• jess

Shit Emotions? Blame evolution

Hey, this isn’t a new story, but it’s one that I think we’re all pretty used to. Just some lifelong internal destruction that seems completely out of my control and impacts my life in unpredictable ways when I least expect it.


You know, the usual experience when we’re talking about living with Trauma. Feeling terrorized from the outside and equally tormented from within. (Not to be too emo about it, but all those years of Taking Back Sunday have left some such tendencies.)


To be less dramatic about it, I’m talking about something that has the power to destroy everyone - Traumatized or completely “normal,” alike. History and literature are packed to the brim with stories of this supposedly-human experience. Even the strongest soldiers have been brought to their knees by their inner worlds. The most revolutionary thinkers of our species have been destroyed by the internal conditions that couldn’t be reasoned away.


Yep, here we go again.


One of the hardest things I think I’ve had to learn on this Complex Trauma treadmill has been how exactly to allow, understand, and recover from (you guessed it) Emotions.


If you’re anything like me, you probably have a long history of emotional back and forth - as in, they’re here one day in a big, uncomfortable way, and gone the next. It’s unclear when they’ll appear to ruin a day or seven for you and all your loved ones. It’s unpredictable when they’ll just vanish from the picture again for several weeks or years. And you might not even be able to identify or name them when they're visiting.


If you’re anything like me, you probably have a long history of emotional back and forth - as in, they’re here one day in a big, uncomfortable way, and gone the next. It’s unclear when they’ll appear to ruin a day or seven for you and all your loved ones. It’s unpredictable when they’ll just vanish from the picture again for several weeks or years. And you might not even be able to identify or name them when they're visiting.

If it’s unclear, the battle between me and my emotions has been a long and enduring conflict that seems to know no end. I’ve mentioned it before, especially in my Hypersensitivity and Emotional Numbing rantidsodes, I’m gearing up to go back to Feelings Land again… and I can guarantee that this tale will come up on repeat on later dates.


Like I discussed in the Emotional Numbing episode, my experiences with emotions have been either overly abundant or absolutely void.


During my young life, I was called emotional, over sensitive, and difficult. At least, among my family members, anyways. This emotional overload was the general consensus. Take it for what it’s worth, because I’m sure you can imagine that feelings weren’t exactly something we were comfortable with in my home. To this day, my mother admits that she avoids emotional talk like the plague. Makes sense.


As I got older, my body started spitting out all sorts of chemicals, and the chaos in the household escalated, my emotions became too big for functional living. This is when my brain learned a helpful but deleterious trick - dissociation, or emotional numbing.


Not only was I great at removing myself from my physical body and escaping to a dream land during those early, otherwise inescapable years, but I learned how to utilize dissociation for the important task of turning off the emotions that otherwise bowled me over. I could carry on with my school, work, and social connections if I could just stop noticing the upsetting energetic states and physical symptoms that filled my head, chest, and stomach.


Not only was I great at removing myself from my physical body and escaping to a dream land during those early, otherwise inescapable years, but I learned how to utilize dissociation for the important task of turning off the emotions that otherwise bowled me over. I could carry on with my school, work, and social connections if I could just stop noticing the upsetting energetic states and physical symptoms that filled my head, chest, and stomach.

I'm not also learning that this is part of a "Bottom-up" method of emotional processing. It's possible to ignore your feelings during times of heightened stimulation (i.e. my entire life) and it actually takes energy to notice and process them. More on that in a bit.


Just rest assured, from the day I felt my emotions “switch off” in early high school, things didn’t get less complicated. I just stopped feeling them when times got especially rough. I was able to accomplish all sorts of things while I detached from my body and ran it through the ringer.


Don’t worry, my times without any emotions or inner experiences wouldn’t last forever; it would all come back eventually. Somewhere around the age of 23, to be exact, when my life took a sudden nosedive into this characteristically Traumatized state of being. I went from 0 to 100 on the emotion scale in the blink of an eye. To me, it was like waking up during a fire drill when you’ve somehow missed all the prior evacuation lessons in the past.


So, yeah. It turns out that I'm not good at having emotions, allowing them to make an impact, or realizing what they are. I didn't realize it until I was drowning.


For the next several years, I would struggle with this back and forth relationship; blocking out all the unpleasantries when they got to be overwhelming and experiencing crushing chaotic confusion when they would pop back up. Throughout my 20’s, I utterly failed to find a healthy middle ground where appropriately-scaled emotional responses were possible.


For the next several years, I would struggle with this back and forth relationship; blocking out all the unpleasantries when they got to be overwhelming and experiencing crushing chaotic confusion when they would pop back up. Throughout my 20’s, I utterly failed to find a healthy middle ground where appropriately-scaled emotional responses were possible.

