It's Like You're My Mirror: Deciphering Emotional Markers

If I had to give myself a letter grade for pop culture awareness, I’d be sitting around a B-/C+.  I don’t tweet or tumble, I disavowed Buzzfeed a year ago, and I’m pretty controlled in my usage of the internet (Unless I’m on  Then I put my swimming cap on and deep dive).  Ergo, memes are lost on me.  I’ve recently heard of the “triggered” meme, and it reminded me that this something I’ve been meaning to write about for a long time.  I have found digging deep into things that annoy me, upset me, or “trigger” me to be crucial for my integration into a greater human consciousness. Buckle in, my lovelies.  I’m we are going to go whitewater rafting on the river of human emotion, and by the end of this trip, I hope to leave you with some usable tips to navigate those class six rapids.

Let’s start with a baseline.  I am comfortable making the grandiose statement that all human beings are hardwired for happiness, joy, and ecstatic living.  I believe this with the entirety of my heart.  A constant state of wonder and amazement is normal in the kind of life I strive for, but of course, remaining there while traveling outside of your energetic sphere isn’t always feasible. Actions garner reactions, according to Mr. Newton, and emotions are the tools that allow us to chart the course we are traveling.  They exist to help us question our own beliefs in relation to the stimulus we are experiencing at that moment.  Leveraging these emotions allows us to better understand our inner world, and they can give us crucial feedback in the process of day-to-day life.

As I reflected on my own process of emotional analysis and awareness, I was flung back a few years into my previous life as a classroom teacher, where my cohort worked with what is called the “ABC’s” of behavioral management.  The A stands for antecedent, or the actions (teacher and student) that occur right before B, the behavior the child is exhibiting. C is the consequence phase.  Here, the child receives either a positive or negative consequence for the behavior, depending on what kind of reinforcement was desired.  As a savvy educator, the aim was to know students so well, any negative behaviors could be heeded off in the antecedent phase.

How does this present itself in reality? Two quick examples of the ABC’s in action:

Scenario One:
A (antecedent) : Little Allie finishes her work early, and she doesn’t know what to do with her time next, so she chooses to…
B (behavior): Talk to the girl sitting next to her and get some idea of what is supposed to happen next.  The teacher sees her talking out of turn, which…
C (consequence): Causes Allie some severe mortification when she gets her name written on the board under the “classroom disrupter” moniker.

Oh, boy.  See what I mean?  If we just observe Allie in the B of the ABC’s…if we just stop there?  We do not get the whole picture.  Writing Allie’s name on the board as a consequence didn’t help solve the bigger issue—that Allie was an early finisher and needed something else to do.  Now we’ve got an unfortunate situation where little Allie might start to equate finishing work early or asking questions with getting punished, which could cause a whole new host of bad B’s (behaviors).  

Scenario Two:
A: Allie is given a lengthy timed reading assignment.  One that requires written reflection at the outset of her work.  Only problem is that Allie is dyslexic, so she chooses to…
B: Ask the teacher if she can go to the bathroom, spend a good 15-20 minutes in the hallway not going to the bathroom, come back into the room and make a big joke out of the assignment, crumbling it up and throwing it out in the process, which…
C: Causes Allie to get sent to the Head of School’s office

Crap.  Now we’ve got a situation where the consequence (sent out of class) is actually POSITIVELY REINFORCING Allie’s avoidance technique for her reading assignment?!  She 100% got exactly what she wanted (more time away from words). If we took the time to discover the antecedent to her behavior, we could have seen that coming from a mile away.

I give you these lengthy examples because I want to stress that it’s the antecedent, or causal  recognition, that provides us with actual insight.  If the instructor had caught scenario one at the antecedent phase, she could have given Allie a choice menu of activities to do when she finished early, eliminating the need to talk during a quiet time, and erasing Allie’s name off the board.  In scenario two, accommodations could have been provided in the antecedent that would make the student more comfortable with the assignment (audio of the text, teacher support, extra time, assistive technology).

This is very similar to the process I’ve taken to examining my emotional markers with, and I think it is very, very helpful.

