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March 21, 2018

The Cognitive Emotive Loop: What it is, Why it Keeps you Stuck, and How to Break Free

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What is a Cognitive Emotive Loop?

A cognitive/emotive loop is a repeating pattern where thoughts and beliefs produce feelings that fuel our rightness about our stories, that then further intensify our feelings, and on and on. They burn energy and get in the way of progress. They’re one way we as humans get stuck. Conscious leaders are no exception. A hallmark of conscious leaders, however, is that they are dedicated to getting unstuck.

Ben: A Real World Example

Cognitive / Thought: “I am underpaid and not valued for the contribution I make.” This thought gets loudest at his annual comp review but it recurs regularly throughout the year.

Emotive / Feeling: Anger, which has calcified over time into resentment and an attitude of entitlement.

  • He has the thought, “I’m underpaid and not valued.”
  • He feels angry. The physical manifestations of anger are heat in his face, heart racing, jaw tightening.
  • He doesn’t let the feeling complete, but rather he uses the energy of the feeling to fuel his belief (thought) that he’s right about not being valued or adequately compensated.
  • He finds evidence to prove he’s right, and as a consequence becomes more angry (feeling) which produces more heat, more tightness, and a faster heart rate.
  • Again, he doesn’t complete the feeling, and instead funnels the energy back into righteousness (thought) about how he has been mistreated financially for years. He solidifies this belief by comparing his comp to others who he believes have made far less of a contribution to the bottom line than he has.
  • His anger is now moving in the direction of rage (feeling) and he fantasizes (thought) about telling his boss off publicly and storming out of the office.

How To Break Free

Feeling feelings all the way through and investigating thoughts are the two key ways that conscious leaders escape a cognitive emotive loop. 

Here's what it looks like step by step: 

1.     Notice when you’re in the loop through self-awareness
Begin by identifying some of your existing repetitive loops. Put yourself on alert for when the patterns show up. When they do, then simply say, “Ah, there it is.”

2.     Accept yourself for being in a loop in the moment
Adding self-criticism or judgment to the pattern simply exacerbates the loop. After awareness comes acceptance. One deep breath then, “Oh, there’s my pattern again. I’m just being me the way I’ve always been me.”

3.     Choose to interrupt the pattern
It’s always a choice. Stepping into creator and choosing a new way is taking radical responsibility which is at the heart of conscious leadership.

4.     Stay with the body to break the loop
Feelings are sensations arising in and on the body. To complete a feeling you need stay fully connected to the body until the sensations have moved through. Choose to stop fueling the sensations with more thinking and keep the focus on the sensations.

When Ben has the thought, “I’m underpaid and undervalued” followed by the feeling of anger and the sensations of tightness, heat and elevated pulse, he can override the impulse to let his mind runaway to find evidence for his belief, and instead keep his attention on his body. He can rest his awareness on the heat in his chest or the tightness in his jaw or his heart beating. Then simply notice the physical sensations. He doesn’t try to stop them. As best he can, he welcomes them. He watches as they begin to dissipate. Sometimes when the sensations are particularly intense he might move (stomp his feet, pound a pillow) and even make a sound to match the sensation. The key to interrupting the loop is to stay in and with the body until the body is done feeling the feeling.

5.     Unwind the thought through inquiry
Once the body has released the energy (emotion and sensations) and come back to equilibrium, do The Work on your thought. Choose curiosity over being right and discover all the possible ways that the opposite of your thought could be as true or truer.

Ben’s core belief is that his boss and company should value him more. As a meditation he asks the questions:

  • ‍Is it true that they should value me more?
  • Can I know for certain that they should value me more?
  • When I believe that thought, how do I react?
  • If I couldn’t ever believe that thought who would I be?

Then he does the “turnarounds” and finds evidence for how the opposites are as true or truer than his belief.

  • My boss and my company value me.
  • I should value me more.
  • I should value my boss and my company more.

If Ben does the inquiry seriously with a desire to see the truth fully he will unwind his thought structure and the cognitive/emotive loop will be broken. He might need to choose to break the loop several times, to feel the feeling and examine the thought, but if he does Ben will be free from this pattern. This particular form of suffering will end. The same is true for you.  

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