It was a game of rapid shutdown and even faster re-emergence at the worst possible points. Turns out, there’s no great time for a year of feelings to avalanche the fuck out of your life.


I want to be clear that this is still a common, ongoing challenge in my trauma recovery. Only recently have I learned how to “settle up” with my feelings instead of ignoring them until they swell and suffocate me. It’s taken a lot of learning that I probably should have been exposed to back in my first years as a social animal… I think a lot of us feel that way. But at least I can proudly tell you that today at the age of 30 I’m capable of noticing my inner world, giving it permission to exist, and letting things go instead of weaving an emotional web of doom to dwell in for months at a time.


If this sounds like a no-brainer… well, good for you, guess you don’t need to be here. If this sounds like an impossibility… hey, you might be a Traumatized Motherfucker. For the billionth and far from the last time, let’s talk about emotions.


Specifically, today I'm talking about what emotions are, why they exist, and how their intended biological purpose works against us in a Trauma context.


Let's get emotional.





What are emotions, though?


A few months ago I was on a walk when I had an interesting thought (as tends to happen). It struck me that this was kindof a stupid fucking question to ask myself, especially three decades into my life and at least a solid ten years into my psychology interest. But, I realized with a weird, exasperated but thoughtful sigh that I really was lacking some fundamental information which probably would have made my earlier battles a lot easier.


Uh... What are feelings? I mean… What, at the root of everything, causes emotional sensations? Like, I know that everyone has them and they have some brain-body connection… I know that there are parts of the brain responsible for our emotions and emotional regulation. I know that we have physical responses to whatever this abstract, highly-human experience is.


But, seriously, what are emotions?


Well, I found out that the answer isn’t all that enlightening if you google it. Emotions are energy and chemical changes in your body, Fucker. They originate from your limbic system and the messages are transmitted through your nerves to their appropriate bodily tissues.


I mean… fine. I guess that’s the best scientific explanation for it, even though I don’t personally find it very satisfying at all.


In short, science has some pretty baseline explanation for this abstract occurrence, but like most academic research, the words don’t really reflect anything about the context or experience. There’s nothing connective about the rudimentary biochemical description they offer. There’s no revealing information that helps to put my lifelong struggle into terms that do it any justice. Just, “energy and chemical changes start in your brain and move via signaling mechanisms to the rest of your bod.” The alterations in what we experience as "moods" boil down to underlying receptor firings. Take it or leave it.

In short, science has some pretty baseline explanation for this abstract occurrence, but like most academic research, the words don’t really reflect anything about the context or experience. There’s nothing connective about the rudimentary biochemical description they offer. There’s no revealing information that helps to put my lifelong struggle into terms that do it any justice. Just, “energy and chemical changes start in your brain and move via signaling mechanisms to the rest of your bod.” The alterations in what we experience as "moods" boil down to underlying receptor firings. Take it or leave it.


I think for most of us, this is a less than stellar drop of information. These words about brain and body signalling doesn’t provide any real insight on the immense sensations we’re going through. It doesn’t help to explain why or what the purpose is. And, hell, I get the sense that modern science and medicine just doesn’t know how to start applying the physiological basics to real world experiences. Anyone who’s been through heartbreak, shame, or disappointment would have a hard time accepting that their deep, painful emotional state is as simple as a few electrons flying from cell to cell for no apparent reason.


In the psychology field, I don't think emotions are much better understood. In fact, in a lot of fields of psychology, emotions are considered irrelevant because they can't be observed, measured, or checked for accuracy (more talk on that in a later episode). So that's fucking great. Outside of clinical psychology, feelings are actually more of a hindrance than an area of interest. Luckily for us, I'm currently in a class called the cognitive and affective bases of behavior which is trying to connect the disputably ignorable experience of having emotions to our mental processes and actions.


Trust me, it's a brand new field. It still seems difficult for anyone to settle up the links between what we feel and how we show up in the world... and why.


Honestly, I just didn’t find the information I was looking for when I first started thinking about exactly how little I know about emotions. One half-assed internet search later, I gave up on the new discovery venture that I had hoped for. “Meh, I guess there really isn’t that much to know.”


What a relief and a record-scratch, at once, for Traumatized Motherfuckers who have spent the better parts of their lives being tortured and abandoned by their emotional centers. “I don’t understand this thing, apparently no one really does, and science has settled on describing the underlying component of human existence with the most academic, scientifically-proven, uninspired explanation possible. Cool.”

What a relief and a record-scratch, at once, for Traumatized Motherfuckers who have spent the better parts of their lives being tortured and abandoned by their emotional centers. “I don’t understand this thing, apparently no one really does, and science has settled on describing the underlying component of human existence with the most academic, scientifically-proven, uninspired explanation possible. Cool.”


