Humanity Needs Mindful Emotion Regulation

by Melissa Karnaze

I grokked this paper with multicolored pens and highlightersThis paper holds the future of humanity within its words:

Mindful emotion regulation: An integrative review,” by Richard Chambers, Eleonora Gullone, and Nicholas B. Allen.

(The PDF’s not posted for free public viewing, so if you don’t have an account to purchase research papers, you might want to visit your local university library and try their internet access.)

And when I talk about the fate of humanity, I’m dead serious.

Humanity’s future

As I see it, our future as a species depends mostly on our ability to:

    1. Work with our emotions constructively so that we stop waging war against our Egos, which only leads to dysfunctional beliefs and behaviors, that makes for extremely dysfunctional relationships and societies
    1. Work with our emotions constructively so that we don’t let our subconsciousness’ (e.g., Egos) govern our lives for the worse
    1. Work with our emotions constructively so that we can actually fight for what we believe in, rather than against what we don’t… so we can build and rebuild instead of simply destroy
    1. Work with our emotions constructively so that we can clear out our “issues”… so we can actually see the world and its constructs clearly… so that we can actually give a damn about how messed up much of the planet is… and how we are the change that needs to spread

What all this basically encompasses is a complete revolution in how we think about, feel about, perceive, experience, and yes work with… our emotions.

What I loved about the paper

Now, the review paper nailed one thing dead-on: it pointed out that the emotion regulation research out there needs to learn a thing or two from the mindfulness construct. (Check out this article for more on emotion regulation literature.)

How exactly?

Well, here’s what emotion regulation research has found so far:

    1. Suppressing the expression of your emotions doesn’t really work, and has many negative side-effects
    1. Changing your thoughts about a negative event… to change your perception… and thus, your emotional response — does have positive results

What this means is that we, humans, are stuck being human. And we best not try to tamper with our humanness — our emotions — by stuffing them down or trying to poof them into nonexistence.

What we can do instead is:

Get mindful about our thoughts, beliefs, assumptions, and expectations that underpin our emotions.

But — and now this is where it gets tricky — there’s a catch to the goodness of changing your thoughts, which is referred to in psychology as: (positive) reframing, reappraisal, or cognitive restructuring. (I’ll use “reframing,” since it’s my favorite.)

The catch is that you can sometimes use a reframe to indirectly avoid having to experience your negative, unpleasant, undesirable emotions. Meaning, a well-intentioned reframe might cause harm instead of good, if applied at the wrong time.

How did that one slip through?

Well, you have to keep in mind that while all of this research is great, there’s still a long, long way to go. The brain and it’s emotions are seriously complex! It’s easy for scientists to miss out on these finer grains of detail — because they really are that detailed.

Okay, so the paper understands this potential shortcoming of reframing, an important part of the emotion regulation construct. And it calls for reformation:

“… mindfulness holds that all mental (cognitive and emotional) phenomena are merely mental events, and thus do not need to be acted upon. A capacity to simply allow these mental events to come and go is systematically developed… thoughts and behaviors deemed useful are given energy, and those deemed unhelpful are simply not identified with, which is a distinct cognitive strategy from reapprisal [or reframing, as I’m referring to it in this article].”

What I disliked about the paper

The reformation part is great. Mindfulness, acceptance, and awareness, can greatly enhance the model of emotion regulation.

However, it’s how that reformation needs to occur, that I part with the authors on.

You’ll notice in the quote a rather abstract term: identification.

As in, identifying with thoughts and emotions.

You may also remember that one of the tenets in “The Robot Guide to Emotion” is to be wary of anyone using such abstraction when discussing important real-life matters — such as emotions and how to relate to them.

Well, here’s the million dollar question: What does it mean to identify with an emotion?

The phrase has been popping up in the papers I’ve been reading, and I will be looking deeper. For now, I can relay to you how the authors of this paper explained it:

“In the Buddhist literature, these three appraisal valences–attraction, aversion, and indifference–comprise what are referred to as ‘The Three Poisons’… referred to in this way because they arise as a result of the mistaken experience of the separation of perceiver, perceieved object, and the act of perception (which are understood to be, in reality, inseparable).”

So from the outset, take note — this referenced Buddhist literature condemns the human mind as being flawed and poisonous, simply because it evolved such a complex appraisal (thought-emotion) system.

(This short article provides a simple explanation of the appraisal system.)

Did you catch that negative judgment? It’s no different from condoning an act of violence against oneself, of declaring a Kill-Ego Crusade.

It may appear to be spiritual, with revelations about the nature of reality.

But it leaves out one big piece of the puzzle…

As long as an individual uses a human mind to experience (co-create) reality… then they cannot perceive “reality” beyond the constraints of a human mind.

    Even an individual deep in meditation is still constrained by a human mind — they use their mind to meditate.

