He’s an angry man. She’s such a happy child. She’s a jealous girlfriend. What a cry-baby. But your emotions aren’t your identity, or even your personality. They’re chemicals that our body releases in response to physical stimuli, thoughts and memories.
Knowing that emotions are chemicals doesn’t negate their potency. Chemicals can cause explosions; they have to be handled with care. Trouble is, people often don’t see their emotions as separate from themselves. Because of this, they give in and let them take over.
Once you let emotions tell you who you are, you trap yourself in a horrible, self-fulling cycle.
Picture this. Alice finds her partner, Chris, distant and dismissive. He pursues his own path without seeming to care about how this affects her. She’s hurt and frustrated, and finds herself feeling tearful and angry. But every time she thinks about confronting him about his behaviour, she feels a wave of terror rise up.
Alice is ashamed of feeling so frightened. She’s ashamed of feeling hopeless and angry. She’s ashamed that she’s such a fearful, emotional person. She turns all her anger back on herself, telling herself she’s pathetic.
Because she now believes she’s pathetic, the sadness and anger she feels aren’t valid responses to selfish behaviour, but are an extension of her own flawed personality.
So Alice never confronts Chris. She wallows in her misery, resenting him for failing to change and hating herself for being pathetic and unlovable.
When the relationship breaks down, this reaffirms her view. She then carries that feeling right through to her next relationship, refusing to address problems as they arise because, she believes, it’s not in her nature.
As rational creatures, we do get to choose how we handle our emotions. We don’t have to be in their thrall.
Imagine that Alice had realised her emotions are chemical responses, not an expression of her personality.
Imagine she’d been able to say: “I have these feelings of sadness and anger and they’re telling me that something is very wrong. I’m scared because I’m facing a potentially stressful and unpleasant encounter — and that’s normal and expected. But it shows that I need to do something about the problems that are sparking these emotions in the first place.”
Imagine if, instead of being overwhelmed by her feelings, Alice had used them as a catalyst for change. Owning your emotions and responding to them productively isn’t always easy, but it’s a skill you can learn.
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