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The One Thing You Need To Understand About Feelings

Most popular portrayals of how emotions work get one fundamental truth very very wrong. So do most casual discussions of how we feel. And, getting this one thing wrong results in an inevitable spiral of feeling bad that could have been avoided if we just got that fundamental truth right from the beginning.

I used to think that when something “bad” happened, the unpleasant feelings that I would get stuck in were the natural and inevitable consequence of that event. So, when I would experience rejection, or not living up to my own hopes or expectations, and I would then feel disappointed, or inferior, or despair, those feelings seemed unavoidable. Of course I felt that way—I was just rejected (or made a mistake, or whatever)!

Now, that’s true—for a very short moment of time. Yes, rejection or having our hopes dashed or not living up to our own expectations feels bad. Nothing I say here should be taken otherwise. (Also, grieving any kind of loss is a pretty major exception to all this. Nothing I say here applies to grief.)

All of the logic above is based on one fundamentally wrong assumption about feelings. That fundamental bit of wrongness is this: most people talk and act as if situations or events in the world (especially the actions of other people) are the direct cause of our feelings. Do any of these sound outrageous to you:

I was angry because he was late.

I was disappointed because she didn’t get me a present.

I felt ashamed because I didn’t pass the test.

Unless you’re already in tune with the point I’m going to make today, none of those are likely to sound the slightest bit odd to you. Of course the person had those feelings, right?!?

Well, not exactly. Of course it’s normal and natural to feel that way when those things happen, but the fact is that there’s an intermediate step in the process. Understanding this intermediate step may be the single most important thing to understand about why we feel the way we do.

The fact of the matter is that situations or events in the world activate our thinking or beliefs in certain ways. Then, that thinking or belief then causes the feelings that we have. So, to revisit the examples above:

I was angry because when he was late it made me think that he’s unreliable and I can’t depend on him.

I was disappointed because when she didn’t get me a present it made me think that I’m not important to her.

I felt ashamed because when I didn’t pass the test it made me think that I will always fail.

This may sound like a distinction without a difference, because there’s still a causal connection from the situation in the world and our feelings. What does it matter if the situation causes the feelings directly, or causes them through an intermediate step of our thinking?

The truth is that it matters a lot. Because that intermediate step of our thinking is there, that gives us the opportunity to intercept things before the feeling spirals out of control.

To take a trivial example, I was working out at the gym the other day and asked someone on one of the machines if I could work in while he was taking a break. He denied that he was taking a break, and continued to monopolize the machine that I wanted to use, and so I got angry.

(Humor me for a second. Read that last paragraph again and see if there’s anything wrong with it.)

Did you see what I did there? Even though this whole entry is about the fact that there’s the intermediate step of my thinking between the events in the world and my feelings, I attributed my feelings directly to his actions. It sounds perfectly natural, right?

Even though it sounds natural, it’s wrong. As you can see from the way I talked about the incident, this sort of thinking is distressingly easy to fall into, and distressingly common.

Now, if I start to take responsibility for how I caused my own emotional problem, I realize that I had some expectations that weren’t met. The way I was thinking about them not being met was what caused the anger, not the event itself. I let myself fall into a sort of cranky old man way of thinking: “People these days have no respect” and “I’ve been working out at gyms longer than he’s been alive” and “Why are people so selfish” and so on.

By doing this, I caused my own anger. The fact is that his refusal to let me work in had virtually no impact on my workout. I still got to use that machine, I still did everything I wanted to do, and the extra time it took was measured in seconds. I wasn’t actually angry at him, I was angry at the image of the world that I built in my head in response to his actions.

Now, look. I’m not at all suggesting that we should never have unpleasant feelings, or unpleasant feelings are always our own fault. Sometimes the thinking or beliefs that are activated are accurate reflections of the world. It’s normal and natural to feel hurt when we experience rejection, to take just one example. And, I want to emphasize that grief is a complete exception to these ideas.

But, by being more aware of how my thinking spirals can cause my feelings, I can feel better, more often. Doesn’t that sound great?

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