Archive | Understanding Emotions

Two Facts to Remember in Judging Honesty

The ideal relationship is open, honest, and equal. If you find that someone has lied to you or evaded, it puts the whole relationship in question.

But I’ve noticed that some people jump to the conclusion that another person is dishonest without establishing it logically. There are two key facts which are often ignored:

1. The fact that someone said something untrue does not mean per se that he lied.

Usually, people make false statements because they are mistaken, not because they are intending to deceive. To lie, a person needs to know the truth, and yet say something untrue with the intent to deceive another.

Here’s an example of saying something untrue without lying: A couple of times I’ve told someone that I had sent him an email, but later I was surprised to find the email in my drafts folder, fully written and unsent. I am, of course, apologetic about my goof when this happens. I suspect I get distracted before hitting send, or maybe sometimes there’s a technical problem. I remember that I had written the response, without realizing I hadn’t sent. There is no sense in which I lied. Misremembering is not lying. Making a mistake is not lying.

Lying is a serious issue. But to establish that someone lied, you need to know more than that he stated a falsehood. You need some evidence that he intended to deceive you.

2. The fact that someone ignores something that you believe is obvious does not mean per se that he evaded.

What is obvious to one person is not necessarily obvious to another person. There is such a thing as a blinder–a strong value or a mistaken premise that activates some information so strongly, that certain other facts or values don’t register clearly to you. Your attention is directed by the blinder, so you don’t notice all of the relevant facts.

Uncovering blinders is a large part of the work of logical thinking. Other people can help you identify your blinders, which is one reason many people like to use friends and colleagues as a sounding board.

I remember a surprising blinder I uncovered many years ago. I was participating in a 5-day workshop on personal growth at Farr Associates. On the last day, Friday, each person was scheduled to spend half an hour talking with Jerry, the presenter, about lessons learned and next steps.

On Thursday, other members of the class asked if we could change the schedule such that some of us would have our one-on-one sessions that afternoon, not the next day. I was concerned–I didn’t want to have mine that afternoon, because I hadn’t sat down and thought about what I wanted to talk about. When I voiced this concern, Jerry looked at me and said, “you could have yours tomorrow.”

I believe I laughed–a common reaction to seeing a problem dissolve before your eyes. And I remember being surprised that Jerry’s solution had not occurred to me. You may be wondering why it didn’t. The alternate solution seems obvious.

With the caveat that I am speculating many years later, here’s what I think happened: I think part of me wanted to be a “good” student who shows initiative. I usually volunteer early and often when I am in a class. Other things being equal, I would feel a strong urge to volunteer for one of the first slots. But in this particular case, I had already decided that I wanted to take an hour that evening to think deeply about my upcoming conversation with Jerry. I was in conflict and a little overloaded. Result: I had an emotional brain freeze, and I missed something obvious.  Duh. I could be one of the people the next day.

(Just FYI, catching and thawing emotional brain freezes during conversation is the main work of “Rationally Connected Conversations.”)

I doubt anyone in the class thought I was evading. But the same kind of thing can happen in trickier cases. It’s important not to assume that the person was being dishonest.

For example, I once had a long talk with a boyfriend about why he had not comforted me after a distressing incident which he had witnessed. He told me that he didn’t know that I was upset by it. I pointed out that I had been crying.

I’m happy to report that our conversation was constructive. As we discussed it, he gave me all of the comfort and support I could want.

But you might ask, given that I was crying, how could he have missed that I was upset? Wouldn’t that require evasion?

No. Not at all.

In our discussion, it came out that he didn’t think I should have been upset by the situation. Again, to speculate decades later in order to flesh out the example, he may have so disapproved of my crying, and been so ashamed by my behavior, that the fact that I was distressed didn’t even register. He was not lying when he said, “I didn’t know that you were upset.” He was just blinded by his own concerns and assumptions.

Which brings us back to the point that you can’t conclude that someone has evaded just because he is ignoring some fact which seems obvious to you. You need to know more about what is going on in his mind to reach that conclusion.

