How Emotions are Made

Photo by Ryan Magsino on Unsplash

Science often tells us that things are not what they seem. Why should feelings be any different?

In the popular view, when a man tells me his dog died, the break in his voice indicates he’s sad. This means, according to the common conception, a circuit in his brain called sadness has been activated. This circuit was wired into him at birth, designed to be stimulated whenever he suffers a loss. The loss of his dog causes his brow to furrow, his shoulders to stoop, tears to form, and his throat to constrict; all signs that tell the world he’s sad.

I hear the break in his voice and the news that his dog had died and feel sad, too. I’ve had dogs, and mine have also died. Following common sense, the same sadness circuit got activated in me in sympathy to his, and there was nothing I could have done about it.

According to the popular belief, this circuit is like many such circuits that take over whenever they are activated: fear, anger, surprise, disgust, among others. When we’re in their throes, we’re unlikely to be able to think straight and do what we think is reasonable. Evolution gave us these circuits to our advantage and they’re now a permanent part of our nature. Consequently, everyone worldwide, except freaks such as psychopaths, have these emotions.

The popular view of feelings can be found everywhere, from Aristotle to Darwin to Freud to Sesame Street. The typical courtroom judge believes that feelings are an inherent vestige of an animal nature, and so will the jury. Teachers put up posters in their classrooms of the universal language of the face to teach their students to recognize emotions as if they’re as standardized as letters of the alphabet. Researchers study the health effects of anger, assuming there’s a single pattern of bodily changes that goes by that name.

And yet, despite this persistent belief that each emotion has a distinct profile and possesses an existence as real as rocks and shrubs, there’s precious little scientific evidence for it. On the contrary, says Lisa Feldman Barrett, in her book, How Emotions are Made, your emotions are not built in, they’re custom crafted. They’re not universal, they vary between cultures. They’re not triggered, you create them. She admits that feelings are real, but not real like rocks and shrubs are real, but real like money is real: a product of consensus. Continue reading

Have You Been Groomed?

The Road to Reconciliation

It’s bad enough to contemplate that someone who should have loved you, hurt you instead; but if you want to prevent it from happening again, there’s something even worse to think about. He might have groomed you to be a victim.

By groomed, I mean the process that an offender uses to prepare you to accept something you would not otherwise accept. It’s usually used to describe the way pedophiles befriend a child, and sometimes the family, with the objective of sexual abuse; but here I’m using it in reference to the groundwork laid to commit any offense.

This is how offenders groom a victim:

  1. First, you’re targeted
    If you’re emotionally needy, isolated, or have low self-esteem, this makes you easy pickings. Offenders like to select desperate people to be their victims.
  2. Then the offender gains trust
    The offender establishes herself to you and others who would protect you as someone who is safe and reliable. As you allow the offender to get close, she acquires information about you she can exploit.
  3. The offender fills a need
    Once the offender detects a need, he positions himself as someone who can fill it. He cultivates your dependency.
  4. The offender isolates you from others
    The offender cuts you off from others who might protect you. She forges a connection like no other. You start to think you and the offender have something special.
  5. The offender desensitizes you
    The offender starts with things you won’t object to, then moves on to more risky behaviors while maintaining plausible deniability. As less risky behaviors are accepted, they prepare you to accept what you would never initially accept.
  6. Lastly, the offender maintains control
    The offender uses threats, secrecy, and blame to maintain your continued participation and silence.

For example, Vernon owned a dairy farm that was passed down to him after his father died in a farming accident. Molly was shy and didn’t like to leave the house. They both believed in old fashioned family values. Vernon said she would make a perfect farm wife. They would get married and she would be in charge of everything inside the home: cooking and raising the kids. He would handle everything outside the home. Molly agreed but said that even though most farm wives keep the books for the farm, she had no head for numbers and found dealing with money made her anxious. Vernon said he would keep the books himself.

Vernon’s one fault was he liked to play poker with friends every Saturday night. He asked Molly to not begrudge him his one pleasure when he was so hard working the rest of the week.

