Emotional Resilience Blog from The Fear Course

The latest research, realisations and thinking in the world of emotional resilience, anxiety and fear reduction from around the world.

Emotion regulation: When acceptance can cause problems

Emotion regulation: When acceptance can cause problems

Acceptance is part of the culture of mindfulness, aspects of which are often used successfully deal with conditions such as anxiety and depression. Certainly there is evidence to show that just accepting things as they are can be beneficial - but not always.

An interesting series of studies looking at the difference between eastern asian and western cultures in terms of their general ability to regulate their own emotions are coming up with some interesting and counter-intuitive results.

It has been found that people from more predominantly eastern cultures have greater difficulty with both labelling and regulating or changing their emotions than people from western cultures. An intriguing set of explanations has arisen for this state of affairs. I covered one of them in my last post. Briefly this explains this phenomenon in terms of the hedonic or the importance of the pleasure and happiness of the individual in the west and primacy of duty, loyalty and the group or family in the east. The principle here is that people in the west strive for individuals happiness and are therefore much more attuned recognising personal emotional states and fixing them if they are negative. Even the idea of a negative emotion is a western construction.
This explanation is growing in credibility at there moment but it is not the only explanation.

Another explanation I find fascinating is that acceptance is much more a feature of cultures in the east. The simple side of this explanation is that people from the east are much less likely to challenge their own feelings as acceptance rather than challenge of the status quo is a cultural norm. In the west the opposite is true. The 'we are never happy' syndrome as it has been called, means that westerners will readily challenge each other and therefore their own internal states as well. This suggests that change is much more likely to be driven from a challenge perspective rather than an acceptance perspective.

A deeper explanation is that it is not just a general acceptance that features so much here. In the east an acceptance of contradiction and in particular psychological contradiction is the norm. What I mean by this is that an individual who can accept psychological contradiction is much more likely to accept and therefore live with happiness and sadness. Confidence and anxiety. This comes from the eastern understanding of the duality of all things or Yin and Yang. There is in everything both light and dark, strength and weakness, good and bad etc. Therefore there is no negative emotion, rather there is negative and positive in every emotion.

In the west there is much more of a drive for certainty. One or the other. Westerners are much more likely ascribe a single attribute to something than allow a duality to exist. this is a negative or a positive emotion. The idea that happiness (or freedom) for example could be a negative is a rare position to take in the west.

The philosophy of duality is based on three principles:

1. The principle of contradiction - Two opposing positions can easily be true. You don't need to decide which one is right or true, they can be both true. Happiness can be both a positive and a negative at the same time.
2. The principle of change - The universe is in a constant state of flux and change. Change is happening all the time. Everything is changing from second to second. You just need to notice it.
3. The principle of holism - everything is connected and interrelated. Therefore acceptance = balance and vice versa.

In the west by contrast, there tends to be right or wrong, a drive for stability and certainty and linear thinking. In moments of contradiction there is a drive to resolve incongruities rather than accept them. Several decades of research have shown that Westerners experience cognitive dissonance or confusion and discomfort when their values, preferences, and actions are incongruent or not aligned.

Add to these the two perspectives on life that is the difference between individualism, the drive for pleasure and freedom on the one hand and selfless devotion to duty and the group or family on the other we find a culture (east) which accepts ambiguity, change and uncertainty and a culture (west) which tries to resolve it.

It would appear that in terms of the motivation to be more ready to recognise when things 'aren't right' for the individual and then have the drive to change things and to put them 'right', a lower tolerance for ambiguity helps! Somewhat counter intuitive.


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Spencer-Rodgers, J., et al (2004) Dialectical Self-Esteem and East-West Differences in Psychological Well-Being. Personality and Social Psychology bulletin. Vol. 30 No. 11, November 2004 1416-1432 DOI: 10.1177/0146167204264243

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How our beliefs alter our ability to change our emotions

How our beliefs alter our ability to change our emotions

Following on from the last post "Why we make ourselves feel worse" where I looked at why we make our feelings worse or up-regulate our negative feelings, today I am going to look at some recent evidence to show that our cultural beliefs change our ability to change (up and down regulate) our emotions.

It is widely accepted that people from the east have a different sets of beliefs or logic systems than those in the west. This makes comparisons of such cultures an easy target for researchers, especially given that there are enormous amounts of research data about those differences. The research not only chronicles the logic/belief system or dialectical differences between east and west but has also found that there are significant emotional differences. For example people from east asian cultures tend to report lower levels of self-esteem than people in the west. A whole raft of research has show that Japanese, Chinese, and Koreans report lower life satisfaction, more negative affect (e.g., guilt and shame), and greater anxiety, depression, and pessimism than do western cultural groups. Judgments of happiness and well-being are also lower among individuals in many East Asian countries than in Western nations. Likewise, within various multicultural societies, such as the UK and the US, East Asian minority groups report lower self-esteem, poorer life satisfaction, and greater anxiety and depression than do caucasians and other racial/ethnic groups.

Part of this difference at least is put down to the more collectivistic view of the east where the unity of the group is seen to be more important than any one individual. This situation is almost the opposite in the west, where individual freedom is more important than loyalty to any particular group. Not only that but in the west positive self-regard is a very strong part of the culture, making it highly valued, and one of the aims of many family systems in the home, work and educational systems.

Given the primacy of being happy and of pleasure in the west or what is known as hedonic focus and the primacy of duty, selflessness, service and unity in the east, it is may not be surprising that these broadly different cultures place different levels of importance and therefore expertise in regulating emotions.

A study published this week found that easterners are less motivated to engage in hedonic emotion regulation that westerners. In other words people in the west are much more likely to engage in up-regulation (boosting) of positive emotion and down-regulation (reduction) of negative emotion. Indeed there is evidence that easterners are just much less likely to engage in emotion regulation at all compared to their western counterparts.

The study also found that westerners tend to be able to reduce negative emotions far quicker than easterners and this isn't just about practice. The study found that the main factor are the beliefs of the individual. If your set of beliefs include the fact that you matter less than the group, that emotions have little importance compared to thought, you are much less likely to engage in or understand (at an emotional level) the emotions you are having, how they are connected, how they differ, their associations etc. (emotional literacy) than if you live in a world with beliefs about the importance of being happy for example.

However the story doesn't end there. Our ability to regulate our emotions also appear to be connected to our cultural beliefs about ambiguity and uncertainty, which I will explore in my next blog. The outcomes of which may surprise you, it did me.

There is very strong evidence that our ability to cope and deal with our emotions goes a lot deeper than cultural beliefs. Personal beliefs have been shown to make an impact too. i will look at this in later blogs. 

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Spencer-Rodgers, J., et al (2004) Dialectical Self-Esteem and East-West Differences in Psychological Well-Being. Personality and Social Psychology bulletin. Vol. 30 No. 11, November 2004 1416-1432 DOI: 10.1177/0146167204264243

Miyamoto, Y., Ma, X., & Petermann, A. G. (2014) Cultural differences in hedonic emotion regulation after a negative event. Emotion, Apr 7 , 2014, doi: 10.1037/a0036257


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