I have been thinking about the notion of “emotional processing,” as in when someone says that he needs to “process what happened.” Does this phrase have a clear meaning, or is it a fuzzy phrase used to escape clear thinking? I think it does have a clear meaning, and what follows is my attempt to unfold it. I am not a psychiatrist, and I don’t intend this blog post as a contribution to the psychiatric profession. This is just an exploration of a word.
To “process” something means to take something that is not immediately usable and change it into something more immediately usable. This is how we “process” meat or vegetables, for example. So to “process” an experience would mean to take the raw experience and turn it into something that is more useful in life. Experiences need to be processed both intellectually and emotionally: intellectually, we need to get practical wisdom from our experiences, while emotionally we need to calibrate our desires and fears.
To calibrate our desires and fears better can also be described as reaching a new equilibrium. “Equilibrium” is a condition in which the emotions are not at odds with one another but help us achieve our goals; by definition, equilibrium is a condition which is sustainable, that is, which does not tend toward its own undoing. It is like the condition of strings on a guitar that is well tuned: every string sounds good with all the others, resonates sympathetically with them, and makes the guitar play well; when a guitar is out of tune it tends to get more and more so, but when it is tuned it does not untune itself without some outside influence like temperature change.
Simply reaching emotional equilibrium would be like retuning a guitar, a return to one’s original state. But this is not “processing” because nothing useful is gained. Guitars only have one equilibrium, but because human beings are organic they can actually take in events and use them, and so they can have better and better sustainable emotional states.
But if we keep this difference in mind, the guitar metaphor can be useful. Every day we have a lot of experiences that we have had before, and of course we react to them emotionally. This is like strumming the guitar strings: the strings are in motion and will return to rest, but they are in equilibrium the whole time; similarly, our emotions bend and sway every day and will calm down in the evening, but the whole day can be lived in a state of emotional equilibrium.
It is when we have a new or fundamentally harmful experience that we have to seek equilibrium, like when a guitar is dropped and bounced out of tune. For us human beings, there is normally no return to the old equilibrium once the new experience has entered, because the experience is now part of us: either it becomes part of the system or the system fails. If the system fails, then we become emotionally sick and tend toward our own destruction. But if the new experience—however harmful originally—actually turns into part of the overall system, then we become even stronger than we were before, because a more complex system can react well to more events. It would be as though a guitar became more complex and so capable of being strummed in new ways.
To put the same thought in another way, emotional well being is a state of unified complexity. If we are unified but not complex, then we are healthy but weak; if we are complex but not unified, then we are sick; but if we are complex and unified, then we are healthy and strong. The way we get there is by processing a lot of experiences. (The exact same thing can be said of the intellectual life.)
As a result, we are a bit like trees. A tree has a solid but static inner core and a thin, green ring of actually growing stuff around the outside. The static inner core is like our “comfort zone,” the range of experiences that we have already processed and can handle without leaving equilibrium; the outer living ring is like that part of life that is outside the “comfort zone,” the range of experiences that forces us out of equilibrium. By forcing us out of equilibrium, these “green-ring” experiences also force us to seek a new equilibrium; to put it differently, these experiences complexify us by introducing something new or unstable, and so they force us to seek a more complex unity than we had before. We need that solid inner core, or we’ll just fall over, but if we don’t have that green ring then we never grow—and in fact, we die, just like a girdled tree.
Intellectual processing can be very conscious and direct. In fact, it is a good habit to “debrief” new experiences by consciously thinking them over, seeing what went well and what went badly, and drawing out lessons that might transfer to new situations. But emotional processing is less direct, because we can’t just decide to “be happy” or “be sad” the way we can decide to “think about water” or “think about cars.”
However, while emotional processing can’t be entirely direct, it can be conscious. That is, just as we can decide to “debrief” an experience, we can also notice the pattern for how we emotionally process things and then set up that pattern on purpose. For example, some people might process a big experience by working with their hands, while other people might process a big experience by talking about it; some people process by being alone, and others by being with others. The person who processes by working with his hands can consciously realize that he has had a new and unsettling experience and decide to start a handy-man project in order to allow himself to process it.
Everything I have described up to now is part of normal life. Just as the body takes in food, processes it, and makes it part of the biological system, so the human psyche takes in experiences, processes them, and makes them part of the emotional system. In other words, disequilibrium is not the same thing as emotional sickness: everyone has moments when they need to process a new experience, and if the new experience is in fact processed then natural growth is the result.
But if the moment passes and the new experience is not processed, then disequilibrium turns into emotional sickness. Above I defined equilibrium as a state which does not tend toward its own destruction, which is to say that disequilibrium is a state which tends towards its own destruction. But someone can enter disequilibrium without ever in fact moving toward self-destruction. It is only when someone in disequilibrium actually moves in a destructive direction that he becomes emotionally sick. At point, we would say that he has been traumatized by his experience.
Someone could be traumatized by an everyday experience just by somehow failing to process it. This is like someone who gets sick by eating normal food because his digestive track somehow failed. But there are experiences which no one should ever have had and which cause instant damage to the human psyche: these experiences bypass the usual moment for processing and proceed directly to destruction. They are like poisons that the body should not have ingested, that cause instant illness. I would argue that the term “traumatic experience” should be reserved for these experiences, because they are traumatic in themselves and not just by happenstance.
In a case of emotional trauma, just as in the case of bodily poisoning, outside help is usually needed. The system can’t cope on its own. Sometimes one can “self-medicate,” but in any case unusual measures are in order. The good news is that, if somehow it becomes possible to process the traumatic experience, the psyche becomes unusually strong. Think Victor Frankl.
[UPDATE: I don’t know whether what I said about a tuned guitar retaining is tuning is true. It fits my experience with my own guitar. If it isn’t true, then it is what one of my teachers used to call a “platonic fact,” something that should have been true.]