”All emotions are pure which gather you and lift you up;
that emotion is impure which seizes only
one side of your being and so distorts you.”
-Rainer Maria Rilke, (1875-1926), Bohemian-Austrian poet
What do all these events have in common? 1) Road rage, 2) Getting a tattoo in a moment of excitement, 4) Blowing your top and shouting verbal abuse or threats at your boss, spouse, child or partner, 5) The momentary passion of having an affair outside of your marriage or relationship, 6) Borrowing money to buy a home or other material position that you could not possible repay, 7) Tweeting a picture of yourself in a provocative way or “sexting,” as it has become known by today’s youth.
All of these actions have a high potential for regret, disappointment and often – much worse. All are driven in the heat of the moment by our emotions, and all have not been well thought out.
Psychologists have always operated on the principle that we are fairly rational human beings. In fact, so have most self-help authors and workshop leaders. The thinking is based on a false assumption: that if we say a few positive affirmations to ourselves and “think positive,” all will be well.
I’m not suggesting for one moment that affirmations and positive thinking don’t have their place, but I am strongly suggesting that human beings are not necessarily rational creatures. In fact, brain sciences have given us a glimpse into many previously dark corners of consciousness. There are often hidden biases, fear-based beliefs, memories and negative self-images that prompt us to act in an irrational way.
Yet, of all these underlying subconscious forces, there is one that simply boggles the mind: that so many people make so many really dumb, self-destructive, selfish or just plain unwise choices. They were either prompted to act on a powerful momentary emotion or feeling, or they were blinded by fear. I have heard the phrase: “acting without thinking is like shooting without aiming.”
Here’s how it happens. First, an event takes place. Perhaps it’s at the urging of an influential person, or someone makes an unsavory remark to you, bumps into you, cuts you off while driving, takes advantage of you, or entices you to act with the promise of pleasure. Next, that event triggers a thought such as, “I’ll be rewarded if I do this.” Or “I’ll attack and get even.” Or “I’ll be right.” Or “I’ll be cool and, therefore, accepted by my friends or peers.” Or “I’ll beat the system.” Or “I’ll be promoted.”
Thirdly, the thought triggers an emotion, and the brain is instantly excited by a complex chemical response. You might become frightened, helpless, angry, confused or excited. Now, here is where it gets challenging. The EVENT did not cause the emotional response. It is a distant memory of some similar situation, suddenly translated and re-lived in the present. It will always be a memory of an event that took place in the past which prompted fear, embarrassment, pleasure or some other intense emotion. Our past experiences do exert a great influence on the subconscious level.
Lastly, an action is taken. It is here that one of two paths is chosen. One is dumb and the other is smart. The really dumb thing is to act in the passion of the moment with no regard for future consequences. The alternative is to make a rational choice without being swayed by the heat of the moment. The reality is that most people act out of an emotion and are the cause of their own misery. Calling your boss names, attempting to force someone off the road with your car, having an affair or living beyond your means, holds the potential of doom.
I am certainly not saying that all emotions and feelings are destructive or bad. We need them to guide us through life and to help us learn. Being positive and enthusiastic, passionate about what you do and courageous about doing it often leads to a very positive outcome. Nor am I saying that the event that triggers fearful emotions is our fault. What I am suggesting is that we do have choice in our actions.
The lesson we can learn is to become instantly aware when we are experiencing an emotion that might trigger us to act stupidly – and to STOP – then REFRAME our thinking. We can either let events dictate our negative choices, or we can control our choices by taking rational action. We can let our impassioned, negative emotions hijack our behavior, or we can learn a defensive skill, just like an expert in Aikido.
Is it easy? No. Can the skill be learned? Absolutely. I can say this with certainty because I’ve taught dozens of clients to do just that. When they are confronted with powerful negative emotions and thoughts, they – STOP – REFRAME and – then make a more empowering choice.
If you are serious about wanting to make the right choices in the heat of an emotional moment, here is a tip that will help you live an exceptional life. Look at this as a two-week experiment.
Use a journal which could be a notebook or computer. Write the following on the first page of your journal:
“Whenever I feel the powerful emotions of blame, self-pity, fear, anger, or have negative judgmental thoughts about myself or others, when I blame myself or others, or whenever I doubt myself or feel guilt or fear – I will be aware of my thinking. Whenever I feel like I’m deceiving or taking advantage of another person, or when I feel as though I’m getting even with someone for a perceived injustice, I will STOP! TAKE A BREATH, OBSERVE MY THOUGHTS and say to myself, “Isn’t that interesting?” I will immediately let all negative pictures, images and emotions go, return to the present and reframe my thinking to the most positive and healing thoughts possible.”
At the beginning of your day- every day for 2 weeks – write the date and then the phrase, “Isn’t that interesting?” This simple statement will act as a kind of “programming,” take root in your subconscious and trigger you to use the STOP! method whenever you need it. It will also prompt you to become instantly aware and bring to consciousness when your emotions are about to lead you down the path of doing something stupid or destructive.
Keep in mind that the quality of your life determines the quality of your actions. The quality of your actions is triggered by your emotions and that determines the quality of your life.