What was your first reaction to the title of this post?
“What does it mean that I create my emotions?” This expresses a lack of knowledge.
“My emotions just happen to me. I don’t create them.” While partially correct, this reflects a common myth about emotions.
My goasl with this post are to help you understand both how you create emotions and the responsibilities that you have because you create your emotions and to clear up some common myths.
What does “to create” mean?
I have written two books and, while working with wood is not my best skill, I built shelves from scratch in my garage because I needed more storage space.
I can say that I created the books and the shelves.
Here are two “facts” about the books and the shelves…
- I envisioned, designed, and brought into existence the books and the shelf.
- As the creator, I am totally responsible for the content of the books and the physical integrity and appearance of the shelves.
While the process of creating emotions is different from books or shelves, the responsibility you have for the emotions you create is the same for any thing you create.
How do you “create” an emotion?
In order to answer this question, you have to understand how the emotional process works.
Here is an overview.
You are constantly scanning your surroundings for threat. When you perceive a threat, your Amygdala unconsciously prepares you to REACT to the threat. Almost simultaneously, the thinking part of your brain is alerted which gives you the opportunity to evaluate and RESPOND to the the threat. Threats are not always what they initially appear to be. The choices you make determine the emotion you end up expressing.
There are 6 (mad, sad, glad, fear, disgust, and surprise) primary emotions. All of these primary emotions with the exception of glad and surprise function as primitive threat detectors and all have been around since we, as a species, lived in caves or on the Savannah. The purpose of these threat detectors was, and is, to keep us alive so that we could procreate and insure survival of the species. While our survival is no longer an issue, these primitive mechanisms continue to function today as they did eons ago.
Incidentally, you are hardwired to constantly scan your surroundings for and react to any threat.
When you perceive a threat, an unconscious message is rapidly sent to the Amygdala in your brain which prepares your body for:
- battle (so you can confront and overpower the marauders who want to kill you),
- running away (so that you can escape from your enemies and live another day), or
- staying in place (freezing so that the saber toothed tiger can’t see you and will move on).
I call this the “fast track” reaction. It is also called the fight or flight response.
You do not control fight or flight. Nor, should you, if your life depends on it.
This unconscious reaction is linked to your very quick (and not always accurate) initial perception of the threat.
You haven’t started to create, yet.
At the same time that your body is reacting to the fast track message from your sense organs, a slower track message goes to the thinking part of your brain, the Cerebral Cortex.
Now, you start creating.
As soon as you become aware of your emotional reaction, you can choose to assess the nature of the threat and the appropriateness of the emotion.
In other words,
- how real is the threat,
- to what extent does your initial emotional reaction fit the situation, and
- to what extent does the action you were initially motivated to take match the situation in which you find yourself?
If you do nothing, go with your initial emotional reaction and do something you later regret, you, in effect, have chosen to let the initial reactive emotional process proceed. This is now your emotional response and you are now responsible because you have “created” (by choice) the emotion on which you are acting by doing nothing to change it.
If you take the opportunity to assess your situation and either strengthen the initial emotion (if the threat is valid) or change it (if there is no threat), you are “creating” an emotion and acting on it.
The implication here is that you are always personally responsible for any actions (responses) you take which follow from the emotions you are experiencing. This is true because you are “creating” that emotion by the choices you make after the initial emotional reaction.
It is this personal responsibility that gets denied when someone acts out on their anger and says, “If I had not been angry, I wouldn’t have (x)”or “If I had not been so anxious or nervous, I wouldn’t have (y)”. Yes, your initial emotional reaction set you up for the action you took and you probably would not have done x if you had not been angry or anxious. This, however, is not the issue.
This is the same as saying that because the forward momentum of your car was taking you directly into the pedestrian in the cross walk ahead of you, the law of physics are responsible for the accident not you. If a child runs into the street in front of you, physics may be responsible. If you could have assessed your situation and chosen to stop or diverted the car in a different direction, it’s on you.
Not to choose is to choose.
Regarding your emotions, the truth is that you did not assess your situation and the appropriateness of the action you were initially moved to make. Had you done this, the action you eventually took most likely would have been different.
The point here is that, while you are not responsible for the initial emotional reaction to which your perception is leading you, the slower track message to your cerebral cortex empowers you to make a decision about how you want to proceed. This is the point at which you “create” the emotion that elicits your behavior and puts the responsibility for your actions on you.
Emotional mastery suggests that, as soon as you become aware that an emotional reaction is starting in your body, you need to create some physical and psychological distance between you and the perceived threat by taking a step back and a deep breath. In doing this, you give yourself the time and space to assess what is going on and choose how you want to respond to the situation.
You are responsible for any actions you take and the consequences of those action which occur after the initial emotional reaction.
Accepting this responsibility will give you the motivation you need to learn how to master your emotions by:
- learning to read your body,
- knowing the message of each emotion,
- creating physical and psychological space,
- assessing the nature of the the threat and
- choosing an effective response.
All of these specifics are covered in earlier posts and in my two Amazon best selling books:
Emotions as Tools: Control Your Life not Your Feelings
Beyond Anger Management: Master Your Anger as a Strategic Tool
You can download the first two chapters for free without any opt-in by scrolling up to the Welcome post.
Ignorance is no longer (and probably never was) a justification.
I welcome your comments.