Just who is responsible for our emotional reactions? “He made me upset.” “She made me cry.” “They all make me so very angry.” We often directly attribute our distress to the actions of someone else, or to external circumstances, such as the decisions of politicians, society in general, or even the weather. In our minds it is a direct cause and effect – their actions or these events caused my emotions. However, in reality there is actually another step in between. Let’s look at the following scenario (which by the way is totally hypothetical and definitely not recommended).
Imagine I attended a local high school and asked about 20 Year 9 girls to stand in a line, and then proceeded down the row saying to each girl in turn, “You’re fat and ugly.” Can you picture the mayhem that would cause? I’m sure you would quickly conclude that many of the girls would be upset and even in tears. But if you think about it, not all girls would react in quite the same way. Many would be quite distressed, and some more than others. Some would be affected briefly, others maybe for days or weeks. But other girls may be totally unaffected and in five minutes have forgotten the whole thing. Would the girls that were upset necessarily be the girls that were significantly overweight or not particularly attractive? No. I’m sure you, like me, have met many very pretty 15 year olds who are convinced they are unattractive.
So if I have said the same words to each girl, and yet there has been a wide variety of emotional reactions that are not based on any truth in my words, what is it that is directly responsible for the girls’ responses? Quite clearly, it depends on what each girl already believes about herself. So although my actions remained constant for each girl, her personal beliefs about herself in relation to what I said were actually the cause of her emotions.
Let’s take a look at another example. James and Alex are brothers with separated parents. They live with Mum and she picks them up from school every afternoon. The boys don’t see much of their Dad and they really miss him. A few times Dad has made promises to catch up with his sons that haven’t worked out and the boys have been disappointed. However, in a phone chat with his father James finds out that Dad is planning to pick the two boys up from school on Thursday. He is very excited, but Alex has had enough of being let down by Dad and decides he’ll believe it when he sees it. When Thursday comes James can hardly wait for school to finish. As the two boys stand outside the school gate waiting they see Mum’s car come around the corner. James is devastated, while Alex is fine and quite happy to see Mum. Same event, but two totally different reactions directly caused by each boy’s expectation.
At first glance this may make life appear unfair because one might conclude that others can do what they like to me but I have to take responsibility for their actions. But when you look at it more closely, it actually shows us that we have a lot of control over our own lives. By taking responsibility for our own beliefs, attitudes and expectations we can decide whether or not we will allow the actions of others to cause us distress. In other words, we can take charge of our own emotional responses.
Most people have come to accept that trying to change others or the world in general doesn’t often work, and that in our trying we only cause ourselves more distress and angst. However, the good news is that we have complete control of what we do with ourselves. Life can be much more pleasant and stress free if we can identify exactly which beliefs, attitudes and expectations are the ones that are bringing us undone, and learn ways to change these into more healthy, positive and affirmative ways of thinking.
Change is not always easy, and sometimes it is difficult to figure out on your own which beliefs are causing the problems. This is where a psychologist can help. If you are prepared to accept the responsibility for your own beliefs and the challenge of shifting them into something less stressful, you can totally change your life into one that is much more pleasant and desirable in as little as six weeks.
You can totally change your life in as little as six weeks