In the culture, there is a tremendous antipathy toward judging other people. But you need to judge other people if you want to surround yourself with fellow valuers. You need to judge other people if you want to find the best in the people you meet, so that you can connect with their best (and limit your exposure to their worst).

Unfortunately, people are horrible at judging other people fairly. They see a falsehood, and they assume the person lied. They see him make a false step, and they assume he evaded what seemed obvious. They jump to the conclusion that someone else is dishonest.

If that is your method of judgment, you might be better off in the short run by avoiding judging others. Perhaps that’s where some of the cultural antipathy to judging comes from.

But I do believe that in the long run, if you don’t judge the good and bad around you, you’ll become a victim of the worst that people have to offer.

January 29, 2018 in | Permalink | Trackback | Comments

You always have a choice

Whenever I hear myself or someone else saying, “I have no choice,” I challenge that idea. You always have a choice–and owning your power of choice has huge benefits.

When you think you have no choice, that just means you’ve ruled out the other options that you see. Here are some examples of how this comes up:

  • The boss insists you work late, and you have no choice unless you quit, which you’re not going to do.
  • You hate your nose, but you don’t have money for plastic surgery, so you conclude you have no choice but to live with it.
  • You’ve finished eating your meal at a restaurant, and since leaving without paying would be stealing, you have no choice but to pay for it.

In each of these cases, you do face a choice, but you believe there is nothing to think about. You believe the right answer is obvious.

Sometimes the best choice is obvious and there isn’t anything else to think about. For example, suppose your boss wants you to stay late to prepare another point for a 9:00 a.m. meeting. You also want to do that work tonight, because you see that this will help to ensure your most meaningful project gets funded next year. Your plans are flexible, so you make a few calls and stay late. No problem. It’s a no brainer.

There is a world of difference between saying “this choice is a no brainer” and “I have no choice.”

My observation is that people only say the words “I have no choice” when they mean, “this is a difficult, potentially painful choice with high stakes and I don’t like it but I already know what I have to do so I have to just suck it up and do it.”

Difficult, potentially painful choices with high stakes need more thinking, not less. But as soon as you say, “I have no choice” or “I have to,” your mind shuts down, your creative faculty goes into hibernation, and you respond emotionally like an animal being driven by a whip. This is the persona of the victim of external circumstances, who has no control over his destiny, rather than the ambitious person who consistently identifies the best possible way to move his life forward.

Rather than being a victim, the alternative is to reclaim your sovereignty by examining your options–and then making a choice based on which you prefer, based on the full context. Which of these options offers the bigger value to you, taking into account both the short and long term?

Looking at the options that you discarded out of hand helps you become clear on more of the relevant facts and more of the values at stake. You get clearer on the whole context for the decision.

For instance, let’s go back to the situation in which the boss wants you to work late, and you feel forced into it. The first thing to do is to look seriously at what happens if you don’t work late.

There are negatives–such as he could start a proceeding that would in fact get you fired within a short time, or you might feel guilty saying “no,” or an important project might get delayed or canceled, or a customer might be angry.

Presumably there would also be positives, such as you could engage in the evening activities you had scheduled, you’d get more sleep, and you wouldn’t feel resentful. And, maybe, if you’re lucky, the boss might learn that you have a life, which you take seriously, so that he needs to negotiate for overtime, not demand it.

I’m just speculating here, to concretize the kind of information that comes up.

I guarantee that one or more of the factors will trigger intense emotions. Perhaps you’re terrified of losing your job, because you are just barely feeding your family. Perhaps you feel despair that you will never learn to say “no,” because you feel like you’ve been a pushover. Perhaps you’re horrified at the thought of failing the customer, who you care about deeply.

The intense emotions are the reason that you feel you have “no choice.” The awfulness of that option is emotionally real to you, so it seems crazy to consider it.