And at a baser level, even if reality has some unified fabric that we aren’t consciously aware of — it doesn’t change the fact that we are currently living as individual human beings in a physical world where things like boundaries and needs are very important to our survival and well-being.

The authors cite a version of reality where perceiver, perceived object, and the act of perception are inseparable. And where the human mind is poisoned by its limitations in understanding this.


They cite a version of reality that came from a human mind!

Don’t get me wrong here. The belief in unification can hold at a spiritual level. I’m critical of how that’s being applied to the physical level in a dysfunctional way.

Just because I believe that at a spiritual level, we all connected by the unified fabric of space-time does not mean I deny who I am right now, today — an individual human being living in a physical world where things like boundaries and needs are very important to my survival and well-being.

I don’t like how the authors use their nifty take on reality to somehow show that the human mind is inferior — and that its poisonous emotions are to be flushed from the system.

Emotions are beautiful things. They are useful, and powerful. They are a crucial part of being an individual human being living in a physical world. They give the universe meaning. They are messengers of meaning.

When Mindfulness Meets Emotion

All in all, I really appreciate this paper and the reformation it’s calling for.

If we hear the call in a balanced way — minus all that dysfunctional stuff — we can really change the world and our place in it, for the better. Where mindfulness is in fact meant to enhance our emotional experience to be the most constructive that it can be.

Our future depends upon it. Because it’s time for the human race to grow up and stop acting like it can get rid of its emotional heritage.

If we can grow up and start facing ourselves — start accepting ourselves as we are right now — we might have a chance of survival when the technological Singularity and the transhumanism tag-along comes to drastically change what it means to be human…

But I’m getting ahead of myself. That article series won’t start up until after this one finishes early next year. :)

This is the 1st article written in response to the review paper, “Mindful emotion regulation: An integrative review.” The next articles will continue in January 2010. So grab your feed to get ready!

{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

WN December 10, 2009 at 12:54 pm

Wait, wait, wait, wait… hold on! They’re citing Buddha in this Academic Review???!!!

I just can’t help but think that some scientists have spent the last 40 years trying to justify 1969-think and all this talk about We Are One is totally unprovable and, as you say, abstract– and outdated!

Just because I see my pen on the desk, doesn’t mean I’m my pen!!!

It’s a cop-out to think that we are all One and the Same and Brothers and Sisters, because–it’s kind of like trying to spread Christianity or something. There’s a big powerful force that is invisible and impossible to fathom that you’ve gotta get on board with if you want the world to be at peace.


“I’m soooo much more enlightened and scientific because I see the world as One, while you see it as fractured. Let me look down on you for a second before I continue saving the world. Hope you get it one day!”

Now I’m angry. I’m gonna have to reappraise this later.


Melissa Karnaze December 10, 2009 at 1:45 pm

Well they aren’t citing Buddha word for word.

The quote I included, “In the Buddhist literature…” was written by the authors, and they were referencing the book by Ole Nydahl called The Way Things Are.

I haven’t read that book so I’m not sure how directly it related to scripture and/or what Buddha actually said — since many different sects came from his teachings.

The bottom line is though, just what you said, a cop-out. And from my perspective, hijacking both science and spirituality to push an agenda, which I talked more about in Monday’s article.

You’d be surprised, WN, We Are One is not out of fashion. It’s really popular right now in the mainstream New Age Self-Help movement. Maybe it’s the second wave or something, but with mindfulness meditation on board, I don’t think it’s going away any time soon.

I hear your frustration. It took me days to finish this paper. First of all because it was dense, but secondly, because I had to really take time understanding the authors’ angle. And then, coming up against some Major Frustrations when getting into the (lack of logic in the) last third of the paper.

To be honest, this paper led me on with high hopes, and then really disappointed with the final slant. That’s not to say though that this isn’t one of my favorite papers. I consider it a good preview of what’s to come in research, practice, and mainstream self-help.

WN December 11, 2009 at 10:15 am

Okay, I’ve been thinking about what exactly made me angry about this. It’s the idea about an invisible force that is higher than us and controls us and that only a privileged few can access.

But what is this really a metaphor of?

There IS an invisible force that is very powerful and CAN control us, and it’s made up of all the parts that you talk about here in this blog: Consciousness, unconsciousness, ego/inner child, imagination, creativity, reflection, humor, and more we haven’t discovered yet…

And these things are not intangible, or invisible, really. They ARE accessible but you’ve got to do the work. If you don’t do the work, then this force will remain that mysterious ether that eludes and controls you. And you WILL try to explain it away with abstractions, because what else can you do with it?

Maybe it’s the over-rational mindset of the scientific community that keeps them distanced from emotional exploration. Perhaps we could create our own version of the scientific method that was emotion-based.