Don’t worry though, Fuckers. Eventually I found better tidbits on our emotional fits.





What are emotions, phylogenetically


It’s hard for me to believe, but the most enlightening texts I’ve found on emotions actually came from my Behavioral Analysis books. This isn’t exactly the specialty of ABA, which focuses on helping folks to establish functionally, socially important habits and responses. In fact, some would say that emotions have no place in the discussion of Behavior Analysis for, again, the simple fact that we can’t actually measure or track them. Internal experiences aren’t exactly a Behavior Analyst’s best friend. More of a slight consideration to make when someone isn't behaving according to plan.


But, going back to the original musings of the grandfather of ABA, B.F. Skinner, it turns out there is some clarifying and perspective-shifting thinking on the role of emotions in animal behaviors included in his work. Actually, it's most shocking because he was a proponent of so-called Radical Behaviorism, which was strongly interested in understanding how environment and history, alone, shape our current behaviors.


That being said, he did at least acknowledge emotions as a relevant piece of the puzzle at some level. Skinner believed that emotions were a critical component of historically learned animal behavior, not just an annoyance to take into account when trying to train dogs to salivate. In his widely-respected book, About Behaviorism, Skinner outlined his belief that ALL emotions are a biologically-derived internal driver with one very simple purpose - to keep us alive. And there are some basic building blocks for everything we experience as feelings - fear and expectation.


That being said, he did at least acknowledge emotions as a relevant piece of the puzzle at some level. Skinner believed that emotions were a critical component of historically learned animal behavior, not just an annoyance to take into account when trying to train dogs to salivate. In his widely-respected book, About Behaviorism, Skinner outlined his belief that ALL emotions are a biologically-derived internal driver with one very simple purpose - to keep us alive. And there are some basic building blocks for everything we experience as feelings - fear and expectation.

No matter which emotion you choose or how complex the experience seems to be, Skinner boiled the systemic energy change required by feeling down to far more basic internal experiences… all of which are linked back to the single motivation of species’ survival. Skinner says that every emotion is actually a pretty basic fear or fondness signal, at the root of it.


Name the most complex human experience you can think of - pride, shame, embarrassment, self-hate, confidence, excitement, resentment, joy, frustration- and it always comes back to being a function of fear (i.e. evolution screaming “moron, don’t do that”), reward (your brain saying, “uh, yeah, that’s a solid idea, go ahead”), or expectation mismatch ("X was supposed to happen, but instead we received Y").


Skinner said that the chemical and electronic alterations in the body responsible for so-called emotions are determined by the brain and transmitted through the nervous system thanks to the past history of adaptation and learning among our distant ancestors. And really, the widely varying sensations we find so baffling aren’t as complex as our human brains tend to think they are. Always trying to differentiate ourselves and make our species more important and convoluted than it truly is, amiright?


In other words, Skinner says that emotions aren’t unique to you; they don’t even originate in your brain, really. They’re pre-programmed in our DNA thanks to the thousands of years of evolution that made us into human beings. Our biology determines how we interpret stimuli on a species’ level. It has less to do with individuality than you might ever believe, and everything to do with the hundreds of thousands of years of coding in our brain boxes.


In other words, Skinner says that emotions aren’t unique to you; they don’t even originate in your brain, really. They’re pre-programmed in our DNA thanks to the thousands of years of evolution that made us into human beings. Our biology determines how we interpret stimuli on a species’ level. It has less to do with individuality than you might ever believe, and everything to do with the hundreds of thousands of years of coding in our brain boxes.

Our species is always just trying to find novel ways to keep us alive.


So, time for the same old story everyone uses. We all know the super contrived and stereotypical example by now; your lizard brain has been programmed to respond to movements in the dark because your predecessors had to be wary of all potential danger. It’s better to overreact to a branch blowing in the breeze with a fear response than to ignore a tiger lurking behind the bush.


Hence, our brains are wired for fear. We're programmed to hear a rustle in the dark and feel the discomfort of action potential coursing through our veins. But, since we don’t often encounter tigers when we’re shopping at Target or sitting in traffic, those fear responses may or may not serve us in today’s world.


Great, we got that contrived example out of the way. I’m fucking tired of hearing about this lurking tiger on every self-improvement podcast, too.


But the point is that essentially, every emotion follows this pattern. Even the ones that seem too large, abstract, and confusing to be driven by such simple control boards, actually exist as a function of survival and later procreation opportunities. Fuckers, your brain is more obsessed with sex and babies than you ever even knew.


But the point is that essentially, every emotion follows this pattern. Even the ones that seem too large, abstract, and confusing to be driven by such simple control boards, actually exist as a function of survival and later procreation opportunities. Fuckers, your brain is more obsessed with sex and babies than you ever even knew.

