A systems framework for managing emotions

Someone who is drowning cannot make much use of last-minute swimming tips. Similarly, managing emotions is quite problematic when we are in the middle of a stressful situation, overwhelmed and governed by anger or fear. Even if we are efficient in tracking and overcoming the emotion, we are merely minimizing damage. Again.

Preventing unwanted emotions

Managing emotions is not just about being mindful and taking a breath in time. We may be able to recognize moderately stressful emotions and mitigate their impact. However, stronger emotions usually undermine both our awareness and ability to cope. Especially, in important situations that matter the most.

Even if we are successful in diverting our attention or suppressing emotional symptoms, — the relief is of temporary and deceiving value. The emotion firms up further by the repetition and relapses as soon as our mind comes in contact with a trigger again. The internal causes of the emotion remained intact. Reinforced, actually.

It is OK to concentrate on the issue at hand and make the most out of a stressful situation. However, we can do better than that — prevent the unwanted reaction so it no longer interferes with similar situations in the future.

Sustainable change: addressing the internal causes

We can process the internal causes of emotions so that external events no longer trigger them. Train our minds in a systems manner to make a lasting, sustainable change. The unwanted emotion is replaced with a constructive response arising naturally instead. We are able to navigate previously stressful situations in a balanced, compassionate, productive manner.

Example, internal causes of current emotional reaction



Processing causes of emotions in a systems manner

How do we stop being afraid of a monster under the bed? We learn. Replace the obsolete imaginary notion of a monster with reality. We start with a theory first. No monsters? Ok, let’s check this out with a flashlight. We verify, form a conviction. Practice it until it becomes obvious, embodied. No more fear.

Fear, anger, jealousy, any unwanted emotion is caused by our obsolete notions of “monsters”, perception of the external situation, related memories, expectations, and other factors multiplied by a history of the repetitions. A habit of the emotion usually has multiple mutually supporting causes, a cluster.

Example, a cluster of internal issues that support a specific case of jealousy:

Each such cluster is a part of a wider worldview. So if we want to subdue our anger towards a co-worker, we may need to revise our attitude to a group co-worker belongs to, people in general, and even ourselves.

Hence, in order to successfully address the cluster, we deconstruct each of its components and process it as a part of a wider whole, in a systems manner. We are to be open to revising our reactions, stories, any parts of our worldview, even the notion of “I”. It does not matter whether the worldview is secular, scientific, spiritual, religious, or “none”.

Preventing such cases of jealousy would require us to locate and gradually update all of such cluster components, work with their current and past instances. Until our internal response to these situations changes to new ones we have chosen, e.g. compassion-based.

Example: processing the emotion of jealousy

A bird’s-eye view: emotion processing

Each emotion usually requires multiple processing cycles, and real-life tests to support sustainable change. Until the new reactions are produced naturally instead of the unwanted ones.

We start by noticing the emotion in a specific situation, learn more about it, compare our reactions to chosen benchmarks, and train the mind to adopt the new behavior. Next time the emotion arises, we repeat the cycle. Until unwanted reaction no longer arises. A balanced, constructive, compassionate response arises naturally instead.

“Mindfulness → worldview → practice” cycles

3 phases of the emotion processing cycle:

  1. Mindfulness
    What to fix? E.g. we notice, become aware of an unwanted emotion
  2. Worldview 
    How to fix it? We learn how those who embody the solution described their experiences: evolved views, stories that provide no causes for the reaction
  3. Practice
    Actually, fixing it: we train our minds to adopt chosen views and reactions until they replace the unwanted ones

Each of these 3 phases is essential:

  • no mindfulness: we are flying blind, keeping ourselves busy solving non-existing problems and missing the signals of actual issues
  • mindfulness without an evolved worldview has no benchmark to match arising phenomena with, it would not know if the reaction is obsolete or how to fix it (what to adopt)
  • no practical steps, actions to adopt and eventually embody the worldview: we simply witness repetitions of reactions that don’t change

We may use other names or split this cycle into different phases – it has to make sense. We are to have a clear understanding of how we progress from locating the issue to actually fixing it (emotion non-production/change to a chosen response). If the process is unsuccessful, where we need to look for missing or ineffective pieces.


Systems framework: matching the worldview/responses and reality

Evolving cycles of mind training

Our emotional reactions guide our worldview evolution. We align our viewpoints and responses with constantly changing reality. Manage our emotions, maintain daily emotional hygieneprocess unwanted reactions, train the mind to act in harmony with the world. The world we start changing based on our evolved responses, constructive external actions, meaningful life choices. A win-win.

Evolving worldviews

Even the most advanced non-egocentric worldview eventually becomes obsolete. Any theoretic map is just a map. A provisional set of directions to accommodate a certain phase of personal change. Once we have accomplished this phase, embodied the new principles, our conceptual reliance on this map becomes an obstacle

Materialistic → Ethics-based

First, we reduce our reliance on materialistic misconceptions and habits by using secular or spiritual ethics. Basically, tell ourselves “the monster under the bad” does not exist so that we can change our fearful reactions to new, chosen responses. E.g. compassion-based.

Ethics → Ethics 2.0, 3.0, etc.

Secular or spiritual ethics is a means to an end, conceptual bridge to justify new reactions.  Provisional “mental crutches” that are to be recognized for what they are, —  artificial viewpoints open for revisions. If the reality we experience starts conflicting with our “new” worldview (e.g. via destructive emotions), maybe it is time for an upgrade.