Listening and Guiding our Self Protecting Emotions

We looked at how the anger, anxiety and disgust act as self-protecting devices that evolution has designed to protect us. They have served many species for millions of years. But these emotions come with limited instructions and tell us very little about what to do in certain situations in our modern times.

Recently I went to return a flashlight to a home hardware store. It wasn’t working and I didn’t have a receipt. I was given one excuse after another why it couldn’t be returned; even the manager was unhelpful. They was ‘sticking to policy so rigidly that it just made my angry.

I could feel my jaws tighten, eyes narrow, the tone of voice changed to more assertive and the urge to speak/ scream/ lash out / hit something or someone can increase if we don’t listen and guide our emotions.  Luckily I walked away long before that happened. As our anger gains momentum it exerts increasing control over our mind. This control is even easier if we are tired. Our anger is designed to threaten others who are threatening or blocking us. We can shift to hyper – protective mode and slightest thing can throw us into fury, tears or anxiety; and sometimes resulting in consequences we did not intend.

This hyper protective mode served us well in the past to overcome the life threatening dangers, but in modern time it is quite often not clear what the measured response should be, over reacting can be embarrassing and no reaction at all can send a massage to others that we are push over and with time we will be just ignored.  So what are we to do?  First we have to learn not to act them out without standing back and deciding what to do.

Similarly when we are anxious we can’t always run away in today’s world. If we did that we may never learn the skills to cope with anxiety.

Other times when we need to listen and guide our emotions are when our leaders summons these emotions within us. We have to be cautious that we are not led blindly by our emotions when an inspiring leader summons them within us. Hitler was able to generate passion and pride in his audiences, and his audiences allowed these emotions to work in and through them with horrible consequences.

The threat/self- protection system was designed to protect us. These primitive little devices have served us well in the past, but in modern world they need our guidance and our modern mind to contain them.


The compassionate mind by Paul Gilbert

“SELF PROTECTION” – strategies using emotions but with potential problems.

Threats to life has been in existence since life began. Evolution has been busy trying to protect us. We have the immune system for example to protect us from the microbes ; we throw up if we ingest toxin or spoiled food and there are numerous other mechanism for self-protection. I find it fascinating how evolution has evolved ways to protect us from threats posed by others and that’s what todays posting is about. It is particularly interesting to see how our emotions has been designed by evolution to be part of the overall self-protection system.

Our brain is capable of many emotions and ways of thinking. Further, we have developed ways of knowing what the others true feelings and intentions are towards us, and then we can avoid them or engage in submissive and appeasing behaviour if they seems more powerful than us. Take the emotion anxiety ,we have a pretty good idea that when we feel anxious we are facing things that could harm us and we may feel added desire to run away from or avoid them; this makes anxiety a fundamental self-protection strategy.We are not born with any specific fears but we have the ability to learn how fearful to be in a given situation from our life experiences and our sensitivity; so everyone will experience the same situation with different intensity of anxiety. Some may experience it in excess, others not enough and some will experience it proportionately for that situation. Those with the mismatch of anxiety and the situation will have difficulty avoiding harm.

Anger is another key self-protection emotion. It gets activated when our path to something we want gets blocked. The anger generated can be powerful because we have an incentive / resource – seeking system within us which is programmed so that if there is a reward to be had ( especially if it to satisfy our basic need and not just our wants) we are strongly motivated to acquiring it and anything that come in our way is not looked upon as kindly. Frustration and frustrated anger makes us put more effort into a task to try and force things trough.

Another form of anger  related to frustration is called retaliatory anger; this gets activated when our resources, status and social position is threatened. For example if our work is criticized, or if someone takes advantage of us, or behave unfairly, or cheats us, we will feel anger and want to retaliate. We want the other person to do as we want, maybe demand apology or a submission or make them suffer too. All this will make us feel safe;, imagine if we lived in a world where anyone could challenge us, cheat us without any fear of retaliation. We are unlikely to feel safe under those conditions. Unlike the protective strategy of anxiety where we run away and avoid the unpleasant situation, here we want to be engaged more to over come the obstacle or get the better of the other person. But we have to be cautious and not lose control , because our modern mind can easily be inspired by retaliatory anger and cause terrible suffering in the world.

