• jess

Emotional Cognition and Complex Trauma

Here we are, on episode two of talkin bout Emotions. Who’s still confused and critical about this whole “feelings” thing? I sure fuckin am.


Let’s dig in deeper, with some more emotional education? Pretty sure we all need it.


First of all, I don’t need to give the entire basis of feelings gone wrong speech again, do I? I think it’s been drilled into most of our heads at this point from all sorts of personal improvement podcasts - this one included.


Buttfuckit, let’s give one quick review, in Motherfucker style.


In the aftermath of our upbringing, our brains have hyper-trigger-happy limbic systems that make us emotionally… complicated. Likely to respond in a way that isn’t socially appropriate for the situation at hand. Likely to be overcome with fear responses. Likely to sprint down heightened emotional pathways that were paved with broken glass in our early years and incorrectly filed under yellow brick roads.


Mix this with our tendency to get overstimulated from our internal and external environments, and we’re sort of loaded emotional guns half the time.


The other half of the time, we have no bullets whatsoever.


We learned to turn that emotional shit off a long time ago as a defense mechanism so we could continue functioning. Plus, all the emotional dissociation makes it super easy to secretly forget to feel at all… until all the emotions come streaming in at one goddamn time, that is.


Oh, and let me mention having a Complex Trauma diagnosis points to plenty of unwelcome circumstances early in life, which probably mean we didn’t grow up in the most emotionally enlightened families, either. Can’t forget to bring up that point. Everyone is still contending with difficult, denier families, yeah? Yeah. Me too.


So what else is there to say about this emotional clusterfuck that constitutes my daily living? Still more, if you can believe it.


Last time, we talked about the evolutionary basis of emotions. Why these electrochemical changes in our bodies ever developed in the first place. Where they come from, what their purpose is, how they are supposed to influence survival behavior, annnnd how all of these well-meaning factors can get skewed to royally fuck us in the modern world.


Today… I’m taking a journey down a different road. Talking about the connection between cognition and feelings. Because feelings are complicated enough in their own right, but now psychology says that our purposeful attention, understanding, and interpretation of them is a whole other layer of potential failure. Why not. We need everything to be complex, don’t we.




Intro to emotional cognition


So, let me be honest that I wasn’t intending - as usual - on writing this. And then some new information from my class, the Cognitive and Affective Bases of Behavior, caught my attention right as I was wrapping up my other emotional posts. Suddenly, there’s a whole new area of emotions to consider. My plans all flew out the window… but, in a necessary way.


I mean, I think a lot of us realize that separate from having emotions is noticing emotions. Thinking about emotions, integrating emotions... they're all separate processes from just the "having" portion, which is hard enough.


I mean, I think a lot of us realize that separate from having emotions is noticing emotions. Thinking about emotions, integrating emotions... they're all separate processes from just the "having" portion, which is hard enough.

Acknowledging that they exist, being able to identify them, and understanding what they mean is a whole new world to explore for a Trauma sufferer who does their best just to stand upright every day. We’re not very knowledgeable when it comes to the invisible forces that shape our experiences and influence our lives. Cuz, you know, we never learned to be.


For me, I can tell you that my family was an emotion-denying force. We weren’t getting lessons on what those sensations were inside our bodies and how to be okay with them. We were being taught that emotions were shameful, unacceptable, dirty forces that inconvenienced other people and didn’t mean a fucking thing in the real world.


You know, unless it was one of my parents having a big feeling - then watch out, because that was reason enough to blow up the entire house.


I grew up with the notion that it wasn’t okay to be sad, angry, or empty. Loneliness was whatever. Embarrassment was humorous. Pain was a way of life; emotionally or otherwise. Unless your goddamn arm is missing, let’s not talk about how you're feeling. Just shove everything down and move forward, pussy. And IF your arm IS missing, suck it up - at least it's not your leg, whiny bitch.


So that’s what I learned to do. I hid all my feelings, I never dared to speak to my family about them, and I accepted that they were unacceptable. In doing so, I never figured out that it was somewhat important in the long run to actually let yourself have emotions. They mean something, they’re an instinctual force that reflects something about your circumstances, and they aren’t going away if you try to shove them into an empty pill bottle or a fifth of Jack.

So that’s what I learned to do. I hid all my feelings, I never dared to speak to my family about them, and I accepted that they were unacceptable. In doing so, I never figured out that it was somewhat important in the long run to actually let yourself have emotions. They mean something, they’re an instinctual force that reflects something about your circumstances, and they aren’t going away if you try to shove them into an empty pill bottle or a fifth of Jack.


These were all things that I’ve learned in the past… oh… say, 2 or 3 years? I know in my earlier twenties I started to become aware of the major force that my feelings played and attempted to tune into them. I remember sitting in my empty room, staring at the floor, and asking, “What is this thing inside of me?” with amazement and confusion. But I never really got a response. Because I had no idea how to talk or think about them. I could just experience them as a powerful, debilitating force now and then.


When you haven’t been able to talk about feelings, you don’t learn how to identify them in yourself. They’re just large, terrifying sensations that become physically painful and life-stagnating when you chronically try to pretend they aren’t burrowing through your guts from the inside out. Even thinking about this now, I can feel my chest becoming an empty, excruciating void surrounded by aching tension and jumpy nerves. My stomach disappears; there's a cavity where my organs are supposed to be. I think this was my continual state back in the early days of having emotions again, since all of my feelings were so synchronistically denied until they melded together into one massive jar of unimaginable suffering.


