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Death, Dogs, and the Triad ~ Lessons in emotional mastery.

A strange thing happened to me the other day. Actually, nothing really happened to me, other than a flash of awareness. I received some very sad and shocking news, and I had a prime opportunity, kind of accidentally, to really absorb one of the great lessons of the coach training I have been in, and to see, feel, and understand it clearly in my own life.

One of the main principles in Strategic Intervention coaching is that we have the ability to take control of our emotions at any time. It is suggested that we are not manipulated by our emotions but rather we actually do our emotions, and it is possible to then change our emotional state, “in a heartbeat”, as Anthony Robbins says. Good or empowering actions and decisions arise from being in a resourceful state of being, “resourceful” meaning being able to access all our inner resources. The value of emotional mastery is that, if we can take command of our emotional state, we can then access all those inner resources and make better choices for our lives, rather than make poor decisions as a result of being in a poor emotional (unresourceful) state.

This is not to say that we are to be always positive and upbeat, just that it helps greatly to be able to access a more powerful or cheerful or present-focused state on demand, than to try to make decisions from a place of fear, guilt, worry, anger, despair, hurt, etcetera.

Before this training I had also learned in an audio program called “Emotional Genius” by Karla McLaren, something to the effect that a spontaneous emotion or feeling tends to last, when triggered, approximately 90 seconds, and then kind of dissipates or normalizes….unless we keep re-triggering that emotion by the thoughts we think and the stories we build around it.

Another version or understanding of this I recently found is that once a memory of something is triggered, or a “file is pulled”, as psychologist Joseph M. Carver calls it, it is actually 90-120 seconds before the emotional component of a thought or memory kicks in:

“Once we pull a file, after 90 seconds the emotional component begins. Our mood starts to change, returning us to the mood which was present when the file was made. As an example, remember someone discussing the recent death of a loved one. The first two minutes of conversation may go well – then they become sad. The longer the file is out (being discussed), the more the emotional component surfaces to the point that they will become tearful. If the file remains out, the exact feelings made at the time of the funeral and death will surface – they will talk about loss, love, guilt, or whatever other feelings are in the file.”

(“Emotional Memory Management: Positive Control Over Your Memory”, article by Joseph M. Carver, Ph.D.)

So, whether the 90 seconds is actually the length of an average emotional response once triggered, or is rather the time it takes for that emotional aspect of it to filter through and impact our bodies once a “file is pulled”, the key point is that the emotion doesn’t stick around unless we “keep the file out” by continuing to tell ourselves the story of the triggering circumstances.

In Strategic Intervention we talk about this concept in terms of looking at what we are “focusing” on, as in, what we are thinking about. If we focus on something that brings up a challenging or “unresourceful” emotional state, it will continue unless and until we either, 1. change our focus (ie. think about something else), 2. change the meaning or interpretation/language we are giving to the situation (find a positive or more empowering “spin” on what it could mean), or 3. change our physiology (ie. what we are doing with our body at that moment).

Opening the body, saying "yes" to life!

Opening the body, saying “yes” to life!

The physiological change is one of the fastest routes to changing our state and is amazingly effective. It can be as simple and subtle as changing our breathing pattern or our posture, going from, say, shallow breathing with slumped shoulders and a downward gaze, to standing tall, looking ahead and breathing into the belly. It can change with turning on some music, going for a walk, doing something silly or unexpected, slapping on a smile, dancing, stretching, even making a “power move”, like punching the air or raising hands high and saying “yes!” to life.

Here’s what happened to me the other day that brought this home in a very strong way, even though I have been well-versed in this concept for some time and use the physiological/focus changes consciously to switch gears on a regular basis. This one took me by surprise.

I drove home from the grocery store, stopped at the rural mailbox at the bottom of our driveway and picked up the mail. Among the letters I noticed a return address that surprised me, the name of some people I knew in another city who had been connected to a relative of mine who had passed away over a year ago. I was concerned immediately as to why they might be writing now. I knew that I had been a minor beneficiary among many in the relative’s will, but I knew these folks weren’t handling the estate.

When I immediately opened the letter in the car, I discovered that the writer had taken over the executor duties because the original executrix, the adopted daughter of my relative, had passed away. I was shocked and saddened. Although I did not know her very well, we had been together for meals and such on several occasions when I had visited and stayed with my great uncle, and had communicated with each other about him and my late aunt over the years during times of their illness. I was shocked that their daughter had passed so relatively young, leaving behind her dear husband, especially so soon after both her dad and her husband’s mother had died.

My thoughts moved from the initial shock to the “story” I then created around it…how unjust for her to pass so young and to have never had a chance to rest and really enjoy life after so much caregiving for others for so long. I thought about how very sad for her husband to lose her and how awful that must feel, and how devastated my dear great uncle and aunt would have been if they’d known (perhaps they did, in spirit) that she had died so soon. I felt sorrow and also anger at the “unfairness” of her untimely passing.  And I felt sorry that I had had no knowledge of her own illness, and been out of touch and regretted not having been able to offer some kind of support or at least conversation during this time.

