What A Trout Can Teach Us About Emotion: Part One of Two

Heidi S. Lepper, Ph.D. ©


"I got so upset and overreacted because I was so stressed!" said my 10 year old to me just the other day.


Quite a statement from a child. We currently don't live in our home country and so my children must learn Russian in school as part of their curriculum. And my son was having difficulty memorizing the words to a song he barely comprehended and came home in tears and wailed on and on about how it is not fair he has to learn a second language and one so difficult as Russian! And when I say he went on and on, I mean he went on and on! While the specifics of this situation are likely different from your own, I am certain you can appreciate the dynamic. What do I do as a parent to ease my child's angst? Why is he reacting so dramatically? How do I not add to the drama? And so forth...


My last blog discussed the inner emotional thermostat that we each have which tends to run us a bit (or a lot!) too HOT or too COLD (and I am sure you can now imagine my wee one tends to run a bit hot). This thermostat, for lack of a better analogy, is based largely upon the genetic factors that build our inner brain and physiology and also upon early learned experiences and conditioned responses as well as on our thinking patterns. Most of us run outside the range of temperate and this at times gets us into trouble in our relationships, gets in the way of our good moods and daily happiness, and can impose limitations on our success in life. Many of us strive to live out scriptures that tell us truths such as 'So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you...' (Matthew 7:12) or 'Love is patient, love is kind' (1 Corinthians 13:4) and yet fail time and again to treat others well when we are so very mad, depressed, scared or disgusted. We stumble all over ourselves the moment we become emotional!


Today I am going to go describe what happens to us when we get 'emotional' and in part two, I will go into what we can do with this newfound knowledge.


Now keep in mind emotions in and of themselves are not 'bad' but can alter our behavior in such a way as we repeatedly do things we don't want to do (why do we keep doing the same thing over and over again even though we wish we wouldn't?). While originally emotions serve the purpose of telling us something important about our environment (such as getting us to act very quickly when a tiger jumps at us in the midst of a jungle), they often arise from negative and errant thinking (so if thoughts are shifted, the emotion will not pop up) and most importantly kick into gear a physiological chain reaction that is difficult to stop. Emotions are a sign that we are instinctively reacting to something but often how we end up reacting turns out to be more hurtful than helpful. Emotions often prime us to react inappropriately or out of proportion -- that is, when we react too quickly or not fast enough or when we emote in ways that call forth too much gusto. But bear in mind we need emotions. They connect us with others socially and lead us to love deeply. They give us wonder and awe. They prompt us to act to protect ourselves and others. But its critical that we learn to keep our emotional reactions adaptive, reasonable and temperate in our daily lives as most days are filled with mundane events. I am getting to the trout so keep holding on.


As humans we experience a set of universal felt emotions that include anger, sadness, disgust, fear, and happiness. Universally the same inner and outer events trigger respectively each emotion and each involves virtually the same facial, body, and vocal expressions. We all glare when we are mad, we all smile when we are happy (of course learned display rules can alter these expressions across cultures, but universally the instant an emotion is felt the same expressions are instantaneously evoked before being 'masked'). Do note that among the five I list above, only one is one that you enjoy, strive for, and want for yourself and everyone around you: happiness.


Now let's consider those kinds of things that produce strong emotion in you. There are the obvious: death, threat, disease, abandonment, failure. But what about the less obvious such as your child not putting on his shoes quickly enough, your spouse not coming home early enough, the classroom parent who should do it differently, planning a big party or the party invitation that was not extended, the sales meeting that did not go well, the decorator fabric that did not arrive on time, the jeans that will not button, the car that just cut you off, the math concept that just will not gel, the third day of rain in a row. Need I go on? These are the types of daily experiences that can produce within most of us some serious emotion!