Like my old yarn metaphor from the hiking posts I made months ago, if you constantly shove down your remnants of feelings into one tiny, cramped space, eventually they all become intertangled. If you pull on one string, you wind up yanking on all the rest. Then, good luck making heads or tails of that dirty, ragged fucking disaster of human experience without even the most baseline idea of what one hard feeling looks like.


So… all of this is to say that our ability to think about emotions and give them reason is just as critical as letting ourselves have emotions. There is some mental processing that needs to take place in order to give meaning to your experience and finally lay that shit to rest. Because even if you're trying your best to ignore your emotions, they are inspiring your thoughts and behaviors. Letting your feelings run as an unexamined background process is causing a lot of hiccups in your computer programming.

So… all of this is to say that our ability to think about emotions and give them reason is just as critical as letting ourselves have emotions. There is some mental processing that needs to take place in order to give meaning to your experience and finally lay that shit to rest. Because even if you're trying your best to ignore your emotions, they are inspiring your thoughts and behaviors. Letting your feelings run as an unexamined background process is causing a lot of hiccups in your computer programming.


And, uh, this is easier said than done because we Motherfuckers aren’t so good at the paying attention, processing, or integrating aspects of life sometimes. Ya know?


We generally have too much stimulation flooding the gates to worry about every particle on a deeply analytical level. We just try to hold off the rushing waters, no time to comprehend the composition of the threat.


So, let’s talk about the assumed relevance of feelings in our modern world, in the first place. Because, if they aren't deemed important, why would we ever learn to pay attention to them?


How do we appreciate (or disregard) our inner experiences - scientifically, societally, and personally? Why isn’t science or medicine a fan of these internal drives that impact everyone on the planet? Why do emotions seem like a taboo topic even in our closest relationships, and especially in our shallow ones? How come it’s so hard to just open our mouths and reveal our feelings to other people? Why aren’t they well received?





Why everyone hates discussing emotions


Like I said, this inquiry into our capacity to mentally process emotions all started with my newest class - The Cognitive and Affective Bases of Behavior.


In this course, we cover 5 psychology journal articles each week instead of using a textbook which is super cool for an ex-researcher like myself. I gotta say, week one had some BANGERS. In particular, these articles gave me a lot to think about… you know, in a distracting way, since my course is NOT directed at trauma, but that’s where my thoughts immediately went.


So, here are the papers I’m pulling inspiration and info from today, as I riff on our terrible emotional intelligences:


“On the interdependence of cognition and emotion,” by Storebeck and Clore

“Social Foundations of Cognition,” by Levine and Resnick

“Skinner on Cognition,” by O’Donoghue and Szymanski


My thoughts after I actually read through these articles (let’s be honest, my first pass was just finding the answers to the quiz questions), “Wait, wait, wait… people are studying the interconnection of our emotions, our thoughts about our emotions, and how they impact our behaviors that follow? Holy fuck, you’re speaking my life.” Why didn't I know that this was an option sooner?


My thoughts after I actually read through these articles (let’s be honest, my first pass was just finding the answers to the quiz questions), “Wait, wait, wait… people are studying the interconnection of our emotions, our thoughts about our emotions, and how they impact our behaviors that follow? Holy fuck, you’re speaking my life.” Why didn't I know that this was an option sooner?

See, Applied Behavior Analysis doesn’t traditionally care much about your inner world (I know, what else is new. The field is just like my mom.). Behavior Analysis is essentially all about our responses in the world, which can be seen, measured, and tracked. In fact, there’s a big push in ABA not to worry about emotions at all, you know, because who cares about the things that only you can experience? Yep, that sounds exactly like my past history in life, how about you?


That’s why this new class has me ALLLLL aflutter. We get to consider our internal conditions in reference to our behaviors?! Oh Motherfuck me, it’s on. I might be a bit absent for a while, y’all, I have fucking LEARNING to do.


(Don’t worry, will report back with my findings)


These papers made me sit down and consider myself in past years. Where was I at, before I stopped being terrified of the raging waters under my human flesh jacket?


Probably asking unenlightened questions like this:


Do I want to acknowledge my feelings today? Can I? Do I know how to? Do others know how to? Are we even talking about the same sensations when we describe our feelings? Is there a benefit to thinking about our feels? Am I aware that they exist in the first place? Is there a detriment to getting consumed by thinking about them? Where does thought stop and emotion start, anyways?


Do I want to acknowledge my feelings today? Can I? Do I know how to? Do others know how to? Are we even talking about the same sensations when we describe our feelings? Is there a benefit to thinking about our feels? Am I aware that they exist in the first place? Is there a detriment to getting consumed by thinking about them? Where does thought stop and emotion start, anyways?

So, we’re headed right down academia road, towards our next stop on the emotional map - how do we think about feelings? How is our ability to be cognizant of emotions impacted by our life history? How is it impacted by our present day? Is there a positive or negative effect of reflecting on our emotional state? And do our emotions affect our thoughts?





Not visible, not real


Let’s start with the insulting basics. Why don’t we care enough about emotions in ourselves or others?


Well, I think that’s pretty simple.


If you can’t see something, can you prove that it exists? Do you want to believe that it exists at all? For a lot of us with cut and dry brains, the answer is no. The only valid things in life are those that we can easily physically experience, unanimously look at together, and confirm to one other in a group.


If you can’t see something, can you prove that it exists? Do you want to believe that it exists at all? For a lot of us with cut and dry brains, the answer is no. The only valid things in life are those that we can easily physically experience, unanimously look at together, and confirm to one other in a group.

i.e. the number of humans who dispute the existence of global warming, aliens, ghosts, alternate dimensions, COVID… Even things that we have indirect evidence of seemingly “don’t count,” if they aren’t immediately in our faces.


