I had a familiar dream recently. It was near the end of the semester in my dream and I had not attended many of my calculus classes. I knew I would fail and I was desperately searching for a way out of this mess. As I woke from my dream, I realized that I had nothing to fear from calculus. I had graduated in spite of it and would never have to pass calculus again. But it got me to thinking, "What triggered that dream?" My friend confessed to having similar dreams, along with the ever popular "locked outside naked" dream and the ubiquitous "running from something horrible" dream.
I came to the conclusion that a basic emotion was at the root of it, that fear or anxiety perhaps triggered by any number of possible sources, real or imagined, was being expressed in that dream. It was my sleeping brain's way of making sense out of the basic emotion of fear that was firing while I slept.
Survival emotions, such as fear, anger, or shame, prepare our bodies for dangerous situations, prepare us to run or fight or surrender, depending on what seems best. They also stimulate the creative problem solving cognitive centers of the brain to figure out what we know about the source of the danger and what we can do to defend against it. When we are asleep, and something triggers fear - an erratic heartbeat perhaps or a little difficulty breathing - or maybe leftovers from a stressful day - fear directs our brain to search for the source of the danger based on what scary things we have experienced in our life and stored in our memories. Then it is as if Stephen King is writing the script and Alfred Hitchcock is directing the movie of your own personal fear dream, using the material that works best with the emotion that you are experiencing.
The brain evolved to protect us in situations much more dangerous than the one most of us live in today. If you were afraid, there could be a good reason, so you would be highly motivated for getting ready to run and vividly remembering all you knew about dangerous stuff. As you remembered it, you might visualize it, and the movie of the lion in the tall grass would be played out in the theater of your mind.
It occurred to me that all of our thinking is a response to two kinds of data, one source of data is the outside world that we can observe and monitor, but the other source is the emotion we are experiencing. The emotions determine how we interpret the data from the outside world. If I am walking down the street wide awake, but feeling vaguely anxious, I will probably scan the oncoming pedestrians for suspicious characters, or I might imagine that garbage truck jumping the curb and squashing me like a bug. If I am hungry, I am more likely to notice the proximity of restaurants or candy at the checkout.
Survival emotions tend to get our attention easily and demand quick response, so our most powerful emotions tend to act like talented screenwriters and directors in shaping our interpretation of our perceptions of our situation. Fear, anger, shame, hunger, and sex are all related to survival, so they figure prominently in our dreams. But they alsofigure prominently in our interpretation of our everyday experience.
When we are awake, we are pretty good at throwing out the most outrageous scripts and theories and not diving for cover at every loud noise (unless we have PTSD). I don't break out in a cold sweat every time a garbage truck passes me. But the influence of the emotions is persistent and can be subtle, so if I am not paying attention to my emotions, they may be whispering in my ear with evocative suggestions about the circumstances I find myself in. In fact, a great deal of what I assume, or take for granted about other people and about the situation I find myself in may be dictated by the emotional state I am in.
Why is this important?
Our emotions work so seamlessly and so automatically in our brain that they influence our thinking and behavior without us noticing them most of the time. We refer to this as unconscious, but just because it may be unconscious doesn't mean it is inaccessible.
By learning to pay attention to the signs of our emotional state, we can become more aware of the emotional influence on our thinking and behavior and better able to avoid distortions and mistakes that may be generated by survival emotions operating below our awareness.
For example: I may be tired and irritable after a long day or a series of frustrations, but I don't usually announce my state of mind to everyone I meet. I may not even be aware that I am particularly tired and irritable. Along comes my friend and asks me to make a decision, or to discuss something a little bit complicated. I feel some resistance or resentment at having to deal with this, but it doesn't seem worth expressing. The idea of saying to myself or to my friend, "I am tired and cranky and would rather talk about this some other time," doesn't occur to me. As the conversation goes on, and my friend presses for a decision or debates the issue, I get more frustrated until I impulsively say something rude or argumentative. There is the risk that my friend will interpret my emotional comment as part of the discussion or a personal criticism. I have allowed my emotion to affect my friendship without taking the trouble to notice it.
Jack and Jill no longer remember how the fight started. They both remember being enraged, and they remember some of the nasty things they each said and now regret. And they vividly remember the hurtful things the other one said. They were acting impulsively in a whirlwind of fear, shame, and anger that was dictating their interpretations of what they were hearing and dictating their immediate responses. Awareness of the danger of debating while furious could have allowed them to call a time out before they had dug deeply into their stockpile of weapons of mutual destruction.
Emotional self awareness is a skill that can help you avoid having your life and dreams directed by your most powerful emotions, with disastrously dramatic outcomes.