Let’s use another old example. This podcast is no stranger to talking about one of the big Complex Trauma emotional experiences that we all hate - Shame. Let’s do it again.


If you haven’t caught up with the Shame episode yet (highly recommend, it seems to be a winner), just know that Shame is derived from socially-mediated situations, in particular. And it makes sense that we have this special emotion for distinctly social situations when you consider humans as animals.


When your ancestors experienced social upset, for example, being cast out of the herd was truly a survival threat. Finding out that their place in the tribe social hierarchy was potentially in question wasn’t an “aw well, you’ll find new friends someday” sort of experience. It was a situation with potentially life or death consequences. Being exiled from the crowd meant striking out alone in the wilderness, not just listening to hardcore bands and pretending you didn’t care about the rejection. Clearly, wandering through the plains on your own was not a likely path to long life or successful DNA transmission.


So, the energetic and chemical change in our bodies that we recognize as Shame emerged to keep our ancestors in line with societally accepted protocols. This risk aversion tactic was developed over time to keep early humans behaving in pro-social, culturally-curated ways that established valuable relationships with their clan members.


So, the energetic and chemical change in our bodies that we recognize as Shame emerged to keep our ancestors in line with societally accepted protocols. This risk aversion tactic was developed over time to keep early humans behaving in pro-social, culturally-curated ways that established valuable relationships with their clan members.

And because of the success of our Shame-ridden species members, we’re A) still here today and B) still experiencing the same emotion.


What I’m saying is, early experiencers of Shame were more likely to behave in the ways that kept them healthy and capable of transmitting their genes. This could have been an accidental happening in the beginning - there was a chemical change in the body that caused discomfort at the precise time that a socially-relevant stress emerged - or it could be controlled by a more purposeful means that I can’t really explain.


The good old question, "which is originally causative, the emotion or the action," or... to dive deeper... “what is consciousness and who actually designed these intricate systems." What came first, the evolution or the inherent knowledge that there’s safety in numbers? Annnd all of these debates are beyond the particular scope of this episode.


Either way, the point is that the feeling and the proper response class were inextricably linked in the development of the species. Through epigenetics and genomic imprinting, these inner experiences that helped past organisms to survive were passed onto the next generation and the next generation, all the way to our current day organisms. This is what we call phylogenetic development - the emergence of behaviors due to adaptive histories of a species. Learning over vast expanses of time.


All I’m trying to get at, jargon aside, is that these internal chemical responses have been passed on to influence the future actions of new generations for survival. Our emotions are the emotions of the earliest humans… and, hell, even probably some other primates and early mammals in our farther evolutionary history... maybe all the way back to the original critters on earth.


All I’m trying to get at, jargon aside, is that these internal chemical responses have been passed on to influence the future actions of new generations for survival. Our emotions are the emotions of the earliest humans… and, hell, even probably some other primates and early mammals in our farther evolutionary history... maybe all the way back to the original critters on earth.

So, I think it makes sense that Shame emerged to keep our great-to-the-hundredth-power ancestors in line with tribe expectations and social obligations. In the 21st century, however, this pro-survival biological mechanism of Shame doesn’t have the same functionality as it used to.


These days, we experience Shame for far-less crucial behaviors and much less valuable tribe relationships (i.e. if you lose a friend here or there, you’re generally not going to be at risk of starving or freezing to death). But the intensity of the emotional experience remains… forming it into a personal torture device, for those of us who have incredibly strong survival brains and a sense of herd instability. Motherfuckers, holler.


Wanna check out another emotion or five and see what they boil down to, evolutionarily speaking? I do. Example time.


Pride or confidence - these are emotions that developed in correlation with positive expectations being confirmed. Think about it, if your personal memories of accomplishment and social acceptance are all positive, you gain self-assuredness. A big, warm, expansive feeling in the chest. This was an important emotion to develop for our species, because it makes us go out and try things. When we lose confidence, what do we do? We shut down or even forfeit to learned helplessness. This would mean species destruction. Those of us who have a history of positive expectations but experiencing negative outcomes in practice, are lacking in positive regard for ourselves or our abilities - this often leads to personal destruction.


Joy and happiness - these are emotions that confirm we're on the right track. We're fulfilling our basic needs and these actions are moving in the right direction towards species survival. When we eat a delicious, fatty snack our bodies flood us with excellent-work chemicals to tell us we did a good job finding calories. When we experience a positive social interaction with a loved one, our operating systems reward us for securing our social connections. We're getting the greenlight for engaging in future instances of the same behavioral responses in our own lives, thanks to the learning that took place thousands of years before our births.


