This technique is taken from the book: Stop Fighting Yourself and Move Upwards
Have you ever been told by someone to just think about something else when you are feeling anxious, sad, or angry? Have you then thought to yourself, “If I could just think of something else and get rid of my emotions, don’t you think I would have”? Well, you are not alone, when I was depressed, I got this suggestion regularly. People would say, just get over it, focus on other things, to say I found this advice annoying would be an understatement.
See, the thing is, people are not entirely wrong, thinking something else can work. Only, they mix up a couple of essential details on how to do it. Distracting yourself, or focusing on something else does work, but only if that something can produce a sufficiently strong emotional response. For example, if you are someone with short-temper and you try to count down from 10 to calm yourself when angry, it is not likely to work. If you, on the other hand, think about your favorite movie or football match or someone you love whenever you get agitated, then that would calm you down.
The difference here is, counting down from 10 does not produce any feeling, but thinking about something that makes you happy will trigger a countering emotion. Here you are not just distracting yourself, you are countering one emotion with another or Emotion Substitution. In our example, we countered anger with happiness, so anger is the starting-emotion, happiness is the counter-emotion, and your favorite film is the trigger-thought for the counter-emotion. When substituting, the intensity of the emotions is an essential factor to keep in mind.
If the trigger-thought you are using to produce the counter-emotion is not strong enough, then it won’t be as effective. For example, the feeling you get from thinking about your favorite movie will be less impactful than what you get from thinking about someone you love. Your favorite film will, therefore, be a less effective counter-emotion generator than say the memory of your child taking his first step. Your counter-emotion should be equally intense or even more intense than the starting-emotion.
Emotion substitution is similar to mixing hot water and cold water to create optimum temperature. Emotions are a result of neurochemicals released into the bloodstream by the brain. If you trigger two opposing emotions of the same intensity, the neurochemicals will kind of cancel each other out. The emotional processes are more complicated than I am making them out to be. Still, the water-mixing analogy is a simple way to conceptualize what is happening in the brain.
Another practical easy to use counter-emotion is disgust. For example, picturing something disgusting in your mind, like putrefying food or something else you are disgusted by, will deflect any other emotion.
Consider this scenario, a particularly delicious cake is tempting you, but the problem is you have diabetes. You can’t eat cake, it’s dangerous, and you could end up in the hospital. What do you do? Do you bite down, tell your unconscious Emotional-self that its desires don’t matter, and try to walk away? Telling your Emotional-self that its desires and judgments don’t matter is what we call suppressing of emotions. You should know suppressing emotions is a bad idea. Every time you tell your unconscious Emotional-self that its desires don’t matter, it will get a little more upset. A day will come when your Emotional-self will refuse to surrender. It will say, “No, today you are not walking away, today you are eating cake,” and then you are stuck.
Also, telling your Emotional-self that you don’t care about it wants, will make it care less about what you want as well. Like all human relationships, the bond between your head and heart is also a two-way street, you get what you give.
So how do you walk away from the cake without upsetting your Emotional-self? Well, have you ever tried to distract a child with something so that you could feed it? Your Emotional-self is your inner-child, and you can divert it with Emotion substitution. While you can use many emotions to distract your inner-child, if your goal is not to eat cake, then the best feeling to use is disgust. When your inner-child asks you to eat cake, picture something in your mind that you find disgusting like putrefying food teeming with maggots. The feeling of disgust your Emotional-self experiences from that mental image of maggot-infested food will quickly cure it of any desire to eat cake. You could also picture yourself lying in a hospital bed, attached to a dialysis machine, suffering from kidney failure. The mental image that you use depends on what works for you. The picture can be of a bed-ridden you, putrid food, or something entirely different.
Thinking or remembering something that triggers a strong counter emotion in you will override any feeling you are experiencing, and this is the Emotion Substitution way of controlling any emotion instantaneously.
Just to give you some further background, in the introduction, I had mentioned that the first technique I created was at the age of 14. I created the method to control the short-temper problem that I had at the time. The means that I came up with was pretty simple. At the time, I was in a romantic relationship. Due to the loneliness, I felt growing up, and since this relationship was my “first love,” I had strong feelings for the person. I figured that every time I got angry, I would just think of her. My calculation was since my feelings for her were intense, that feeling would cancel out the anger. It worked like a charm. Every time I got agitated, I thought of the girl I was in a relationship with, and the negative feelings subsided. Just like that, the short-temper was gone. It was eliminated in a matter of weeks, and I thought wow great this works. The problem was, unbeknownst to me, I had done something I had not intended to do. Unwittingly, I had used classical conditioning to suppress one of the basic human emotions, namely anger, permanently.
Because I had used this technique every time I got agitated, I had accidentally trained my mind to think of her whenever I got angry. Just like you teach yourself to ride a bike by practicing riding, I had taught my unconscious mind how to deal with the emotion of anger. Once this process became automatic, two things happened. One, I only got angry once in the next seven years, until I reintegrated anger into my personality. Two, my emotional dependence on my relationship increased, which is to say, my emotions for my then-girlfriend intensified. The only time I got angry in those seven years was when I first went into depression, and that was the result of getting overwhelmed by a lot of negative feelings than anger.