Another of the major defensive emotion is disgust, which is intended to help us detect and stay away from noxious substances. We spit out bitter-tasting stuff with disgust because it is a good guide to possible toxic substances.But we can also feel disgust for range of things including the behaviour of ourselves and others. We may feel contempt for ourselves or others in judging the behaviour in question. Paul Gilbert writes ….” Researchers think that it is often when the emotions of disgust and contempt are blended with fear and anger that we become capable of terrible thing. When we see our enemies as both dangerous and contemptible or as ‘ infecting our ways of life or contaminating our values’, this sets in motion the defensive strategies of detect, protect, avoid , subjugate and eradicate. These strategies are very useful when focused on dealing with diseases and genuine contaminants, but aimed at other humans, they can lead to atrocities and genocide. When we feel disgust at aspects of ourselves, we may also wish to get rid of,purge or otherwise eradicate aspect of ourselves. So disgust is an archetypal process – originally evolved as a basic self-protection strategy  – but it can now lead us into serious trouble.”

“The emotion of disgust comes into play when we think in terms of goodness and badness and wanting to ‘purify’, get rid of ‘ and ‘destroy’, and has been used in both religious and non religious ways to attack and annihilate people seen as ‘defilers’. Hitler regarded the Jews as an ‘infection’, and once people use this archetype to view others, we’re into ‘search/remove/destroy’ territory where our compassion brain systems are turned off”.


The Compassionate Mind. By Paul Gilbert

Being Nice

His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama brings togeth...

His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama brings together Buddhists and Western scientists every two years. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Dalai Lama through his talks and writing says:- Not only is compassion good for you because it will help you feel good and organize your mind in such a way that makes it more open to happiness, but it’s good for others, too, and being good for others mean that we live in a happier world.

In my previous posting I have written about how evolution first found a way for life to just survive, then went beyond that so as to allow individuals to live better within group settings, without grievously harming each other. Evolution continues to adopt or incorporate ideas that are successful through the gene pool of those who practice and are successful with living and reproducing. Those who are successful at living (I like to say living well) pass their genes to the next generation; and the wisdom and the practices of their ancestors gets carried forward to the next generation. Evolution over millions of years continue to refine and adopt useful practices. We maybe at an “evolutionary stage” where we are beginning to appreciate that ‘being nice’ is a better way to live well.

Todays I asked a group of my friends how many people they know who feel content with their lives. The answer was “not many.” There are many reasons for this and I will elaborate on this point on another occasion. Today I want to explore how we can develop sense of well-being and purpose, resulting in contentment and feeling of living well. I think Dalai Lama is wise in recommending compassion. If compassion had bad consequences like shortening your life or causing illness or discontentment I believe he would not recommend compassion. Having practiced compassion all his life, he knows first hand, what the benefits of compassion are and now even the new research is confirming what Buddhist have been saying for thousands of years, that compassion is good for both ourselves and others. The fact is that evolution has provided us with brain system that makes the ‘ the experience of compassion’ possible , and that compassion can organize our brain patterns in certain ways so as to  allow us to be nice. This cultivates within us a sense of well-being and purpose. It will allow us to have and feel compassion more deeply and for much wider group of individuals than just our family and friends.

Paul Gilbert writes:- Throughout the world, people want to care for others, to become nurses, doctors, social workers, teachers and alternative therapist. Throughout the world, people put their lives at risk to save others – think about such services as the police, peacekeepers, fire, sea and mountain rescue services. If we take the capitalist view, or look at how our history has been shaped by the darker sides of our nature, clashes of tribes and dominant males, it’s easy to forget that, although many of us want to have good lives ourselves, we also want to help and make a difference to others. When we fully acknowledge that we’ve woken up in a world of beauty but also one where many live in hellish conditions, we can see that there’s much we need to do with our science, social polices. and legal systems. In the heart of many is a genuine desire to improve the conditions of humans and , indeed, of all living things.

Our patterns of living will need to change if we are to be happy, healthy , able to love and be loved. Our current way of being; with our stress, striving and competitive social mentalities are getting us into trouble – not to mention what we are doing to the world around us.

Compassion, it seems, is our potential antidote.

Compassion is Consciousness...

The Compassionate Mind  by Paul Gilbert

Related articles


In the past posting we looked at how the evolution has conditioned us to react with automatic reflex under certain context. The reptilian brain was designed to aggressively protect ones own territory. If someone came into our territory they got aggressively chased out. When we are afraid and sense danger we automatically  go  into  fight – flight mode to get out of danger.