Depression and anxiety - I said it before in the Depression episode, and here we go again. I maintain that both are a pro-you fear response gone horribly awry. When life is deemed overwhelmingly dangerous by our overloaded brains, we can find ourselves retreating from the world as a protective measure. In early human history, it may have been adaptive to flee from our old tribes and isolate ourselves if we detected enough social insecurity. If we thought that it was risky to venture out, we would benefit from experiencing discomfort that kept us safely hidden away. Hanging out in a dark cave and binging on calories would have helped us prepare for the hard times ahead in case of herd exile or other risk-factors outside our door. The life-shrinking effects of depression and anxiety are survival mechanisms developed from the lower level experience of fear, at least, in my mind.


Alright, enough. You get it.


Emotions were functionally derived over the course of our species evolution, but have dysfunctional potential as times and daily experiences change. This is a big part of the problem.

Emotions were functionally derived over the course of our species' evolution, but have dysfunctional potential as times and daily experiences change. This is a big part of the problem.


Buuuut before we get to the societal and personal characteristics that can deem some of our older emotional responses a bit “extra,” let’s talk about another piece of the emotional puzzle - the theoretical basis of how they impact behaviors.




Motivating Operations gone wrong


This is where the discussion on Motivating Operations comes in for Behavior nerds. Follow with me, for shits and giggles. I think it's enlightening to break down the theoretical pathway that leads to so many terrible behaviors in our lives. Helps you think about why your reactions consistently include ruthlessly fucking yourself.


The basis of operant behavior starts with a so-called Antecedent - AKA a preceding stimuli. For instance, you see a stranger on the street. The next component is your response to the stimuli, this is the Behavioral piece. Then comes the final aspect of the learning string, the Consequence, which is what immediately follows the behavior and will influence how likely you are to react in the same way again in the future. ABC. This is how we learn.


It makes sense. If we find that greeting the stranger results in getting mugged, we are less likely to stand still and wave at an unknown party walking down the street again in the future. Duh. Behavior is easy to understand.


It makes sense. If we find that greeting the stranger results in getting mugged, we are less likely to stand still and wave at an unknown party walking down the street again in the future. Duh. Behavior is easy to understand.

The more complicated part is understanding the underlying Motivational Operation, which is another behavioral term used to describe the internal underlying circumstances that alter the value of the consequence to influence the behavior that you choose. Too much? I know.


The easiest Motivational Operations to understand are probably satiation and deprivation. If you’re not hungry, the consequence of receiving a 5-course meal probably doesn’t motivate you very much. If you’re starving, though, this consequence probably motivates you to perform a wide range of behaviors.


When it comes to emotions, our pal Skinner essentially believed that they worked as Motivating Operations to change the way you will likely respond to external stimuli based on the attractiveness of the outcome. So, for a Motherfucker's example, if you’re already feeling alone or ashamed, the consequence of receiving social rejection is far more damaging than if you are generally feeling proud and secure. You might not be inspired to "put yourself out there." If you're chronically lonely, the consequence of receiving community support is more interesting than if you have a safe network of connections. You may feel influenced to look for a group of like-minded individuals to engage with.


In the case of a Complex Trauma sufferer, in both of these cases, however, the attractiveness of the desired consequences are probably outweighed by the historically-experienced negative consequences... when you've been socially struggling for your entire life, you learn to behave in a way that causes the least distress.


So, for Traumatized Motherfuckers, the consequence of NOT being socially humiliated or outcast is far more attractive than potentially inviting negative attention. And so, our behavior is to keep quiet. To hide away. To stop “burdening” other people with our existence in space-time. Regardless of what our ancient internal drivers are saying about securing our place in the tribe.


So, for Traumatized Motherfuckers, the consequence of NOT being socially humiliated or outcast is far more attractive than potentially inviting negative attention. And so, our behavior is to keep quiet. To hide away. To stop “burdening” other people with our existence in space-time. Regardless of what our ancient internal drivers are saying about securing our place in the tribe.

This rapid left turn when our genetics are yelling “right” is not because our emotions or human drives have changed…. It’s because our past personal experiences have altered the expected outcome of the situation. We’ve learned that seeking out social reinforcement doesn’t usually result in the desired praise, warmth, and understanding. And so, we feel the same emotions as our predecessors, but they aren’t motivating us in the ways they’re supposed to. Instead, they lead to avoidance behaviors.


What happens when we're defying the orders handed down by our DNA?


Doooo you think that those emotions just go away when they aren’t being satisfied with the intended behavioral response, as determined by a ga-jillion years of evolution? Or do you think they just root themselves in your body, grow more fortuitous than they were supposed to be, and cause us a lot of mental fuckery in the aftermath?

Hey, you know that it’s option number two.


