Reflection through Refraction

Paul Ekman makes much of the refractory period of any emotion.  It is quite important to consider this when dealing with challenging ideas and emotions.

Sometimes, rather than go wading into a situation it is advisable to take a step back and let the refractory period complete and move toward reflection.  There is no guideline for how long the refractory period is, and don’t forget that sometimes an emotional event can result in a prolonged mood.  Some people hold onto their emotions long and some realise almost immediately what they are feeling and deal with any unpleasant situations quickly.

Commonly you notice the refractory period with situations around Anger, Fear and Happiness; though of course any emotion could have a refractory period.

First of all, what is it? Refraction of emotion is where you are absorbed by the emotion you are feeling.  Usually because it has become very strong or heightened.  During this time we only tend to accept emotional input that further increases that emotional state.  Imagine that Anger is a red light.  The refractory period would be like wearing glasses with red lenses that only let red light in.  Someone suffering from Anger and in the refractory state being faced by someone trying to calm them would only find this more irritating and further increasing that anger.

Mood can have a big impact too.  Looking again at Anger the situation can build up over a period of time and sometimes once that glass is full it takes just the most minor of events to cause that glass to overflow causing an almost irrational explosion of emotion.  You wake in the morning to find you have overslept, your journey to work is prolonged with traffic jams and people driving without consideration.  You get into the office and find a lot of outstanding work.  Whilst trying your best to get on you have more “urgent” work dumped on you desk.  All these things are building up your anger and frustration and as you are not finding an outlet for these you are approaching your flash point.  Finally, someone makes an off-hand comment that just sends you over the edge and you send out an angry backlash.  You have now entered the refractory period.  From this point forward you are only going to react to further situations that provoke your anger.  People’s attempt at levity would only annoy you more.

Moving on in time, you have had a cup of tea and sat quietly for a few minutes.  Already you are starting to feel calmer.  The flash point you have reached has allowed you to vent all the frustration that you have built up during the day.  You are no in the reflection period.  It is as this point that you look at how you reacted and realise that it may have been irrational.  You are now ready to accept other emotional input.  This is the time most people realise that they need to offer an apology for their behaviour.

Perhaps of all things this is a lesson to ourselves that we should accept our emotions, even the ones that are considered “negative”.  If we release our anger and frustration appropriately at the time of the event, we are much more likely to avoid hitting the flash point.  Other people are more likely to be accepting of an appropriate level of anger for the situation, and you are more likely to accept other emotional input to reduce that anger.

Anger is an acceptable emotion, but remember to be angry at the act and not the actor.



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