Another Big Bang Theory

Posted on September 26, 2013


Throughout my life I have adhered to a strict policy of only eating Mexican food on a day that ends in “y.”  I worked at Taco Bell through high school and college so I have eaten my share of tacos.  We have a little restaurant in the shopping center near my house that for years has advertised “Fine Mexican Foo” in the window.  I have been there a few times and the food was pretty good, but I never saw any “foo” on the menu.  My main staple in recent years among the fast food chain stores has been El Pollo Loco.  One reason is that they have the best salsa bar in the industry offering both a killer avocado salsa as well as a great pico de gallo.  Another reason is that they have kept my favorite meal, the Original Pollo Bowl combo, on the $5 menu for a long time now, appealing to both my taste buds and my wallet (did I mention I was frugal?).  Rubio’s is longer on ambience, but their salsa bar isn’t as good and they are quite a bit more expensive.  Chipotle has fabulous carnitas, but it does cost me $9 for my lunch (did I mention I was frugal?).  My one complaint with El Pollo Loco is that they always keep the dining room too cold.  I can sometimes mitigate this by finding a booth where the sun is coming in the window.

So last week, I stopped by El Pollo Loco for dinner after my last appointment and before choir rehearsal.  I loaded up on salsa and found my booth in the sun.  At the next booth was a young family: father, mother, and 2 girls, ages about 3 and 5.   The younger of two girls ran the whole gamut of emotions in the time they were there.  There were moments of great joy when she was smiling and laughing, and there were moments of tragedy when she was wailing like she was being tortured.  This was, of course, age appropriate (as well as one of the hazards of dining with small children).  Mom and Dad seemed to handle the situation well, though if I wanted to eavesdrop I would not have been able to understand what was being said as they spoke Spanish and I don’t.

So here is my Big Bang Theory.  When we are born, our emotions have tremendous energy like a big bang.  In every moment, we experience the full force of our emotional experience.  They can quickly change from moments of extreme joy to great distress. Since we lack the life experience to know that the way things are at the moment is not the way things will always be, the experience is that much more intense.  If I am happy and comfortable, this is how it will always be, and it is wonderful.  If I am hungry, uncomfortable, or frustrated, this is cause for great distress if that is how things will always be.

Over the course of our lives, most of us learn to manage our emotional experience and to self-soothe.  Our highs are not as high and our lows are not as low as when we were infants and toddlers.  We know that being hungry is not a permanent condition and that sources of frustration can be dealt with.  Part of this is simply from life experience.  For baseball fans, it is similar to how a player’s batting average moves at the start of the season versus the end of the season.  In that first week of play, one hit or strike out can make a big difference in the batting average.  A player’s average can be quite different at the end of the game than from what is was at the beginning.  Later in the season when a player has been up to bat 500 times already, the outcome of the current time at bat is not going to change the average much.  For those in the financial sector, this is similar to comparing a spot index with a moving average.  A spot index is far more volatile because it only considers this moment.  A moving average takes results over a longer period of time into consideration and is therefore less volatile.  As we go through life, we accumulate more data points and we can better manage our emotional reactions to the current situation.  As an aside, this is also one of the advantages grandparents have over parents.  With that life experience, it is easier to know which issues are going to matter five, ten, or twenty years from now, and which are not going to be important.

There is a deeper issue in how we learn to self-soothe and how some adults find it difficult to manage their emotional experience.  That issue is attachment.  Through every stage of life, we need to have someone in our lives to whom we matter, who is there for us, and to whom we can turn for comfort and support.  For children this is the primary caregivers, usually Mom and Dad.  As adults, this generally is a spouse.  Infants tend to both learn emotions through synchrony of facial responses between parent and child.  This happens organically without the adult needing to think about it.  Put yourself in the situation.  When looking into the face of a smiling baby, what do you do?  Of course, you smile back.  If baby makes a sad face, you naturally mirror that back.  Infants also learn from experience whether or not they are valued and whether or not their caregivers will be responsive to their needs.  Optimally, Mom and Dad create a secure base from which a child ventures out to explore his or her world.  Being securely attached (i.e. being confident that we are valued and cared for by our attachment figures) makes us more confident and comfortable.  As adults, we still need to have someone who is there for us.  You want to know someone has your back (as the saying goes).  The result is the same for adults as for children.  The more securely attached we feel, the more autonomous we can be; the more confident we can be in facing life.  As a result of feeling confident in our own worthiness and our partner’s willingness and ability to be responsive to us, our emotional response is not as overwhelming.  The trials and tribulations of life can be faced without being flooded by emotion to a point at which we cannot function.  We are better able to self-soothe in the moment knowing that there is someone there for us.

The converse is true when we do not feel securely attached.  As Sue Johnson has observed, attachment relationships are the only relationships in which any response is better than none.  Children may go to great lengths to gain the attention of a parent (including tantrums).  With adults, it looks a little different, but the response is still the same.  The normal response to our attachment figure not being responsive to us is protest.  In couples, this often takes the forms of negative cycles of interaction in which one partner pursues and the other withdraws.  Generally, when the withdrawing partner sees a storm coming, he (2/3 of the time this is the husband) quits responding in an attempt to avoid the fight.  The pursuing partner becomes more distressed and protests her partner’s lack of emotional responsiveness.  What this looks like to her partner is anger.  Consequently, he withdraws further.  She then ups the ante further.  Thus goes the cycle.  Each partner does what he or she does in an attempt to protect the relationship and in a failed attempt to have their needs met.  Isolation is inherently traumatizing to human beings.  We need connection.  It is very difficult to manage our own emotional experience if we do not have it.

One more issue we should mention before leaving this topic is trauma.  Learning to self-soothe and manage our own emotional experience can be difficult (impossible) if we are triggered by past trauma.  When we experience trauma, that memory can be seared into our brains in such a way that we cannot help but experience a negative and often overwhelming emotional reaction when that memory is triggered.  To learn to self soothe, we need to treat the trauma.

There you have it, the Big Bang Theory of Emotional Regulation.  When we are born, every emotion is big.  Emotions swing wildly between extremes.  As we mature (particularly if we experience secure attachment) we learn to regulate our emotional experience (not be confused with denying or pushing down our emotional experience) and to self-soothe.