But emotions just reflect past evaluations that may or may not be valid. Before acting, you need to understand the values at stake on both sides of the choice, and make a decision based on pursuing the biggest values, not avoiding the scariest feelings.

You may make the same choice.

Sometimes when you get at the deep values, the “no choice” becomes a “no brainer.”

Perhaps your staying at work tonight will help your customer break through on a critical problem–and that is deeply meaningful to you. Once you realize that’s the real issue, you choose to stay late, because that is truly what is most important to you.

Or you may realize that there is just some old baggage stopping you from making the forbidden choice.

Perhaps you’ve been actively learning how to “say no” better, and you realize that it’s only an old fear that is stopping you in this case. You decide to use your new skills and stand up to the boss.

Or maybe you realize there is a third way, a creative solution in which everyone gets what he wants. A virtual assistant in India can get the slide ready for the boss’s 9:00 a.m. meeting, so there’s no need for you to stay late.

When you examine the forbidden choice to see the values at stake, you re-conceive the issue as a “no brainer,” “old baggage,” or a false alternative. All of these free you to make a consciously life-promoting choice.

For example, in the case of “no money” for the plastic surgery, the decision might be a no-brainer. Maybe you don’t care about your nose that much, and you’d strongly prefer to save money for a vacation. Or maybe it’s old baggage–you were so embarrassed about your nose, that you repressed the pain, and really, really want the nose job. It’s worth saving for. Or maybe there’s a creative alternative–you could learn fashion and makeup and turn your nose into a part of your style.

Or in the case of “having to pay” for the dinner, the decision may very well become a no-brainer. If you value honesty, integrity, productiveness, independence, and justice, in most cases it would be clear that not paying would put you at war with the waiter and the whole establishment, besides turning you into a mooch. Paying your way is in your self-interest.

On the other hand, it could be that old baggage is getting in the way of seeing your options. Maybe the dinner was inedible, the service rude, and the table dirty. You don’t want to pay because you don’t believe you got the value that was promised, but you also are terrified of making a scene (that’s the old baggage) if you complain to the management and request that the bill be reduced or waived. Well, you do face a choice. You can hold your nose and pay, avoiding a scene. You can confront the manager even though it will be scary. Or conceivably you could leave without paying and accept all of the negative consequences of stiffing the restaurant–which might include your not being welcome at this restaurant, and possibly their taking you to small claims court. Dealing directly with old baggage is never fun, but it sure beats being driven by it.

Finally, you might realize there is a creative alternative. Suppose that you don’t want to pay because you don’t have enough cash. Your date walked out on you, and you only have enough money in your pocket either to pay the bill or to get home safely. Well, it won’t be the first time that management has heard a sob story and accepted someone’s promise to come back and pay later.

You probably noticed that in each of these cases, I painted a different scenario with radically different values at stake. I don’t know the real choices behind your “no choice”–and neither do you until you look.

I am not saying that you ought to choose differently in cases where you think you have “no choice.” Your “no choice” may actually be a “no brainer” when you look at it more carefully.

I am saying that it matters for your long-term happiness and sense of efficacy that when you think you have “no choice” you consider the option you’ve rejected out of hand, and make a conscious, considered decision based on all of the values at stake. Because you really do have a choice, and it matters for you that you know it.

December 13, 2017 in | Permalink | Trackback | Comments

Three Observations About Accepting Facts

Recently, I’ve done a lot of thinking about what it means to accept facts. I see this as a topic for psychology, which presupposes a particular philosophical point of view.

Realists point out that if you want to live in the world that exists, you need to accept facts. Idealists point out that you can change the world that exists–if you take the appropriate action. These two perspectives needn’t conflict. They can be integrated if you agree that you need to accept the facts now, in order to identify effective action to take now, which will change the situation in the future to more resemble your ideal. That is my view (which I got from Ayn Rand).

