08: Cognitive Reappraisal

Cognitive reappraisal refers to “altering emotions by changing the way one thinks” (McRae, Ciesielski, & Gross, 2012, p. 250). This cognitive change activity alters emotional impacts, and more positive perspectives and interpretations can arise (Gross, 1998b). We will exemplify how our informants use cognitive reappraisal to regulate emotions.

Cognitive Reappraisal of Life Choices

JWs believe to be responsible for making Jehovah God happy or sad, dependent on choices and priorities. JWs perform what they term biblically as to set aside. For example, many JWs reduce their income to manage to do proselytization work:

There is work to earn money, and then there is work in the field to proselytize. Moreover, it is tough to work full-time in addition to being in service. To not be exhausted, many Jehovah’s Witnesses choose to reduce their income. (YM)

The individual sacrifices due to life choices are reappraised as meaningful choices and investments that will be recompensed in the future. Time and efforts are used to work for Jehovah God instead of more personal short-term goals:

There are things that I set aside because they are not the most important now. Things I would have liked to do. The choices you make all the time are influenced by the importance of proselytizing and the importance of attending meetings. Other things are evaluated in light of that. (OM)

This dedicated senior man made ideal life choices due to JWs’ theology and reappraised due to that. The most important now, for him together with all JWs in end time, is giving high priority to proselytization. Another JW reappraised the time use, as time spent with Jehovah: “An important way to use time with Jehovah is being out proselytizing in addition to, of course, our meetings and Bible reading” (OM).

Among our informants, parts of mainstream life, such as higher education, careers, material standards, or having children, are not prioritized. Among them, an adult man resigned from his business job and instead works as a cleaner to be able to increase proselytization activity.

You know, there is no career in it [working as a cleaner]. It is on the contrary considered relatively low on the social ladder. I work for eternal life. And the sacrifices you make count for nothing when you focus on eternal life. So for my future, I am very goal-oriented and focus on the eternal life I am working for, not something temporary here and now. I very much work for the hope of eternal life. And that is because I see this life as extremely short if I should at maximum live 70 to 80 to 90 years. All the things I want to do in life, all I want to accomplish and most of the things I wanted to do have already disappeared. And if this life is all, then it would have been empty. It would have been meaningless. So, eternal life in the form of all the things that lie there in the form of possibilities, that is something to work towards. (OM)

This man reappraised through defining sacrifices as means to eternal life, in opposition to working for the temporary here and now. The regulation of difficult emotions are thematised, as feelings of meaninglessness and emptiness are defined as the alternative to surviving a life lasting a maximum 90 years.

Cognitive Reappraisal of Refusing Medical Blood Transfusions

JWs have to handle the emotional scenario of being willing to reject medical blood transfusions on biblical grounds, even if the treatment could lead to a difference between life and death. Fear of death can be connected to negative emotional states (Harmon-Jones, 2013; Yalom, 2008). The JW informants expressed that they are willing to lose their lives if necessary, because, in their opinion, God has instructed this in His word, the Bible. JWs reappraise the potential sacrifice of life, through acceptance of an early death, as an act of faith. This woman described experiences of death anxiety when realizing that the choice to refuse blood could lead to death, but reappraised what made the situation more emotionally bearable:

It was not easy to say, “No, I am not going to have a blood transfusion” because the way it was explained to me was that, “If you do not have a blood transfusion, you risk dying.” But then I saw this as a trial, and a reminder to stay strong in my faith. So if I had to die, ok, then I had to die. (OW)

Refusing a blood treatment is reappraised, to reduce death anxiety, to be a positive sign of obedience, securing the survival of Armageddon or resurrection and, in any case, earning a rewarding future life in Paradise.

Cognitive Reappraisal of Social Exclusion

All participants have experienced the emotionally hard practice of exclusion, either being excluded personally or because family or friends had been excluded. An elder (spiritual leader) who participated in the processes of the exclusion of congregation members experienced this as difficult and referred to the emotions that arise in such difficult, personal situations:

And our limits, they go completely with the commandments God instructed to be written down in the Bible. But then, to partake in a case like that [exclusion case], it is, of course, the worst part of the job because this is about humans, human lives and all the emotions that are connected to it. Of course, it is terrible. (MO)

The elder used cognitive reappraisal as an emotion regulation strategy, as he defined being an elder and carrying out exclusions as part of a group assignment. It is not “I,” but “we” who follow God’s commandments.

Cognitive Reappraisal Using Biblical Metaphors

Proverbs 29:25 states: “Fear of man is a snare, but the one trusting in Jehovah will be protected” (NWT, 2013). The mandatory task to proselytize implies knocking on doors and interacting with strangers. Rejections and being ridiculed were reportedly experienced. “Fear of Man” is a metaphor from the Bible, which, among JWs, provides a theological framework for reappraising the uneasiness of door-to-door preaching. An informant said: “It is not natural [to proselytize]. Everyone experiences fear of man, either on a high or low level” (YM). Another JW likewise stated about proselytizing: “Because I was shy, it was kind of hard. Because it is demanding. And when you posit fear of man, then it will be more difficult” (WO).

Acceptance of fear among JWs is implicit when using the biblical term “fear of man” as something to expect to some degree. Some negative emotions are expected but, as well, are reappraised through being biblical emotions and through the explanation of being refused by outsiders as a positive sign of being God’s people. Also, the arduous task of proselytization is reappraised as a life-saving activity, as recruited newcomers to JWs are included in the hope of survival of death.

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