As the kids got older and could do more chores, Vernon began to travel for days at a time. He said he was going to farm shows, but she found evidence he was visiting a casino. He had an excuse for every visit, and he said she hadn’t been concerned about the poker games, so why should trips to a casino be different. She began to notice the herd of cows slowly dwindling as he would sell one here and there to pay for gambling debts; but he said he was culling the herd. When creditors started calling the house, he got rid of the phone so they couldn’t bother her anymore. Then one day she saw a letter from the bank, saying they were in foreclosure. He yelled at her for snooping and said he had to go off on these trips because her lack of trust in him made it intolerable to be at home.

Let’s break down this story and see how Molly was groomed:

  1. Target
    Vernon chose Molly in part because she was fine with being a traditional wife who would not question his authority.
  2. Gain trust
    Vernon was hard working. He owned a farm. Her parents liked him. He promised to take care of her.
  3. Fill a need
    Molly believed she was unable to do the accounting for the farm. Vernon was willing to do it.
  4. Isolate
    They lived far out in the country, so Molly rarely saw friends and family. She was financially dependent on Vernon.
  5. Desensitize
    Molly learned to accept the weekly poker games before he moved on to the trips to a casino. He had an explanation for the trips and selling the cows. She was also gradually desensitized to Vernon getting domineering.
  6. Control
    Vernon evoked traditional values to keep her silenced and to continue to accept his gambling. He eliminated the phone, her one connection to the outside world. He even tried to blame her for losing the farm.

The problem most people have with the concept of grooming is that it’s sometimes hard to believe that the offender, Vernon in this case, deliberately chose his victim, and went through the stages systematically, knowing full well what he was doing. It would be chilling if that’s how it happened. We usually say that the offender unconsciously grooms the victim. What do we mean by that?

We mean a pattern develops. Choosing to live out on the farm in a traditional arrangement, taking charge of the finances, and gambling small amounts before moving on to big ones does not have to be part of a master plan to be part of a pattern. One thing simply creates the conditions that lead to another as Vernon drifts from one stage to the next because of opportunity and lack of restraint. In other words, Vernon groomed himself while he was grooming Molly. Rather, his gambling addiction groomed him.

When I claim an addiction groomed Vernon, as if it was a person, I’m not suggesting there is a demon afoot, nor am I saying he has a split or multiple personality. Addiction is not an actual creature; it’s an emergent phenomenon, a process that organizes itself naturally out of properties inherent in the situation. Other examples of emergence are the Market, Evolution, the Self, or Life itself. We often personify them, too, in the same way I have personified addiction. So, relax. I haven’t gone flaky on you. It’s a natural process.

How Vernon got groomed by his addiction to gambling
Let’s look at the stages of grooming and see how addiction might have used them to have its way with Vernon.

  1. Target
    Vernon may have been predisposed to have a gambling problem by some genetic factors. His father was not a gambler, but he was a risk taker who died trying to clear a jam in the corn picker with the machine still running and bled to death alone in a corn field.
  2. Gain Trust
    Vernon never gambled a lot in the beginning, so he never lost much at first. He would win every so often, so it seemed safe. He met ordinary, likeable people who gambled, so it didn’t seem weird or especially dangerous.
  3. Fill a need
    Gambling gave him a thrill he never got the rest of the week. It was an escape from the drudgery of farm work.
  4. Isolate
    As he began to gamble more and more, he spent more time with people who fed the gambling bug, casino employees and other gamblers, and avoided those who could give him a hard time about it, his wife and other people who don’t gamble. As his gambling got more serious, he migrated away from the games with friends who might restrain him, to high stakes games with strangers.
  5. Desensitize
    In the beginning, he got used to gambling small amounts, before moving on to big ones. Indeed, he needed to move on to high stakes games in the casino because the low stakes games with friends weren’t giving him enough of a thrill anymore.

Vernon also gradually desensitized himself to treating his wife poorly. He did not start off being so domineering. He started by having a separate area of responsibility, which facilitated keeping secrets. It was easy then to move on to lying, and making excuses before he cut off her ability to communicate with the outside world and blamed her for the problem.

