19 December, 2014

Mindfulness about second-order emotions

Situations -- both real and hypothetical -- often create an emotional response in our minds, which we express in a variety of ways.

The general belief is that emotional responses are "irrational" and need to be replaced with stoic and dispassionate reasoning.

But emotions are what makes us human and embody the essence of life. Emotions are our naturally endowed physiological responses to stimuli -- it is our "firmware" in computer science parlance. This firmware logic is encoded in our genes and essentially embodies the essence of what our genetic ancestors experienced.

Our emotional reactions are hence an important repository to understand our history -- basically the unwritten and experiential part of our personal history that we won't find in history textbooks.

Emotional turmoil and mental trauma results not from these emotional responses, but from our "second-order" emotional responses.

Next time, observe how you feel about things. But more importantly, observe how you feel about how you feel about things.

It is these "second-order" emotions that are the root cause of most of our emotional turmoil.

Do you enjoy ice-cream? Do you feel guilty about enjoying ice-cream when you should be watching what you eat?

Does something make you frustrated? Are you depressed that that something makes you frustrated?

Does something cause outrage in you? Do you feel helpless about this sense of outrage, knowing at the back of your mind that you cannot control it and it may end up complicating things?

Do you feel indignation when you witness any form of injustice? Do you feel proud that you feel moral indignation in response to injustice? (That's problematic too!)

Emotions are like a child's reaction to something. A second-order emotion is like someone with a child's maturity, managing a child. It is a sure recipe for disaster. If our response to an emotional reaction is another emotional reaction, it is like an ineffective parent who just screams back at their children when they disapprove, or flatters and pampers them when they approve. The children will only learn how to manipulate around these emotional outbursts from the elders.

The stoic and dispassionate reasoning is relevant here. Replace second-order emotions and not your primary emotions with a stoic abstraction, that is built on axioms that are prudent and humane and represents your mature understanding of the situation. Let this stoic mental model interact with your primary emotions like a good parent -- reasoning with it logically, patiently and with empathy, without trivializing the emotions.

See how things change.


Balaji Rajendran said...

Dear Sir,

Thought provoking article. 'Liked' the analogy between firmware and emotions. The second-order emotions are well described and the importance of keeping it under one own watch is rightly emphasized.

However I feel that the complexity of second-order emotions are of various types. For instance, prolonged furstrations can lead to depression, while contrary emotions (as in the icecream case) will make you disillusioned over a long period of time. In other words, second-order emotions build up gradually and lead to bad effects.

Srinath Srinivasa said...

That is the point, which is why managing emotions with (second-order) emotions are ineffective.