By Fr. Garry Richmeier, CPPS
We’ve all said something like “You make me feel … (fill in the blank)”, or “That makes me feel …”. If you take a phrase like that literally, it means that “you” or “that” has the power to control what I feel. It implies that I am helpless when it comes to what emotion I must feel when something happens because I have no choice. It also suggests that nothing stands between the event and my automatic emotion. That idea pretty much makes us emotional puppets who are at the mercy of people and events we encounter.
It very well may feel that way sometimes, which usually isn’t a very pleasant experience. But in reality, events don’t automatically and immediately trigger specific emotions. We might not always be aware of it, but between the event and the resulting emotion is a thought, which can often determine what emotion will follow.
A couple of examples can help make the point. I’m walking on a path through the woods and ahead of me, I see what looks like a snake across my path. I think “snake,” and fear kicks in. My breathing quickens, blood pressure goes up, I may start to sweat, and I get ready to run. I get a little closer and realize it is only a stick across my path. My fear disappears and I go back to normal. Or I’m waiting at a stoplight and a friend of mine turns the corner right in front of me, so I wave. But my friend doesn’t wave back. If my thought is that they ignored or snubbed me, I may feel hurt, or angry, or worried that I’ve done something to offend them. If my thought is that they didn’t see me, I’ll have none of those emotions.
We usually have a choice about what to think about an event, like someone insulting us. I can think the person is correct, which will probably result in some unpleasant emotion like shame or anger. I may even follow up the feeling with an action that may cause me problems. Or I can choose to think that the person doesn’t even know me well enough to be accurate in their insult, or that they are simply under some false impression, or that they are simply taking out some anger on me and it is not even about me, etc. What I choose to think about it will determine what I end up feeling about it.
Once we are into an emotion, it is pretty difficult to control it, because emotions are not rational. Have you ever been successful at telling an angry person not to be angry? But before we get into an emotion, we do have some control over the thought that precedes it, and that can help us avoid needless negative emotions and the hurtful actions that sometimes follow.
What can be helpful is getting used to noticing what thoughts typically precede our various emotions, and then practice changing or tweaking those thoughts. One way to practice is to think of a past event that triggered an emotion, and try to identify what thought about the event preceded the emotion. Then identify 5 different thoughts you could have had instead, and what different emotions would have resulted. Practicing something like this over and over can make it more likely that I will be able to do it in real-time when a similar event happens, which will give me more choice about how to react.
The philosopher Rene Descartes said “I think, therefore I am.” We could adapt that saying as “I think, therefore I feel.” Remembering that could help us better manage our emotions and reactions, which can make life much more pleasant.
All of the videos in this series can be found here: Assembly God’s Puzzle.
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[Fr. Garry Richmeier, a Precious Blood priest and spiritual director, holds a Master’s of Divinity Degree from St John’s University in Collegeville, Minnesota, and a Master’s of Counseling Psychology degree from the University of Missouri-Kansas City. He is a licensed professional counselor and a licensed marriage and family therapist.]
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