  1. Maintain Control
    The shame and stigma of losing money gambling silenced Vernon and made him feel different from everyone. These are, of course, uncomfortable feelings from which more gambling can help him escape.


If you’ve been groomed, how do you get ungroomed?
So, how about it? If you’re the victim, did your offender groom you? If you’re the offender, were you groomed by an emergent problem that you failed to recognize and resist? The answer is almost always yes. That’s because hurtful actions don’t ever really come out of nowhere, they arise from a context, there’s a pattern. If you can detect a pattern to a problem, that would be tremendously valuable. Patterns give you warning, they show the connections the problem has to everything else, and they hint at how the problem can be defeated.

How can Molly and Vernon defeat the gambling problem that had caused so much harm to their relationship? They can work backwards through the stages of grooming and undo the conditions that lead to them losing their farm.

  1. Renounce Control
    Vernon can relinquish control that the shame and stigma of gambling has by refusing to let it silence him. He should admit that he has a gambling problem and admit that he has essentially taken Molly hostage.

Molly can escape the control Vernon, and his gambling problem, have on her by taking steps towards becoming more self-reliant.

  1. Sensitize
    Vernon must become more sensitized to gambling and the triggers to gamble. This means that even small bets should be a big deal. It also means that all the approaches to gambling should set off trip wires and alarms. He should be careful when talking about big wins, playing Yahtzee with the kids, and watching the Poker Channel. No more trips alone, casino or not. For most, sensitization is achieved by making abstinence an objective.

Vernon also needs to be sensitized to how he treats Molly by learning to respect her independence and acknowledge her worth. He should become scrupulously honest, especially about his dealings with money.

Molly can become sensitized by recognizing the signs and the triggers of Vernon’s gambling and the signs of when he is becoming domineering. She could be a lookout and learn how to warn Vernon effectively when she sees trouble coming.

  1. Expand your view
    Vernon must find other forms of recreation that don’t involve gambling and develop friendships with non-gamblers.

Molly also needs to develop relationships with people who demonstrate ways to live, other than the one she’s used to.

  1. Fill the need another way
    If Vernon needs a thrill, there are a hundred other ways to get one besides gambling. Even better, he can tune into the joy and wonder that can be found in ordinary activities.

Molly needs to overcome her math anxiety and monitor their finances.

  1. Develop self-reliance
    Both Vernon and Molly got into trouble because they trusted that something or someone else would bail them out of a problem that was only theirs to solve. Vernon trusted gambling to solve his problem of being bored with farm work. There is nothing inherently boring about farm work; it is his attitude towards it that made him bored. Molly trusted Vernon to solve her math anxiety by eliminating the need to ever having to do any math. In both cases, they trusted too much and did not challenge their own abilities to face their problems.
  2. Protecting the target
    There isn’t a lot Vernon can do to change the predisposition he was born with; but he can be aware he has a tendency to take risks and a willingness to sacrifice everything for a thrill. He should keep that in mind just as he knows that a cow can kick, or a corn picker can chew up his hand. He can safely live with that predisposition if he knows to be careful with it.


Molly needs to know how letting her fears control her put her at risk. If she faced her fears of leaving the house and of handling the finances, then not only will she be keeping herself safe, she would also be helping Vernon.

The Talking Stick


Here’s another object in my office I want to tell you about.

It’s a Talking Stick.


No, the stick doesn’t talk. You do when you hold it.

The concept of the Talking Stick comes, I’ve been told, from an old Native American tradition. When the elders gathered in a teepee to talk about important matters, they would pass a Talking Stick around. Whoever had the stick had the right to speak. Everyone else listened.

There are characteristics about sticks that make them perfect for talking. A stick performs the same functions that words can. A stick can be used for support. It can point things out. It can be a weapon. Your words are the same way. Your words can also support, point things out, or be used as a weapon. When you are handed a Talking Stick, you are being trusted that you will use your words wisely.

My Talking Stick has some feathers on it. When you hold the stick and speak, the feathers will move, blown around by the wind your breath makes. Your words have effect. People can be stirred, affected, or blown over by your words.

