Emotional Responsibility Part 2: How to Feel Better
Last week I explained how hurt feelings are caused by our brain, not someone else.
Our brain takes in information and sifts through our experiences to piece together a story about what’s happening around us. It attempts to make sense of the situation with thoughts. These thoughts are guesses.
These guesses are often wrong.
Because we’re wired to look for danger, we often construct a negative story about what’s happening. These false negative thoughts cause us to feel bad.
Blaming others for hurting our feelings is an example. Others don’t hurt our feelings. We experience hurt feelings when we create a negative story about what someone said or did.
Let’s say Mary says I’m an idiot.
If I don’t hear Mary say it, and no one tells me, has she hurt my feelings? No. Because I haven’t had a thought about it.
Now let’s say Mary says I’m an idiot to my face. Am I upset about it? It depends on what my brain tells me about the context. If Mary is my lifelong friend and I just spilled chocolate sprinkles all over the car and we’re laughing as she helps me pick them up, likely not. If Mary is my lover who I thought was my soulmate and left me because I lost my job, I attach meaning that causes a sting of rejection and shame.
The bad news is we tend to come up with a lot of false negative stories. The good news is we can question our thoughts and take back control of our emotions.
The way out of feeling bad is to take responsibility for your feelings.
If you’re feeling bad, you must recognize it isn’t because someone caused you to feel bad—it’s because your brain has taken a neutral situation and attached meaning to it that you associate as bad.
Let’s take an extreme example: taking someone else’s life.
If John kills Sue, we might have the thought it’s a horrible thing. We may believe everyone would agree a tragedy occurred.
But is it possible that anyone anywhere in the world might think the opposite is true?
If Sue just murdered her daughter and John stopped her from killing her son, we might feel the killing was necessary. If Sue had been on death row for 10 years and John’s the state’s executioner, then depending on your politics, you might feel justice was served. If Sue was a terrorist ready to bomb a preschool, it might be a blessing.
What if John is a terrorist and killed Sue and a dozen others? If you’re also a terrorist, you might be joyous that John successfully completed his mission. And if you’re John you might believe you’re headed to heaven as your reward.
Our life experience and interpretation of context affects the meaning we give to facts. The thoughts we have are guesses our brain makes about the facts. They aren’t true or false. They are subjective interpretations. And we should keep in mind that our guesses are often incorrect.
To be emotionally responsible, you must constantly remind yourself emotions are caused by thoughts. And that thoughts are only guesses, often untrue.
Learning to question and unravel your thoughts can make you feel much better.
Here’s how to do it.
1. Watch for times you’re upset. When you notice feeling bad, that’s the time to examine your thoughts.
2. Determine and name exactly what emotion you’re feeling. For example, instead of feeling bad, are you angry, frustrated, sad, or something else?
3. Find the sentence in your head causing distress. Examples: I damaged a relationship and will be left alone. I’ll fail if I try something new so why bother. I can’t stick to my plan long enough to reach my goal.
4. Look at the indisputable, absolutely provable facts. Is it possible any part of the thought-sentence is wrong? Is there any possible explanation for why it might not be what you think? Would absolutely every person in the world agree with your assessment or is it possible another person might draw a different conclusion?
5. Try stating the opposite of your sentence and see if you can find the slightest possibility that anyone on the planet might agree with the opposite statement. Question if you might be wrong, if there might be another way to interpret the data.
6. Finally, ask if thinking this way is helpful. If there is no upside to thinking this story the way your brain constructed it, consider letting it go. This is different than pushing the thought away. Instead of avoiding or denying, try to release it. Allow it to hover or dissipate. Consider it may not be true and that you could chose to believe a different story that feels neutral or better.
--Julie Ernst, CCJD
P.S. Visit www.julieernst.com to take my free course.