“Where’s the Wreck?”

There’s something about a highway wreck that gets our attention. Prompted by curiosity or concern we want to see what happened. The initial slowdown of interstate traffic generates that question “Where’s the wreck?” Traffic slows and heads turn as the crash site is passed. The temptation to “rubberneck” is hard to resist. Hopefully, our curiosity is matched by our compassion for those personally involved in the wreck. The sight of a badly-wrecked vehicle makes us wonder about the survival of the occupants and our own personal safety in our travels along interstate highways and local roadways. Unfortunately, too many physical wrecks occur and too many lives are lost.

Emotional wrecks also pose a huge threat to an individual’s health and happiness, and they have a significant negative impact on human relationships. The Emotion Highway is strewn with debris and destruction that result from emotional wrecks. Traveling the Emotion Highway is indeed a challenge, both for individuals and for relationships. Just as the ability to drive certain automobiles is difficult so is the ability to manage our human emotions. Some people apparently never learn how to safely drive their “emotion car” and they sustain multiple wrecks and suffer much emotional pain.

In my professional work as a mental health and relationship therapist I’ve heard many references to and descriptions of “emotional wrecks.” Some individuals have self-disclosed the way they see themselves:  “I’m just a big emotional wreck.” Other individuals describe the way they see their spouse:  “I’m living with an emotional wreck.” Sometimes certain family members, close personal friends, or co-working colleagues are viewed as emotional wrecks. If I’m the emotional wreck, I’m probably having a tough time living with myself. If other people are the emotional wrecks, I’m probably struggling to get along with them. Our struggles should generate an important question:  “How can I survive emotional wrecks?”

Before going any further perhaps we need to define the term “emotional wreck.” In this discussion I’ll use that term although I also value another one—“mood accident.” For all practical purposes we can use the two terms interchangeably. We all have emotions—some positive and pleasant, others negative and painful. A low-to-moderate level of emotional intensity will probably not lead to emotional wrecks or mood accidents. However, when a person’s emotions enter the high range of intensity that individual is at risk for a potential collision. In our attempt to define the term “emotional wreck” let’s remember two key words—“excessive” and “out-of-control.” Emotional wrecks result from excessive, out-of-control emotionality. The wreck itself could be a major conflict with someone or a harmful incident with serious damage. The individual who allows his anger to boil over into a temper outburst is heading for an emotional wreck. The person who feeds his fear toward a major phobia is likely to experience an emotional wreck. The escalation of many human emotions can start sequences that result in serious emotional wrecks.

Actually, when we think through the process we’re not really surprised at the predictable nature of emotional wrecks. Intense emotionality and logical thinking do not usually co-exist; they seem to be mutually exclusive. When our emotions are running at a high level (that is, 8-10 on a 10-point scale) we are usually unable to concentrate and focus on the real issue at hand. Our ability to problem-solve in a productive manner is severely compromised. However, in spite of compromised thinking many people still prefer the experience of emotional intensity. Without doubt those emotionally-charged events can add a dimension to life that a less-emotional person may never experience. But the price tag is extremely high in terms of decreased problem-solving and increased mood accidents.

Individuals with excessive, out-of-control emotionality might qualify for a diagnosis of Bipolar Disorder characterized by mood swings from extreme manic episodes to bouts with severe depression. When untreated the excessive emotions of a Bipolar pattern can lead to a variety of emotional wrecks. Another possible diagnosis is Histrionic Personality Disorder which is characterized by a number of symptoms including a pervasive pattern of excessive emotionality. In non-clinical language the emotion-driven woman might be described by other people with terms like “theatrical” or “drama queen,” or even “hysterical.” One man said that his emotion-driven wife was prone to get hysterical during major disagreements, and that when she got hysterical she would get historical. According to the husband she would bring up past offenses and prior mistakes to use as ammunition against him. In the grip of intense emotionality she was either unable or unwilling to leave the past in the past. Men are not immune to this unhealthy pattern for they also can be driven by excessive emotionality, and, like their female counterparts, they are compromised in their ability to reason effectively and to problem-solve productively. When emotional intensity is driving the argument all rules are off; anything goes that feels okay in the moment, regardless of its inappropriateness or its consequences. The men and women who engage in frequent emotionally-intense outbursts are placing their individual and relationship health at great risk. Clearly, they face a daily challenge in terms of self-control and mood management as they try to avoid collisions and wrecks along the Emotion Highway.