This all made my tears flow as I drove up the hill from the mailbox to the house. My heart felt pressure, there was a lump in my throat as I sniffed back the tears, thinking how wrong this all was, how tragic and wrong. My shoulders got tight and tense.

When I got out of the car and began taking my groceries inside, my dogs burst out the door to greet me. It was sunny that day, there was fresh snow on the ground, and Alfie dog plunged her face deep into snowbanks, right up to her ears, then pulled out all snow-covered.


What’s not to love with this face?

Then she started rolling around in the snow, right over on her back, fluffy feet high in the air and belly exposed for a rub. She was directly in my way behind the trunk where I was trying to retrieve the bags from the car. Two big dogs making silly moves, “smiling” faces, tails wagging around and around, as if about to come unscrewed.  Alfie was begging me to play and rub her exposed tummy. I bet you can feel it already.


Rub my belly Angus?

My heart softened, the tears stopped immediately, the lump was gone as I started rubbing her and tickling her paws and talking in my silly dog-mom voice (you know what I mean!), and my body relaxed as I looked at her adorable face and kissed Angus on the nose. I am sure I smiled. And then my aware, coach-y self observed from “above”, “Wow…there it is, just what we teach about changing focus to change emotion. It really can happen ‘in a heartbeat’.”

I have changed moods before by deliberately changing focus or physiology as we have learned, but this was one time when it came upon me suddenly, organically and unintentionally, just by virtue of my dogs grabbing my attention, and was such a complete shift from real sadness to a feeling of love and happiness.

Joseph Carver says that one of the rules about emotional memory is that the brain only allows one “file” out at a time. And that, like the files, the brain only allows one feeling or emotion to be active at a time. “We cannot be happy and sad at the same time.”

My ability to shift my state so quickly (whether intentionally or not) doesn’t mean I no longer cared about the loss of this lovely woman and the impact on her family. It doesn’t mean I don’t still think of it as “unfair” and also sad that I did not get a chance to reconnect with her before her passing. If I decide to ponder these thoughts for more than the next 90 seconds to two minutes, I have little doubt some strong feelings will still emerge the more I dwell on it. In fact a certain tension in my heart has begun now as I write.

But I could choose now, in honouring her, and deciding not to sink into that sad state, not to focus on the tragedy of it all, but on what a gift she had been to my great uncle and aunt while they lived. She came along as an adult and became the child they’d never had and they became the loving parents she’d always wanted. She and her husband completed their family, celebrated holidays and family events, and supported each other in difficult times. She took great care of them during their old age, illness and passing. She added joy to their lives as they did for her. It is great that they found each other.

Thinking those thoughts gives me great comfort actually, as I hope it will at some point to her dear husband who must be missing her terribly. I can be more detached because she was not a regular presence in my life and we lived far apart. For loved ones left behind, however, I know a simple change of focus or meaning may not be enough when your whole pattern of living and loving and communicating has been broken. The rhythm of your days has suddenly been changed and the mirror of relationship is gone. There may be a huge loss of certainty and connection as the predictable patterns of your day, or a loss of income, or physical support and companionship, is now gone.


Rainbow & prayer flags.

There goes the pressure in my heart again, as I guess I am tapping into my empathy thinking about this. I can imagine somewhat how that might feel. I never want to have to experience that loss of my spouse in my own life, but presumably one of us will be left behind at some point. I hope if it’s me that I am able to call upon some of these inner resources to cope with the changes, and create empowering meanings and stories that make it hurt less and uplift more.

This reminds me that grief is a funny thing, “funny” as in strange. It varies from person to person and definitely from culture to culture. Feelings may be formed by our thoughts, but our cultural, societal and familial contexts shape what those thoughts are or “should be”. They tell us that we should grieve a loved one’s passing, often in a certain way, by showing certain emotions for a certain period of time. Sometimes you see some cultures on the news where there has been tragedy and the people are wailing and screaming loudly in grief. You’ll see people in others be much more restrained, shedding tears but no wailing allowed, stiff upper lip and all.  And apparently there are cultures in the world where there is no real “grieving”, but rather celebration that the deceased has gone on to a better place or fulfilled their mission perhaps. It is not seen as an occasion to be sad or feel loss.

I know these are sweeping generalizations, but we’ve been trained by our society’s “rules” to believe that “appropriate” grief in certain contexts takes x-amount of time and is displayed by certain behaviours and words. So we let others really dictate what thoughts we think, and then our emotion follows accordingly. Strange isn’t it?

Wouldn’t it be nice to become masterful with our own thoughts, with emotional mastery following accordingly? Not that we can’t or shouldn’t experience a full range of emotions, they add so much texture and depth and contrast to life. And really our emotions are our warning systems that serve us by trying to make us more aware of things we really need to know about ourselves and about others and the world around us.

