Years ago my uncle Geoff and I were walking in his orchard, and taking a bite out of a big Satsuma plum he asked me casually, ‘What makes you angry?’
I knew I was being set up for something but I couldn’t guess what, so I answered, ‘Traffic jams. Traffic jams make me angry.’
He smiled and said, ‘Wrong answer,’ and gave me one of the best lessons I’ve ever had. He pointed out that traffic jams don’t make me angry. Instead, I become angry in traffic jams.
In other words, the traffic jam doesn’t make me angry. I do.
You might be nodding your head saying you knew that already, but I bet you often say things like, ‘That makes me angry’ instead of saying, ‘I feel angry with that.’ Or you might say, ‘That makes me happy’ instead of ‘I feel happy with that.’ It’s the language we use that gives us away, because most of us do believe on some level that the outside world creates our emotions.
‘No one can drive us crazy unless we give them the keys.’
It’s not semantics. There is a big difference between ‘Traffic jams make me angry,’ and ‘I become angry with traffic jams.’ The first statement says the traffic jam makes me angry, the second says I do. Big difference.
You might argue that it’s just a figure of speech, that we all know what is meant. That has to change. That figure of speech reinforces our belief that incidents in our life make us happy, or unhappy.
‘If we are careless with our words we will be careless with our thoughts.’
The truth is: the outside world does not create our emotions, we do. And we should say so when we speak. When Uncle Geoff asked me what makes me angry, the only correct answer I could have given him was, ‘I do.’
What makes me jealous? I do.
What I makes me fearful? I do.
I create all my emotions.
That doesn’t mean I shouldn’t get angry, or fearful, or jealous. I might have a good reason to feel those emotions. I just need to be aware that I create them.
We all need to be aware that we create our emotions. Why? Because if we go through life believing that the outside world makes us angry, or jealous, or joyful, or whatever, we disempower ourselves. We become like a pinball in a pinball machine, reacting to every stimulus we encounter:
‘Oh, you make me so angry!’
‘What you said hurt my feelings!’
Can you see how disempowering that is? But when we realise that we create our distress we also realise that we are the solution to it. We start to draw upon our resources. We focus on what needs to change – in us, or in the situation.
Or, we might decide the situation isn’t worth getting upset about. Either way, we start to handle that traffic jam, because we know the traffic jam isn’t causing our distress, we are.
When we fully accept that we create our emotions, we get good at dealing with them. And the best way to fully accept that we create our emotions is to change our language to acknowledge it.
Let’s all be in the habit of saying,
‘I feel angry with that,’ instead of ‘That makes me angry.’
‘I feel foolish when I am with him,’ instead of ‘He makes me feel foolish.’
‘I feel happy when I am with her,’ instead of ‘She makes me happy.’
‘I feel offended,’ instead of ‘that offends me’.
It’s okay to feel all those emotions.We just need to be aware that we are creating them. It’s the awareness that is important, because once we fully accept that we create our joys and our sufferings, we gain an inner authority and add to our resilience.
To change our language takes practice and diligence. (I slip up occasionally.) But once we are in the habit, then no matter how good life is, it will improve.
Thanks, Uncle Geoffrey.
‘Man is not disturbed by events, but by the view he takes of them.’
1st century philosopher, Epictetus.
‘If you’re angry, it’s not just someone else’s fault. They did something, perhaps, but that’s just an occurrence in the outside world around you, like a leaf falling or the wind blowing or a rock falling off a cliff. They just happen, but your anger comes not from the occurrence but because you don’t want the thing to occur.’
From Leo Babauta’s online book, ‘Letting go’.
Q. ‘Mark, you reckon that a traffic jam doesn’t make me angry, that instead, I create the anger. But if there were no traffic jam I wouldn’t get angry.’
Yes, of course. That doesn’t change the fact it’s your thoughts about the traffic jam that create the anger. Thoughts create chemicals in your brain to make you feel angry. A different set of thoughts would create different emotions. It’s your thoughts about the traffic jam that make you angry; not the traffic jam itself.