The first problem with this is, when it comes to feelings, the same opinion exists. Part of the issue with the understanding of emotions is that… well… like ABA says, we can’t observe or measure them. People can self-report their emotional states, but we all know that first-hand accounts are inconsistent and untrustworthy. Plus, that model assumes that humans are capable of identifying their own emotions, which, is the whole point of this post. I think most of us would agree that thinking people are that mindful and self-aware is a motherfucking longshot - traumatized or otherwise.


This has been the opinion of the psychological field, in general. Other than using surveys and hoping everyone experiences and identifies anxiety, depression, shame, etc the same way… well, there’s not much that can be done when it comes to studying emotions.


That shit is hard to put into a graph, fucking forget it.


Unfortunately for us, this scientific dismissal isn’t too different from the perspective that we all have about emotions. Whether we’re talking about other people or ourselves, it’s pretty difficult to give much clout to an individual experience that can only be indirectly noted. I think many of us have seen that in our personal lives and attempts at getting medical diagnoses, but I digress.


Unfortunately for us, this scientific dismissal isn’t too different from the perspective that we all have about emotions. Whether we’re talking about other people or ourselves, it’s pretty difficult to give much clout to an individual experience that can only be indirectly noted. I think many of us have seen that in our personal lives and attempts at getting medical diagnoses, but I digress.

To illustrate the point, your coworker might notice that you have a long face and a disheveled appearance, but is your depressive state real unless it's directly reported to them? No way to know. This requires the depress-ee to be aware of the emotional state and the textbook definition of depression, of course. Then we also have to sit down and piece together the evidence that the sensations in these bodies are aligning with these poorly defined academic definitions. We also have to be secure and forthcoming enough to show up and communicate about these difficult feelings for anyone else to know they're happening. Even then, are they ever sure that it’s really depression, or is there a chance we're just misinterpreting this inner experience or being a bit extra? Maybe we just have a thyroid issue or a perpetual cold that's dragging us into the mud. There’s really no way for an outsider - or sometimes ourselves - to know.


What I’m trying to say is, all of this secret, individual experience nonsense makes it pretty goddamn difficult to pay enough attention to feelings and even harder to talk about them. When they’re happening in us, we can easily argue with ourselves about their relevance or legitimacy. We can often manage to ignore them entirely. We definitely don't want to spew our emotional musings on others (you know, unless you're an over-sharer {sorry} or me, on this podcast). When emotions are happening in others, it’s almost impossible for us not to disregard them at times - purposely or completely accidentally.


We're self-centered animals, at the core of it. Even those of us with enormous empathy and the ability to "sense" others energy have to miss the mark when it comes to inherently understanding other people's feels. I mean, we can get pretty overloaded just dealing with our own swirling emotions and dysfunctional thoughts, amiright? Who has time, energy, or wherewithal to worry about the butthole one cubicle over when we're staring at our own computer, thinking that the overwhelm we're experiencing has us ready to turn out the lights.


All of these factors make us a lot less likely to apply our precious brain energy to something that may or may not even exist. It feels futile to chase the wind… and for a lot of us, our emotions change with it. It's a losing battle to try to keep up.

All of these factors make us a lot less likely to apply our precious brain energy to something that may or may not even exist. It feels futile to chase the wind… and for a lot of us, our emotions change with it. It's a losing battle to try to keep up.





More pressing matters


You know what’s easy to ignore? Things that aren’t happening directly in front of you. When I’m super depressed, do I fill my head with the traumatic tales of people on the other side of the world? I mean, maybe I should, but the answer is, no, I don’t. Not to be an asshat, but in a terrible mental state, I’ve got enough right in front of my own two eyes to worry about. Like the dishes collecting around my room, the unpaid bills on the table, and the half-zombie staring back at me in the mirror.


My ABA friend, B.F. Skinner states, “the objection to the inner workings of the mind is not that they are not open to inspection, but that they have stood in the way of the inspection of more important things.” And I would have to agree. This is exactly how we consider emotions societally and in ourselves. There are just... more important things.


Practical problems that necessarily determine your survival and procreation potential are going to rank higher on the priority list than some maybe real, maybe imaginary, energetic changes which can only be sensed by individual organisms. Besides, it’s a logical defensive brain mechanism to just pretend that none of that is happening.


Practical problems that necessarily determine your survival and procreation potential are going to rank higher on the priority list than some maybe real, maybe imaginary, energetic changes which can only be sensed by individual organisms. Besides, it’s a logical defensive brain mechanism to just pretend that none of that is happening.

Not evidently playing out right before me? Not real. Dissociate yourself, bitch, you’re already enough of a wreck. Worry about your more immediate issues.


The fact is, we weren’t evolved to pay that much attention to our emotions and other disputable events when there are solid threats and opportunities on this planet to spend brain power on.


We only have so much energy to expend each day and so many stimuli that we can accurately identify and interpret. You know what takes precedence? Hint: it’s that fucking tiger again. We’re going to be more concerned with the mysterious dark shadow on the peripheries of the camp than our ruminations on some shit that happened two weeks ago. It’s more important for… you guessed it.. Survival.


Basically, our systems were evolved to have emotions to keep us alive, but not necessarily to care about the emotions and their meaning. And definitely not those which belong to other humans.