On the surface, it had always seemed obvious to me that you should accept facts–until I saw some situations in which it seemed I wasn’t doing so. For example, I would repeat a failed approach to persuading someone of my view, expecting a different result next time. Or I would acknowledge a specific lack of skill, without changing my approach to achieving goals in that area. Or I would find myself stewing over a fact that I wished weren’t true.

I now see all of these as examples of not accepting facts. I have a lot more thinking to do about this subject, but I thought I’d share three observations.

1. What does it mean to accept a fact?

Short answer: It means that you factor that information into your thinking, your expectations, and your planning.

For example, I have accepted the fact that I get sick more easily than most people, and that as a result, I need to maintain certain regimens of self-care involving diet, exercise, and sleep.

Let’s take sleep: I often need 8 hours of sleep, and my bare minimum is 7 hours in bed. If I get less than 7 hours in bed, or I get only 7 hours for several days in a row, I get sick with alarming predictability. The form of illness varies. I might catch a cold. I might be felled by a migraine. Or I might just be pinned in bed with vertigo. But the correlation between a short night of rest and lost work due to illness approaches 100%.

I’ve accepted this fact. I plan my life to ensure I get enough sleep. If I wake up too early, I stay lying flat in bed for at least 7 hours, even though I am awake, to guarantee I get 7 hours of bed rest. With this policy, I have radically improved my overall health.

If I had written this newsletter a month ago, I would say that this policy is an absolute, and I never make exceptions. But an exception happened last month.

With Hurricane Irma approaching, we had not expected to evacuate our home in Naples, Florida. But as the forecast got worse, and certain facts about staying became clearer, we concluded we should leave. This meant loading up the cats in the car and driving out the driveway at 9:15 p.m. to drive to Atlanta. Time was too tight. We could not wait until the next morning to leave.

It was clear I would not get my needed sleep that night, I knew I would sleep only for an hour or two at a time, taking breaks in driving. However, I went into the trip with my eyes open. I thought it likely that I would be sick for a couple of days afterwards and be unable to work. That was the price I would pay. It was more important to get to a safe place.

When I got to Atlanta, sleep was my priority. (I believe I slept for 15 hours.) I also took it easy for a couple of days, without expecting to work, because I knew I had reduced my reserves. I was pleasantly surprised that I did not get sick. But that was because I fully accepted the facts about how easily I get sick–I factored that information into my expectations and planning, and I was able to mitigate that risk.

2. What does it mean to refuse to accept a fact?

On the surface, it seems odd to think of not accepting a fact. What would that even mean? Facts are facts, independent of you. They are true, no matter what you do or say. They are facts, whether you “accept” them or not.

Here’s what failure to accept a fact looks like: You obsess about how you wish the fact weren’t true. You don’t want it to be true, and therefore you think about how bad it is, or how you wish something would change. You do this instead of factoring that information into your thinking, your expectations, and your planning.

This often happens in response to undesirable facts about other people. For example, there is more than one person in my life who is an advice-giver. Let’s make a composite and call him Sam–the paradigm advice-giver. He assumes that if I am unhappy or confused about something, I want advice. That is his go-to response to me, regardless of my intent. Indeed, sometimes he gets angry or frustrated, because he assumes I want him to solve my problems (which I don’t).

In fact, often I want only a sounding board–someone to ask me a few questions to help draw out my own thoughts. I might be unsure what the real problem was, or why I was feeling what I was feeling. In these situations, questions from a different point of view can be helpful. But this alternate purpose for the conversation just doesn’t occur to Sam. Ever.

I used to get frustrated and angry by Sam’s untimely advice, and even stew over how little visibility I got from him. I wanted him to be different. This is, of course, completely counterproductive. Other people are not under your control.

I finally accepted the fact that each of my “Sam’s” automatized response is to give advice, and I now factor that into my expectations and choices. Now when I want something other than advice, I make an explicit request. When I explain to a “Sam” that I’m not asking him to solve my problems, I’d just like to use him as a sounding board, he is quite willing to take on that role. As a result, what used to become an unhelpful, mutually frustrating conversation now becomes now mutually friendly–and very helpful.