But it is good to know that when we start to get stuck in emotional states that do not serve our highest good, that make us unable to make good choices or are disempowering, that we can have the awareness and ability to shift gears, by using the triad of our focus, physiology and meaning, to help us live happier lives.

Can you remember a moment when you went so quickly from one strong emotion to another, due to a change in the focus of your thoughts or how you were using your body? What happened and did it surprise you? Let me know!

6 Comments Post a comment
  1. This is something I work on everyday…sometimes with success while others not so much. I enjoyed your story and it will serve as a tool for me in future. Stress, there never seems to be a shortage of it, is making my hair fall out and I’ve been trying to not allow negative, external things and people to drag me down into a dark pit. Retail eh? The leaned behaviour from my early years likes to rear its ugly head and old habits can be difficult to shake. I’ll think of your words the next time an “incident” occurs.

    January 30, 2014
    • Hi Christine!
      Thanks so much for your comment, much appreciated, and glad you can use it as a tool in future. I have no doubt retail can be an area that test one’s emotional mastery! And as for the past and old habits, awareness is always the first step, recognizing what triggers a reaction, and then it becomes a daily practice to develop new responses. Journaling can be a big help with this! Best regards, Mary

      January 30, 2014
  2. Daya #

    Interesting piece, Mary. Thank you. As I continue to build my wonderful, new life in this new place, I sometimes struggle to overcome deep sadness triggered by separation from the loved ones left behind. Of course, in this tiny world we now live in, I am constantly in touch with them, but that does not replace the physical connections. Thoughts of missing events that can never be recaptured are especially challenging. I try my best to live in the moment, but the reality of separation is difficult to ignore.

    January 30, 2014
    • Hi Daya,
      thanks for commenting. It’s true, shifting meaning, or your state of being, still doesn’t quite replace the touch and close physical contact of loved ones for sure. Skyping and other video forums are pretty great connectors but still nothing like being there I know, especially for celebrations. Not sure what to offer you for that other than to say, “make them all move to Nova Scotia!!” (only half kidding…we have the same issues in our family). It could happen, if they catch the same magic that you did! Or maybe you just decide to make plans to make sure that as many important events are attended in person as you can, or they can here, and then truly make it “quality time” when it happens. You’re not really that far away in some ways. Sometimes when we’re in closer proximity we take things for granted and are not as present as we could be, or we let little things interfere with these wonderful occasions when we don’t appreciate how valuable they are. I am rambling now, but I am just saying, I think I know for you it isn’t really an all or nothing situation but it is still new to you.

      From the perspective of the Triad idea in this article, I think what I could say is that your “focus” is better directed to what you can do, what solutions there are to satisfy the need for real contact, rather than on what’s missing or what you might miss someday. And when you can’t stand it, you just get in the car and go! Hugs!

      January 31, 2014
  3. Mary, this is just the thing I needed to read right now! Thank you so much for sharing your experience, and your understanding of this topic. I have been struggling with this concept, well, all my life, but have been recently more aware of it, and trying to make sense of my confusion around it. There is often guilt present for me when I find my emotions change so rapidly, as if maybe they were fake in the first place, or that I did not give the emotional situation the attention it deserved. But then, I also recognize that it is not healthy to dwell on negative emotions, and how unproductive it can be. Your words have really helped clear up my confusion on the matter, and to know not to feel bad when I am able to feel joy where there was such sadness a moment ago. Thanks for the great insight Mary! (o:

    January 30, 2014
    • Hi Kristina,

      thanks for the comments! I am so glad you found this helpful. It is a tricky issue I know, especially about reactions to death in particular. I have wrestled with it myself over the years having lost important family members. And I neglected to say it isn’t just societal norms that dictate our responses but obviously every person is different and individual, and comes with their own set of filters of life experience and own bag of behaviour patterns. The tension arises when how we feel conflicts with the norms in our immediate society or culture. If it is our own grief (or perhaps lack thereof) over someone close we’re dealing with then we tend to try to behave or appear such that others won’t think ill of us, thinking we are not appropriately stricken or respectful. A simple “thanks but I don’t want to talk about it,” can suffice as you process in your own way. Others often have a perception of what our life or our relationships were like, but they rarely know the real story and should not judge our reactions or the way in which we grieve or reflect…or even celebrate, depending on our own spiritual views. But they do, because they have been conditioned to expect certain behaviour. If someone not so close to us has passed and we “pay our respects” to another family for example, then I think it’s reasonable to conform in such as way as to honour whatever their own ritual is, in order to support them as friends. It’s all about respect really, appreciating differences and understanding that we never really know the whole story. As a footnote, my own spiritual view would be that our loved ones “in Spirit” ultimately want us to be happy.

      January 31, 2014

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