Where Your Emotions Come From

I want to let you in on a secret…

There is no such thing as a stressful project, a frustrating conversation, or a peaceful walk in the park.

Sure — there are projects, conversations, and walks in the park. But the only thing that makes them stressful, frustrating, or peaceful are your thoughts around these events.

If we were to slow down your experience of life, we would see this pattern repeat 1,000 times a day:

  1. Something happens.
  2. You make up a story about “what it means” (you form a thought).
  3. As a result, you feel the emotion of that thought.
  4. You act according to that emotion — while forgetting that you made up the story about the event.

→ Change the story and you change the emotional experience.

Here’s an example from the kitchen.

You come home and your significant other starts berating you more than usual for neglecting your dishes in the sink. Imagine these two options:

  1. You make up the story, “This person is a jerk. They are totally ungrateful for all that I do. I’ve got to stand up for myself,” and as a result, you feel entitled and resentful. (And probably proceed to throw a plate or two.)
  2. Or you make up the story, “My lover probably had a tough day. This is an easy way for me to serve them,” and as a result you feel compassion and empathy. (And probably proceed to ask about their day as you roll up your sleeves.)

The event itself didn’t change. They still pointed out your mistake in a harsh tone. But your interpretation of the event changed the outcome entirely.

Your perception of the event determines your experience of the event.

Same event, two different experiences.

In other words, even when the world seems to be caving in around you, you are never actually feeling the circumstance itself — you are always feeling your thinking about the circumstance. You are making up a story, and believing it to be true. But it happens so subtly and so quickly, that we hardly notice it.

Now, you’ve worked on projects that didn’t feel stressful. You’ve engaged in conversations that didn’t feel frustrating. And you’ve probably had some walks through the park that weren’t so peaceful. Events themselves don’t have inherent meaning. We impose meaning onto them.

Humans are story-based creatures.

Always have been, always will be. Stories fascinate us. Stories are our attempt to understand our world, so we make up stories about everything.

Our ancestors saw a flash of lightening and decided that Zeus was pissed off. Nowadays, someone doesn’t text us back, and we decide we’re unworthy of love. Or we see our kids misbehave, and we choose to believe that we are bad parents. Or our bank account is running low, and we believe our world is crumbling and that we’ll probably be homeless soon.

All stories. All fabricated. All producing a different emotional experience. All optional.

But here’s the good news…

Awareness is healing. Simply being aware that you are making up a story — just noticing it — will begin to loosen its grip on you. The story seems less real. The emotions feel less daunting.

Have you ever been watching an intense movie (like a horror film or thriller) and you became so immersed in the plot that you kind of forgot it was a movie? Then you got a text or your chihuahua barked and you were jolted back to reality and suddenly remembered that it’s all made up. That is awareness.

The more you remember that you are making up a story about the world around you, the less you will fall prey to the emotions that accompany the story.

→ You don’t have to believe every thought in your head.

Awareness is simply noticing your thoughts. The more you become aware, the more you can choose which thoughts to believe (which stories to agree with).

“You are always living in the feeling of your thinking.”

Event + Thought (about the event) = Emotion.

We can’t control the events of life. But we do get to choose the stories we believe.

Change your perception of the event and you change your experience of it.

It’s not rocket science. But it is story science. You get to study the stories you are believing and decide if they are useful or not. Decide if they are serving you or not. If so, feel free to keep believing them. If not, feel free to find a new story.