Getting back to my curious title: What A Trout Can Teach Us About Emotion. Now what can a lowly trout teach us, the mighty humans? Well, quite a lot actually, when viewed as an analogy! Despite the relatively simple nature of your average trout and the fact that you likely are neither an ichthyologist nor hydrologist, try to imagine:


A hungry trout swimming in her lake is looking for lunch. She spots a fly buzzing above the surface of the water and out she leaps and catches it perfectly. Now Ms. Trout performs that trick that without any hesitation and without any error of judgment about where exactly the fly is in relation to herself below the surface. So, she has her lunch. Moreover, she easily catches insects this way time and again. Easy to imagine? Sure.


But if I were to ask you to do the same thing, could you? Not likely. It’s not just that you’re no trout. (Which is a good thing.) The real problem is that you’re a human and you are subject to the principle of light refraction. You remember refraction from high school physics, don’t you? Refraction is the principle that light bends when moving from one surface to another and so for us this alters the way we see objects that cross the line of a body of water. We first learned this as a child while standing shin deep in a pond we reached down for a shiny pebble only to discover that our hand missed it. We learned that refraction alters the way we see things.


Somehow the trout's sensory system developed in a way that accounts for the physics of light refraction. She can catch the fly because something within her genetics or experience accommodates for the refraction. But our own visual system is tricked by refraction and we cannot automatically reach out and grasp an object lying beneath the water’s surface.


So the lowly trout can teach us about light refraction. But what about emotions? Certainly we don’t live in water and most of us at least don’t eat flies. Instead though, we live in a world of changing events and among people different from ourselves. Not only that, we have physical bodies that are sometimes a bit of disconnected from our minds. And what do you think causes this disconnect? Ah ha! Emotions.


Strong emotion, strong feelings and powerful mood states all act to produce a very analogous kind of refraction. They alter the way we see things! They alter the way we think about things! They alter the way we behave! So strong emotion acts upon our minds and bodies as the surface of water acts upon our sight. When something happens in our lives that triggers an emotion that emotion then bends how we perceive and respond, think and act.


Through awareness we can learn to factor in the refraction that emotions and moods induce and begin the process of fixing our broken inner thermostats. First and foremost, keep this analogy of a trout top of mind and you will remember quite easily that emotions produce refraction within yourself. When in the throes of emotion: You become rigid, you become self-righteous, you fail to take in new information or listen to another! Whether it be you are sad or angry or scared or disgusted or even happy, you like every other human on Earth reacts in a refracted way -- emotion and even mood alter the way you see and then respond to the world in a way you would not do if you were not in that feeling state. So this also means so does your spouse and your children! And this is why you cannot ever talk someone out of being sad ("What?! You have nothing to be sad about, you have so much!"), nor out of being scared or deeply worried ("Just calm down! There is nothing to be so afraid of!") and why you say such hurtful things when you are angry or disgusted with another.


Now this should come as a great deal of relief that you are like everyone else. But most of our struggles are relationship or work based and most of those are because we do not communicate well or have a hard time maintaining composure. Starting today those struggles and issues will begin to ease for you are now different than you were when you started reading this...with the trout analogy you now know what strong felt emotion and moods do to you. Biologically you have a really hard time responding calmly even when that is your goal. Starting today you will begin to see how yours and others strong emotion limit how we relate well and lead us to react in ways we would rather we didn't. Now I know this all to be true for I am a mother and at times I have gotten wicked angry with my kids and I never once felt good about myself for having been so. In contrast, I am proud of myself when I respond in a calm, reasonable and temperate manner when my kids piss me off.


And what is also true of us all is that refraction is a biologically timed process, it can only last so long. Once our emotional experience begins to subside, the refraction disappears and our feeling of righteousness and justification dissipates. We start to see ourselves, our world, our past, and our future in a way not colored by the refraction of emotion. We may have to admit we overreacted, that perhaps we were wrong.


So let's agree to let this analogy of a trout sit with you for a week before I come back and help you address further what you are going to DO to not let emotion ruin your day (I promise that one will not be as long to read!). In the meantime perhaps read this over again, ask a loved one to read it too, even talk to someone about it to let it all gel inside your mind. Remember the trout!

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