Why A Change Of Plans Causes Emotional Destabilization 

Because when your plans change, the structure that you use to stabilize your perceptions of the world is disrupted. It momentarily throws you into a state of chaos.

Woodman. DailyWire+.
Woodman. DailyWire+.

The following is a transcribed excerpt from one of Dr. Jordan Peterson’s 2020 lectures. In this segment, he discusses how we perceive the world, what causes our emotions to be destabilized, why we experience negative emotion when our plans change, and how our nervous system assess situations. You can listen to or watch more from Dr. Peterson on DailyWire+.

We do not see objects, think about them, evaluate them, and then decide how to act on them — or, if we do, we do it rarely, slowly, and with a lot of thought. What we see, instead, are obstacles or pathways with tools that will move us forward. When there are no obstacles in front of you — when there is a nice flat road — you experience positive emotion. You think, “This is a task I can undertake. The sailing is clear. It is a good day.” When there is an obstacle in front of you, you experience a little pang of disappointment and anxiety. You think, “Can I make it around that obstacle?” If you have done so before, you will think, fairly confidently, “I can walk forward, and then circumvent the obstacle.” It is a minor disruption to the perceptual set of skills you use to organize the world. It is a minor bit of chaos. If, however, you do not know how to engage in circumvention, then you would be unable to get from point A to point B; that would be a problem for your plan. When your perceptual set — the structure you are using to organize the world; the plan through which you are viewing the complexity of the world — reveals an inadequacy, then that destabilizes your emotions.

Regardless, you need to be going somewhere, and there needs to be a pathway in order for you to feel good. If that plan is untenable or becomes destabilized, then you become flooded with negative emotion: frustration, disappointment, anger, and primarily anxiety. But all of those emotions sort of intermingle. You may feel anger because you have to fight your way through the obstacle; frustration because maybe you have to make a new plan; disappointment because you devoted work to the plan and it did not work out; and anxiety because now there are too many choices in front of you. So people do not like to have their plans disrupted. The reason for that is that their plans are directly associated with their emotional perception of the world.

That is a good thing to know: Your plans are directly associated with your emotional perception of the world. For example, if you decide you are going to go to a Korean restaurant for dinner, and it turns out that you cannot — maybe you have to go to a Greek restaurant — who cares? (Unless you hate Greek restaurants.) A Korean restaurant is pretty good and a Greek restaurant is pretty good. But you are still going to be annoyed that your plans changed. Why? Because when your plans change, the structure that you use to stabilize your perceptions of the world is disrupted. It momentarily throws you into a state of chaos.

How much chaos? This is interesting. We do not know. If you wake up one morning and you have an ache in your side, what does it mean that you have an ache in your side? You do not know. Maybe it means you pulled a muscle. Maybe it means you have cancer and you only have months to live. The whole range of possibility is there. Some people will assume one thing, and some people will assume the other — and all of them will be right sometimes. So the question is, how do you calibrate something like that? The answer is, we tend to guess at it temperamentally. We have our set points for negative emotion (neuroticism trait), and some people would be a lot more nervous about a small-level anomaly than others. Maybe they will go to the hospital first and they will not die, or maybe they will be freaking out all the time and they will be a hypochondriac. There are pros and cons about being nervous like that. Perhaps the other person is emotionally stable and they ask nothing, but by the time they get to the hospital, it is too late. That is one way that you guess. It is determined in large part genetically — not completely, but in large part.

Another part is your position in the hierarchy. How safe are you in life? Who knows? But one of the ways you guess is by asking if you are good at things. If you are good at things, a problem comes up and you can probably solve it. So how do you know if you are good at things? One answer might be: Other people think you are good at things because you are really kind of comparing yourself to other people when you are thinking about whether or not you are good at things. So if it turns out that you are in a hierarchy — and you are fairly high in the hierarchy, indicating a certain degree of competence — then your nervous system, under the control of the serotonin system, dampens down your negative emotion. It says, “All things considered, you are probably pretty safe.”

However, that also means you do not like having your position in the dominance hierarchy challenged at all. Because if you get tossed down the hierarchy — for example, if you get fired — it wreaks havoc on your serotonin function. It makes you defeated like the defeated lobsters I wrote about in “12 Rules for Life.” Then, you are way more susceptible to negative emotion. And who wants that? That is why you do not even like to lose arguments. You lose a little argument, you slide down the dominance hierarchy a bit, and emotions are a bit destabilized. So instead, you think, “I’m right.” Why? Because you want to keep your neurochemistry in check — and no wonder.

Sometimes, however, it is better to learn than to insist on being right because learning works better for the future. But you get the point.

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To continue, listen or watch more content with Dr. Jordan Peterson on DailyWire+

Dr. Jordan B. Peterson is a clinical psychologist and professor emeritus at the University of Toronto. From 1993 to 1998 he served as assistant and then associate professor of psychology at Harvard. He is the international bestselling author of “Maps of Meaning,” “12 Rules for Life,” and “Beyond Order.” You can now listen to or watch his popular lectures on DailyWire+.

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