Stacked Emotions


Yes, I intentionally typed that twice, since most mental health symptoms are caused by our negative reactions to negative emotions. These feelings are the primary reason people come to therapy. They are closely related to long-term relationship problems, low self-esteem, functional impairment. They also have many other emotional and behavioral consequences such as self-medicating with substances to escape emotional pain.


There are three components to negative emotions. The first is a “primary stream of consciousness,” the basic system that experiences negative emotions. That is, how sensitive we are to it, how strongly we feel it, and how long it takes for us to return to baseline once we are free from the cause of emotion. This core driver of the psyche perceives the world, has motives and urges, and is energized to respond to emotion. The elemental function of emotion is to provide information about goals relative to our surroundings, and emotion orients us toward the good and away from the bad. Toward safety and away from danger.

The second component are the stressors themselves. Real-life problems that threaten emotional and physical safety. These include the need for relational value (experiencing belongingness and validation), the need for achievement and self-efficacy, the need to have resources to obtain desires, the need for play, growth, and exploration, and the need for emotional and physical safety itself (which is violated during traumatic experiences).

The third component interprets, or categorizes emotion. And it is the one that is often hardest to recognize. That is, when people come into therapy, they are generally aware of the first two components. They know the cause of their negative emotions and they usually know how they feel about it. But they are not nearly as cognizant of the third component which, left unchecked, fuels their distress. The good news is that this third component is the one over which we have the most direct control-but only if we are taught about it and learn to interpret emotion differently.


This third component, our intrinsic qualifier of emotion, is a fundamental cause of emotional distress. Assessing and categorizing emotion as “negative” causes negative reactions, triggering a negative feedback loop. In other words, when we interpret feelings as negative we experience negative reactions, which perpetuates a cycle of negativity. A layer of two emotional reactivity processes-two streams of consciousness-are wrapped into one. The secondary negative reaction to the primary negative feeling states causes and exacerbates negative symptoms. When we react negatively to negative feelings, we feel bad about feeling bad.


Imagine a painful memory of a college sophomore girl. Say this girl had feelings for a male peer. One day she bravely approaches him and hands him a note telling him that she liked him and wanted to go on a date. Two hours later at lunch, she arrives at the table where she normally sits. But she got there earlier than her friends, so she was alone at the table. She then looked up and saw the boy and his friends at the table across from her. And, lo and behold, what was in the center of them? Her note. They were giggling and pointing at her, as she sat in what felt like the loneliest place in the world.

This experience became a negative core memory for her, and she remembers it to this day because it was seared into her consciousness. She experienced feelings of embarrassment, rejection, humiliation, self-doubt, and anger. Since then, she has developed strong negative reactions to these feelings. There was a strong push to punish self (e.g., “I am such a loser”), to punish others (e.g., “They are being so mean to me, I hate them”), and motives get these feelings off the stage of one’s consciousness (e.g., “I never want to think of this moment again”).


The more negatively she reacted to her negative feelings, the greater the likelihood she would be starting to set the stage for a negative symptom feedback loop. Imagine, for example, if she hated the feelings and the event so much that she hated herself for causing them. Or if she hated the boys with thoughts like, “All boys manipulate you,” or “People love causing others pain.” Both of these ways of thinking are understandable reactions to the feelings she experienced. However, they are problematic because they trap her in a negative view of the world, and if she had invested strongly in either line of thinking, she would have likely been trapped in a cycle of negative emotions.

Negative reactions to negative feelings are the fundamental root of emotional pain, a trap of negative reinforcement in which most of my clients have found themselves. The good news is that it is possible to break the cycle by disentangling the two streams to see how they relate to one another. The therapeutic approach involves understanding why we have secondary reactions to our primary feeling states. It also involves identifying negative reactions that are blaming, critical, controlling. Other important work includes being more deliberate with primary feelings, more accepting, and more compassionate.

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