As life got more sophisticated, evolution found a way to allow living in-group setting without being overly aggressive and seriously harming each other. There is a distinct advantages of  being able to live in a groups. As mammals started to live in a groups their behaviour got more sophisticated; the need for fighting and the rule of sexual engagement was handled through rules of status hierarchy . Long before Carl Jung described the workings of the archetypes in humans, and even long before we come on the scene, mammals were dealing with the archetypal themes that enabled sexual competition, loyalties and betrayals,group living and tribalism, submission to leaders and fear of dominant males , the striving for status and social position, cooperative hunting and working together.

Our minds are still preoccupied with these themes today. Our desires that flow within us were implanted in us not only long before us but long before all humans. It is tragic that sometimes our brain gets turned on and off according to the evolutionary journey our brain has taken; resulting in knee jerk behaviour causing enormous damage. I myself have said things to my loved ones in anger, which with all my heart I wish I could take back. This happens when we simply turn off our capacities for compression and let cruelty flourish. We are then in danger of losing balance. We may become cruel and callous to ourselves with self – criticism , self dislike or even self-hatred. Because we are doing it to ourselves, like bullies who have no one to stop them, we think its fine to be self -uncompassionate. But it’s not fine.

We have an intelligent and creative mind; let us not be dominated by the past protective but now destructive evolutionary strategies. It is these strategies when triggered out of context that puts us at risk. They don’t work very well in our fast paced and sophisticated society of today. We can reduce the risk of these strategies being triggered inappropriately by conquering fear,anger and desire to harm with simple caring and compassion.


The Compassionate Mind  by Paul Gilbert

The Secrets of Resilience

In the past I wrote about vulnerability. I said vulnerability is the only authentic state. Being vulnerable means being open for wounding, but also for pleasure. Being open to the wounds of life means also being open to the bounty and beauty. I asked not to mask or deny your vulnerability because its our greatest asset. Be vulnerable, I said: quake and shake in your boots with it because the new goodness that comes to you, in the form of people, situations, and things can only come to you when you are vulnerable. Now, this of course is on the assumption that life wounding does not leave you with grievous wound from which you cannot recover.  One may wonder if there is a healthy balance between vulnerability and resilience so that a person can recover from their wounds.  All the wounded people I have come across have recovered either completely or partially. Those that are resilient recover completely and those who are not may have difficulty.

A wise man once said, “The best way to come to terms with a terrible past is to get a really good future out of it.” Again the wise man is assuming the person has enough resilience to overcome the terrible past.

So the question is how does one get resilient. I have suggested in my previous posts that the individual who had a happy loving childhood and who’s parents provided the right kind of environment are more “psychologically balances” and this would contribute to them being resilient. But all is not lost if you had a terrible childhood. One can learn to be more resilient. The past doesn’t have to ruin or limit our future. We don’t want to have thought that say “ I can never be happy because this happened in my past.”

What can we do to become resilient? Some very exciting research has emerged from the study of mindfulness meditation.  It seems with meditation practice there is an electrical change in brain function which cultivates an “ approach state” in which people move toward, rather than away from a challenging external situation or internal mental function such as a thought, feeling, or memory. Naturally, such an approach state can be seen as the neural basis for resilience.

Studies have also shown that patients with meditation practice feel an internal sense of stability and clarity. This is important because resilient people are very good at dealing with novelty. When they feel stuck or come across a new difficulty in their path they don’t run away from it.but face it head on, the sense of the stability and clarity they cultivate through meditation becomes very handy  in those situations. If someone is unable to deal with a new situations and keeps finding good excuses not to tackle it, then they will get stuck in the pattern of ineffectuality i.e. they keep repeating the same behaviour and hoping for a different result. They maybe too fearful to try something new; they maybe putting their fear ahead of solving the problem they are faced with. Not solving the problem keeps one in the comfortable zone of what we already know and this keeps one stuck because what we know has been ineffectual and therefore continues to keep one  stuck. One needs to try something new.

Meditation has also been shown to boost the immune system. So there is defence and resilience at the cellular level too, against infections and damage done to the body by the stress hormones. Having a healthy body also will provide sense of resilience.


Man never made any material as resilient as the human spirit.
Bern Williams


The Mindfulness Revolution: edited by Barry Boyce – chapter by Daniel Siegel,  the proven benefits of mindfulness.

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