Remember Sue and Cath, sacked from their jobs? They had the same problem, but responded differently. When Sue thinks, ‘A new chapter in my life begins’ she creates in her brain the chemicals of boldness and curiosity. When Cath thinks, ‘This is awful’ she creates the chemicals of fear and despair.
I’m not saying Cath should think differently. For all we know she might have fourteen children to feed and no prospects of another job. She would have every right to be upset. Nevertheless, if she knew she was creating her distress she would have a better chance of coping with the situation. She would begin to draw on her inner resources. She would still feel distressed, but be less likely to be broken by the experience.
I’m not asking you to change your thoughts – that’s way too difficult – I am asking you to accept that you create your emotions. It’s the awareness that matters, because when you have that awareness – when you fully believe it – you will realise just how much power you have. Then, when you feel distress you will cope better with it. The intensity of that distress will be ameliorated.
Yes, you are correct: if there were no traffic jam you wouldn’t get angry. But if you accept that you create your emotions, one day you will be in a traffic jam and you will ask yourself, ‘Why bother making myself distressed?’
So, change your language. Avoid saying things like, ‘Traffic jams make me angry.’ Instead, say, ‘I get angry in traffic jams.’ Get good at that, and your life will change for the better.
‘I don’t agree. Jack said something nasty to me and hurt my feelings. Why isn’t Jack to blame for how I feel?’
Yes, Jack created the incident and should be held accountable, and you created the hurt. That means, Jack has to be held accountable for what he did, because he is responsible for what he did. He doesn’t get away with it. But you are responsible for the emotions you create, and for how you deal with them.
It’s easy to blame Jack-the-jerk because you feel miserable, but blame him only for what he did, not for how you feel. You are creating the misery, not Jack. He created the incident, not your emotions.
And don’t blame yourself for the misery you feel. Although you create your distress (your brain registers the incident and creates the appropriate chemicals) that does not mean you are to blame for your distress. Blaming yourself for being hurt, or upset, or jealous, is a cop out. All self-blame is a cop-out. To take responsibility for your distress does not mean you are blaming yourself for it. There is a big difference between self-blame and taking responsibility.
Emotions just are. You have them. If you are angry, that’s fine. Whatever emotion you have, that’s fine. It’s how you respond to that emotion which is important. And when you accept that you create your emotions you are taking responsibility for them. That’s not blaming yourself, it’s empowering yourself, because now you can draw upon your resources.
When you do that, you become capable and resilient. You get that feeling that whatever happens – that whatever Jack-the-jerk does – you will handle it.
See the difference? The phrase, ‘Jack hurt my feelings’ is weak and disempowering. Jack says something and so you feel hurt. Jack can play you like a puppet. If instead you knew that you felt hurt with what Jack said you can then focus on helping yourself feel better, as well as on what you can do to prevent yourself from becoming hurt again. The next time Jack is a jerk you will have a better chance of coping.
Jack might even give up trying to hurt your feelings, because he has lost his power over you. Or more accurately, you have regained your power. By realising that you create the hurt, you have empowered yourself.
It’s not about eradicating unwanted emotions, it’s about dealing with them. When we fully understand that our distress is in our hands we can experience the pain without the panic. We won’t shatter. That’s because on a fundamental level we know we can deal with our distress, because we are the source of it. That knowledge, that liberation, adds to our inner authority.
That’s why I’m suggesting that from now on, change your language. Say, ‘I feel upset with what Jack did’ instead of saying ‘Jack made me upset’. It will be awkward at first, but once you develop the habit it will become easy. And as I say, no matter how good your life is now, it will improve.
Q. ‘Are you asking us to apply positive thinking?’
No, I’m suggesting that you accept that you create your emotions. Not on an intellectual level, but fully believe it. And, you will only fully believe it when you have habitually changed your language.
Once you fully accept that you create your emotions you will realise the power you have in shaping your world. Then you won’t need to apply positive thinking – it will come to you.
It’s the people who believe their distress is caused by the outside world who have trouble thinking in a positive way. How can anyone think in a positive way if they believe the rest of the world can make their life difficult? But, by taking responsibility, by accepting the fact we create what we feel – we automatically make positive choices.
