We Need an Emotional Revolution

How we deal with these difficult emotional experiences becomes critical to the way we move through our lives, adding to life’s satisfactions or burdening us with chronic distress.

Oh, 2020. The problems that we all face during this terrible, remarkable year continue.

It’s completely normal for us all to be dealing with very strong emotions; mounting isolation, anger, frustrations and fear can overrun even our favorite coping skills. How we deal with these difficult emotional experiences becomes critical to the way we move through our lives, adding to life’s satisfactions or burdening us with chronic distress.

It seems to me that learning to manage ourselves is the work of a lifetime and our earliest teachers are parents, siblings, grandparents and other close relationships who model how to deal with life’s challenges.

As we move toward the expanding social network of school and neighborhood, we inevitably take one of two emotional directions: we either gain the skills of self-management of distress tolerance and cognitive emotional understanding (sometimes chronically soothing our pain with less-helpful substances like alcohol) or, we seek relief by pushing our pain onto others. That displacement looks like blame, denial, verbal or physical intimidation, bullying, or violence.

No doubt you’ve noticed as I have a recent cultural shift toward externalizing fear and frustration that fuels the rhetoric of division, cynicism, judgment and hate. Whether it is the dangerous rise in hate groups, shootings and public violence against others or the distrust and bitterness of partisan politics in governing, none of us have been spared the real results of people who don’t deal well with frustration and pain.

This cultural and personal failure to manage our struggles has dangerous, real life consequences. Minimizing public health science has meant we have continuing, dangerous exposure to pandemic. Not acknowledging our national bias toward white, European history and our legacy of slavery means people of color are still judged as less worthy, less human and experience bias and bigotry every day. Not being willing to look at the mythology of capitalism and the American Dream means the rich keep getting richer and the poor poorer — the poorest ending up homeless on our streets, in our neighborhood parks and our prisons.

Social psychologists like Jonathan Haidt (The Righteous Mind, The Happiness Hypothesis and The Coddling of the American Mind) study moral reasoning and ethical leadership. They research and study the way we behave together. They have helped me better understand just what has been stoking our country’s increasing violent speech and actions in recent years. And it is no one person or political party’s fault.

One of the most shocking findings of their research is the way social media has impacted our shift toward emotional acting out and political extremism. Social media platforms are designed to keep us spending time on the site as a way to generate income (in the way of paid advertising) for the media companies.

How have sites like Facebook, Reddit, Instagram and Pinterest been engineering our attention? By creating easy ways to form interest groups and ways for us to react to one another with comments, like buttons, emojis and post sharing, all rapid emotional reactions that tend to fuel more responses.

The recent Netflix documentary, The Social Dilemma, describes this strategy with candid interviews with the engineers who designed these sites. For the last 10 years, millions of us have spent untold hours reading, reacting and sharing information online, and now bad actors, including foreign governments, are exploiting these sites to stoke anger, despair and distrust during this bitter election and pandemic.

So, what can you do about it? Take a look at how you communicate. How do you manage your interactions in real life as well as online? If there is ever a time in our lives when we all need to hold ourselves accountable for our emotions, for the way we think, comment and react to other people and their ideas, it is now.

Assess how you show up in public spaces. You are in charge of your emotional responses, in person and virtually. Bring your best self to your Facebook page, your news article comments, the internet memes you share.

It’s time for an emotional revolution. One that values honestly, humility, toleration and facts. We can turn our national mood around, but it will take every one of us to grow up and manage hard emotions better.

Originally written for “Spiritual Reflections,” a weekly column appearing in the Savage Pacer newspaper.

When Empathy Goes Awry : Mirror Touch Synesthesia

How do we come to understand another person’s emotions?

Within our brain are a cluster of nerve cells that scientists call “mirror neurons.” These cells and circuits turn on and develop when, as infants and toddlers, our primary caregivers express on their own faces what they sense in us. We are wailing because we are in pain? A caring parent has some of that same suffering in their facial expressions. We laugh and smile when we begin to recognize our mother’s face, and our mother smiles and laughs with us. This is how the human baby begins the long process of understand the self, what s/he is experiencing, and who others are, and what they are experiencing.

Most human beings have adequate care as children; their caregivers give more or less consistent emotional feedback to them day-to-day, and the emotional skills of knowing how we feel and how other might be feeling develop naturally. Those children who suffer early life deprivation (e.g., orphans in mass care settings, like those in China) may never completely catch up with their peers who were raised in small family groups. Others, who may have the terrible fortune to be born to uncaring, chemically addicted or violent parents, will suffer personality changes that will hamper their natural capacity to feel their own emotions and care about others for the rest of their lives. Those early life experiences of caring, love and emotion are that important to normal human development.

But that is the normal or mainstream human experience of noticing emotion in others, understanding what they might be feeling, and sharing human experience. What if those mirror neurons don’t stop developing? What if those experiences of feeling another person’s pain actually become your own body feeling not your own emotions, but those of people you see and feel?

That is the extremely rare and the terrible lost-self experience of those with Mirror Touch Synesthesia. These folks have mirror neuron circuits that in some mysterious way over-developed. Out among people, they “catch” the emotional experiences of others in such deep ways that it is hard for them to know what is their own emotion and not the experience of others. This disorder seems to run in families, and has the capacity to ruin not only individual experience, but the relationships that person tries to maintain.

Want to hear more, including an interview with a woman who suffers from MTS? The new NPR podcast “Invisibilia” just included a story on this phenomenon — here’s the link for the January 29, 2015 broadcast:


It’s fascinating, and disturbing. As it turns out, helpful empathy, the kind we want our parents, friends, teachers, chaplains and therapists to cultivate in themselves, has normal limits. None of us, it turns out, wants to so inhabit the emotional lives of others that we don’t know exactly what it is we are feeling. Because what we feel is the center of who we are.