Hidden Cause of Your Reactions

“You make me feel…” is not how it works.

We are interrelated. Someone says something and you react, but the mechanism is misunderstood. There is a hidden middle step.

We each have our own perceptions of the world, and though it seems that we react to what happens around us, our reactions actually come from our perceptions and interpretations instead.

For example, my Grandmother hated aging, so if a child had innocently said to her, “Your face has wrinkles,” she would have felt sad. Whereas if a child pointed out my wrinkles, I would laugh and probably say something like: “You noticed that! Yep. My face has wrinkles here and there, right around the places that move the most. And you saw them!”

Same comment from the child, different reaction. That tells you the comment did not cause the reaction. Something else did.

When you understand that your perceptions are the source of your reactions, it’s easier to see the true mechanism of any conversation as this:

Someone says something, YOU HAVE A THOUGHT, and you react to your thought about what that person said.

In every case your thoughts are your own. They are your interpretation of what the person said based on your personal preferences (what you like or don’t like) and past experiences. Since your thoughts are your own AND are the true source of your reactions, your thoughts are where your power lies…but only if you know it.

This fundamental misunderstanding about the cause and effect relationship of words and emotional reactions has become embedded in our language. You hear it so often, it just seems true: “You make me feel…,” “You hurt their feelings,” “You shouldn’t tear people down, you should lift them up,” “You make me so happy!” etc. It may seem innocuous, but when you really listen to the words we use, you can hear that they position one person as the direct cause of another’s feelings.

Children pick that up. It’s one of the reasons they so often believe that they are responsible for the feelings of others, and that others are responsible for their feelings. That’s why they (and you?) may be sure it’s your job to make them happy, keep them from feeling bored, save them from disappointment, and so much more. It’s hard for kids to take responsibility for their own feelings when so much of what they hear tells them that they are not.

I even sometimes hear it in my own words. I tried to consciously model what I was teaching last week during a presentation and was stunned at how many times I had to correct myself. It helped though. Awareness is the first step in change.

When you believe that the source of your feelings and reactions is external, and you see someone speak and someone else react, it looks like proof. “Given” that belief (which you probably were), it would make sense to seek peace and happiness by trying to change or control your environment and the other people in it.

But somehow, despite this constant “proof,” deep down inside you will probably find yourself drawn to the possibility that the source of peace and happiness lies within, regardless what those around you say. Beloved stories of personal transformation like The Wizard of Oz, It’s A Wonderful Life, Groundhog Day and these two quotes point to this truth:

“No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.” — Eleanor Roosevelt
“What you think of me is none of my business.” — Terry Cole Whitaker

When you recognize this truth, you regain your power in life and can begin to use your reactions (little and big) not as proof of external cause, but as flags to guide you to the specific thoughts and beliefs that are causing your pain. Unraveling those is the work of personal growth and what coaching is for.

One last thing, rather than opening the floodgates for abdicating responsibility for what you say to others, understanding the true mechanism of being interrelated will allow you to discard the “walking on eggshells” and emotional manipulation that can strain your relationships. That means that instead of treading carefully to avoid upsetting someone or feeling like their reaction is your fault, you can pay attention to their reactions without feeling guilty, learn what they like and don’t like, and adjust your comments based on understanding, love and respect…which is exactly what you want your children to do.

Said in another way, you wouldn’t intentionally poke a bear. If you poke one by accident, their roar is not your fault, it’s just what they do when they are poked. That’s good to know! The steps you take afterward can now be in your best interest AND theirs, not either/or.

In addition to explaining to your children that the hidden middle step is their thoughts, you can model this shift by catching yourself and self-correcting like I did when you use misleading phrases like this:

Instead of “She hurt your feelings!”
SAY WHAT YOU SEE (SWYS): “She did that, AND you felt sad. You didn’t like that…”
Instead of “He made you mad!”
SWYS: “He said that, AND you felt really mad! That’s not what you wanted…”
Instead of “That scared you!”
SWYS: “You’re scared! You didn’t like that!”
Instead of “That makes you happy!”
SWYS: “Look at that grin! You are so happy! You really like that!”

Validating what children like/don’t like or want/don’t want not only points them to the correct source of their feelings, but because they love being heard and identify with what they like and want, they feel an instant heart connection with you. More proof that we are interrelated.

So the next time your child says something and you react in a way you don’t like, you know where to look to transform your reaction permanently. Look to the source of your reaction — the hidden middle step.