Q. ‘I knew this already. You’re just pointing out the obvious.’
Knowing that we create our emotions is not enough: we have to know it so well that it becomes reflected in our language. ‘I feel sad seeing that’ instead of ‘Seeing that makes me sad’.
Q. ‘You say we draw on our coping skills. What’s a coping strategy?’
It depends on the person. For example, when Fred fully accepts that he is creating his anger, not the traffic jam, he might remind himself that things go wrong in life, and that the traffic jam is simply ‘one of those things’. Or, he might teach himself another language. (A friend of mine is learning Italian, one word at a time, at each red traffic light.)
We all develop coping skills as we grow up. We need to apply them. But if we subconsciously believe that the outside world creates our emotions, those coping skills atrophy. As a result, we blame other people, or incidents, or ourselves, for how we feel. And we continue to believe that we can only feel better only when the traffic jam eases.
By refusing to mature, we continue to feel stressed.
‘From where do we get our coping skills?’
We begin developing them in infancy, in the same way we learn to walk. Trial and error. We stop developing the skills, or let them atrophy, when we get into the habit of blaming.
Q. ‘What exactly are you suggesting? What is this key?’
We need to accept that we create our emotional responses to the outside world. The awareness is important, because when we realise that we are not a pinball reacting to every stimulus we encounter, that we have a choice in how we respond, then we realise how much power we have in shaping our responses. We can respond to a situation, rather than react to it. So, we benefit.
To gain that awareness the key is: change our language. From now on we need to say things like, ‘I feel hurt with what you said’ instead of ‘You hurt my feelings’.
Make that change in your language a part of your life and you will come to fully accept that your emotional state depends on you. That’s when your life gets better.
Q. ‘Please give me another example of how we can change our language.’
Here are four:
1. Instead of saying, ‘Jill makes me nervous,’ try ‘I become nervous when Jill is around.’ That places the focus on you, so you can ask yourself: ‘What is it about Jill that prompts me to make myself nervous? What is it about me that is sensitive? What can I do to alleviate my nervousness in future?’
2. Instead of ‘He made me angry’, try ‘I became angry after what he did’. Then you can ask questions such as: ‘Was I justified in becoming angry? Or was I too touchy? How can I deal with my anger so that it disturbs me less? How can I use my anger to make a positive change?’
3. Instead of ‘That stresses me out’ try ‘I become stressed when that happens.’ Hopefully that will prompt you to ask questions like: ‘Should I in future avoid a situation like this? Do other people get this stressed, or is it just me? If so, why is it just me? Is my stress justified? What can I do to relieve this stress? Or prevent it?’
4. About the traffic jam you might ask yourself, ‘I feel angry. Why do I keep getting angry? What buttons are being pressed? Why do I get angry in traffic jams when my friend doesn’t? Why does it bug me? What can I do to be less angry?’
See how empowering those questions are? But if you blame the traffic jam for making you angry you will simply feel powerless and upset. And possibly act irrationally. Worse, nothing will change.
When a person truly accepts that the ‘ball is in their court’ the person draws upon their resources to deal with the emotions they’re feeling. But someone who believes that the world has to change before they can feel okay again will continue to feel powerless. Because most of the time the world won’t change.
Knowing ‘the ball is in your court’ empowers you. The more power you feel, the less anxious you become and the more resilient you become.
Q. ‘So, if I’m being tortured I just have to remember, “the torture isn’t creating my misery, I am.” Is that what you’re suggesting?’
No one could have that resolve, but that’s the idea. In day-to-day life it’s an easy habit to adopt.
‘But that’s awful! A girl gets attacked and you’re saying it’s not the attack who makes her upset, but her thoughts about it?! That’s shocking! Do we let the attacker go free? Because according to you, it’s not the attacker’s fault she’s upset!’
‘What do you suggest? Abolish crime? Tell the victims it’s their fault they’re upset?’
