Have you ever tried to understand – or to change – your emotional responses to situations or to behaviours of others, only to feel more confused than ever. Have you tried to feel better about your body, your weight, your friends, your family, your work and yet couldn’t change any of that? Have you tried to be more positive only to end up feeling even more frustrated with yourself?
Collectively, we are pretty smart; we know that being positive and stress free is good for us. But we are often paralysed when trying to implement this wisdom into practice. What does it even mean to be more positive? How can you be less stressed when life is so busy with so much uncertainty. So how can you change the reactions, emotions and sensations that come up in response to just about everything in your life?
The answers to these questions are, as you can expect, complex. But if you are tired of living on the emotional roller coaster and want to know how to feel better all the time, I invite you to read on as I explain how reactions, especially those emotionally charged reactions, come about. Lets start with something simple.
Imagine yourself standing somewhere near the ocean, overlooking a beautiful sandy beach and gentle waves of the ocean. How would it make you feel to be there? How does it make you feel to think about it? What reactions does it evoke in your body? What emotions and what thoughts come up?
You probably don’t even need to think too hard about it. You know if you like the ocean and you know, from your previous experience how it feels to be there. But, if you remember, not every time feels the same. Sometimes it may feel more care-free, sometimes more fun. Sometimes, it may feel boring or dangerous.
And how does it feel thinking about it? Do you wish you were there and feel disappointed that you are too busy. Or does it make you go back to a pleasant memory that relaxes you instantly?
you may be standing on the beach right now, looking at gentle waves, but how you feel would only partly be a response to what you see. The emotions that the image evokes in you are more closely dependent on interpretations you make about what the ocean mean to you. These interpretations are about your previous experiences and therefore associations you make automatically (like, ‘it’s fun and feels like holiday’, or ‘it’s windy and full of dangerous sharks’).
Those interpretations come up automatically, but there are still your interpretations. There are stories, the narratives that you internalized. And it happens with everything you have an emotional reaction to – there are some well practices ways you interpret and tell the story about this thing (or this person).
Cognitive psychologists call these interpretations, mental schemas. A pre-existing representation of what the ocean means to you, what associations you make with it and how you perceive it. However, the ‘schema’ theory does not really do the justice to complexity of what is actually happening when you react to something. The schema does not take into account a myriad of factors that are contextual and that can change from situation to situation, from context to context. It also minimizes the importance that emotions play in determining the reactions we have to things.
But let’s continue with our example.
So you have some stories about the ocean. Even if this is the first time in your life you see the ocean, you would have some ideas about it. You would interpret what you see according to what you know about it, what you read, heard or imagined. You would compare it with some image you held of what the ocean is and what it means.
This is the important bit of understanding. You react to what it means to you. Your reaction to everything, including the ocean, but also every person, every situation and every event, every interpersonal encounter, everything you see and experience is based on meanings – often deeply personal meanings – you created about them.
Things get more complicated when you remember that looking at the ocean doesn’t always evoke the same response from you either, does it? Your response may depend on the weather (it is so much nicer when the sun is out and shining) or on the context of your life (are you on holidays or rushing to work?). Are you walking on the beach with someone you are in love with, or running late for a job interview, trying to keep your umbrella up so you don’t ruin your hair completely?
In all of this there are circumstances but also one important factor that would influence your reaction on that particular day. It is your mood. Are you happy and in love, relaxed and enjoying yourself? Or are you stressed, worried and rushed? And your mood doesn’t have to depend on the circumstances at hand. Even if it is the most beautiful day, your worry that you bring with you, or the stress you can’t shake off, can make it more difficult for you to relax and enjoy the sun.
In fact, the mood that you bring with you, into every single situation, every single moment of your life, colours the way you perceive and experience what is happening. So even though you may be standing there, on the most beautiful beach, on a great, sunny day, and even though the usual stories, schemas you have about the ocean and the beach are positive, and fun, the mood you are in would influence your experience more than anything. So if you are having a bad day, you will probably find it difficult to connect to any of of the beautiful images you are facing.
image courtesy of Death To Stock