I see the process of feeling an emotion unfolding like this:

significant stimulus (internal or external)—> emotional marker—> reaction to emotional marker, made manifest in reality

That flow chart is a little convoluted.  Let me try again, with more words (My specialty).  As earth beings, we are exposed to millions of stimuli a day.  Lots of them are just there.  My kitchen sink, for example.  It’s an external stimulus.  Most of the time, my kitchen sink just sits there, garnering no response from me.  Occasionally, I’ll shower some gratitude on the thing, being as it gives me clean drinking water and keeps me hydrated, but I don’t walk around all day having emotional responses to it.  But let’s say, this day, I do.  I’m filling up a glass of water, and all of a sudden I’m irritated.  If I keep going, without trying to question my emotional marker, the next thing that may happen when Allie is irritated (true story) is some artistic slamming of glasses.  Then, maybe I snap off an irrelevant rhetorical question at husband, just to really feed that irritation and get a little hostile.  Damn, now it’s 8:30 am and everyone in the house is mad, all because of the sink?

Yes.  All because of the sink, and my inability to question my emotional marker and determine the antecedent.   

Rewind the tape.  What happens if we do just that, instead of handing over the keys to the castle and letting irritation throw a rager in our psyche?

Recognize your emotional marker: Trust that your emotion is a precursor, or a clue, to your reaction to a stimulus.  Nothing more, nothing less.  Give it a name, but do not give it an “I am” name, because you are not actually that emotion. You are just experiencing the feeling of an emotion. In the example above, I would name it, “I feel irritated right now.”
Question the emotional marker: This part takes a little work.  After you recognize the emotion, backtrack and ask yourself, “What happened to cause this feeling of irritation?”  There had to be a stimulus, either external or internal, that conjured the emotion.  In this example, it was the sink.  After asking myself the question, I realize that yesterday, husband said he would empty the dishwasher and clean up from dinner, but laying in the sink is a bunch of grody pans and half-eaten tacos.  As a result, I feel irritated that a promise wasn’t kept, and I feel let down—like his end of the deal wasn’t being met.
Reflect on the emotional marker:  This is the trickiest damn part.  This is shadowy stuff.  I want to write about this because it’s the part I work on the most, and it’s the part I think can be most transformative if we commit to it.  Now that I’ve gone and scared you, are you ready?  The next thing I do is turn the answer to my questioning back to face me.  I make myself reflect, like a mirror, in my answer. So, in this instance: Is there a place where I am not keeping promises right now?  Am I feeling like I’m not meeting my end of a bargain? Perhaps I’m having a hard time keeping promises to myself, or to other people.
Next Steps: My reflection doesn’t always provide me with an illuminating answer, because I’m not perfect.  No one is.  We have to learn in our own divine timing what our emotional markers are trying to communicate.  Just training yourself to ask that question can give you enough time to slow down, and enough space to realize that, wow, no—I am not that emotion I just felt, and in fact, I can choose to step away from it and instead choose happiness instead.   Other times, though, you might end up with an emotional epiphany on your hands.  A personal example—I realized I was throwing some mild disgust on the regs at a person who also works out at my gym, but I didn’t really take the time to run through the emotional marker.  When I did today, I noticed that I felt uncomfortable with how loud and goofy she was because I was afraid of being seen.  Every time she made a loud joke or a grabbed the attention of our group, it was like a little poke at the self-conscious part of myself I’m not so proud of.  This ah-ha moment dissipated my disgust with her instantly, and brought me back to oneness, which is a pretty dang happy place to be.

In closing, I realize that I could maybe write a whole book about this process.  Thank you for reading this far, if you stuck with me.  Maybe I’ll follow-up on this emotional markers piece as a series.  I really wanted to share this with you, because for so many years, I allowed my emotions to be the queens of the castle.  No one ever taught me that my emotions weren’t me, or that they were just markers on my road to self-discovery.  I hope that the next time you see that certain co-worker, family member, or person on television who causes an extreme emotional reaction for you (we all have them, don’t even pretend that you don’t), you try running through these emotional marker questions.  Recognize that you feel the emotion, but you aren’t the emotion they conjured. Figure out the antecedent, even if it is as eloquent as, “he is a total jerk face Meany McMeanerson with no kind bones in his body.” There are still clues there.  You see him as being a Meany McMeanerson and it garners a reaction from you?  Are there places in your life you are being mean or unkind to others? What dark part of yourself is being reflected back in the stimulus?  Asking ourselves this question, without judgment, is a key component to emotional freedom in our daily lives.