Like I’ve discussed in the Chaos episode, I think that we get “trapped” in these uncomfortable states a good portion of the time because we’re having internal experiences that never come to fruition on the outside. In that context, I find that the expectation that everything is always about to go to shit is actually more upsetting than seeing everything go to shit. Waiting for the other shoe to drop is more distressing to me than picking up the footwear after it falls.


Like I’ve discussed in the Chaos episode, I think that we get “trapped” in these uncomfortable states a good portion of the time because we’re having internal experiences that never come to fruition on the outside. In that context, I find that the expectation that everything is always about to go to shit is actually more upsetting than seeing everything go to shit. Waiting for the other shoe to drop is more distressing to me than picking up the footwear after it falls.

I think these emotional drivers may be the same.


When you’re internally motivated based on your genetic programming to act a certain way, but you have combatting life experiences that tell you “oh fuck no, don’t you dare,” I think (if anyone cares) that the energy and chemical change in your body doesn’t receive confirmation from the negative feedback loop that tells it to fucking stop already.


Instead, the feeling gets amplified as your lizard brain screams, “I told you what to do, asshole,” and you continue to ignore the sensation. Next thing you know, the emotion has become overwhelming and it seems to be “rooted in” to your body because you never give your limbic system the O-Kay to fucking let it go already.


“Stop calling me, I’m not interested in what you’re selling,” doesn’t work so well against those pesky survival mechanisms that really want you to do what’s worked to keep innumerable organisms alive in the past. And this is where Motivating Operations are an interesting intersection of evolutionary biology, behavior analysis, and psychology.


“Stop calling me, I’m not interested in what you’re selling,” doesn’t work so well against those pesky survival mechanisms that really want you to do what’s worked to keep innumerable organisms alive in the past. And this is where Motivating Operations are an interesting intersection of evolutionary biology, behavior analysis, and psychology.

Was this discussion of motivating operations a self-masterbatory dive into Applied Behavior Analysis that no one necessarily needs? Yeah, sure, kind of. But I also think it’s pretty interesting to think about, even if it’s just a theoretical way to think about things.


It helps me to consider what my brain intends to accomplish and how I actually tend to push those instincts aside thanks to my avoidant learned behaviors. Plus, how this causes the entire system to cycle through the same negative energetic change that I was trying to escape from when the satisfaction of obeying my genes never comes.


Which brings us to the next point.


When we aren’t working with our biology shit gets fucked. But when biology isn’t working with us, things aren’t great either.




When biology isn’t helping as intended


So, let’s say that Skinner was right and these mysterious changes we experience are actually linked to our ancestor’s survival. A genetic “how-to” that’s supposed to keep us safe, having learned from their mistakes through our pre-programmed operations manual.


Awesome, thanks evolution and all the past hairless monkeys that had to go through some shit without an internal GPS to keep them on the right side of the food chain.


The problem is - as we’ve all fucking talked about before - sometimes our emotions get too big to be helpful for our proper functioning anymore. We take our evolutionarily-derived biochemistry and get it all twisted through the inapplicability of our natural tendencies in this current world, through the lessons learned over the course of our own lifetime, or thanks to the epigenetic influences of our more recent kin.


The problem is - as we’ve all fucking talked about before - sometimes our emotions get too big to be helpful for our proper functioning anymore. We take our evolutionarily-derived biochemistry and get it all twisted through the inapplicability of our natural tendencies in this current world, through the lessons learned over the course of our own lifetime, or thanks to the epigenetic influences of our more recent kin.

I don’t need to go back through the ancient predator example again, do I? Can we all just agree that living in the wild, moderating heat through fire, and waiting for bears to come tear our guts out like Timothy Treadwell is generally nothing like the experience that most of us live through each day? Unless you were Timothy, of course.


Obviously, some of the emotions and instincts that we were born with are kind of an “N/A” relic of millenia far gone. When our brains think we’re at risk of being eaten or starving of famine all the time, we’re fighting feelings that have no value at this point in time (although, the apocalypse seems to be drawing near, so maybe they'll be relevant again soon enough). When our brains mistakenly interpret other stimuli to be as dangerous as tigers, we’re bound to be motivated to engage in dysfunctional behaviors.


Makes sense, yeah? Can we move on from this overly-discussed piece of the conversation? Check any podcast with the words "overcoming fear" in the title, and you'll hear the full tiger spiel.


For Trauma sufferers, it’s more relevant to talk about the ways that our personal circumstances in daily living have shaped our emotions and responses, because, uh… we don’t necessarily feel or act the same as other members of the 21st century. This is thanks to our experiential learning - or, again, our operant conditioning that was detailed earlier, if you want to go there. And it’s another way that our well-meaning emotions get stupid, quickly.


