Our emotions provide valuable data, but there are some ways virtually everyone misinterprets their emotions. This can lead to mismanaging your emotions or the situation they occur in. When you become aware of these, you can adjust so that you’re calmer and more effective.
Here are five common mistakes:
1. We think our emotions relate to the current situation when they relate to the past. Humans are learning machines. We don’t react to new situations as if we’ve never experienced the world before. We react based on all our prior learning experiences.
When we often experience an instinctive emotional reaction, that reaction isn’t just about the current circumstance we’re facing. We react to the ways right now reminds us of our past experiences.
When we feel big emotions, they can represent our body trying to protect us from events that already concluded long ago. For example, when you feel angry or slighted, your body might be trying to protect you from a time you weren’t respected or understood in the past, even if you are being respected and understood now.
Sometimes we feel shame in new situations due to memories of how we acted unskillfully in the past, even if we act skillfully now.
2. We assume other people’s emotions relate to us and the current situation. This is a similar point. When someone reacts emotionally, we tend to assume they’re reacting to our behavior and the current circumstance. But that person is also reacting to everything else. For example, in the work context, a reaction you get from a fellow human might be influenced by everything from their childhood experiences to the difficult interaction they had with their last customer to the email their boss sent yesterday about their organization’s current priorities to the micro-aggression they experienced on the subway that morning. All those triggers mix to determine the other person’s reaction to you.
This issue comes up a lot at work and also in romantic relationships. In couples, people often react in ways that relate to protecting themselves from past pain, whether from childhood or prior relationships.
3. We think emotions are a signal to start trying to reduce those emotions. Our culture tends to be comfort-obsessed. For example, if we feel hot, we expect to be able to crank our AC to remedy that. If the mattress we buy isn’t perfect, we return it. This comfort obsession also involves our emotions. We automatically see difficult emotions as a signal to start trying to reduce those emotions.
The problem is this: Much of what we instinctively do to reduce our distress makes our difficult emotions bigger. Even when we can “successfully” quell our big feelings, the cost is that those emotions, and the types of situations that trigger them, loom larger and larger in our lives. We end up devoting a lot of energy to avoiding certain emotions, which can get in the way of having the energy to devote to our other values. (If you’re anxiety-prone and managing anxiety is taking up too much of your life, check out these solutions.)
4. We usually fixate on only one emotion (and underplay what else we’re feeling and doing). Many of us have one dominant emotion (read more here). For example, some people rarely notice feeling angry but constantly notice feeling anxious, or the reverse.
Try using the word “and” more when you talk or think about your emotions. For instance, we rarely acknowledge when happy emotions occur alongside negative ones. For example, I’m pregnant, and I feel nervous about labor, and I feel excited about my baby.
It can also be useful to notice when multiple difficult emotions occur together, like “I feel anxious, and I feel angry.” Acknowledging multiple emotions can help you see a broader range of reactions you could choose from. Feeling anxious may not propel you to stand up to injustice, but noticing your anger might.
Third, you can acknowledge your emotions and behavior together, such as, “I feel anxious, and I’m doing competent, skillful behavior.”
5. We see emotions as either reasonable or unreasonable, justified or unjustified. People can suffer when they perceive they’re experiencing an emotion the situation doesn’t justify. For example, if you feel fearful or angry in a situation that doesn’t make everyone feel that way, you might think, “I shouldn’t be so scared of this.” Or, “I shouldn’t be so bothered by this. What’s wrong with me?” When this happens, you might conclude you’re not a mentally strong or skillful person, which doesn’t help you confidently choose a path forward.
It’s usually healthier to accept whatever you or someone else feels without judging whether it’s justified. This can help you become more curious about your own and others’ emotional worlds and less judgmental at the same time.
Which of these mistakes in interpreting emotions do you make? How might correcting these mistakes help you feel calmer and more skillful in managing your life and relationships? How could changing your approach to your emotions help you walk your values? (More on why this is an optimal response to stress here.)
Article by: Alice Boyes, Ph.D of Psychology Today
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