Emotion Loops

How could emotions be so painful that they are either hidden, or so powerful as to be out of control? Normal emotions like grief, shame, fear or anger are unlikely to be extremely painful or powerful. They are merely bodily signals that alert us to loss, feeling inadequate, in danger or frustrated. They are also quite brief, usually a matter of seconds. A car barreling toward us on the freeway stimulates an instantaneous shock of fear, but it usually doesn’t outlast the danger. What could give rise to feelings of fear that persist, or reactions so powerful as to lead to stampedes in a theatre fire, or so painful as to lead to silence and depression?

My own interest in this question began long ago while teaching the social psychology of emotions. When we discussed embarrassment and blushing in the larger classes, there were often one or two students who complained that blushing sometimes made them miserable. They explained that when they became aware that they were blushing, they would be further embarrassed, no matter the cause of the first blush. Often these students implied that blushing about their blush was not only lengthy and painful, but also out of their control.

This recent comment by a 20-year-old female student provides an example:

I often blush when I receive a compliment. Those who compliment me often mention my blush. On one occasion a friend praised my smile. I immediately felt a blush. Then my friend said “Oh, you are blushing!” I said “Yes, I can feel it!” On some occasions my blush feels as if it will be eternal.

With these kinds of observations as background, I remembered a story told by the noted actor Ian Holm. On one occasion he had muffed his lines, but when he became aware that he was blushing, he blushed more. The more he became embarrassed by his blushing, the more he blushed and the more embarrassed. This process went on, he said, until he ended paralyzed in the fetal position, requiring that he be carried off the stage. This last story points to an emotion process that might have no natural limit. This idea is also suggested by the student’s comment above, that her blushes sometimes feel that they may be eternal.

Psychological and Social Loops

Feedback loops can be both internal and external. Audience members in a theatre fire could become afraid because they are afraid themselves, and they see other audience members afraid, resulting in loops within and between persons: fear causing more fear, ending in a panic. Road rage could arise because one person feels humiliated by another driver’s actions, angry that he feels humiliated, and angry that his opponent has become angry, leading to further anger, and in some cases, violence. Emotional responses to emotional responses, under conditions to be discussed below, may result in chain reactions.

The idea that persons can be so ashamed that they keep their shame secret suggests the the origin of a shame loop, being ashamed that one is ashamed. Or, to continue with the topic of road rage, a shame/anger loop, being angry that one is ashamed, and ashamed that one is angry, and so on. One driver may experience the behavior of another driver as insulting. This driver is likely to shout “Idiot, you cut me off!” rather than say to himself or to the other driver: “I feel disrespected and ashamed.” Rather than acknowledging, and therefore feeling shame, he hides it behind anger. Acknowledgment is usually the first step toward resolving intense emotions.

The idea of a chain reaction may help to understand Gilligan’s (1997) otherwise puzzling theory of shame as the basic cause of violence, based on his experiences with violent men as a prison psychiatrist.

The emotion of shame is the primary or ultimate cause of all violence… (pp. 110)

Gilligan is referring to a specific shame situation, keeping it secret.

Shame is probably the most carefully guarded secret held by violent men…The degree of shame that a man needs to be experiencing in order to become homicidal is so intense and so painful that it threatens to overwhelm him and bring about the death of the self, cause him to lose his mind, his soul, or his sacred honor (112).

This reference to the awesome destructive power of secret shame implies a feedback chain, beginning with one loop: being ashamed of being ashamed. However, my experience with the blushing students suggests that such loops can go further, being ashamed, being ashamed of that, and ashamed of that, and so on. Or shame in a loop with anger: angry that one is ashamed, ashamed that one is angry, and round and round. The idea of an unending emotion loop seems to explain how shame, fear, or other emotions might become too powerful to bear or control.

There are other studies that suggest that shame/anger,  can be so painful and controlling as to lead to murder and suicide. The clearest example is Websdale’s (2010) study of 211 cases of familicide (the killing of one’s spouse and one or more of the children): it shows a type of killer who seemed driven by secret shame.

Websdale, with the help of many people, was able to gather interviews from persons who knew the families in most of the cases. The findings suggest two kinds of killers. The majority were working-class men who had a history of anger and aggression. The cases of these men strongly suggest that they used anger and aggression to hide shame.

But there was a sizeable minority that Websdale named civic respectable. They were middle-class men and women who had no history of prior aggression or violence but had obviously been intensely humiliated prior to the murders. For example, several of the cases were men who had lost their jobs, but hid the news from their family and others; they continued to leave the house every weekday as if they were still working. During this period, which in some cases was as long as several weeks, they were plotting murder. Some also killed themselves. All of these cases, particularly, suggest how one can get lost in an unending shame loop to the point that murder is chosen as preferable to further suffering.

The idea of emotion loops not only suggests how overwhelming loss of control that can occur in flashbacks, but also the reason for dissociation and numbing. Anticipation of loss of control or unbearable pain might lead people to avoid emotions entirely, which is what occurs in dissociation and numbing. This kind of avoidance also may have still another kind of looping effect: emotional backlogs. The more avoidance, the more the bodily buildup of emotional tension. The more backup, the greater the pain that is anticipated, which can lead to a further kind of avoidance loop.

The idea of avoiding grieving because of the anticipation of pain or loss of control is a commonplace. It is implied, for example, in this song by Iris Dement (1993), No Time to Cry:

    My father died a year ago today…
    Well, I stayed at home just long enough to lay him in the ground
    And then I caught a plane to do a show up north…
    Because I’m older now and I’ve got no time to cry
    I’ve got no time to look back, I’ve got no time to see
    The pieces of my heart that have been ripped away from me
    And if the feeling starts to coming, I’ve learned to stop em fast
    Cause I don’t know, if I let them go, they might not wanna pass…