Emotional Process in Society: Amygdala Scripts 1.0

A House Divided

Many families in our country are politically divided, for various reasons. This divide has never been more clear than it was yesterday, the day after Donald Trump became President elect. Every client I saw yesterday had experienced a visceral reaction to the reality, and none of them had ever had a reaction to a presidential election before. As a therapist, my role is to help them explore, understand and reconcile with their reality.

Visceral reactions like these are often about “amygdala scripts,” and understanding them requires introspection and self-focus.

In What Freud Didn’t Know, Timothy Stokes, provides tools to remain self-focused when  anxieties, in the form of reactivity and automatic behaviors, present themselves. Stokes describes amygdala scripts as the beliefs that we accrue in traumatic situations and then apply to all our relationships as gospel truth. The amygdala is the part of the brain that stores the emotions of trauma—circumstances that signal harm and over which we feel little or no control. Our brain then takes the feeling of that experience and turns it into a lesson learned, a belief. Thus, an amygdala script includes three parts: 1) the seed image, 2) the feeling, and 3) the belief.

For Example

This election has stirred my amygdala scripts. If you have been following this blog, you know that I experienced four years of sexual abuse as a child, masterminded by my brother.

Can you imagine what my amygdala learned from those events and that environment?

  • The seed image: The dining room floor where I was raped for the last time.
  • The feeling: I am unprotected and unsafe.
  • The belief: Men cannot be trusted.

Fast forward 35 years to the presidential campaign and election of 2016. My amygdala scripts are firing all over the place, even though good men in my life since then have redeemed my view of men. My amygdala tells me that the man elected to office will create the conditions for mass harm toward women, just as were present in my family of origin.

  • The seed image: The dining room floor where I was raped for the last time.
  • The feeling: I am unprotected and unsafe.
  • The belief: Our country is now being run by someone just like my brother, someone with no respect for women—potentially a sociopath.

What to do?

Get It Out

Allow yourself to become aware of your feelings and what your amygdala scripts might be. My journal serves this purpose for me. I wrote yesterday:

This morning feels just like when I was 13 and I stopped the sexual abuse that my brother had presided over for 4 years. I ran to the bathroom and locked the door, terrified that he’d come to punish me. He didn’t, but I still had to live in the same house in silence, because the people who were supposed to protect me (my parents) were untrustworthy, too. This is how we create monsters: put a bully in charge and turn a blind eye to the pain he inflicts on people. I can’t yet shake this feeling that we just put someone who represents the worst members of my extended family in political power (some of whom died in mental institutions or did prison time), only Trump is more clever and devious. Needless to say, the loudest members of my family—those who perpetrated the most harm—are loud Trump supporters.

That said, although I feel terrified this morning (that I may be safer from external threat but more vulnerable to internal threat), many US citizens feel relieved, because they feel that Clinton is the bully, not Trump. I suppose time will tell, and I can only hope that cooler heads will prevail…in time. I cannot give up hope, for that would be even more terrifying. We need some Philosopher Kings in the spirit of Plato’s Republic. Where are they?

Yes, I’m aware enough to realize that there are stories on the other side that call up similar visceral responses toward Hillary Clinton. In effect, our country is reeling from a massive amygdala script attack.

A Macro-View: Zooming Out

Another strategy to employ when the amygdala is firing—when we’re too close to the issue to be reasonable—is to take a zoomed out, intellectual approach. Let’s take a macro-view for a moment.

Taking a transcendental observer’s perspective leaves me less overcome by my own amygdala. From a bird’s eye view, I can imagine what might constitute a “good society”—a question that arose in classical antiquity. This isn’t a political question, it’s a philosophical one…with intriguing political ramifications.

In order to have a good society, we’d have to sacrifice our power position in the world, I suspect. We’d have to ask questions about human nature, and about diverse capacities among our own people. We’d have to ask questions about capitalism and ethics, without falling back on religious dogma, as our constitution disallows it…unless we want to challenge that, too? We’d have to figure out what it means to be American now that our nation looks so different than it did over 200 years ago when it was founded.

Would we the people be willing to consider these deeper questions together? Would we be willing to listen long enough to have our own beliefs and opinions challenged by the Other? What if our politicians regularly consulted a think tank of philosopher poets?

A Micro-View: Zooming In

When the amygdala reacts because we’re taking a zoomed out view, sometimes it helps to do just the opposite: to zoom in.

In this case, looking too broadly—trying to combine the abstract viewpoints of philosophy, history, culture, etc.—may cause undue anxiety, so let’s zoom in a little. Let’s take a more micro-view.

As the country is divided over the current political climate, so are some families. I saw a troubling sign in the yard of a home: “Divorce Sale.” Flanking the sign on either side were campaign posters for Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. I’m sure the display was in jest, but as a marriage and family therapist, I do expect the divorce rate to increase over the next few years, because this election has raised to the surface some painful issues between couples that were lurking thinly beneath. For those whose families are united either in victory or grief, be grateful. Those who are polarized and divided do not share your comfort.

There is hope for couples and families divided, however, and that is through differentiation. You do not have to agree. Agree only to be present, curious; listen to each other, without forming your next argument. And if you speak (and keep in mind that not talking about it together is a valid option, too), agree only to share your perspective. You do not need to convert your partner to it; you need only to accept that you and your partner are different people who have arrived at your various conclusions honestly. Everyone has an important story to tell.

As I often tell my clients, “Trust the process.” No matter what your political persuasion, we’re on a bigger stage—living out a play that I trust will bring us to a better place. In the meantime, love the one you’re with, even though it may mean a season of growing pains.

Do Your Emotions Fit the Circumstances?

So when your emotions are intense, ask first whether the size of your emotions fits the circumstances. If they do not, you’re probably dealing with an old amygdala script that you need to work through; if they do, you have a legitimate relational dynamic to address, and when you do so with mutual respect, you will get to the other side. Then your emotions will level out again.

Tiny Blips

In the end, we’re going to be okay. Sometimes when things feel like they’re falling apart, they’re actually coming together. We could be on the cusp of an emergent evolutionary move forward, on small and large scale. I hope. Given that evolutionary time is measured in decades, centuries and millennia, however, you and I probably won’t see what emerges in our lifetime. Each of us can only do our part as tiny blips in the vast eons of space and time, intentional about contributing to the good.

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