The emotion-driven person might be compared to an automobile with its engine running, in gear, and moving forward—but no one at the wheel! The runaway car is an accident looking for a place to happen. I recently watched the movie “Speed” starring Sandra Bullock, Keanu Reeves, and Dennis Hopper. At the end of the movie the Bullock and Reeves characters were stuck on a fast-moving subway train but the driver had already been killed by the villain (played by Dennis Hopper). The trapped couple was unable to stop the train and had to endure the horrendous crash that was inevitable. Needless to say, a runaway subway train without a driver is a major accident looking for a place to happen! Thankfully, the two stars survived the train wreck and the movie concluded on a happy note. Similarly, many individuals are unable to drive their “train” because of excessive emotionality; understandably, they are steadily traveling toward the crash site. The crash often involves other people, like a relationship partner in the person of a spouse or friend. Many relationships are on a collision course toward disaster simply because of excessive emotionality on the part of one or both partners. When no one is driving the relationship train everyone involved is subject to derailment and devastation. The inevitable wreck is just a matter of when, where, and how much damage is done.

Sometimes we just have a “fender-bender.”  No significant damage is done but repair work is required. A succession of such “fender-benders” can take a heavy toll on one’s individual health and on any human relationship. Whether the collision is a mere fender-bender or a major wreck one thing is certain: the resulting heartaches are very real—and very painful!

Without a doubt emotional wrecks (or mood accidents) are a serious threat to both individual and relationship health. Therefore, we would be wise to improve our understanding of specific causes and increase our ability to cope with emotional intensity.

Causing Emotional Wrecks

The contributing causes of emotional wrecks (or mood accidents) are often difficult to discern and challenging to control. In this limited study let’s examine briefly three common types of behavior that are likely to lead to major mishaps during our journey on the Emotion Highway.
(1)  Emotional Reasoning 

One contributing cause of emotional wrecks is the practice of emotional reasoning. In his book entitled Feeling Good:  The New Mood Therapy Dr. David Burns identified “emotional reasoning” as a cognitive distortion.  In describing the term Dr. Burns wrote, “You assume that your negative emotions necessarily reflect the way things really are: ‘I feel it; therefore, it must be true.’”* Rather than challenge the distorted thought that generated the negative emotion we choose to accept the emotion as evidence that something must be actual reality. I’ve seen this distortion many times in therapy discussions about mood-related problems and relationship struggles. For example, a husband is frustrated in his marriage. He describes his relationship with the statement,   “I feel unloved by my wife, so I know that she does not love me.” The problem is the jump from the presence of an emotion (“I feel unloved”) to a conclusion (“she does not love me”). Consider the wife who says, “I feel insecure about my husband’s love for me, so he must be cheating on me.” Her emotion of insecurity leads to the conclusion that her husband is sexually unfaithful. Such conclusions are inherently risky. It could be true that the wife does not love the husband and that the husband is cheating on his wife. However, the usage of emotions to prove those conclusions is a dangerous process to practice.

To make matters worse we could allow our emotion-driven conclusion to motivate us toward certain negative actions. In the first example the husband might avoid his wife because he is convinced that she does not love him. In the second example the wife could put up defensive walls and become very distant all because she now believes that her husband is having an affair. Such emotional jumps are not limited to marriages. We can make these emotional jumps in job settings and wind up behaving in inappropriate ways toward fellow-workers. We can alienate friends by jumping to negative conclusions based on our emotional feelings.