We don’t need to notice our inner workings to benefit or suffer from them - I think we can all agree on that. How many times have you been secretly bothered by a deep-rooted emotion without even noticing that it was clinging to your diaphragm? Oh, like every day? Yeah, been there.


The purpose of developing these feelings-things over the course of evolution wasn’t to give humans another thing to think about in between learning how to walk on two legs, use tools, and raise perpetually-useless infants. Emotions exist to influence our decisions, but not necessarily on a cognitive level.


The purpose of developing these feelings-things over the course of evolution wasn’t to give humans another thing to think about in between learning how to walk on two legs, use tools, and raise perpetually-useless infants. Emotions exist to influence our decisions, but not necessarily on a cognitive level.

You don’t have to stop and analyze your inner state to recognize when you’re hungry, thirsty, scared, tired, nervous, or wary. Those emotions will somewhat automatically dictate how you exist and what you do next because they influence your rudimentary lizard brain without requiring your higher level thinking brain to be a part of the talk.


It doesn’t require a long brainstorming session to decide if or why someone standing outside in the dark makes you uncomfortable before you go inside and lock the front door. You just do it, likely with the vague sensation that some inner driver is bypassing your thinking brain and leading you in the right direction, if you notice it at all.


Evolution focused on the “getting it done” aspect of life, not the, “but hwhy?” And that's what we modern mens focus on, too. Productivity, progress, making change in the world. Who has time to sit around and consider a few hormones flying around in our meat bodies? Not us, we have work to do. Feelings aren't going to pay the bills. My father isn't going to respect me for being homeless, but deeply in tune with my emotional state.


All of this brings me to the next point…





Thoughts are shaped by our social environments


Again, as my boy B.F. Skinner said, “self knowledge arose much later in the history of the species, as the product of the social contingencies arranged by the verbal community, and those have not been active long enough to permit the evolution of an appropriate nervous system.”


Woah. That blew my fucking mind a little.


In other words, we only recently started thinking about how we’re feeling because it became socially necessary to understand our inner worlds thanks to the development of language and communication. Now that we can verbally interact, we need to know why our social partners act the way they do. If we react the same ways to things. If we share emotional states under similar conditions. This might be what you consider shared "experiences" and "opinions," yeah?


In other words, we only recently started thinking about how we’re feeling because it became socially necessary to understand our inner worlds thanks to the development of language and communication. Now that we can verbally interact, we need to know why our social partners act the way they do. If we react the same ways to things. If we share emotional states under similar conditions. This might be what you consider shared "experiences" and "opinions," yeah?

Since the development of language, moods have started to matter. Our brains and connective nerves just haven’t caught up with the societal change yet. Our physiology is lagging behind our social lives.


Before language, who really fucking cared if you were feeling a little down in the dumps? You couldn’t tell anyone about it or ask for help. You didn’t snap at your spouse and have to explain yourself later. It wasn't affecting the connotation of your outward interactions in a positive or negative way - unless grunts and hand motions could really be that offensive or connecting.


You were a semi-human primate, just out there surviving on the savannah with some pretty basic skills to communicate with your species. Good luck telling them that you're having an anxious day when your stomach feels like a pit of acid. Get over it and thrive, or don’t, and more likely die. No deep introspection necessary.


Hell, to take it one step further, before we all started talking at each other, you wouldn’t even have the language that’s necessary to understand your inner sensations, anyways. There are a ton of studies out there today, examining the impact of our language on our understanding of life. We need to be able to name things for them to be impactful. Different cultures have different ideals that are influenced, in part, by their ability to describe them.


Hell, to take it one step further, before we all started talking at each other, you wouldn’t even have the language that’s necessary to understand your inner sensations, anyways. There are a ton of studies out there today, examining the impact of our language on our understanding of life. We need to be able to name things for them to be impactful. Different cultures have different ideals that are influenced, in part, by their ability to describe them.

So, if you can’t name an emotion as a means to process it, is there any function to thinking about it? Without verbal language… CAN you think about it at all? Does it exist?


Fun new thing to think about… Again, according to Skinner, our ability to think (at least, in the way that we think about thinking), at all, depends on our social environments. How do you feel about that? I feel conflicted, but I appreciate the philosophical debate. I think we can at least agree that the ways we think about things are enormously impacted by our socialization. The ways we’ve been taught to understand life and the tools we’ve been given to facilitate our exploration.


The point is, our brains will follow the patterns, awarenesses, and assumptions learned from the influences that we were exposed to throughout life. The formative years are probably so deeply impactful on our brain processes that we can’t even begin to understand how thoroughly we’ve been shaped by culture and family.


And, once more, this relates to emotional cognition in a big way. If we don’t learn how to think about emotions, how can we functionally exist with them? If you can’t notice, name, or describe the sensation, is it important? Is it worth paying any attention to? Does it even register in your higher level brain?


And, once more, this relates to emotional cognition in a big way. If we don’t learn how to think about emotions, how can we functionally exist with them? If you can’t notice, name, or describe the sensation, is it important? Is it worth paying any attention to? Does it even register in your higher level brain?

I have no idea. And this leads me back to the most-likely main point of this whole emotional debate for those of us with Complex Trauma.





Families of origin and emotional recognition


When you grow up in a totally emotionally fucked family where dismissal and ignorance is the name of the game, what happens with your feelings? Can you name them? Do you ever fully consider them? Do you let them take place without paying any regard to the experience? Do you learn to shut them off entirely?


If your brain isn’t capable of paying any attention to feelings, do they cease to exist? Or do they secretly dominate your existence, wearing you as a meat puppet who only thinks they're the one pulling the strings? What comes first, your thoughts or your emotions? If your emotional whisperings can't be heard or understood, do they impact you?


