Posts tagged "emotions"


At present, I write here infrequently. You can find my current, regular blogging over at The Deliberate Owl.

Me on the strip at a fencing competition.

Me, fencing in a competition at Vassar College in 2010.

Fencing: More than parries and ripostes.

I used a fence a lot. For ten years, I picked up a foil and went on guard on the strip two, three, sometimes five days a week. Or more, with tournaments on weekends. I was not alone: my teammates did the same. Yet despite the dedication so many of us gave to the sport, the first coach I had, George Platt, used to say that when it came to life versus fencing, "It's just fencing!"

However important the sport is, in the end, "it's just fencing!"

It's as important as you make it to you. The rest of your life, well, that matters too.

I was thinking about this recently in relation to other life decisions, balancing time and energy. And I realized: I really did learn a lot, being a fencer.

Priorities, commitment, and time management

I learned how to make something a priority. How to commit to something.

I was never late to practice, and only missed a day if I was coughing and running a fever. I gave up other clubs, movie nights, Halloween parties, and much more because I had practice, or I had to sleep, we were leaving at 4am for a competition tomorrow.

But remember, it's just fencing.

My coaches in college always stressed that academics came first. If you had a huge test that day, or if you had to a class that happen to clash with practice times, well, there was no help for it; academics came first.

But being busy was no excuse to skip practice. After all, we were all college students; we all had homework and tests and classes. By joining the fencing team, I was saying, this is a priority for me. I'm going to put time and energy into this. Joining the team meant that other things that could have been priorities -- other clubs, social events -- were not so high on my personal list. Fencing was. So I made time for it.

Sometime later, I was working on a academic project. My professor told me, "It's your project; if it matters to you, it can happen, it can be good. But it's your project. If you don't care about it, if you don't make it happen, well, it won't happen. And since it's your project, no one else will care."

Fencing was like that. If you didn't care how many bouts you won, if you didn't care how well you fenced, well, guess what, no one else would really care, either. Your teammates or your coach might be disappointed. But you're the one most invested in what you're doing.

Waiting by the strip for a bout to start

Waiting for a bout to start at the Denver North America Cup event in 2005.

Related to that: When I was fifteen or so, I was fencing in a local competition, a direct elimination bout against a woman of about the same skill level as me. We kept tying the score: 4-5, 10-9. The last round, I won. My dad said it was because I cared. It was partly endurance, too. But if you want to win, you'll put in more effort and go farther. You have to enjoy it. You have to be a good athlete. And you have to be competitive. I remember George saying once that if you don't care when you lose -- if you aren't upset that you lost -- then you didn't care about winning, either.

Failure, adaptation, and emotion regulation

When you fence, you make a lot of mistakes. You get hit, over and over, in the same way, by the same opponent, because you keep making the same mistake. It's frustrating. You lose a bout 0-5 because you kept making the same stupid mistake. Sometimes to a girl you used to beat 5-0. And the thing about fencing is that it's such an individual sport. If you lose, it's all on you. Sure, sometimes the referee makes bad calls. Sometimes the other girl just is a better fencer than you. But not always.

There are two parts to dealing with this. First, the practical side: You lost this touch. Or you lost this bout. What did you do and why didn't it work? Critically evaluate your actions. See the mistakes, or the places where someone out-fenced you. Try to improve. Adapt.

Me lunging on the strip, foil bent as I hit my opponent.

Me, fencing at a Bay Cup event in 2004.

George always taught that if what you're doing isn't working, do something else. Change something. Change anything. Sometimes, if you find yourself doing the same wrong thing over and over, it doesn't matter what else, so long as it's different: a different parry or attack, different timing or distance. Don't get stuck. Don't let your opponent score the same way twice. If what you're doing isn't working, change what you are doing.

The second part is emotional and mental. In a pool round in a tournament, you only have 5 or 6 bouts. You just lost one 0-5. You can't let that negatively affect the next bout. You have to move past it. Re-focus. You can't be flustered and upset when you step back on the strip.

I learned to consciously regulate my emotions and mental state, using combinations of music on my ipod, self-talk, and habits before and during competitions to reinforce states and moods that I empirically found to lead to me fencing better. You can't lose your cool. For me, I fenced best when balanced: Not too excited. Not too calm. Not too upset. Focused. Edged. Finding that state, keeping it, and regaining it was as critical to my performance as good hydration.

Practice and preparation

George also used to say that it was the practice you did six months ago that matters most in your competition today. And day of, I had my routines. You warm up before a competition. That isn't just to prepare your muscles - it was also part of getting ready mentally. Getting your mind in the right space. It was about eating well, and sleeping well -- not sacrificing an upcoming tournament to one evening off. If that meant missing parties, other events, whatever -- well, preparation was key. That was what commitment was. Sleeping was part of that. Eating, hydrating, training.

