Beat negativity with a positive attitude

In terms of negative emotions, we can effectively map them by thinking of them as having a core of emotional pain.

By Gregg Henriques

Published: Thu 25 Jan 2018, 8:00 PM

Last updated: Thu 25 Jan 2018, 10:18 PM

One of the most important things I pay attention to when listening to a client - in addition to their recount of their stressors and histories, and the negative moods they are feeling - is how they feel and react to how they feel and react. Yes, I intentionally typed that out twice. There are primary reactions and there are secondary reactions to primary reactions. 
There are these two layers of psychological reactions because the human mind is really two streams of consciousness wrapped up into one. Once we disentangle these two streams and see how they relate to one another, then we can understand why we have secondary reactions to our primary feeling states.
Let's label the first stream of consciousness your "primary process mind." You can also call it your "primate mind" or your "feeling mind" or your "heart." This is the core driver of your psyche. It is the part of you that looks out and sees the world, has motives and urges (ranging from food to sex to status), and is energised by emotions to respond to events. It is crucial to understand the nature and function of emotions. They give information about goals relative to what is happening. And they serve as ways to orient you to seek and approach "good" things and to avoid and withdraw from "bad" things. The root of these feelings are pleasure and pain, and they give rise to more complicated states of positive and negative emotion.
In terms of negative emotions, we can effectively map them by thinking of them as having a core of emotional pain, and two primary negative emotion mood states (depression/despair and fear/anxiety) and two negative social emotional states of shame/guilt (negative feelings about self) and hate/anger (negative feelings about other).
The second stream of consciousness, which we can call your "secondary process mind" (or your "person mind" or your "deliberative, self-conscious mind" or your "head") is the part of your mind that talks and deliberates and reflects and makes explicit claims about reality. Importantly, it comments or reacts or responds to not just to what is, but also to what ought to be. That is, the deliberative mind has ideas about what is justifiable and what is not. It makes these claims referenced against ideas about the way people ought to be. 
What is Vs 'what ought to be'
These two minds are very different. The primary mind is quite automatic, fast and reactive. It feels things based on what it perceives relative to its goals in the immediate situation. If it perceives the situation being one in which the individual is isolated, it will feel lonely. If it perceives the situation where involves one's goals are being intruded upon by others, it will feel angry. If it sees that the individual has failed or is inferior to others, it will feel shame. If it feels defeated it will enter a state of defeat or helplessness. 
The deliberative mind is more complicated. It not only thinks about what is, but also thinks about what ought to be. When the secondary mind is pointed toward the primary mind, it means one can decide whether the primary mind is feeling what it should. Or it might decide that the individual is not feeling what they should, but instead it might decide the individual should be feeling something else. Where does the deliberative mind get the ideas for what an individual ought to feel? Originally, from other people, either directly or indirectly. Perhaps your dad wanted you to be tough. Perhaps your friends did not want you to be angry. Other people are often quite clear about when they want folks to be happy, or angry or guilty. And because people want to be liked and accepted and have status in the eyes of others, they turn those judgments onto themselves.
Negative reactions to negative feelings are the fundamental root of the neurotic conditions. It is hard to overstate the importance of this claim because the neurotic conditions are the single biggest driver of mental illness. And they are getting worse and worse in modern society, perhaps because too many people are taught to be afraid of their negative feelings or that they should not have to feel them or that they are disease states.
It is possible to work toward shifting the attitude of the deliberative mind in how it relates to the primary process mind. Rather than being critical, reactive and controlling in our deliberative mind regarding our primary feelings, we need to cultivate a different attitude.
Gregg Henriques is a professor of psychology at James Madison University
-Psychology Today

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