Yeah, it’s basically the “if a tree falls in the forest” example. I don’t have an answer for that, either.


My point is, we need both appropriate language and training for emotions to really “count.” They probably aren’t going to disappear if you lack the verbage for them, but you also can’t really fathom the purpose of your feelings if you’re always misinterpreting them or turning your head the other way.


My point is, we need both appropriate language and training for emotions to really “count.” They probably aren’t going to disappear if you lack the verbage for them, but you also can’t really fathom the purpose of your feelings if you’re always misinterpreting them or turning your head the other way.

And this is what most of us saw growing up. Let me guess - you don’t come from a clan where you often all sat down and discussed what was going on on the inside (if at all)? Your parents weren’t healthily emotional. Their parents weren’t healthily emotional. Your siblings and you were not allowed to be healthily emotional.


By that, I mean, no one was positively emotional. Maybe there were discussions of anger, disappointment, resentment, and hurt… but not with the intention of resolving anything. This occasional emotional speak was just excusing bad behavior or providing “reasons” for the punishments you were receiving? No one was sitting down and doing inner work before they exploded with aggression?


Yep.


And that brings me on to another influential point. Negative priming.


You probably know about confirmation bias, the law that you'll see what you're looking for, right? Well, it also turns out, our brains can be sneakily pointed in one direction or another through patterning and pre-programming to affect the way we see everything. It's called Priming. Makes sense. You know those old sentiments about salesmen “just getting you rolling on a yes-train?” If you prime the pump (AKA, your brain) to start sending signals down one pathway, it’s more likely to continue responding as such.


Sidenote no one asked for: This is also used in ABA when we talk about High-Probability Behavior Patterning. It’s the same thing - you make several very small demands, get the brain moving in a cooperative direction, and then present the larger demand. Your subject is more likely to do as you ask because they’ve already been on that track. Cool and creepy, right?


In cognitive and emotional priming, on the other hand, your brain can be influenced to interpret things differently after positive or negative warmups.


So, for instance, if your family of origin only ever discussed shitty, negative, anti-social emotions… uh… that’s probably all you’ve learned to identify. Therefore, that's all you're going to notice. Therefore that's all you're going to experience.

So, for instance, if your family of origin only ever discussed shitty, negative, anti-social emotions… uh… that’s probably all you’ve learned to identify. Therefore, that's all you're going to notice. Therefore that's all you're going to experience.


Why are we so good at identifying our anger, anxiety, agitation, and general shit feelings? Because our families primed that pump from the day we were born. Negative affect seeped into our psyches and left us with the ghostly deodorant stains of continual misery.


Isn’t that fucked? Buckle up, it’s about to get worse.





Negative affect changes our thoughts and perceptions, too


So, you only learned about negative feelings that could generally be taken out on other people in your home? Amiright here? Maybe not, maybe you had the Mr. Rogers of family experiences and somehow wound up with CPTSD. But I really fucking doubt it.


Pretty sure we had a lot of similar experiences with authoritative, anxious, and ornery parents who were dismissive and aloof at best, cruel and purely reactionary at worst. Yeah? Yeah, I know, I’m sorry.


It turns out, our negative emotional priming - the unpleasant inner sensations we actually were educated on through transitive property or modelling - does more than prepare you for acknowledgement of only more negative emotions. It actually changes the way you see all sorts of things in life - internally and externally. The way you think about all things in life.


It turns out, our negative emotional priming - the unpleasant inner sensations we actually were educated on through transitive property or modelling - does more than prepare you for acknowledgement of only more negative emotions. It actually changes the way you see all sorts of things in life - internally and externally. The way you think about all things in life.

This might explain why we Motherfuckers are so likely to notice all the bad things happening in the world while wildly disregarding the handful of positives that do come our way. Ever had a day (or year) when everything was going wrong and you were deeply rooted in a frustrated depression? You were probably experiencing some good shit, too… but I bet you didn’t even notice it. You almost certainly didn’t internalize it.


If you’re taught to look for danger and despair, that’s the signal you’re going to get back from your peepers. You can’t have 20 years of critical survival experience spotting malicious bears in the wild and suddenly let yourself get distracted by a cute bunny. Your brain is trained to be on the lookout, forever vigilant, for the risky, unfair, and unchangable parts of life - not trying to see the bright sides of your daily experiences.


If you don’t acknowledge good things externally and if your brain doesn't know how to think about positive things, how do your positive feelings ever have a goddamn chance? Will there ever be any sunny regards on the inside? If somehow a beam of light slips through the cracks and for a fleeting moment you feel happy, excited, or optimistic, will you be able to see the unfamiliar photons?


Probably not. Sounds like fake news.


So, we think about the world as we feel about the world. Despressingly. Fearfully. Angrily. And does this help any Traumatized Motherfucker in recovering? Hell no, it doesn't even help us to get out of bed, apply for jobs, or walk out the door to go grocery shopping. And then... we get to feel shameful about ourselves as our pissy thoughts repeat that we're not good enough to accomplish basic tasks.


So, we think about the world as we feel about the world. Despressingly. Fearfully. Angrily. And does this help any Traumatized Motherfucker in recovering? Hell no, it doesn't even help us to get out of bed, apply for jobs, or walk out the door to go grocery shopping. And then... we get to feel shameful about ourselves as our pissy thoughts repeat that we're not good enough to accomplish basic tasks.