For Trauma sufferers, it’s more relevant to talk about the ways that our personal circumstances in daily living have shaped our emotions and responses, because, uh… we don’t necessarily feel or act the same as other members of the 21st century. This is thanks to our experiential learning - or, again, our operant conditioning that was detailed earlier, if you want to go there. And it’s another way that our well-meaning emotions get stupid, quickly.

The consequences of experiential learning can be very good. Of course, finely tuning your behaviors to respond functionally in your life is great! But at other times, it’s not so great when our brains start over-reacting to inappropriate stimuli based on faulty reasoning or history of overly dramatic circumstances. Or, when our emotional pathways get their wires crossed and the signals get amplified to dysfunctionally distressing levels.


When our emotions are too big, too off-base, or too-nonexistent, we don’t like our feelings anymore. These aren’t reinforcement and punishing contingencies that we enjoy having in our lives as a survival compass at that point. They don’t seem to be keeping us safe or functional - actually, quite the opposite. We’re not having a good time with the Motivating Operations that have been established - and, in fact, these internal stimuli have the effect of causing us to respond poorly in basically every situation, rather than logically priming us for one reason course of action or another.


So, for example… In the beginning, we were probably programmed to see something like a social stimuli - for example, a message from a friend - and react with positive emotions that made it very likely we would respond with socially-appropriate behavior… like, oh, let’s say responding at all. Now, after a lifetime of Trauma, we aren’t so likely to experience the warm regards and feelings of excitement under these circumstances. Instead, our emotional centers have gotten so rewired based on past events that we might hear our phone ping and have a mini-mental breakdown, a sense of obligation, a looming fear of being rejected, or just a void of any feeling.


In other words, thanks to our personal pasts, we aren’t motivated to respond in a way that would strengthen our social connection and keep us safely in the herd, the way our genes intended.


Our emotional Motivating Operations aren’t operating the way they should - to keep our dumbasses alive. Our feelings have been incorrectly exaggerated or muted, or possibly permanently linked to a negative consequence, altogether, thanks to some bitch who ruined the experience of texting, communicating, or having friends in the first place, somewhere along the line.

Our emotional Motivating Operations aren’t operating the way they should - to keep our dumbasses alive. Our feelings have been incorrectly exaggerated or muted, or possibly permanently linked to a negative consequence, altogether, thanks to some bitch who ruined the experience of texting, communicating, or having friends in the first place, somewhere along the line.


When we don’t respond in the way nature intended… What’s going to happen? Again, is it likely that our brains and bodies accept our refusal to participate and move on? Orrr are we going to have guilt, shame, and other self-critical inner responses because of our failure to act in accordance with powerful evolutionary drives that control our brain thought processes?


Yeah! That one.


This is how dysfunctional emotions and behaviors get programmed in all of us - through all the fun experiences we’ve had in life. And, unfortunately, how they are stubbornly maintained over time - through attempted avoidance, and failure to follow the blueprints in our DNA. The longer we put off engaging in the functional ways that our ancestors survived by, the more deeply our shitty self-evaluations and maladaptive coping skills will penetrate.


This is how dysfunctional emotions and behaviors get programmed in all of us - through all the fun experiences we’ve had in life. And, unfortunately, how they are stubbornly maintained over time - through attempted avoidance, and failure to follow the blueprints in our DNA. The longer we put off engaging in the functional ways that our ancestors survived by, the more deeply our shitty self-evaluations and maladaptive coping skills will penetrate.

The next thing you know, you're afraid to have social interactions, afraid to drive, afraid to leave the house... and emotionally you're a goddamn wreck because of all the ways you aren't going out and trying to survive in the evolutionarily-approved way that your internal chemical factory wants you to.


Sound familiar?


To make things one step more complicated for Complex Trauma sufferers (as if this wasn't head-spinning enough already), many of us are afraid of our own emotions after a lifetime of getting sucked under by bad times. Not only do we get trapped with whirling snow globes of feelings in the aftermath of our failures to adaptively thrive, but we get further tormented by fear responses subsequent to our terrifyingly large and mysterious negative emotions.


SO, to summarize this mess, I'm proposing that:

Emotions were derived biologically by historical experiences in our species' evolution. We are programmed from birth with these same internal drivers to keep us alive. When we have our own negative personal experiences in life, we don't necessarily want to follow the emotional blueprints that we came equipped with. Our avoidance of "approved behaviors" causes our historically-derived emotional states to become heightened and persistent because there is never a closed feedback loop to lower the internal stimulation signal. As a result, we become more avoidant, which only makes our emotional reaction even larger and more enduring. Eventually, the discomfort is so great that we become afraid of our own emotions. In this way, we learn to avoid uncomfortable situations even harder and develop even more deleterious behaviors. All of this contributes to more unwanted emotions... until we learn to sever the wires and dissociate, that is. But dissociation can't last forever, and eventually all our ignored energy changes will strike back, whether we're ready or not.