I was emotionally vulnerable before this because of my childhood loneliness. Still, the technique subverted anger to the point where I no longer felt a desire to stand up for myself. Rage is a critical part of the flight or fight instinct. When someone hurts us emotionally or physically, we get angry, and that helps us stand up for ourselves. Like most teenage relationships, my relationship was tumultuous, with many breakups and fights. The problem was whenever there was a fight, instead of feeling anger or some desire to stand up for myself, I only felt affection.
As a consequence, after my first break up, I went into a deep depression. I was suicidal. I self-harmed. For the next seven years, even after the emotional significance of my relationship had passed, I was depressed. I came out of depression only after I found a way to reintegrate anger into my personality.
Now, it is certainly possible that I would have gone into depression even if I had never used the emotion substitution technique. However, I am reasonably sure I would not have stayed depressed for seven long years if it was not for my lack of anger. Why am I telling you this? I want you to understand the capabilities of the techniques I am going to share with you.
Since my initial mishap, I have created many more techniques and used them successfully on myself, and for the past decade, I have lived a great life. As of the time I am writing this article, it has been 12 years since I dragged myself out of depression, using a technique I created. Though that method, I will not be sharing here because, honestly, it is too dangerous to use if you don’t know what you are doing. The following is a critical advisory for when using the techniques,
Do not use any of these techniques, or any alteration of them that you might come up with yourself, to override any emotion EVERY SINGLE TIME. Allow the feeling to function naturally every so often so that it doesn’t get suppressed.
If you subvert an emotion using any of these techniques every time you experience it, your unconscious will get conditioned to deal with that specific emotion in that manner. If a feeling gets permanently subverted, then that can have unforeseeable consequences. Ultimately all emotions are necessary, and if they weren’t, you wouldn’t be experiencing them. Each of the feelings exists because they helped our evolutionary ancestors to survive, reproduce, and thrive, so do not suppress any emotion on purpose. It is the excesses of emotions that should be controlled, not the feeling itself.
One way to avoid the Classical Conditioning problem is to use multiple techniques to deal with an emotion. That way, your unconscious will not get conditioned. That said, I repeat, DO NOT SUPPRESS ANY EMOTION EVERY SINGLE TIME YOU EXPERIENCE IT. Now, feelings do malfunction, and in many ways, human emotional systems are out of date with the needs of the modern world. However, our understanding of how different emotions influence each other is not good enough for us to determine which feelings are essential, and which should be discarded. Each technique will contain guidance on how they should not be used, so please take note of those.
There are three usage advisories with this technique. I have written the first two in capital letters to highlight just how important they are. Emotion Substitution is used in multiple other emotion-control methods I will be covering in other articles, so these advisories are doubly important.
1. USE DIFFERENT MEMORIES TO DEFLECT SAME EMOTION AT DIFFERENT TIMES.
Do not use the same trigger-thought or memory all the time to counter one emotion. If you do so, classical conditioning will take place. What does that mean? Every time that particular feeling arises in you, the trigger-thought will also be remembered, this is what happened with me 20 years ago. If one emotion and trigger-memory get coupled, then that feeling will be permanently deflected. To access that emotion again, you will have to decouple the trigger-thought from it, which is not easy. You can use the one trigger-thought intermittently but not continuously. Rotate between 5 or 6 different trigger-thoughts for one emotion to prevent conditioning.
For example, if one of the memories is a disturbing scene from a horror movie, then another can be a positive memory and so on. When choosing a positive thought, choose something that cannot be taken away from you. For example, you can recollect something awesome your parents did for you when you were a child, provided your relationship with your parents is positive.
2. DO NOT USE A MEMORY OR THOUGHT LINKED TO A PERSON or OBJECT REPEATEDLY.
If you think of a person or object repeatedly, the emotional relevance of that person or object in your life will increase. Depending on the nature of your relationship with the person or object, the increase in importance can have long-term negative results. If you use a negative trigger-memory linked to a person, then it will increase your negative feelings towards that person. If you use a positive trigger-memory, then positive feelings towards that person will increase. If the nature of your relationship with the person changes later on, then the strengthened emotions can become a problem. For example, your romantic partner breaks up with you, and if you are too attached, then you could end-up in depression. Another example, if you are put in the same team at your workplace with someone you hate, then that could become a hindrance to your career.
3. As much as possible, try to use memories that trigger positive emotions, not negative ones.
This advisory doesn’t really need a description, does it? Simply put, it is better to feel happy than disgusted, scared, or angry. Medical research has shown that experiencing too many negative emotions is harmful to your long-term emotional and physical health. Therefore, while it is ok to use negative trigger-thoughts when necessary, you should mostly try to stick to positive trigger-thoughts. An example of when negative trigger-thoughts are unavoidable is when trying to get over a relationship breakup.