Given that life is so much better when you accept facts about other people, what stops you from accepting them in the first place? I think that when you stew over an unpleasant fact about someone else, wishing it were different–though it is obviously out of your control–you are avoiding experiencing grief.

I would prefer to have confidentes who could anticipate my emotional needs all of the time. It would be a wonderful support to me, especially when I’m tired or stressed out. That’s when the extra energy needed to make my intentions clear can feel like a burden. I wish my “Sam’s” were more observant and sensitive in these situations. Having imagined what it would be like if Sam were different, I feel sad that I don’t have that support in those particular situations. I mourn the absence of that value.

Mourning the lack or the loss of a value can be quite painful. But it clarifies what matters to you, it resets you emotionally, and it leaves you free to find a different way to gain or keep that value that matters to you. That’s what accepting facts about other people helps you with.

3. What does it mean to accept yourself? Is self-acceptance a value?

This is a hard one–because although you can’t change other people, you can change yourself. I think “self-acceptance” means accepting your own mental state–which doesn’t mean you won’t change your mind in the future.

For example, one morning last week while in NYC, I found myself on the verge of tears for several hours, off and on. Clearly I was experiencing grief. The teariness was a loud warning bell that I had lost some value. I tried various emergency introspection techniques. These quick techniques often help to clarify the situation and bring me back to emotional center. In this case, they didn’t. I came up with a dozen or so hypotheses for why I was distressed, but none of them seemed to be “the reason” that brings clarity and closure in these situations.

Had I been at home, I would have dropped everything and worked through one of my in-depth introspection exercises to get to the bottom of the issue. These exercises are amazingly effective–they always lead to a significant insight. However, they take about 3 hours to complete. I was attending a workshop at the time, so I had neither the time nor the privacy to work through the steps. I kept trying the quick techniques, but I was getting nowhere.

Instead, I got increasingly upset that I was upset. I did not want to be on the verge of tears during the workshop–I was embarrassed to be so emotional. I knew that being upset with how I was feeling was a totally counterproductive vicious cycle.

At a break, I went outside so I could be alone to try to compose myself. It was while I was outside, wishing desperately that I could sort out my emotions, that it occured to me that I needed to accept my mental state.

Whatever was going on, it was not something that I could resolve during the time that I had available. I concluded that I must be facing a bigger and deeper issue than it seemed on the surface. It would need more time.

With this clarity, I immediately relaxed. I had a choice: I could leave the workshop and work it out, or I could put the issue aside, and come back to understand it at some time in the future. If I took this second option, I would need to recognize that I was emotionally vulnerable in the meantime, and be appropriately gentle with myself.

I chose the second option. By accepting my emotional state, I stopped trying to “calm down” and started noticing all of the little things that were triggering me. I didn’t take them too seriously, because I knew I was in an emotionally vulnerable state. I assumed that they were disproportionate responses. So, all I did was file them away mentally for future reference.

I still haven’t had a chance to sort out the deeper issue, but I have a mental file folder filled with relevant data. Sometime a similar issue will come up, and what I observed in this case will help me untangle both incidents at once.

In this case, accepting that I couldn’t change my emotional state at the moment helped me stop trying to do the  undoable. I could focus my attention on what I could do–and that cleared my mind and made me more effective.

The bottom line from these three observations: In each of these cases, the facts that I accepted were facts about consciousness–mine or another person’s. It’s not so hard to accept a fact like “the store closes at 11.” It’s hard to accept facts when it seems like they involve your power of choice–and you could change them to meet your needs. But we often overestimate what is in our power at a given moment.  But that is another topic for another time…

October 6, 2017 in | Permalink | Trackback | Comments

Empathy Bath

When you are chilled, a hot bath brings your temperature to normal. When you have a fever, a cold bath can bring it down. When you are tense, self-doubtful, jittery, or otherwise triggered, an “Empathy Bath” can bring your emotional state back to neutral.