The pattern of Emotional Reasoning is a practice we need to recognize and reject. We do not have to allow our emotions to force us into conclusions that are probably inaccurate and inappropriate. The conclusion is clear:  avoid Emotional Reasoning!
(2)  Emotional Decision-making

Another contributing cause of emotional wrecks is emotional decision-making. The wreck may occur because a bad decision has been made primarily on emotion rather than productive problem-solving. For example, an individual decides to marry a person who is a very unwise choice for a spouse. Years later the unhappy individual laments the mistake, but he explains his error by saying, “It just felt right at the time.” An impulsive, emotion-driven decision is seldom going to be the best choice for anyone.  Zealous salesmen and marketing specialists understand the power of emotionality in decisions about financial purchases. These professionals know how to appeal to the emotions, hoping that there will be an emotional response strong enough to over-ride logical thinking.
 However, in spite of the dangers of emotional decision-making many people seem determined to “go with the heart” instead of “depending upon the head” when they are faced with major decisions in life. We’ve seen people make what they later called “bad decisions” because they allowed their emotions to drive the decisions, yet those same people continue to rely primarily upon their “heart” instead of using their “head.” In the well-known movie “The Wizard of Oz” the scarecrow yearned for a brain and the Tin Man desired a heart. Can you imagine their struggles with basic decision-making? Without a brain or a heart their decision-making must have been very limited or totally non-existent. The same struggle is true for us. So, let’s make sure that our brain and our heart are both functioning effectively. 

Effective decision-making requires that the “head” take control as the dominant force even though appropriate consideration is given to the “heart” or the emotions that surround the problem at hand. If we want to prevent emotional wrecks we must practice good self-regulation, and we must avoid emotional decision-making.  
(3) Emotional Manipulation

Emotional manipulation is another contributing cause of emotional wrecks. In this unhealthy pattern a man or woman wants another person to say “Yes” to a request for help or assistance. After considering the request the other person declines to provide the desired item or service. The denial means that the requester has a choice to make:  to accept the decision or to engage in emotional manipulation. If the person making the request is prone to take on a “victim role,” manipulation is the likely choice. One manipulative tool he might select is excessive emotionality expressed in the form of anger, sadness, or guilt. He could get extremely angry and hope that the other person will be afraid enough to change the “No” to a “Yes.” Or, he might demonstrate excessive sadness, hoping that the tears will change the other person’s mind. Guilt-tripping is often used to manipulate uncooperative people. These emotion-filled tools are often very effective in our efforts to get what we want from other people. If they cannot handle our anger or sadness or guilt-tripping, they are easy targets for our manipulative behavior.

Over the years I’ve met numerous men and women who were extremely frustrated with their manipulative spouses. For example, a husband says “No” to a particular purchase because the family budget is unable to bear the unnecessary expense. The selfish wife resorts to manipulative emotionality to get him to change his mind or perhaps to punish him for his refusal. In another scenario a wife says “No” to a husband’s request for sexual activity because she is still recovering from recent surgery. The selfish husband decides to use his manipulative tools to get her to cooperate with his request. The usage of emotional manipulation will usually lead to some type of emotional wreck, either for the manipulator himself or for the relationship itself. Manipulative behavior driven by excessive emotionality is definitely a major threat to safety and security on the Emotion Highway. Therefore, we need to recognize these manipulative patterns and refuse to play the game. We would be wise to practice the policy I once heard:  “I refuse to be a travel agent for your guilt trips.” In other words, we must avoid the temptation to practice emotional manipulation.  
Coping with Emotional Intensity

Unregulated emotional intensity has the potential for causing both individual and relationship wrecks. In my professional practice and in educational settings I’ve heard many people express deep frustration and inner hopelessness about their inability to manage their emotional intensity. People sometimes see themselves as being imprisoned or enslaved by their emotions. A sample comment might be “I know that my emotions are totally out of control, but I feel helpless. I’ve never been able to manage them successfully. I’m afraid that I’ll always be this way.” Admittedly, high emotional intensity is usually very difficult to manage, but most people can improve their emotional self-regulation significantly with a combination of desire and effort.

