Which Of The 3 Emotion Traps Do You Fall Into? A Psychologist Explains

Social psychologist By Jennifer Goldman-Wetzler, Ph.D.
Social psychologist
Jennifer Goldman-Wetzler, Ph.D., is the founder and CEO of Alignment Strategies Group, a New York-based consulting firm. A former counterterrorism research fellow with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, she received her B.A. with honors from Tufts University and holds a Ph.D. in Social-Organizational Psychology from Columbia University.
Pensive Woman
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Depending on how we experience and express our emotions in any given situation, all of us, at one time or another, become vulnerable to each of these three emotion traps. However, we are likely to fall into one of these traps more often than the other two based on our experiences in childhood and the cultural norms we've been surrounded by regarding how to experience and express emotions, including those dictated by gender, nationality, religion, and race. 

For example, if you grew up in a home where strong emotions were constantly on display, you may have no trouble experiencing and expressing fear, anger, or joy. But if your family kept quiet about their feelings, you may not notice your own emotions very easily, or you may not feel comfortable letting others know when you feel afraid, angry, or even happy.

Here are the three emotion traps below—feel free to consider which of them you most likely to fall into, as recognition is often the first step toward overcoming these traps:

1. Knee-Jerk Reaction Trap

When you fall into the Knee-Jerk Reaction Trap, you express a quick reaction based on your emotional experience. This reaction is the result of your amygdala hijacking the rest of your brain; sensing danger, you leap to react based on emotional memory rather than relying on slower, more rational frontal-lobe thinking. 

For instance, if you become intensely angry whenever people don't act the way you thought they should, you might express it immediately in an aggressive way. If this is the case, it can be helpful to ask yourself which of the five universal emotions (joy, fear, sadness, disgust, and anger) you tend to experience most intensely and express most easily.

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2. Inaccessible Emotions Trap

When you fall into the Inaccessible Emotions Trap, your emotions exist inside of you, but they remain inaccessible to others and often even to yourself.

For example, if you have trouble accessing your emotions, it can be hard for others to know what you're feeling—they certainly can't help you if they don't know whether you're worried, sad, angry, or none of the above. Also, with your emotions off-limits even to yourself, it can be difficult for you to show empathy for others, which can further contribute to the distance people may feel in their relationships with you.

3. Lurking Emotions Trap

One of my clients tends to experience her emotions intensely. However, as a child, her parents did not approve. Whenever she or her sisters cried, complained, or even expressed joy, they were told, "Children are meant to be seen, not heard."

As an adult, not surprisingly, she finds it difficult to express her emotions directly, even when she is experiencing them with intensity.

She experiences her emotions, but she does not admit to experiencing them. When she feels joy, she tends not to smile, and she's the last one to join in on the dance floor. When she feels intense anger, she tries hard to cover it up. Her emotions tend to be hidden but lurking, lying in wait to emerge, when it is the nature of emotions to be expressed

When we do not consciously express them, they often materialize anyway, in ways we don't intend. Because my client did not feel comfortable expressing her emotions directly, she has little control over how they will come out. Especially when she experiences emotions intensely, they do inevitably surface—just not always in ways she'd like.

One day during a reporters' meeting, she became furious at a colleague whom she felt was trying to edge her out of a plum job assignment. Without intending it, an expression of contempt spread across her face when she looked at him. When colleagues who had been at the meeting told her that she had seemed angry with him, she vehemently denied it and told them they were wrongly accusing her of having been angry when she wasn't. That caused quite a stir between my client and her colleagues.

As she discovered, emotions can betray you by oozing out even when you try to conceal them, which can lead to miscommunications and conflict with others.

Adapted from Optimal Outcomes. Used with permission of HarperCollins. Copyright © 2020 by Jennifer Goldman-Wetzler.

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