Melissa Karnaze December 11, 2009 at 1:04 pm

Awesome WN, you worked *with* your anger to uncover a brilliant metaphor! :)

The way the authors talk about the “real” nature of reality definitely reflects an elitist mindset…

And what you are talking about with this “higher” power is something so, so subtle… but when you can recognize it, you see the world in much different shades.

The scientific community is notoriously distanced from emotional exploration, but there are some pockets that merge with less resistance. Really, anywhere you look, humans fight to uphold the traditionally dysfunctional emotion/thought division.

And why? Well, uncertainty as you bring up is a valid motivation. Fear of the unknown. Having to make sense of it for the time being. Trying to “re”-gain “control.”

Another alternative, or maybe just a consequence, is that tons of people are dissociating from… themselves (their Egos/Inner Children/Emotions, etc…) Dissociation is a really unstable state. It’s the ideal state for being brainwashed by culturally-transmitted dysfunctional beliefs.

That’s why I see this mindfulness meditation movement, which for now seems to mostly be pushing for more dissociating (it can change course though), or not “identifying with” emotions, as a potentially dangerous path.

You simply can’t expect to dissociate from yourself and expect to be healthy, happy, let alone a free-thinking individual.

There’s a quote by Carl Jung that I think you’ll like:

“Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate.”

I don’t know if I’ll ever conclusively comprehend it. The more I read it, the more questions I have.

Perhaps we could create our own version of the scientific method that was emotion-based.

Well, the scientific method is beautiful as she is. It’s just that science as it’s practiced is not entirely *scientific* because it’s guided by and embedded in a community of practice — or culture. (A book that covers this is on my to-read list: “Genesis and Development of a Scientific Fact,” Ludwik Fleck.)

Science (at least when it comes to psychology) is like a magnifying glass. Scientists use it to take a closer look at things. But you have to remember to look at the bigger picture, and to look at things when they interact with other things. And, you have to know what to look out for.

An on-topic example: researchers can use EEG brain waves of meditating monks to then show that meditating is good for you. But the discrepancy I see is… lack of critical thinking and *mindfulness” about emotions themselves. Meditation can have a nice place in daily routine. But how to do you when the right time and place is for it? How do you make sure that it doesn’t interfere with other stuff we know about emotional health? That it doesn’t give people an excuse to avoid *identifying* with, or experiencing, their emotions?

Science gets (us) into trouble when it doesn’t ask these bigger-picture questions. Such as by largely ignoring important parts of the emotional/subjective experience.

There’s been a recent surge in science to recognize we are emotion-based, that doesn’t lose sight of the bigger picture… by trying to use things to “control” the emotions. (Grasping for “control” only reflects a lack of understanding that we are emotion-based.) On the site I refer to it as cognitive-affective science, and I think that over time it will be more “emotion-based” in the way I think you imply.

I built this place to be emotion-based, with an intuition that the science will eventually catch-up, and start asking and answering some really important questions on how to best be response able to this thing called life. ;)

Thanks WN for sparking such an interesting discussion!

Kristian Harvey October 17, 2011 at 5:28 am

Hey there!

I am pretty speechless right now. I worked in Oxford on developing Mindfulness Based Cognitie Therapy for the NHS. I have studies mindfulness and practised it on and off for years. Over the past year I have had real trouble in experiencing and accepting my emotions. It felt like mindfulness had stopped working. Then I read your articles and I realised that indeed I had been using mindfulness as well as eckart tolles work to actually try to avoid experiencing negative emotions. It’s been a real problem but i wasn’t aware of what i was doing. It has affected my relationships, caused a lot of anxiety and also my work! Reading this was like a massive light bulb lighting up! My strategy for managing negative emotions has to change. I followed mindfulness like a sheep and ignored my own feelings about these things. I was so desperate to escape uncomfortable and negative feelings that its often all i would think about. Many thanks!

Melissa Karnaze October 17, 2011 at 7:41 am

Hi Kristian,

I’m glad you found your way here! It’s great to hear that having been involved in research you know what I’m getting at. I don’t think that all forms of mindfulness lead to harmful dissociation (even though it is a form of dissociation), but lack of clarification on the aims of mindfulness can most easily go in that direction. Plus, as you’ve experienced, people who pick up the tool may be predisposed to dissociating in the first place.

You may find that with your new realization, your mindfulness skills can actually help you pinpoint instances when you begin to, or want to, dissociate. Thanks for sharing your story.

Rosie February 17, 2014 at 8:05 pm

Hi Melissa,

I’m interested in your passionate views on the secular mindfulness movement. I’m also a PhD student. I’m in Australia. Have your published any of your thoughts in a scholarly forum?

Cheers, (Please don’t publish my email address.)

Melissa Karnaze March 27, 2014 at 7:53 am

Hi Rosie, I’ve not written about the mindfulness movement in a scholarly forum. Best of luck in your studies.

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