Freedom from emotional enslavement involves both an understanding of emotionality and the practice of self-regulation. In two prior articles entitled “Emotions:  Managing My Mood” and “Thoughts:  Managing My Mind” I presented several tools that people can use to increase their abilities for self-regulation. (These articles are available on this website.)  Emotions can either work for us or else they can work against us, depending upon the degree to which we’re able to manage them effectively. Emotions represent energy, a type of power that requires knowledge and skill for successful management. This fact reminds me of a mistake I made as a child—back when I was “young and stupid.”  On a beautiful summer day my older brother and my cousins were riding horses on the farm where we lived. Not to be outdone, I decided to ride a horse even though I had no clue about how to ride or manage the horse. At first I was thrilled to sit atop an animal that exemplified power and strength. Then my excitement quickly turned to fear when the horse realized that he was in charge and could do as he pleased. I hung on for dear life as he bolted forward and galloped full-speed toward his home at the barn. At least I had enough sense to duck my head as he sped through the barn doorway. Having accomplished his goal the horse stopped and began grazing on a pile of hay. Quickly and shakily I dismounted and walked away, relieved to be uninjured and thankful to be alive! I was humbled by the experience and learned the importance of knowledge and skill in relation to effective horsemanship. Perhaps I just needed a little more “horse sense.” Clearly, the horse possessed a great deal of it, evidenced by the fact that he knew exactly how to get home to his barn. This experience reminds me of a statement made by one of my college professors:  “Horse sense is stable thinking.” Like the horse our emotions represent power and energy, but they will work for us only if we learn to use “stable thinking” in order to manage them effectively.

High levels of emotional intensity make effective management extremely important for safe travels along the Emotion Highway. This management of our emotions involves at least two specific efforts: first, reshaping the driver before emotional wrecks occur and, secondly, repairing the damage from wrecks that have already occurred.  

Reshaping the Driver . . . 

Without a doubt the best way to decrease the negative consequences of an emotional wreck is never to have the wreck in the first place. The adage is true: “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” We acknowledge the wisdom of this statement in regard to physical car wrecks. For example, the wreck caused by the intoxicated driver would not have occurred if he had made a choice to manage his alcohol consumption more effectively. The wreck caused by the texting driver would not have occurred had he chosen to leave his cellphone in his pocket. The wreck caused by the sleeping driver would not have occurred had he chosen to go to bed on time instead of partying all night. Other examples could be cited but the conclusion is clear. Most of our physical wrecks in life occur simply because we fail to manage effectively some type of personal behavior. Likewise, our emotional wrecks occur because we have not learned how to manage our emotions effectively. Good prevention requires that we reshape the driver of our emotion car.

Basically, the reshaping of the driver simply means the development of good self-management, and that process involves the practice of healthy thinking skills. When our thinking is healthy our emotional moods will usually fall in line and cooperate with us, meaning that major emotional wrecks will not occur. If you’re interested in reshaping your mood management in order to prevent emotional wrecks, you’ll be relieved to learn that many helpful resources are available to you. You would probably benefit from several sessions with a professional therapist trained in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. Many books have been published about healthy thinking and mood management. Several relevant articles have been written by this author and are available to you on this website.

Specifically, let’s remind ourselves of the three causes of emotional wrecks described earlier in this article:  emotional reasoning, emotional decision-making, and emotional manipulation. If our goal is to prevent emotional wrecks we will reshape our emotional management and stop these unhealthy patterns. The refusal to engage in such patterns is a huge step toward the decrease of mood accidents.

