I Feel This Because of That
The other day I was cut off in traffic. As soon as it happened, I felt my body go into overdrive; my palms got sweaty, my muscles tensed up, my heart started racing and I felt angry. I drove the rest of the way home thinking to myself how much I hated that driver, how rude and dangerous they were, and what I’d say to them if I got a chance to stop and talk/yell at them. It wasn’t until I got home 20 minutes later that I felt normal again, and I calmed down. If you would’ve asked me then and there why I felt so angry, I would have said that it was entirely because of what the other person did on the road.
Our feelings are complex, and so often we see them as having a mind of their own, as if we have to follow the rule “if that happens then I feel like this.” In psychology, we find that we are much more likely to attribute the cause of our behavior and feelings to things that are external to us, than to what’s going on in our own mind and body and spirit.
We are also much more likely to attribute the cause of other people’s behaviors to be internal. For example, if I am rude to the checkout person at the shops, I might think to myself that I responded that way because I had a really bad day; my pay was short causing me to be stressed, and she was slow and tried to overcharge me. But funnily enough, if we were in line at the shops and somebody else was rude to the checkout staff, we would think they did that because “they’re a rude person,” “they don’t care about other people” or “they’re just plain mean.” We tell ourselves that our actions and feelings are because of external stuff, and other people’s feelings and actions are from internal causes.
I’d like to challenge you to think about how you explain your actions, your feelings, and your experience of life. Do you think your emotions are caused by other people and their actions? Do you get angry because other people make you angry? Do you live reactive to situations in your life?
If we are reactive and explain away our experience, telling ourselves that we feel certain things and respond in a certain way because of our situations, we are limiting ourselves a great deal.
We often think that
A Situation -> Causes -> Emotions
Today I’d like to propose that
A Situation -> filters through our, memories, our thoughts, our imagination, our self talk, our beliefs and our goals -> to cause -> Emotions
The middleman in our situations determines how we feel, how we respond to situations and how we live, and it is a controllable, teachable and grow-able concept. Our mind is the key that we miss out on when we explain our feelings and behaviors.
Let’s look back at my first example to shed some light on this subject.
When I was cut off, I got an adrenaline rush as I put my foot on the break, then I started to feel angry. I started to feel this way because of beliefs I have about how we should drive; drivers don’t make mistakes, that person must not have even cared that I was driving here.
I assumed they were reckless and selfish, instead of a much more likely explanation that they could’ve made a mistake. I maintained the feeling of anger by focusing on the incident, how I would respond angrily and what I would do if they stopped. By focusing on these things and how I felt, I maintained this feeling of discomfort and my body’s activation until I got home.
What could’ve been a few seconds of adrenaline followed by a “phew,” turned into a whole car ride of discomfort, anger and wild emotions because of what I was thinking.
If I explained this situation as “I felt angry because they cut me off,” I would respond the same way again next time. But if I take the time to look at my situation, and my responses to it (anger and extended discomfort), I can start to see ways in which I can influence my emotions.
Our whole life is full of these kinds of opportunities. We can feel depressed, sad, happy, scared, elated, shattered, stoked or anything else in a single day. If we start to look at how we are thinking, what we are telling ourselves and what we are training ourselves to do in each situation; we can start to gain insight into what we can do to help ourselves.
For some of us this could be very difficult, and you may feel constantly depressed, sad, weary or down. Through the whole day this sits on your shoulders trying to keep you down. I’m not saying that if you just thought differently everything would turn around in an instant and you’d be happy all the time, because we know Depression is an illness. But what I am saying, is that you can start to train your brain, your body and your mind to help you respond in ways that will help you.
Just like we train ourselves for sport or for fitness, we can train our mind. Eventually the things we tell ourselves and think that are helpful will become automatic, and we will benefit from these things in many situations.
Today as you finish reading this blog, grab a pen and paper and write down three times you felt a strong emotion today. Write down the situations that these emotions came up in, and finally brainstorm what went on in your mind. Think back to what went on in your body, your imagination, your self-talk, and your point of focus. These are the things that could completely change how you felt in those situations.
We often can’t change our situations, but by looking at what is going on in our minds we can influence how we feel, how we respond and how we experience life.