is essential, both towards others and towards ourselves. I find it hard to see how simplistic notions of emotional causation will engender such a response.

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4 Comments:

Anonymous john Threadgold said...

Hi there Nick. Your absolutely right concerning the over simplistic nature of the ABC theory. Taking this one step further, the CBT concept of 'cognitive reframing' is also overly simplistic. Based on the ABC Theory, cognitive reframing is about changing how we feel, by changing the way we think or conceptualise an issue. Now thinking about something differently can sometimes lead to feeling differently about things, but when this does not work, cognitive reframing then seems very superficial and just not effective. If you persist with trying to reframe the feeling, through language, this becomes brainwashing not therapy. At best the feeling is simply repressed, and at worse it becomes suppressed, and then manifests itself in a different and often more frightening form.

fulfilled, the baby experiences bodily sensations feelings and emotions, ie of hunger, discomfort, do and distress, and this is expressed through crying. Now his mother may initially offer a hug, and he baby may then calm down a bit, the hug after all is a pleasant feelings, but then the baby 'knows' in an experiential way, that his felt need ( hunger ) is not being fulfilled or satisfied. He starts to cry again. When his mother offers her breast, and milk flows, the feelings and emotions associated with his hunger, and the lack of that need being fulfilled, begin to change. ABC is just wrong, and any mother should know that !

6:26 AM, October 17, 2009  
Anonymous John Threadgold said...

The above post went wrong. it should say, in para 2
Emotions ( like fear, joy, contentment), and vaguer feelings and body sensations, are linked to felt needs, rather than to thinking patterns. Let me give an example. A very young baby has a 'felt need', ie he is hungry. When this felt need is not automatically fulfilled, the baby experiences bodily sensations feelings and emotions, ie of hunger, discomfort, and distress, and this is expressed through crying. Now his mother may initially offer a hug, and he baby may then calm down a bit, the hug after all is a pleasant feelings, but then the baby 'knows' in an experiential way, that his felt need ( hunger ) is not being fulfilled or satisfied. He starts to cry again. When his mother offers her breast, and milk flows, the feelings and emotions associated with his hunger, and the lack of that need being fulfilled, begin to change. He feels the hunger satisfied, he begins to feel less hungry, he may experience a warm contented feeling. In other words feelings and emotions are linked first and foremost to felt needs, and bodily sensations and perceptions.Mothers know ABC is wrong !

6:35 AM, October 17, 2009  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

nice food for thought. seems to be related to free will. i know park rangers who have dealt with surprise animal attacks like the ones you describe, and the way they have trained their brain to overturn millions of years of instinct in favor of cool logical beliefs, is what has saved their hide many many times. daniel dennet is great for thinking about these kinds of thoughts. people tell me i'm liberal, although i do dig taking responsibility for my feelings. so much for that dichotomy.

4:10 AM, February 03, 2012  
Blogger Nick Barrowman said...

That's a good point: people can be trained to (at least partially) overcome their instincts, and that may be vital in certain situations. Interestingly though, the training is used not to instill beliefs, but to alter the reactions you have before you get a chance to think about it!

9:52 AM, February 03, 2012  

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