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Are You On Emotional Autopilot?

Passengers in motionMany years ago when I lived in New York City, I helped a friend execute a brilliant gift idea for her mother’s birthday.

Because her mom lived far away, they couldn’t be together to celebrate, so my friend decided to send her something very special.

First, she made a giant sign that said HAPPY BIRTHDAY with her mom’s name on it.

Phase One complete.

Then she carried that enormous sign with her (on the subway, no less) to a series of recognizable New York City landmarks, and asked strangers to hold it up and wave while she took their picture.

She created a photo montage of kooky, joyful, personalized birthday greetings from the Big Apple for her mom to cherish, a unique and wonderful gift that I’m sure was a great hit in Oklahoma.

A Rejection Story

I think it was the quirk factor and the sheer brazenness of it that made me want to accompany my friend on her photo shoot that day.

We started on the steps of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Everyone my friend approached was friendly and open. They held the sign before the camera with apparent glee, smiling and waving for the benefit of an unknown woman about to have a birthday halfway across the country.

Individuals, groups, everyone my friend approached seemed tickled to be part of the project.

But when our momentum carried us to Grand Central Station, we encountered our first speed bump.

Emotional Autopilot in Action

I was standing aside at this point, letting my newly extroverted friend work her magic on passers-by. She’d gotten good at recruiting people and seemed to be enjoying herself.

I watched as she approached a particular man near the ticket counters and started her “be in my mom’s birthday card” pitch.

I saw the man decline, and not in a friendly way.

The rejection was unexpected, given our raging success so far. I felt a pang of dismay for my friend, who was a sensitive soul not disinclined to embarrassment.

But my friend didn’t miss a beat. She changed her flight plan in mid-air and swooped down on the next closest stranger. Done and done.

When she was finished and came back to where I was standing, I told her what I’d seen.

“When that first man said No, you didn’t even pause. You turned right around and went after someone else. You must have experienced a moment of rejection. Did you feel it?”

(I was not yet a therapist, but I did have an eye on human behavior and a lack of conversational discretion.)

Graciously, my friend did not slap me.

Instead, she thought about it and agreed that the rejection had taken her by surprise, and stung a little, and she’d chosen to ignore it.

Truth Hurts… But Consider the Alternative

The auto-pilot response of continuing along as if nothing had happened is something almost all of us do, at least some of the time.

You can’t always afford to pause and let stuff sink in. You’ve got places to go, people to see, things to do.

But if you ignore the truth of your experience — in this case, a small rejection by a stranger — most of the time, pretty soon it becomes automatic.

Pretty soon, it’s hard to tell the truth of your experience.

If you always tell yourself “It doesn’t matter,” “It’s no big deal,” etc., then you could find yourself living a life in which nothing matters to you.

… Which is kind of depressing, don’t you think?

It’s a paradox; sometimes you have to embrace pain in order to keep it manageable. By letting little “ouches” sink in, you can stay in contact with your heart and the truths it contains.

You never know when you might need them.

Photo courtesy of www.FreeDigitalPhotos.net

About Tina Gilbertson

Tina Gilbertson is a psychotherapist, speaker and author based in Denver, Colorado. She specializes in supporting parents of estranged adult children through therapy, consulting and other resources, and offers assertiveness training and executive coaching for organizations. The author of "Constructive Wallowing: How to Beat Bad Feelings by Letting Yourself Have Them" and the "Guide for Parents of Estranged Adult Children," Tina is often featured in the media as an expert on communication and relationships. Her blog on PsychologyToday.com is called "Constructive Wallowing."
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0 Responses to "Are You On Emotional Autopilot?"

  • timethief
    April 6, 2013 - 9:45 am Reply

    Beautifully written. Rejection may sting but dismissing it is a big mistake. Acknowledging rejection and examining the cause may provide insight into how others experience us and that feedback can lead to growth.

    • Tina Gilbertson
      April 6, 2013 - 9:50 am Reply

      Excellent point, Timethief. Sometimes how others see us is more about them than us, but sometimes it provides needed perspective for our continued growth. Thanks for sharing your insight.

  • Peggy
    April 6, 2013 - 11:12 pm Reply

    I think she did the right thing to ignore the man’s rejection of her. After all she approached him without knowing what kind of day he was having. She did think about it even if she said she didn’t, but her mission was more important then the rejection. So it all worked out. Why would it hurt her if she ignored him? I don’t understand that.

    • Tina Gilbertson
      April 7, 2013 - 9:44 am Reply

      Good question, Peggy! You may be absolutely right in this particular instance.

      The idea I wanted to convey with this example is this:

      Habitually, automatically, unthinkingly ignoring your emotional reactions to life’s little upsets creates distance between you and your own heart.

      When you’re disconnected from your heart, you stop knowing who you are and you lose your capacity to derive joy from life.

      Does that clear it up?

      • Peggy
        April 7, 2013 - 5:01 pm Reply

        Yes in a way it does, but what should she have done to feel better? Should she have asked him why his reaction wasn’t the same as most people she encountered that day. What would have been the mentally healthy thing for her to do.to make sure she gets joy from life. It’s important to me that I understand the answer. Sometimes I feel as if I’m hanging on by just a thread. This life is can be tough trying to have the correct reaction at every turn. Thank you for your time, I really appreciated this exchange.

        • Tina Gilbertson
          April 7, 2013 - 6:11 pm Reply

          Another great question, Peggy, and I’ll assume you’re not the only one interested in the answer.

          Her behavior towards the man was never the issue; she did nothing wrong on the behavioral level. Behavior is different from what we’re talking about here, which are feelings.

          If you FEEL the little hurt inside momentarily, you won’t have to do anything to get over it; it will let you go once you’ve experienced it, and then you’ll feel better. It’s only when you struggle against feelings that they grab you by the throat and refuse to let go.

          I encourage you to read all the posts in the “Constructive Wallowing” category on this blog to get acclimated to this concept. It can be difficult to grasp in one go.

          Thanks so much for your comments and your interest in the topic. I wish you all the very best.

  • Peggy
    April 8, 2013 - 3:48 am Reply

    I thank you so much, ” it will let you go once you have experienced it” that is the answer… I like the way you think! Super reasoning, I love your posts…”Constructive Wallowing” here I come! again thanks Tina you have really helped me understand.

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