by Claire Maisonneuve
“He makes me so mad. She drives me crazy. I feel like I have to walk on eggshells. I’m so afraid around him. I feel so insecure around her.” Sound familiar?
When Suzie suggests to Roger ways to load the dishwasher, he smiles at her and feels amused, but when Lisa makes the same suggestion to Frank, he gets angry and makes a sarcastic remark.
When Trudy gets on a plane, she starts to feel afraid and panicky, while Charles, sitting next to her, feels relaxed, calm and excited to be getting away from it all.
Same scenario, different reactions. But what makes us feel the way we do? People, situations or events? The answer is none of them. Think of it this way. If circumstances, including what people do or say, create the way we feel, theoretically, everyone should have the same reaction in the same situation. But as the example above illustrates, that is not so. Why? Because between what you see and hear and the feeling that’s arising, another intermediate process is also happening at a blindingly fast speed: the story you tell yourself about what you just heard and saw.
This story is comprised of your interpretation, evaluation, judgments, assessment and the meaning you give to what you just heard or saw. It includes the why, how and what: the motive (why she said that), the judgment, (how that’s good or bad) and the meaning (what it means about me and what I am expected do). For example, Frank’s story might be: “Lisa is just trying to control me by telling me how and who I should be so she doesn’t think I’m capable.” Whereas, Roger’s story might be: “That’s just Suzie and this is important to her so I’ll listen.”
Once the story has run through your mind, it is immediately followed by a feeling. Feelings manifest as sensations in your body and a shift in your breathing. For example, when angry, Frank may have felt his throat tightening, his blood pressure rising, his heart pounding and the rate of his breathing speed up.
Feelings don’t just come out of nowhere. They are not thrust upon you by others or events. They get triggered from your thinking. How you interpret events is based on your core beliefs – beliefs that are fundamental convictions or assumptions you hold about yourself, the world and other people. Core beliefs are so fundamental to our identity that we almost never question them. We simply take them for granted. Some of our core beliefs are very conscious and we hear them in our heads daily. But others can be quite subconscious and we can only become aware of them through introspection.
We all hold both positive and negative core beliefs. Positive core beliefs about oneself might sound like, “I am worthy, competent, capable, good enough, lovable and deserving of success. I can trust my decisions. I can take care of myself.” Beliefs about the world might include: “The world is a place filled with opportunities. Everything tends to work out in the end. The sky is the limit.” Beliefs about others might be: “People are friendly and helpful. I can count on others. People will respect me. People are basically good.”
On the other hand, negative core beliefs might sound like: “I’m not good enough. I’m unworthy and I don’t deserve to have what I truly want. There is something wrong with me. My opinions don’t matter. My needs are not important.” Core beliefs about others might include: “I can’t trust anyone. No one else really cares in the end. No one will stay forever. I can’t depend on anyone else. I need to do everything myself.” Those about the world might be: “Life is a struggle. You always have to work hard to get what you want. I have to always be on guard. The other shoe can drop at any time. The world is a dangerous place.”
Whether positive or negative, your core beliefs will dictate the type of story you tell yourself. For example, Frank’s core beliefs might sound like: “I’m not good enough as I am. I can’t trust myself.” So when he hears Lisa’s comment, he might take it as a personal assault. Roger’s core beliefs, on the other hand, might be more along the lines of: “I can trust myself to say no when I need to and I know I am competent” so he doesn’t take Suzie’s comments personally or interpret her motives as anything negative towards him.
Core beliefs are entirely a product of your upbringing. While you may have been born with a tendency to think the glass is half empty or half full, you aren’t born with these beliefs. Instead, the cumulation of your emotional and physical experiences during the earliest months and years of your life leads to the formation of your core beliefs. These experiences may include 1) The circumstances around your birth: was your birth planned? Were you wanted? Were you the gender your parents desired? 2) The political and cultural climate you grew up in; the family atmosphere, including whether there was safety and consistency or unpredictability, alcoholism, or early losses. 3) The messages you received from your parents about yourself, such as, “You can do anything you want. You are special. What’s wrong with you? Children are to be seen and not heard.”
So much has shaped how you think it’s no surprise that some people may push your buttons. But who owns the buttons? And how does all this help you communicate and be heard?
The first step toward making sure you talk in a way that won’t offend or turn someone off and allow yourself to be heard instead is to be aware of and accountable for your story. Owning your story doesn’t mean discounting it or not talking about it. It simply means being willing to question it, explore it and talk about it in a responsible and respectful way with another. So often what you assume someone is thinking about you is actually what you believe about yourself. Otherwise, how else could you come up with that thought?
When you own your story, you realize that your feelings are not to be taken as the final and accurate truth upon which to base your reactions. Rather, recognizing that your emotions are a product of your interpretations will also allow you to master your emotions instead of being held hostage by them. It will help you to see your choices. Otherwise, if you believe, as many do, that your feelings result from circumstances or from what others do, you will feel like a victim.
Claire Maisonneuve is the director of the Alpine Anxiety and Stress Relief Clinic in Vancouver. www.anxietyandstressrelief.com
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