Gain Control by Taking Responsibility for Your Emotions

If you were raised like me, you were taught “white lies” are okay to avoid hurting someone’s feelings.


When my sister and I were little girls, we had to apologize for words that stung. After a fight, through gritted teeth, we were required to say, “I’m sorry,” and sound like we meant it.


I’m not saying you shouldn’t be gentle with feedback or apologize.


But the idea that other people are responsible for your feelings is just wrong. It creates a lot of suffering.


As a divorce attorney, I often heard “[he/she] just doesn’t make me happy,” as if that’s your spouse’s job.


Folks, relying on someone else to make you happy or believing that someone hurt your feelings is the toughest road you’ll ever choose. If you believe your happiness is dependent on someone else, you’ve slipped into victim role and given away control. Telling yourself this story, the only way to feel better is to change the other person.


It’s just not true.


Study after study shows emotions are not spontaneously caused outside us. They begin in our brain as a result of often untrue predictions about our environment and other people.


Here’s how it works. Your brain is hardwired to continuously search for danger. It’s an evolutionary advantage but can keep us spinning emotionally.


Let’s say you’re hiking in the woods and see a curvy rope-like object move on the trail ahead. Your brain senses danger. You imagine a snake, gasp and stop suddenly to assess the situation. Your heart races and you feel fear.


As you focus, you see a squirrel darting away and realize it’s just a vine the squirrel moved. No danger at all. You relax, relieved.


Now let’s say you’re at work. Your supervisor and a coworker you consider a rival laugh as they look at you from across the room. As you approach, they become silent and change the subject, looking around awkwardly.


You brain sifts through life experiences trying to make predictions about what’s going on. Your primal brain, ever alert for danger, influences your higher thinking brain, and now you wonder whether they’re making fun of you or criticizing your recent performance.


You can see how this combination of your brain searching to make associations and create meaning, coupled with your instinct to look for danger, causes negative thinking, then negative emotions: hurt feelings.


The thoughts in your brain are guesses about what’s going on. They could have been laughing about an off-color joke or a million different things, but our brain looks for and perceives danger, even when it doesn’t exist.


So, you go home and continue to suspect your boss and coworker are plotting against you. You ruminate all weekend, replaying the scene over and over.


Are they responsible for your anxiety?


They aren’t. Here’s why.


Our brain makes mistakes in these predictions, or guesses, all the time. It gathers data and attaches meaning, often falsely. We draw conclusions about thoughts and ideas and beliefs through a lens of danger, interpreting information as a threat. We attach untrue meaning in our head that we then experience as negative emotion.


Take the example of your boss and coworker. If before you walked in you heard them talking loudly about an episode of The Office, you’d attach a much different meaning to their laughter.


“Reading” someone’s facial expression often leads us astray. We’re notoriously poor at it. Tears can mean sorrow, joy or overwhelm, depending on the context. A curled lip can signify stoicism, sarcasm or amusement.


If your spouse is texting all day and hides their phone from view, do you imagine an affair or a surprise? I admit, there are times I’ve imagined the worst.


Next week, I’ll share how to take responsibility for your emotions and interrupt negative brain chatter.

Julie Ernst, CCJD

P.S. Visit to take my free course: Stop Overdrinking in 3 Steps.

Julie Ernst