Holy shit, I wonder why emotions are so overwhelming and difficult to deal with for CPTSD folks.


It's an endless cycle, Motherfuckers. And the emotionally dysfunctional circle probably began spinning before any of us were even capable of understanding those emotional recognition facial charts in elementary school. Well... technically, I guess it began thousands or millions of years before then.





Wrap up


So, Frans, I rant about this confusing interplay of species and personal evolution in regards to feelings for the simple hope that... uh... we stop beating ourselves up so much for the shitty emotions we have and cannot understand.


I think it's easy for us to compare ourselves to others and wonder why we can't just be happy. Why other people seem so calm and self-assured all the time. Why we get bowled over by dramatic internal environments that seem to swallow us whole. Why we can't even name our emotions during the years that they dominate our lives. Why we sometimes can't seem to connect with any feelings at all.


The next time you’re feeling like an asshole for feeling a certain way acutely or chronically, try to consider that you’re fighting all the decisions your ancestors made for the past… forever. Your brain doesn’t forget that easily when it comes to surviving.


The next time you’re feeling like an asshole for feeling a certain way acutely or chronically, try to consider that you’re fighting all the decisions your ancestors made for the past… forever. Your brain doesn’t forget that easily when it comes to surviving.

Your emotions might seem off-base, overdramatic, or too perseverant, but it’s not for lack of reason. Those reasons just aren’t things that we often consider, since we decided that modern humans are such a special breed, untouched by the remnants of continuous species adaptation. Further, we love to disregard our personal histories for the sake of toxic optimism and exhibition of backbone. All of these factors collide to confuse your brain, strengthen negative emotional pathways, and cause internal energy detection dysfunctions - either in the direction of being overwhelming or absent.


Doesn’t that bring you some comfort in a life that otherwise makes you feel like a numbed out disaster or an untethered emotional wrecking ball?


For some reason, it makes me feel better. And, lord knows, it's hard to make me feel anything at all.





That's it, Fuckers. That's my first Emotional entry. Don't worry, it's definitely not the last.


Next up, I'm going to be talking about the next issue with our internal emotional energy systems - how our feelings and our thoughts are interrelated. How are our cognitions affected by our emotions and vice-versa? Why are we so bad at naming and experiencing emotions? And how have our thoughts about our feelings been shaped by our families of origin?


After that, we're diving into the more practical part of the emotional journey. HOW TO EMOTION WITHOUT DROWNING. Don't worry, it's a new idea to me, too. I'm going to tell you what I've figured out so far.


Just a side note: I had to make a video project for my first class of the semester, and of course, you know that I pissed everyone off by choosing to focus on the topic of deriving emotions as a consequence of reflexive (AKA respondent) learning in species' history while everyone else chose topics that were actually related to ABA. If you want to see a cartoon demonstration of this spiel, I'm going to post the video to the Traumatized Motherfuckers YouTube channel, cuz why not? It was sincerely half-assed (and I think that will be apparent), but it also features cute penguins and my dry, "I'm completely fucking over this" voice. Still got full credit on it. Holler.


As always, thanks for tuning in and reading up! If you're into what I'm doing, please consider checking out the Traumatized Motherfuckers Patreon page so I can keep this mother going. It's emotionally straining for me to have my survival threatened by financial instability while I spend my time writing for Complex Trauma instead of my paying job. This learned scarcity mindset makes it difficult to preferentially put myself on the streets so I can write about feelings. Any help would be greatly appreciated, so I can continue the research, writing, and community development that keeps Traumatized Motherfuckers moving forward. It is quickly becoming a full-time job.


If you're into the idea of finding a new community - good news, we got that. Apply to become a member of the private Discord community and find the safe social support you're looking for - from Motherfuckers like you. AKA - folks who are dark, sarcastic, painfully honest, and educationally-enlightened about Trauma. If you're interested, get in soon - the community is probably closing for enrollment soon to keep a sense of intimacy and familiarity alive! Don't want too many voices screaming in there.


Lastly, a quick plea for shares! If you're into the words or the message, consider sharing Traumatized Motherfuckers on social media or in your real life? I'm not paying to advertise or promote this bitch - literally every follower has been 100% organic - so it's a massive help when y'all spread the word. Also, I hate social media and refuse to sacrifice my brain to the manic cries of children. If you're stronger than I (by that I mean, still actively using facebook, reddit, and instagram), consider sharing some Motherfucker posts? If you know someone or some group who might connect, whether they're CPTSD confirmed or not, please give them a recommendation! It helps so much.


Thanks guys. Don't let your emotions get you down today. Be back soon to tackle that clusterfuck.


Traumatized Motherfxckers

Not doomed. Not damaged.

Not dead yet.

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