As a young kid with little guidance and supervision, I followed the lead of many of the older kids in our housing project and took a lot of my anger out directly and indirectly on weaker, vulnerable living creatures. I wanted to be like Jocko, Floyd and MacDuffy, so I got into a number of fistfights, but only with kids I knew I could beat up. As a baseball pitcher, I would often deliberately hit the batters I faced. In football and basketball, an errant elbow would frequently find an unsuspecting target. My nickname in junior high and high school was “Crazyman.”
Unskillful in the Wild
I also took my frustrations out on animals. We had a miniature Doberman pinscher named Buster. Buster used to bite and growl, after which I would beat him with my belt, which of course only made him bite and growl all the more. I also used to hunt in the woods surrounding New Haven with homemade slingshots, bows and arrows and spears. I would use them on squirrels, snakes, birds and rabbits. Specific creatures at great risk every spring were the lamprey eels that would course through the brooks in the woods. Their fearsome, round, tooth-filled mouths and fanged tongues never failed to send me into an adrenaline-filled frenzy. With a hand-carved oak spear, I would chase them through the brook, flip them onto land and then beat them bloody. Not the most skillful ways to channel hot emotions. Less than effective for optimal brain integration too, it turns out.
Lack of Integration
Hot emotions seem to signal a lack of neural processing ability. It’s apparently one reason that little kids throw tantrums – they have minimal language capacity to allow them to transfer right brain feelings into left brain words. This is something that skillful parents need to model and teach kids to practice. “Use words,” was a frequent directive in school and at home as my daughter was growing up. This essential process – moving feelings and images that emotionally affect us from the right side where they are initially recorded – over to the left side where language and linear thinking primarily lives, appears to be a fundamental integrative neural necessity. Some researchers also think that it is one of the fundamental functions that sleep and dreaming provides us. And why we become psychotic when we go for extended periods without REM sleep. My behavior as a kid would seem to suggest that sleep and dreaming alone is insufficient – that we become psychotic without constructive, nurturing models and other effective emotional outlets as well.
Emotions Number Nine
For research purposes, scientists distinguish between emotions and feelings. USC neuroscience researcher, Antonio Damasio has suggested that feelings be used to refer to the private experience of an emotion, and that emotions should be used to designate feelings that are publicly observable. Nine emotions turn out to be readily observable in infants. They show up on their faces as Paul Holinger explains in What Babies Say Before They Can Talk:
The two positive feelings are interest and enjoyment; the feeling which resets the nervous system and gets it ready for other stimuli is called surprise; and the six negative feelings are distress, anger, fear, shame, disgust (a reaction to bad taste) and dissmell (a reaction to bad odors). Each of these feelings is signaled by a specific facial expression in your baby. These facial expressions provide the signals which help you understand what your baby is feeling. These nine feelings operate on a scale from low to high: interest-to-excitement, enjoyment-to-joy, surprise-to-startle, distress-to-anguish, anger-to-rage, fear-to-terror, shame-to-humiliation, and varying levels of disgust and dissmell.
These same nine emotions and more show up on adult’s faces as well. Malcolm Gladwell has detailed the many ways they do so in his riveting New Yorker article: The Naked Face.
The Body Holds the Key
I’m convinced the body needs to be actively involved in channeling hot emotions, especially those that emerge resulting from buried past emotional trauma, which seems like what most adult emotional reactivity is in my experience. I guess that’s why I resonate so strongly with A Course in Miracles Lesson 5: “I am never upset for the reason I think.” It’s always something old and early in my personal history coming back around, apparently looking for healing integration, often involving self-forgiveness.
One program that I’ve mentioned before that I think does a profoundly powerful job of working with the body and providing ways to constructively channel hot emotions is City at Peace. In that program inner city kids in trouble are supported in writing out, choreographing and performing their personal life stories. Many come through the program wholly transformed. Had this program been around when I was growing up, much suffering would very likely have been avoided. To bear witness to the benefits that constructively channeling hot emotions produces is to make one a believer in miracles.