Emotional Democracy or Dictatorship?

wire_fenceWhen I talk about the ability to choose an emotional response, this idea is sometimes mistaken for a compulsory task. As one person said, “I have already tried that. Growing up, my father would often say, ‘Force yourself to have a good time,’ and I am sick of hearing that because it does not work!” For this person, there was no freedom of expression.

Similarly, many individuals have learned to give a privileged status to a minority of emotions, “All you need is love!” Consequently, individuals will try to permanently banish other emotions, as if they were political dissidents placed in exile, “I try never to feel jealous.” And others beat down any emotional rebellion with brutality. One person told me that after yelling at or hitting his girlfriend, he would punish himself by punching his fists into a brick wall, until they were bloody. Needless to say, that strategy worked no better than any other compulsory strategy. The reason these strategies fail is because dictatorship is a lousy form of self-governance.

So, what happens when you seek to force conformity on a group of people? And, what happens when you give a privileged class absolute power or when you seek to eliminate diversity from the population? The answer is that it works only so long as repression can be kept in place, as illustrated by North Korea. But when something happens to end the repression, such as with the Arab Spring, the result is massive uprisings and interruptions in governance. (Notice, the term “repression” has duel meanings. It describes a limitation of awareness that can occur in large societies or at a psychological level.) Similarly, anytime a person attempts dictatorial control over his or her emotions, some form of repression or denial is required.

In contrast, when self-governance is conducted as a democracy, there is freedom of choice. Accordingly, there is also freedom of expression, tolerance for diversity, and fair and equal representation. This allows for greater integration both within the brain and throughout the body, as emotions, thoughts, and behaviors stimulate one another.

As most of us know, behavior, thought or emotion can be used to regulate and check the other (i.e., behavior modification, CBT, and emotional process work). However, I have special interest in emotions because they seem to both precede and motivate the other two. In other words, when a person feels angry, he will have angry thoughts and angry behavior. When a person feels happy, he will have an entirely different set of thoughts and behaviors at his disposal. Thus, when a person chooses a particular emotion, he or she is also choosing a corresponding set of thoughts and behaviors.

Using the analogy of a democracy, we assume that the leader currently in power has been voted into office by the majority. Though I doubt that our emotions vote on one another, individuals do have the ability to reflect on events that have occurred in the past, speculate on events that have yet to occur, and become mindful of experiences as they occur. If all three of these branches are controlled by the same emotion, nothing new will emerge. However, if a person feels angry when something occurs, but later looks back and feels guilty for how he reacted, and then speculates on how helpful it would be to feel greater compassion in the future; the result is an expansion of experience and an increased capacity for self-determination.

When I was a 12 year-old boy, I saw something that really stuck in my mind. There was a beautiful collie dog locked inside a fence. I wanted to pet him, but the owner warned me not to open the gate, “He will run away and we will never get him back.” The dog looked friendly, but he was jumping up in the air and running back and forth in a wild manner. Later, I found myself walking in the alley with an elderly woman and her small dog. The dog was not on a leash. He did not need to be. He came whenever she called and sat when asked to sit. It was then that I recognized the irony, “The ability to follow rules really does lead to increased freedom!” Now as an educated psychologist, I have modified that idea so that it can apply to emotions, “Effective self-governance leads to greater emotional freedom, in which the range of available thoughts and actions is greatly expanded.” When a person learns how to establish a psychological democracy, there is greater freedom of expression, situational fluidity, and an increased capacity for self-determination.

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