This is really interesting in another regard… the effects of negative priming as it changes your thoughts about yourself. Because, hey, there's research on that.


It’s probably a common sense point to say that a negatively patterned brain will also lead to negative self-evaluation cognitions. “Uh, duh,” says the world. “Oh… that explains a lot,” says a Traumatized Motherfucker.


So, again, let's assume that from birth you’re programmed only to have negative emotions, which has a self-perpetuating, incestuous, shit-effect on your negative thoughts in a confusing feedback loop of doom... which then, obviously causes you to only see the terrible sides of yourself, as well.


Inner Critic time, anybody? Let’s talk about our old enemies Pam and Karen. Those fucking assholes.


How do Complex Trauma sufferers think of themselves? Terribly! Why don’t we just try to cut ourselves some gotdamn slack and see the good in our personalities? We don’t know how to! It’s not because we want to hate ourselves. It’s not that we enjoy being trapped with an overly critical shithead 24/7.


How do Complex Trauma sufferers think of themselves? Terribly! Why don’t we just try to cut ourselves some gotdamn slack and see the good in our personalities? We don’t know how to! It’s not because we want to hate ourselves. It’s not that we enjoy being trapped with an overly critical shithead 24/7.

When it comes to thinking less awful sentiments about how we act, look, and feel… we actually haven’t learned how to. It’s not in our repertoire. Our education in cognition never included a course in identifying the things that are going okay. Only spotting the things that are fucking disasters. And therefore, we are the biggest dumpster fires of them all.


Think horribly about yourself, feel horribly about yourself, act horribly towards yourself. That’s the name of the trauma game, yeah?


Oh - and we’re conveniently onto the finally-negative priming point. Why’s it so hard to act, at all, when you’re trapped in a negative cognition cycle?


Hey, because it turns out that this negative priming takes things even one step further. Wonder why you feel so much resistance and dread when you consider... uh... basically any action you need to take in life? It's at least partially because folks with unpleasant thinking patterns and emotional awarenesses actually interpret obstacles to be larger than they are. There's a perceptual WhAT IS THIS WORD in our brains that changes our vision of the world.


Let’s stop and think about that. Again, it might be a bit common sense, but for anyone who - say - didn’t feel like they were capable to go return a fucking library book for 2 years and instead racked up hundreds of dollars in fines, it probably shines some light on that otherwise illogical experience.


(Side note, that is an actual example from one of my best friends. She let that little anecdote slip when we first started working together and we were immediately best friends. I don't think anyone had ever stopped with a gasp and responded, "I completely understand what you're saying," before. From that day forward, we were inseparable. And, uh, it was because we related to each other's emotional experiences and the way we described them! Full circle, brought us right back to the beginning of this episode.)


Anyways. Sorry for the interruption.


When everything sucks, inside and outside, and especially when we’re shittily examining ourselves, why would we feel empowered to tackle anything? We wouldn’t.


When everything sucks, inside and outside, and especially when we’re shittily examining ourselves, why would we feel empowered to tackle anything? We wouldn’t.

Similarly, researchers found that folks who were exposed to negative priming before being shown an upcoming obstacle - a hill that they needed to traverse - interpreted the hill to be a bigger challenge than their control counterparts who were not influenced to feel negatively. They overestimated that the hill was steeper and overall a longer climb than it was in reality. In essence, they saw the hurdle to be a much bigger problem which required more effort and energy after being put into a negative mindset.


Does that sound like… uh… every day and everything to you? When I go back to my most negativity-centered and Trauma-responsive days, it sounds reminiscent of how I saw every single task on my plate.


Back in the days of my 20’s, I was lucky if I managed to accomplish one thing, like going to the grocery store, over the course of a 3-day weekend. Maybe I would get a load of laundry done in the span of a week. And trust me, all of those tasks were built up to be treacherous feats that took the strength of a demi-god to accomplish.


Other than that, just getting myself to work and back each day was enough of a momentous task to occupy all of my brain power and physical energy. Pretty sure EVERYTHING seemed out of reach, exhausting, and beyond my abilities. Even if it was as simple as writing in my journal, making a piece of art, or cleaning my apartment. And you know, I considered myself a broken, lazy, worthless motherfucker the entire time.


So. Negative emotional priming leads to negative thoughts leads to negative outward-evaluation leads to negative self-evaluation, and it all leads back to the beginning again. A never ending cycle of feeling awful about everything, if you can even feel at all.

So. Negative emotional priming leads to negative thoughts leads to negative outward-evaluation leads to negative self-evaluation, and it all leads back to the beginning again. A never ending cycle of feeling awful about everything, if you can even feel at all.


Amazing. Sounds like another way we were pretty well fucked from the start. Thanks families of origin and your preoccupation with everything sucking - guess we’ll follow in those footsteps.


Next point.





Feeling with a purpose requires attention


It might not seem like it at first, but this is an entirely different conversation than the, “are feelings even real enough to care about if you can’t see them,” puzzle.


(Just to settle the score, my answer is ‘yeah, duh.’ If my opinion on the impact of neglected emotions is unclear after all these podcast episodes, um, I’m not writing very effectively.)


But now I’m asking, “are feelings even impactful if you don’t ever think about them?”


I’m quite sure that plenty of us have attempted to execute a strategy relying on emotions just *poof* disappearing if we close our eyes hard enough. But, um, does that work? At what point does our brain really recognize that there’s something going on? Is it when we give pointed, purposeful attention to that new experience? Or does the ole thinker automatically notice that there’s a change in the landscape, whether we overtly choose to be cognizant of it or not?