When taking a ballroom dance class two years ago, I realized I'd learned something else from all that practice: How to practice. You learn it slow, practice it perfectly, under control, slowly, until eventually, at top speed during a bout, you do okay. You can't practice sloppy and expect that when it matters you'll be any less sloppy. Practice perfect.

A group of fencers in white gear standing around.

A group of fencers at George Platt's Swordplay Fencing club in 2006.

Lessons learned

My senior year at Vassar, there was controversy over whether varsity sports should count for academic credit. Suffice to say, one piece of the argument was that yes, you learn a lot doing a sport. If credits equate to learning, you learn as much -- if not more! -- in a sport as you do in other classes. You may learn different things. But you do learn.

(As a side note, the divisions between disciplines, quantifying or categorizing learning, and deciding what "counts" as an academic class don't always make sense to me.)

I learned to prioritize. To commit. To fail. To persevere. To adapt. To prepare.

I learned about the difference between achieving success and achieving excellence. I learned about confidence.

Ten years of competitive fencing. Wonderful coaches, great teammates, and a lot of things learned. Time well spent, I'd say.


silhouettes of bushy trees against a pastel sky specked with clouds

Take a sunset.

Take a blue like the ocean swells on a cool autumn day, shining with sunlight reflected off impenetrable depths, and paint it across the sky. Let it fade, lighter and grayer, slate blue and navy, into shades of yellow, orange, purple-red behind the silhouettes of bare-branched trees. Crush the petals of sunflowers, poppies, and scarlet zinnias; stir these and smear them along the horizon. The trees are black, almost, backlit and describable by some combination of "weathered" and "tranquil" and "majestic."

Take that sunset. Take all the connotations of finality, culmination, and conclusion. Fear, frailty, and beauty.

Now add the smell of possibility.

Stretch out the boundary: this is not a denouement, but an edge, a line to cross between this moment and the next. This is potential.

yellow sun setting over dark hills and navy water, faded sunset

Crisp air, cold and invigorating. Cracked pavement under your feet, wet from rain or melting snow. A feeling, deep in your gut, that this, the right here, right now, is going to change.

The term "bittersweet" applies. This is a contradiction, a paradoxical sense of endings and beginnings, a commencement and a climax. This is all the strange and wondrous things that belong to each.

Are you afraid? Are you excited?

This is a surreal meld of intoxication, terror, and melancholy. This is the jump out the airplane door, the hope of a parachute inflating, the exhilaration at both falling away and falling towards.

Nothing lasts forever.

curve of the earth with dark blue above and glowing yellow-red on the horizon

What do you leave behind? The familiar was comfortable and in the dark lies the unknown. What will you see when the sun sinks below the horizon? What happens when your feet hit the ground?

This sunset feeling: this is change.

What adventure next?


_rain splattering on the pavement in front of a green bushy area_

Your expectations define your perceptions

It's raining.

Fat, corpulent water globules cascade from the sky. Plop, plop. A drop, and a few of its compatriots, dribble down the inside of your collar. They're cold. Wet, and unpleasant. The drops slither down your neck.

"Take my cloak," he [Lord Golden] suggested. "It would only get as wet as the rest of me. I'll change into dry things when I get back." [Fitz] He didn't tell me to be careful, but it was in his look. I nodded to it, steeled myself, and walked out into the pouring rain. It was every bit as cold and unpleasant as I expected it to be. I stood, eyes squinted and shoulders hunched to it, peering out through the gray downpour. Then I took a breath and resolutely changed my expectations. As Black Rolf had once shown me, much discomfort was based on human expectations. As a man, I expected to be warm and dry when I chose to be. Animals did not harbor any such beliefs. So it was raining. That part of me that was wolf could accept that. Rain meant being cold and wet. Once I acknowledged that and stopped comparing it to what I wished it to be, the conditions were far more tolerable. I set out.

--- Fool's Errand, Robin Hobb

Keep it in perspective

Keep what in perspective? Well, everything, but particularly the bad things, the frustrating things, and the irritating things. So it's raining. So you cut your finger slicing potatoes. So it's ninety-nine degrees Fahrenheit and humid. You are in some set of circumstances and you wish to be in some other set of circumstances. You wish to be dry. You wish your finger didn't hurt. You wish to be cool and comfortable without drops of sweat sliding down your neck.

Unfortunately, we don't live in a world where wishes change the world's physical properties. We have limited control over our environments. We have slightly more control over our reactions to our environments.

"Since we cannot change reality, let us change the eyes that see reality." ---Nikos Kazantzakis

What you expect significantly influences how you will perceive your circumstances. The thing is, a lot of times, we don't explicitly set out our expectations. You leave the air-conditioned building with the continued implicit expectation that you'll be cool and comfortable, and when that blast of muggy, sticky air hits you, it hits you twice as hard because you're expecting something else.

