“Just as man learns to be a human being, so he learns to feel as a human being, to love as a human being.”
—Leo Buscaglia, Love
What would life be like if we couldn’t experience the love and joy of holding our newborn baby, or that deep satisfaction when we achieved something we worked hard for?
And who can forget that exhilarating feeling of cheering for our favorite sports team or the pride you feel when your kids work hard at doing something well?
Life would be dull, boring and depressing if we couldn’t experience the wonderful panorama of emotions available to us. Even when we are sad and disappointed, we know that it is temporary, and we will return to those good moments.
But life can be dark and threatening – bleak and depressing if we remain in the constellation of thoughts that hold us hostage to fear, discouragement, anxiety or anger. After awhile we lose sight of the good feelings and good times.
Emotions give us information.
Emotions help us know how to respond to what is happening.
Am I in danger? If so, what do I need to do to protect myself?
Is someone taking advantage of me? How do I determine if I am assessing the situation correctly?
There is a large body of research, such as RET (Rational Emotive Therapy) and CBT (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy) that help explain how and why we react to life’s situations the way we do. What this and other research reveals is that what we experience emotionally is not the result of events themselves, but rather how we interpret those events. We can alter or choose our responses.
Are you a hostage to your emotions?
As we grow up, we ascribe meanings to life that over time become our primary beliefs about who we are.
- Who can I trust?
- Am I capable?
- How can I achieve my goals?
- How do I establish a happy and secure future and home?
These become our deep-seated truths used to make rules and expectations about life. Because they are formed so early, however, they are often biased or distorted and need to be updated. When these beliefs become rigid and uncompromising, they can have a negative influence on how we live day to day.
Continuing to react to things based on early childhood interpretations, we become reactionary instead of using thoughtful consideration of the here and now. Unless we confront, evaluate and make corrections, we will continue to see life, ourselves and other people through the prism of old, outdated beliefs.
“What alone remains is ‘the last of human freedoms’ – the ability to ‘choose one’s attitude in a given set of circumstances.”
—Victor E. Frankl
But my life is falling apart, and I don’t feel good about it.
Emotions are preceded by automatic thoughts that occur so quickly we are often unaware of them. Understanding how thoughts and beliefs influence our emotional reaction to events is critical in meeting the challenges we face.
We may not be able to change situations, but we can alter how we respond to them. And if our reactions are based on faulty beliefs and perceptions, the outcomes, while predictable, will not always serve us.
For example: If you experienced a lot of bullying as you were growing up, your first reaction to anyone who seems adversarial is that they must be a bully and against you.
Before we can alter persistent emotional responses that cause us so much distress, such as ongoing doubt, fear or anxiety, it is important to know that we have the ability to choose a different response.
Victor Frankl was a psychiatrist and Jew who survived Auschwitz during WWII. In his book, Man’s Search for Meaning, he writes how he and a fellow prisoner purposefully found something of humor each day to share with each other in order to survive.
Your first automatic response to difficult situations may be that there is nothing you can do to either change the outcome or change how you feel. Yet we know that with a more proactive assessment of potential options, we can make a difference. We can take problems and setbacks and find new ways to deal with them.
If you believe you are at the mercy of whatever is happening, you will continue to feel depressed and helpless. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Ascribing a different meaning or personal interpretation to whatever we face while understanding that life will have its ups and downs, will empower you to find new ways to work with it and through it.
In the blog posts for this month, we will be exploring some of the intense emotions that can make life difficult:
What continues to drive those thoughts of hopelessness and their accompanying feelings of despair and depression?
Why am I always angry, fearful or anxious?
How we choose to look at life’s events can make a huge difference in our ability to deal with even the worst of times.
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Frankl, Victor E., Man’s Search for Meaning, Washington Square Press of Pocket Books, N.Y., 1984
Beck, Judith S, Cognitive Therapy, Basics and Beyond, forward by Aaron T. Beck, The Guilford Press, New York, 1995
Ellis, Albert, Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy, Overcoming Destructive Beliefs, Feelings and Behaviors, Penguin Random House Publisher, 2010
Buscaglia, Leo, Love, Ballantine Books< 1972