For many people medication represents a useful tool for their “mood management toolbox.” The benefits of mood medication usually outweigh potential negative side-effects. For many people appropriate medication has been helpful for the purpose of stabilizing moods and curbing excessive emotionality. If you’re open to the usage of medication you can consult with your Primary Care Physician and/or a psychiatrist who works with mood-related issues.
Repairing the Damage . . . 
Prevention is increased as the driver of the emotion car reshapes his ability to practice effective mood management. But what about wrecks that have already occurred, or wrecks that may occur in the future despite our improved skills? In these situations we must jump into the repair business and make sure that proper healing and positive recovery will be achieved. Sometimes the damage done by a major emotional wreck cannot be overcome, and the people involved have to struggle with the painful consequences. Do you remember Humpty Dumpty? Is it possible that he had a serious problem with excessive emotionality?  Could his lack of mood management been the cause for his fatal fall from the well-known wall? Whatever the cause, you recall the tragic ending to the story:  “All the king’s horses and all the king’s men Couldn’t put Humpty together again.” Like Humpty’s fall, many emotional wrecks generate so much damage that, humanly speaking, the pieces cannot be put together again. Relationships are forever lost and lives are drastically changed.

However, whether the recovery potential is great or small we still need to make our best effort at repairing the damage. Perhaps the relationship can be mended and restored. Perhaps the mistakes can be forgiven and the messes cleaned up. The repair process usually requires personal acknowledgement of the actual mistakes, positive apologies for the resulting hurt, and practical actions for long-term recovery. Sometimes specific restitution is appropriate for certain types of damage caused by the emotional wreck. The repair work is usually difficult in terms of time and toil, but personal integrity requires that our best effort be made.

In regard to the repair process allow me to share a word of warning. Please do not assume that the damage caused by your emotional wrecks can be or will be repaired and resolved, or that recovery will always be available. That assumption has motivated many people to maintain negative patterns of uncontrolled emotionality. The truth is that you do get to choose whether or not to maintain an out-of-control lifestyle, but you will pay the price for the results of your behavior. Without doubt Humpty Dumpty would encourage us to remember that some things, once broken, cannot be reclaimed. 
Concluding Thoughts . . .

Travels along the Emotion Highway are often treacherous and challenging for both individual well-being and relationship health. Excessive emotionality that is not self-regulated is a major threat to a safe and successful journey. Mood accidents and emotional wrecks often cause significant damage that adversely affects the future of friendships, marriages, and personal health. Consequently, travelers in life must understand the knowledge and learn the skills essential to effective emotion management. Unhealthy emotion-driven patterns must be recognized and rejected as healthier practices of self-regulation are devised and developed.

The upside of the proverbial coin is that our emotions allow us to experience day-to-day life in a rich and full manner. We value our emotions and appreciate the blessings they bring to our daily experiences. Unfortunately, the same coin has a downside, specifically that unmanaged excessive emotionality steals from us the very blessings that we value. Our challenge is to preserve our emotions and protect them through appropriate self-control and mood management. Our effort will be rewarded in the form of fewer wrecks and better travels along the Emotion Highway.

I wish you well as you continue your journey along the Emotion Highway. And, as always, I wish you the best in all of your relationship journeys.

*Burns, David (1980). Feeling Good:  The New Mood Therapy. New York:  William Morrow and Company. (Page 49)

Resources:  Dr. Baker has written other related articles that are available on this website. The articles specifically referenced in this current article are entitled“Emotions:  Managing My Mood” and “Thoughts:  Managing My Mind.” To read these particular articles you can click on the titles below or the images to the right.
                                                                             “Emotions:  Managing My Mood”


                                                                     “Thoughts:  Managing My Mind”


VIDEO:  To see a short television interview in which Dr. Baker discusses "Surviving Emotional Wrecks" click on the image to the right or click here.

(To listen to an audio version of this blog entry, click the Play button below.)


          (Mental Health Blog #1313)


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