What can you do about this? Try explicitly setting up your expectations. It may help prevent the disappointment of being wrong (and feeling unpleasant). Instead of thinking "Aaugh, I'm getting wet and the rain is cold, why can't I be warm and dry?" try thinking "Okay, I'm going out in the rain so I'll be wet and cold. That's just how rain is." Keep in mind that this works both ways--sure, you can set yourself up to expect to feel better about your circumstances, but you can also easily set yourself up to expect to feel worse.

As a final note, I'm sharing to a quote I occasionally turn to as a reminder to keep things in perspective, from Nick Hornby's High Fidelity (on the subject of pop music):

"Did I listen to music because I was miserable? Or was I miserable because I listened to music?"

Are you miserable because of your circumstances, or are your circumstances miserable because of your misery?


Emotional intensity and the individual

Let's say you're at home. Maybe you're lounging indolently on the couch, feet up on the brown wood coffee table, television whining at you from across the room. Maybe you're cooking tonight's dinner, chopping vegetables with careful strokes, sliding the ever growing pile of peppers and onions and tomatoes into a hissing frying pan. Maybe not. Maybe you're in another room when the fire alarm sounds, bleep bleep bleep, blaring its cacophonous melody into your generally peaceful home.

How do you react?

_red fire alarm pull handle_

Do you scream? Do you calmly turn off the stove, flap a towel at the cloudy air around the smoke detector, and wait patiently for it to detect that there's not actually a fire? Do you leap up from the couch, tripping over the coffee table in your panic, terrified of burning to death in your own living room?

The strength of your emotional response to this (or any) emotional stimulus is known as emotional intensity. Emotional intensity can be measured with psychological scales, such as the aptly-named Emotional Intensity Scale (EIS) developed by Bachorowski & Braaten (1994) [PDF]. The underlying if obvious assumptions of these scales are that some individuals experience all of their emotions more intensely than other individuals, and all individuals may respond with different strengths to the same stimuli.

Your personality influences your experience of emotions

You may already be familiar with the Big 5 personality factors: Openness, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism (sometimes called Emotional Stability). (If not, look them up.) Robert McFatter, in his 1998 paper Emotional Intensity: Some components and their relations to extraversion and neuroticism [PDF], investigated the relation between temperament and the intensity of positive and negative emotions. (Positive emotions included happiness and pleasure; negative emotions included worry, guilt, anger, and sadness.) McFatter described and tested several models, all of which had slightly different predictions about how neuroticism, extraversion, and positive and negative emotional intensity are correlated.

  1. Larsen & Ketelaar model: The measures used to examine emotional intensity in this model tapped frequency of experienced emotions more than the intensity of single (and possibly infrequent) reactions. The model predicts that Extraversion is positively related to positive intensity and unrelated to negative intensity, and that Neuroticism is unrelated to positive intensity and positively related to negative intensity.

  2. Larsen & Diener model: This model draws on the theory that the intensity of experienced emotions is used to regulate arousal levels. Arousal level can be tied to Extraversion, so this model predicts that Extraversion is positively related to both positive and negative intensity. Larsen & Diener also predict that Neuroticism is similarly positively correlated with positive and negative intensity.

  3. Wallace, Bachorowski, & Newman (WBN) model: Extraversion is suggested to reflect a behavioral approach system and a behavioral inhibition system. Neuroticism is suggested to reflect the reactivity of an arousal system responding to the behavioral approach/inhibition systems that serves to prepare the individual to respond. This model accordingly predicts that Extraversion is positively related to positive intensity and negative related to negative intensity (and thus that Extraversion is overall uncorrelated with overall emotional intensity), and that Neuroticism is positively related to both positive and negative intensity.

  4. Gray's model: This model predicts that the behavioral approach/inhibition systems form dimensions that are rotated roughly thirty degrees from the Extroversion and Neuroticism dimensions, so they don't line up. The model predicts that Extraversion is positively related to positive intensity but only weakly negatively related to negative intensity. Similarly, Neuroticism is predicted to be weakly positively related to positive intensity, and positively related to negative intensity. Gray's model, furthermore, suggests that the negative emotions can be subdivided into anger/panic and anxiety/fear categories. These subcategories may have different relations to Extraversion.

_Extravert, Introvert, Stable, Neurotic_

Methods, Correlations, Analyses, Results

To test these models, McFatter gave a series of questionnaires to 1553 college students taking introductory psychology classes (596 male). Participants completed the 30-item EIS to examine positive and negative emotional intensity (14 items and 16 items, respectively), the Eysenck Personality Inventory (EPI) for measuring Extraversion and Neuroticism (in addition to subscales for impulsivity and sociability), and a third unrelated questionnaire.