I attached a small bag of stones to my Talking Stick. Stones that have been through my rock tumbler. The rock tumbler is my favorite metaphor for relationships. I wrote about it here.

The Talking Stick is best held so that the bottom end is resting on the ground. That’s to symbolize that the talker is grounded. He or she is connected to reality, that Earth upon which we all stand. However, the point only touches a very small piece of the Earth. The talker can only claim a small bit of reality, just the point he or she is trying to make at the moment.

I frequently use the Talking Stick in marriage counseling whenever the partners have something they need to learn from one another. When you use the Talking Stick properly, you get feedback; you can learn.

Whoever starts off with the stick gets to speak first, but, but just as the stick can only point to once place at a time, you can only make one point at a time. You can’t go on and on and on and expect that your partner can absorb it all, must less show comprehension, and respond to everything at once. Keep it short and concise.

Once you’ve made your point, your partner has to earn the right to speak by demonstrating that he has understood what you have just said.

Your partner should paraphrase the point you just made, not parrot. It’s possible to mindlessly repeat what you’ve just said without understanding it. Paraphrasing is harder. Paraphrasing requires that he put into his own words the gist of what you were trying to say. He should paraphrase everything you just said when you had the stick. If you asked him a direct question, he should paraphrase the question before answering it. That’s so he can prove to you and to himself that he understands the question he’s answering. Otherwise, he could be answering a question you didn’t even have. What good is that?

When you are satisfied that your partner comprehends the point you made, then you give him the stick. Even if he doesn’t agree, you can be satisfied that he gets it. He knows where you are coming from.

If you’re not satisfied that he understands, you have to make your point again, in a different way. Maybe he wasn’t listening. Maybe he distorted what you were trying to say. Maybe you weren’t explaining things well. Maybe you two have a variance over the meanings of words. In any case, aren’t you glad you asked him to paraphrase? If you hadn’t, then you might have gone on in a confused manner.

When he gets the stick, be prepared; you will have to paraphrase when he is done.

My Talking Stick has a lot of spiritual medicine from hundreds of people talking with it over a quarter of a century. You’ll have to make an appointment if you want to use it. If you can’t make an appointment, it’s easy enough to make your own. However, you would have to provide your own spiritual medicine.


Photo by Ryan Magsino on Unsplash

If the inside of my own head is any indication, we all carry around a few snapshots of what our childhood was like. These snapshots are extremely powerful in determining our self-image, the choices we make, and the way we feel about everything.

One snapshot of my own childhood is that of me, sitting in a school bus. Every other seat is taken, but the seat next to me is empty. Continue reading

The Fly

Old Posts

I have an object in my office, nailed to the wall, it looks like this:


“What is this object?” I ask.

Most people would say it’s a fly.

“OK, why do I have a fly nailed to my wall?”

“It must be a joke,” most say. “Fly on the Wall, get it?”

“Is it really a fly?”

“Of course; well, it might be some other kind of bug.”

If I take the object down, put it on a table, and let people examine it, they still say it’s a fly. This is funny because of all the things it could be, it is definitely not a fly. It’s actually a brass object, made to look like something.

If they open it up, it looks like this:


“Now, what is this object?”

It becomes evident that it could be an ashtray. But most people struggle with this awareness because they had already categorized the object as a fly.

“Why would a person have an ashtray?”

“They’d need an ashtray if they smoked, but I guess you don’t, or you used to, so now you don’t need an ashtray, so you put it up on the wall as a joke.”

They’re right, it is a joke. It’s also an object lesson I use sometimes to point out the difference between the thing in itself and the labels and stories we attach to them. Often, the label is so persuasive that we totally forget what it is in itself, just as people will persist in calling it a fly even after I point out that it’s only a piece of brass made to look like one.

We are very quick to attach labels and stories, not only to brass objects, but to everything else, including people, including ourselves. But, because we are so quick, we are often wrong, or incomplete.

There are many powerful myths and psychological processes that get in the way of seeing things the way they are. It pays to not be so attached to labels and stories. It’s important to always go back to the thing in itself and to be open to seeing it in a new way.