As a youngster, we are taught to believe that other people’s behaviour is the cause of our feelings. The kids at school share their toys…we feel happy. The popular girl at school doesn’t let us set at her table for lunch…we feel hurt. The teacher yells at us…we feel humiliated.
Believing that our feelings are caused by the external world is known as emotional childhood. If we blame things outside ourselves for how we are feeling, we will have to control the external world to feel good. That is a pretty hard job.
Here is a good example from one of my clients: “My ex-wife trash talks me to everyone in the neighbourhood who will listen. She even called my fiancés aunt to tell her I have psychological problems. It is so infuriating. She needs to stop!”
- Does his ex wife really need to stop for my client to feel better?
- Can we really influence our ex’s behaviour toward us?
- How much of our time is being spent ruminating about someone else behaviour?
The definition of emotional childhood is not taking 100% responsibility for your own feelings. It is blaming someone or something for the way you are feeling.
What if we decided to take complete responsibility for our own feelings and believe that all circumstances, including your ex trash talking you, are just neutral facts?
We get to think whatever we want about the circumstances and that will generate the feeling we experience.
Now let’s put this into play. My client tells me about his vexatious ex-wife and the rumours she is spreading about him. As his coach, I help him see that what she says and does are just neutral circumstances; he gets to think whatever he wants about it.
He may choose to think that she shouldn’t behave that way. When he thinks that, he feels wronged. Being a victim to someone you cannot control is pretty powerless.
He may choose to think that she is a spiteful bitch. When he thinks that, he feels angry. Definitely more empowering, but not particularly peaceful, and probably generates a lot of brain chatter.
He may choose to think that she gets to do and behave however she wants, and people will eventually see what she is all about. When he thinks that, he is definitely feels calmer and less wounded. There is less brain chatter, less ruminating, less time wasted on someone who should no longer be a focus in his life.
Like all things in life, choosing your thoughts about circumstances that you may not find particularly neutral, takes practice. Your “toddler brain” will offer you all sorts of thoughts that will mess you up. The toddler brain is just doing what it was taught as a child: practising the belief that your emotions are the result of the external world.
The next time somebody does something you don’t like, try to look at it as a neutral circumstance, and deliberately decide how you want to feel about it. I will lend you one of my favourite thoughts you can try on when people are annoying me: He is doing his best with what he has.