“Empathy Bath” Tactic Overview

What: An “empathy bath” is a systematic process for introspecting the broad range of potentially conflicting emotions you are feeling, in order to regulate your emotional state.

When: Use it when you are tense, jittery, or otherwise emotionally triggered, and need a quick way to get emotionally centered.

How: For each family of emotions, speculate on why you might be feeling those feelings (both positive and negative). Give your reason in a full sentence.

Why: The 8 families of emotions cover all of the basic value-judgments that might be in play. By asking why you “might” be feeling each emotion, you can reveal not just acknowledged feelings, but also suppressed or slightly repressed feelings. By looking for both positive and negative versions of each family, you naturally balance disproportionate emotional responses.

Step-by-Step Instructions

1) Briefly describe the situation that has you emotionally upset.

2) For each of the following basic emotions, speculate on why you might be feeling this feeling in the current situation and why.

Anger: Who did what that they shouldn’t have?
Gratitude: Who did something nice for me?

Fear: What bad thing is going to happen?
Relief: What bad thing is no longer going to happen?

Despair: What good thing is never going to happen?
Hope: What good thing will happen eventually?

Guilt: What do I wish I had done differently? What regrets do I have?
Pride: What am I glad I did the way I did?

Frustration: What is giving me a lot of trouble?
Confidence: What am I doing with ease?

Desire: What am I longing for?
Aversion: What am I trying to get away from?

Joy: What have I succeeded in getting?
Grief: What have I lost?

Love: What person or thing or idea stands out as a true positive here?
Indifference: What don’t I care about at all here?

3) After you have finished naming all of the feelings, you may be grounded. If so, sum up your situation in a sentence.

If you are still feeling somewhat overloaded, I recommend you clarify the deep rational values at stake. To do this, first you may need to challenge first thoughts if any of your statements are false or exaggerated. In addition, go through each statement and identify any deep rational values at stake.  These are listed in the OFNR Quick Reference Sheet.


  • Write out each reason in a full sentence, so that you can judge whether it’s true or false.
  • For best results, check for the feelings in the order offered, which goes from easiest to hardest, most negative to most positive.
  • Don’t skip any feeling. Imagine why you might feel it, even if you don’t think you do.


Situation: Someone just cut me off making a turn.

Anger: He should look where he’s going.
Gratitude: I’m glad the guy behind me saw me brake.

Fear: I almost had an accident.
Relief: Thank goodness I was able to react in time.

Despair: These lousy drivers should be taken off the road.
Hope: Maybe defensive driving courses can help.

Guilt: I was a little bit distracted.
Pride: I’m glad I don’t text while driving!

Frustration: My heart is still pounding and I can’t seem to calm down.
Confidence: I’m glad that I have good reflexes.

Desire: I really need a little peace and quiet.
Aversion: I don’t want to discuss this with anyone.

Joy: I guess I feel good to be alive.
Grief: This reminds me of my friend who died in a car accident.

Love: I loved my friend.
Indifference: I don’t care what the other drivers think.

Summing Up: I need a little time to catch my breath and just appreciate that I’m okay.

Additional Comments

I developed this process for people who were inexperienced in introspection. It is not the fastest process–it takes 15-20 minutes to go through. If you are in a hurry, the AND List is the fastest way to calm down.

After using it, I discovered that it had the added benefit of revealing value-judgments that I would not have identified if I just introspected feelings I was already feeling. As a result, it is a great first aid process when you are emotionally overwhelmed.


References for Members of the Thinking Lab

  • For steps to challenge first thoughts, see the Three Pass Review
  • For steps to clarify your motivation, see   the Goal-Clarification process
  • You can give someone else an empathy bath, but then I recommend that you identify not just their feelings and the idea that seems to be behind it, but the deep rational value at stake. (See this discussion of  deep rational values aka universal values.) Otherwise you risk reinforcing their old baggage.

July 31, 2017 in | Permalink | Trackback | Comments

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