“He made me angry” “She upset me”, “They make me so frustrated!”
Do these comments sound familiar to you? Have you ever heard your friends or family using them, or caught them coming out of your own mouth? If so, then this post is for you.
How are our emotions “created”? Many people believe that they come out of nowhere. Essentially, that emotions spontaneously create themselves and we have no control over them. The reality is that they occur after something happens. Some kind of event. You might see something, you might hear something, or even feel it. Your senses (sight, hearing, taste, smell, touch) come into play. And emotion is the result.
The diagram below shows an example of how this works. Let’s say that you have grown up with people telling you that you’re an idiot. Most of us know that if we are told something often enough, we start believing it. So when we get given the “data” from our senses, our internal programming jumps up and shouts at us: “You’re an idiot, how could you do/be that” etc.
You might feel angry toward the person who said it, along with an internal sense of sadness and worthlessness. You’ll also feel the physical sensations that come along for the ride. The racing heart, the muscle tension, heaviness like your body wants to sink into the ground, and so on.
I regularly hear statements like “he/she/they made me feel upset/angry/sad/nervous” (insert appropriate words that fit your experiences). There is often a feeling of being disempowered, like the emotion has all the say in what “it” wants to do.
Think about it. When you have an event, you experience that event through your senses. You HEAR comments, you SEE people and body language, you FEEL things against your body, you SMELL aromas, you TOUCH objects. And when your senses do their job, the information they obtain is taken into your brain. Your brain processes the data it has just collected, makes judgments about it and interprets it. In psychological terms, it undergoes a cognitive process. In other words, it THINKS.
The interpretation that comes out is impacted by a combination of all the experiences we have had between the time we were born. Culture, family, school, social interactions. All of these influence the way we think and interpret the events in our lives. An example of the process is outlined in the diagram below – someone says the words “You’re an idiot”, your ears hear those words, takes them in and your brain calls on all of your previous life experiences. It then goes through a thinking process, makes judgments and spits out the verdict. “I shouldn’t have done that”, “I’m such an idiot!” and so on. As a consequence of these thoughts, you may feel angry, sad and worthless.
It’s important to note that this entire process, from when you first hear the words to you feeling the emotions, happens in less than a split second! In less than the time it takes to click your fingers, your brain has already given you those thoughts and probably another 50 variations on the theme.
Think for a moment about the first time you learned how to drive a car (or when you did anything for the first time). When you got behind the wheel you had to think about where to place your feet, your hands, which buttons you needed to press, when you needed to indicate, who/what was outside the car and where they/it might be located, when to accelerate, brake, and if the car had a manual transmission, when to change gears. Pretty confusing and challenging, right?! Now think about driving after you’ve practiced for a while. Ever had the experience of driving through a set of lights and then suddenly half turning your head back and asking yourself, “was that light green?” Your driving skills have become so practiced that they are now automatic and you can do it without thinking about it consciously.
Our cognitive processes are exactly the same. We learn how to think! We get used to thinking certain things about ourselves and become so practiced at it that it becomes automatic. Useless, worthless, idiot, stupid, silly, etc. And we believe all those things, we take them inside ourselves and they become a part of our identity, at the very core of our being. So, when we hear the words once again, “You’re an idiot”, our automatic thoughts jump in without us even being aware of it.
This is the key. If our emotions are a result of the cognitive processes inside our heads, it means that nobody can make us feel anything. Knowing and really understanding this gives us power and choice. It means that our emotions are our responsibility.
The next question becomes, given that this is an automatic process, what can we do to make some changes so that we have control? The first step is to become more aware of our automatic thoughts. Try picking yourself up on your thoughts and write them down when you catch them popping into your head.