Based on an initial factor analysis of the EIS, negative intensity was separated into two groups: anger/frustration (hereafter referred to as "anger intensity") and non-anger, such as worry, guilt, and sadness (referred to as "non-anger intensity"). This result supports Gray's theory that two separate negative emotion systems exist.

Consistent with both Gray's model and the WBN model, Extraversion was shown to be positively related to positive emotional intensity (r=0.19, P<0.0001), negatively related to non-anger emotional intensity (r=0.18, p<0.0001), and unrelated to anger intensity (r=0.02). In plainer terms, individuals with high Extroversion scores tended to experience more intense positive emotions and less intense negative emotions. Neuroticism, on the other hand, was shown to be positively related to all three kinds of emotional intensity, though less strongly to positive intensity (r=0.18, p<0.0001) than to non-anger or anger intensity (r=0.56,p<0.0001 and r=0.45,p<0.0001, respectively). That is to say, individuals with high Neuroticism scores tended to report experiencing more intense emotions overall. This is consistent with Gray's model. A couple other interesting results: Females reported significantly higher emotional intensity than males overall, with the largest difference seen in negative intensity (0.411, p<0.0001). The positive relation between Extraversion and emotional intensity was stronger among people with a high Neuroticism score.

Neuroticism and emotional intensity

It's hard to tell without reading a pile of psychology papers, but the fact that Neuroticism was positively related to positive emotional intensity was surprising. Previous results found a negative relation, though several of these had measured emotional intensity with a different scale--one that seemed to confound frequency and intensity of the experienced emotions. The WBN model, relatedly, claimed that Neuroticism reflected general emotional reactivity. (Recall the personality factor's other name: Emotional Stability.) So McFatter investigated.

He found that when looking at the difference of the positive intensity and negative intensity scores, the relative emotional intensity was negatively related to Neuroticism, as in those previous studies. However, when examined on their own with the other variables controlled, the relations of both positive and negative intensity to Neuroticism were positive. The WBN model only explained a portion of the story.

McFatter's results, overall, support Gray's model and the WBN model, suggesting that the variations in positive and negative emotional intensity may be the result of separate emotion systems, but that they do have some common variation that may best be explained by their relations to Neuroticism.


McFatter, R. (1998). Emotional Intensity: Some components and their relations to extraversion and neuroticism. Person. individ. Diff., 24(6): 747-758. [PDF]


_Prayer flags hung in a bare-limbed tree_

At the Tibetan monastery retreat I attended last month, Ani Kunga led a meditation session for the group about compassion and anger. I said I'd talk about it more: here goes.

Positive > Negative

I'm going to make two assumptions. First, that positive emotions are, in most circumstances, better ones to be feeling. I've never considered anger and its cohorts--hate, irritation, stress, jealousy, and so on--to be very useful emotions, per se: they solve far fewer problems and make a person feel far less happy than any number of positive emotions. This isn't to say that some amount of anger or related emotions isn't ever beneficial--e.g., when down 1-4 in a fencing bout, as motivation to come back and win--just that, overall, I find positive emotions to lead me to be happier and more productive than negative ones. Surprise, surprise.

Second, that people have some amount of control over their emotions. By 'some amount,' I mean that a person tends to have at least some control over his or her environment, as well as some control over what he/she is actively doing in that environment, both of which influence emotions.

Given these premises, and given the choice, why wouldn't a person pick positive emotions over negative ones?

Patience & Anger

As the group of us relaxed into our meditation cushions, enjoying the sunshine and the spring weather, Ani Kunga shared a statement underlying many of the Tibetan Buddhist approaches to dealing with anger:

"If there's something you can do, why are you unhappy? Just do it. If there's nothing you can do, why are you unhappy?"

She proceeded to explain a few methods for dealing with situations involving angry people:

  1. Get away from it. Often, removing yourself from the situation can help diffuse it. E.g., physically leaving the room, or mentally removing yourself: watching TV, losing yourself in a book, a drink to take the edge off. This method doesn't always work. Sometimes, ignoring a problem situation only makes it worse.

  2. Pretend you're dealing with a sick person; i.e., that the angry person you are dealing with is not mentally all there. This is more to remind you to be patient. Act as if the angry person is your patient and you the doctor, as if he/she is a child and you the parent, or as if you are a student and he/she is your teacher. Yes, that's right: Dealing with angry people is a lesson in patience.

She also explained a core Tibetan Buddhist concept. Patience, Ani Kunga said, is the main antidote for anger. Anger should be turned into compassion, and fear should be turned into love. She led our group through a meditation session to demonstrate a technique for developing compassion. It involved picturing a person you know, imagining his/her happiness and suffering, and then imagining drawing his/her suffering away such that he/she can be happier.

Bottom Line

Although I may not agree with everything Ani Kunga told us, I do (unsurprisingly) like the core message: be proactive. If there's something you can do, just do it. And if there's nothing you can do, well, why not try to spend your time doing things more useful than worrying?