I’m quite sure that plenty of us have attempted to execute a strategy relying on emotions just *poof* disappearing if we close our eyes hard enough. But, um, does that work? At what point does our brain really recognize that there’s something going on? Is it when we give pointed, purposeful attention to that new experience? Or does the ole thinker automatically notice that there’s a change in the landscape, whether we overtly choose to be cognizant of it or not?

In my life, I can ignore my inner shitscape as long as I want… but it’s not going to be inconsequential.


No matter how hard I try to redirect my thoughts and pretend like the familiar sensations of depression, resentment, and loneliness don’t exist - well - they still do. I’m still experiencing them on some level. That gnawing in my stomach and exhaustion in my limbs ain’t nothing. I wish they would just disappear so I could stop trying to fill the void with cheese and power my belabored brain with super-strength coffee, but that never works.


But, the question is, how much can feelings impact your life functionally if you’re not paying them any mind? That tough old bootstraps-pulling grandpa who never acknowledged a single feeling - was he still affected by his squashed emotions during his 70 years of steadfast bottling? Did his actions, personal relationships, and circumstances change because of the feelings he so deliberately ignored?


This is a real question in the study of cognitive affective psychology. Where do feelings and thoughts collide? Which impacts the other? How do they, together, influence our behaviors? And, shit, this debate has some interesting points to think about in the context of Complex Trauma, too.


This is a real question in the study of cognitive affective psychology. Where do feelings and thoughts collide? Which impacts the other? How do they, together, influence our behaviors? And, shit, this debate has some interesting points to think about in the context of Complex Trauma, too.

First of all, there’s a question about whether emotions are a top-down or bottom-up process in the brain. Do we have emotions swirling around which inherently spark our thought processes and physical sensations without further direction? Or do we have emotions floating around in our beings somewhere, and after noticing them, feel a change in our thoughts and perceptions? Do we have to consciously decide to take the time to interpret feelings? Or are they steering the show, ignorant or not?


I don’t know either.


There are times when I feel like my emotions exclusively reside in my body, and it’s my job to take a pause and connect them back to what’s going on in my head. There are also times when it seems like my feelings are integrated with or inspiring my thoughts without my permission or attention, and I have to examine the entire connection to recognize what’s what. These would be the days when I'm resistant to everyone and everything, tightly wound, and ready to go back to bed at the drop of a coffee stain on my shirt.


Either way, in my world, feelings take deliberation if I don’t want them to take over entirely. E


Even if I'm not paying them any mind, the powerful uncomfortable feelings in my body seem to influence my actions. This is especially clear when I'm doing everything I can to avoid thinking about my inner experiences, and my MO is to fill my body with substances, instead. My emotions are still directing the show - I'm just covering my ears and pretending I can't hear them.


This is extremely complicated when you consider my next point of musing… researchers have found that overstimulation masks emotional recognition. So, uh, in other words, we Traumatized Motherfuckers are fucking fucked.


This is extremely complicated when you consider my next point of musing… researchers have found that overstimulation masks emotional recognition. So, uh, in other words, we Traumatized Motherfuckers are fucking fucked.

If you’re not aware, you should get back into the hypersensitivity and overstimulation episodes to find out about the ways our survival-motivated Trauma Brains are bad at filtering out unnecessary stimuli. But the point is, we often feel overloaded by internal and external circumstances when other folks are totally unaffected by the sights, sounds, smells, and self-evaluations that are flooding our heads.


Yep, Complex Trauma sets you up for a predisposition to sensory and mental overwhelm. With all those half-integrated memories, instincts to constantly be on the lookout for danger, and trigger-happy fear responses… we’re not great at sorting through the data as it’s streaming in.


Annnnd of course, psychologists have found that heightened states of mental activity do not go hand in hand with observing or thoughtfully interpreting our emotions. Duh, like every fucking podcast, I’m about to tell you that this comes down to survival instincts. We wisely prioritize the potential danger-spotting senses and considerations over wondering, “but how do I feel about what’s happening here.” No fucking time for that, you’d better get out of the way or you’re going to feel a lot less in a minute here.


In a life or death situation, that makes perfect sense. Stay alive. Deal with your flowery feelings when you’re still breathing.


In a Trauma brain, though… you know the deal. We ALWAYS think we’re currently under attack or on the brink of a major battle. Our brains are finely tuned to detecting danger and sending out the SOS responses to our major voluntary muscle groups. This is how we live; hypervigilant, ready for the worst, and constantly on edge.


In a Trauma brain, though… you know the deal. We ALWAYS think we’re currently under attack or on the brink of a major battle. Our brains are finely tuned to detecting danger and sending out the SOS responses to our major voluntary muscle groups. This is how we live; hypervigilant, ready for the worst, and constantly on edge.

So, uh, according to these folks that means we’re chronically unable to access our emotions.


Sound right to you? Sounds absolutely in line with what I’ve been saying about my own emotional dissociation to me.


When my brain decided to sever the tie between my feels and my thoughts as a teenager, I’ve told you that it seemed to be related to the number of other important things I had going on. College courses, high school, working almost full time, having side-gigs, dealing with my drug addict brother and homicidal father, and trying to create a normal social life for the first time ever… yeah, I kind of had a lot on my plate in the “not optional” category. Meanwhile, emotions seemed expendable.


In order to survive, I had to keep my head on straight and be aware of all these important circumstances, situations, and influences. So. The recognition of feelings? Gone. That’s a luxury we need to cut out of the budget for right now - we got utilities to pay.


