- Have you ever been at a happy event but felt miserable?
- Have you ever been at what others would say is a sad or unhappy event and felt pretty good?
If, like most people, you answered yes to either these, then it means our assumption that our emotions are directed by things outside of us is wrong!
“He made me so mad!”
“I am devastated! How could she do this to me?!”
“He’s pretty happy these days. He got that promotion you know.”
Our culture uses language that constantly implies that other people’s actions or things outside of us direct our feelings. And it is true that outside events definitely impact us, but HOW they impact us depends on what it stirs up IN US.
LET’S PLAY A GAME! Imagine these scenarios…
- Scenario 1: Your Mom/ Dad was an abusive alcoholic -> now you see your partner get drunk
- Scenario 2: Your only experience with alcohol is that and your friends get goofy when they are drunk, it is harmless fun -> now you see your partner get drunk
Understandably, depending on which of those two different pasts we have, it changes how we experience the same objective reality, our partner being drunk
Let’s do a few more, just to be clear. Imagine…
- You were bullied at school -> now a group of people are talking in a group as you approach and are looking at you
- You were quite popular at school -> now a group of people are talking in a group as you approach and are looking at you
- You have always wanted to go to Disney world -> you just won a trip there!
- Your father (who you were close with) had a heart attack and died while you were at Disney -> you just won a trip there
Last one, imagine…
- You are in the middle of a very messy divorce -> you are at a friend’s wedding
- You just celebrated your 10 year wedding anniversary and you have never been happier with your partner -> you are at a friend’s wedding
Now let’s do one that illustrates that our reaction is not just in our thoughts, it is in our bodies too, imagine…
- Cheesecake is your favourite dessert -> someone gives you a piece
- You have never tasted cheesecake before -> someone gives you a piece
- Just the thought of eating our favourite dessert, or seeing it, triggers us to make more saliva in our mouths and release digestive enzymes. This happens unconsciously and automatically. This process does NOT happen when we see unfamiliar food, and a different physical response happens when we see unsavory food.
- When we have automatic emotional reactions to situations, they also trigger physical responses that involve chemicals and hormones in the body.
- When we get triggered (consciously or not) to past positive interactions with people, we switch on the Para-sympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for the relaxation response in the body. We release oxytocin (the attachment chemical of the brain) and endorphins (one of the feel good chemicals in the body). When the Para-sympathetic system is activated, our body is able to heal, repair and regulate itself more easily. When this is activated a lot, we tend to feel happier and have better physical health.
- When we get triggered to past negative or scary interactions, (consciously or not, and maybe in response to something as subtle as a phrase someone uses or a gesture they used while talking), we switch on the Sympathetic nervous system, which triggers the stress/ threat response in the body. We release Cortisol and Norepinephrine, which are responsible for the fight or flight response. When the Sympathetic system is activated, our body directs almost all of its resources towards the vital organs and major muscle groups, to protect itself and prepare for a fight or to run! Consequently, when this is on a lot, we become prone to illness, autoimmune disease (Lupus, Rheumatoid Arthritis, Multiple Sclerosis, Thyroid dysfunction etc) heart attacks, strokes, and cancer. All because our immune system is not getting the energy to do its work and our cardiovascular system is constantly running and it eventually gets damaged.
- Which system is activated, Sympathetic vs Para-sympathetic, changes what we pay attention to, what thoughts we have, which in turn influence our emotions. (See Old Brain, New Brain and Mindfulness parts 1, part 2, and part 3 for more information about this)
Why Does This Matter? There is Good News, and Bad News
Bad News – If our feelings come from connections we have to our own past, and our survival maps, then we can’t keep blaming things outside of us for how we feel and act like we are victim of our circumstance. In fancy language, that is called having an “External Locus of Control”.
Good News – If our feelings come from our past experiences, associations and our survival maps, if we LEAN INTO the feelings that come up, we can release them and we get to just be PRESENT in the moment and ACTUALLY LIVE OUR LIFE instead of reliving or avoiding the past! This is termed having an “Internal Locus of Control”. More good news is that if we can’t blame others for how we feel anymore, then we don’t have to accept when others blame us for how they feel either!
With some AWARENESS, INTENTION and WILLINGNESS to experience some of those sticky feelings in order to release them, we can change our filters over time. We can change how we respond when our survival maps get triggered.
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