In fact, I think at any point in my life when I’ve been emotionally N/A, I’ve been incredibly overloaded with the stresses of just staying alive.


Paying bills, alone, takes most of my brain power because I’m so terrified of ending up on the streets after my early life. Plus, you know, always ending up in work situations that are majorly triggering and life-upsetting. Throw in some social strife to challenge my sense of relationship security and I’m toast. There’s nothing left for me to give anyone, let alone myself and my regard for *feelings.* Pussy ass shit don’t have no place in this lifetime.


It all makes so much sense that I almost don’t even want to tell you my most finalist of the final points.


You guessed it. Fear has been shown to subvert emotional cognition.





Fear takes first priority


Okay, so it’s not enough to be overloaded and ignoring your inner experience. Now, let’s make it especially, supremely, indisputably Trauma-relevant.


I think we all know that we PTSD sufferers have strongly wired fear responses. If you don’t know that… idk, listen to this podcast more often, I guess…


When you grow up in unstable households with insecure attachments, let alone experiencing direct physical violence, abuse, and aggression, you’re going to be programmed a bit differently than happy-family-Felicia from school. Like, uh, you’re always waiting for the other shoe to drop and crush the life out of you, once and for all? Yeah, we have some different thought patterns than our safely-supported friends. Must be fucking nice, Felicia.


When you grow up in unstable households with insecure attachments, let alone experiencing direct physical violence, abuse, and aggression, you’re going to be programmed a bit differently than happy-family-Felicia from school. Like, uh, you’re always waiting for the other shoe to drop and crush the life out of you, once and for all? Yeah, we have some different thought patterns than our safely-supported friends. Must be fucking nice, Felicia.

Again, these are the brain waves that are going to preferentially catch the attention of our thought-surfers. Why would you sit around and consider how scared you are, when, you know, you’re actively scared? You wouldn’t. You’d be about a million times more likely to go on autopilot and try to survive via that old instinctual brain. You’re not really in a good place to waste brain resources on considering, “What’s this sensation? Oh, fear? Let’s dive deeper before I come back to the idea of running.”


Annnnd so we just have one more way that our particular style of perceiving the world impacts our ability to feel. Our Trauma Brain’s obsession with sending out fear responses stops us from ever pausing to get in touch with our gooeier side. Big surprise.


Again, this seems 100% verifiable in my own experience. In my years of living in abusive households - with my family or with my ex - I was so emotionally out of tune that I probably never settled any of them. They were masked by my overwrought brain and shoved to the back of the line when it came to my attempts at daily functioning.


After silencing them for so long, though, you know the drill… they always come back.


My major emotional explosions - the periods when everything I’ve been hanging onto but sneakily hiding beneath the floorboards finally erupts - have always come at a time when there’s finally been relief from the outside. I mean, when I escape some of the pressures of whatever was keeping me on high alert - dangerous personal relationships, a desperate financial situation, do-or-die periods in my work and academic ventures - that’s when I’m absolutely drowning in emotions all of a sudden.


My major emotional explosions - the periods when everything I’ve been hanging onto but sneakily hiding beneath the floorboards finally erupts - have always come at a time when there’s finally been relief from the outside. I mean, when I escape some of the pressures of whatever was keeping me on high alert - dangerous personal relationships, a desperate financial situation, do-or-die periods in my work and academic ventures - that’s when I’m absolutely drowning in emotions all of a sudden.

Everything rushes into the picture all at once after my brain finally has a chance to chill. This is also when I traditionally get sick after months or years of my immune system being ramped up by stress hormones. A mixture of feelings and ailments usually follows my very brief sense of relief, creating a whole new set of problems to sort out. Relief, over. Don't worry, you're back where you feel most comfortable - internal upset and chaos.


And lord knows, I never had the words to begin analyzing that spiraling supernova of feelings in my gut when the time finally comes. I didn’t have the skills to verbalize my experience with unpleasant internal stimuli that no one else can begin to detect. I was never even sure how to speak them into existence and make them seem real. Because no one ever thought it was important enough to teach me how.


Boom! Full circle! Fucking did it!





Wrap up


I’m DONE y’all. This talk on emotions has been emotionally exhausting. My brain has been doing some backflips for this post.


So ends part II of my episodes on Emotion, written out of order as part III. I’m tired. I’m mentally over it. I’m sick of thinking about how I feel... about thinking about how I feel. Fuck this, no wonder I ignored my emotions for so goddamn long.


Alright, bitching aside, I hope that this was kind of interesting to consider in respect to your all-or-nothing emotional world. As always, it’s not you or your personality that causes the rising and falling tides that sometimes pull you under. It’s just your brain, trying so hard to be survival-smart, but often acting functionally fucking dumb.


Alright, bitching aside, I hope that this was kind of interesting to consider in respect to your all-or-nothing emotional world. As always, it’s not you or your personality that causes the rising and falling tides that sometimes pull you under. It’s just your brain, trying so hard to be survival-smart, but often acting functionally fucking dumb.

Next time (or next week - we’ll see if I decide to toss out two real bangers at a time or spread them out - undecided), I’m talking about what to do with all these shitty ass feelings. The most applicable part of this whole emo-series. How to have dark days without letting them turn into dark months. The safe ways I’ve learned to settle up with emotions in the past few years... You know, on my terms, instead of trying to ignore them until they inevitably consume me at a terrible point in time.


See you back here for the final feelings day for a while. This brain needs to go think about something new.


Traumatized Motherfxckers

Not doomed. Not damaged.

Not dead yet.

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