Life throws up a lot of gunk. Thugs can’t undo their crimes, assuming they even want to, and plagues will not bring back the dead. Yes, we can blame them for the misery felt. We can feel the outrage, the resentment. That’s an important part of healing. However, when we are ready we need to stop blaming the perpetrator for the pain we feel and acknowledge that we are creating the pain.
‘That’s not fair!’
The perpetrator created the incident, and we can always blame them for that, but it is an inescapable fact that we create the pain. We create all our emotions. It’s not an opinion. It’s not a philosophy. It’s fact. All I’m suggesting you do is at some stage acknowledge that fact.
‘Blame ourselves for our pain, then? But victims often can’t stop blaming themselves, so your advice will only reinforce their self blame. If someone believes they are creating their own misery it could set them back further. Your philosophy sounds disempowering!’
I discourage self-blame. If I were attacked, feeling angry with my attackers would be a far healthier response than employing my philosophy, I agree. But do I maintain my anger for the rest of my life? Or do I choose to at some point move on?
‘I suppose you would at some point need to move on.’
Right, and to move on I would have to let the blame and anger go. When that moment does come, when I am finally ready to make that choice, that’s the time to acknowledge to myself that I create my emotions.
Q. ‘Mark, when my cat was run over I was pretty upset. Are you saying Booger’s death didn’t upset me?’
I’m saying you were upset. You became upset when Booger died.
‘His death didn’t upset me?’
That’s right. His death didn’t upset you; you became upset with his death.
‘However you put it, I feel upset.’
To be expected. The aim isn’t to eradicate or avoid unwanted emotions; it’s to help us deal with them. If you fully understand that your distress is in your hands you can experience the pain without being broken by it. On a deep level you will know that you will come to terms with your grief, because you are the source of it. That knowledge gives you inner authority.
‘Even though I might be terribly upset?’
There will be tears, but you can experience the pain without the panic, without the yawning abyss.
Q. ‘You say my life will improve. When will I notice the difference?’
When you have changed your language in your everyday life, so that you automatically say, ‘I feel angry with what she did’ instead of ‘She makes me angry.’ When your language automatically reflects your choice to take responsibility for what you feel, you will notice you are more confident and self-assured.
Q. ‘I now fully accept what you say. I know I am the one who is making me angry, But it’s not helping any.’
A man said this to me at Speakers’ Corner. I responded by pointing out that he was still saying things like, ‘people’s rudeness makes me angry’, which meant that although on one level he understood that he was creating the anger, on another level he believed that other people made him angry.
It’s only when we fully believe that we create our anger and automatically express it in our language, that we start to reap the benefits.
Q. ‘If I have something important to me stolen and I feel unhappy about it, what am I supposed to do? Let the thief off the hook and blame myself for the distress I feel?’
Blame the thief for the theft, but not for how you feel. If you blame the thief for making you feel unhappy it might be a while before you get over the incident. That’s because you have no control over the thief, or the theft, and that power imbalance will remain.
And certainly don’t blame yourself for how you feel. That’s a cop-out.
‘But why can’t I blame the thief? If the thief hadn’t stolen from me I wouldn’t be miserable.’
You can blame the thief for the theft, but not for your feelings about the theft. The thief can’t force you to think or feel anything.
‘So I blame myself for the distress I feel?’
Don’t blame yourself. Just be aware that you are creating it. Just tell yourself, ‘I’m creating my distress.’ That’s all.
You won’t suddenly feel good, obviously, but if you make that observation each time you feel distress, over time your life will change.
‘In what way?’
When you realise the source of your anger is you, and not the other guy, you will feel more in control of your life. You will find it easier to cool down, and in that calmer state of mind you might find a solution to your problem.
‘To the theft?’
To your distress.
Q. ‘You say it’s important for me to be aware that I create my distress. Give me an example of why.’
If you become anxious when you encounter a spider you can either:
1. blame the spider for making you anxious, and keep fearing spiders every time you encounter one. Or,
2. acknowledge that you are creating your anxiety, in which case, you can take steps to become less anxious with spiders and increase your confidence with them.
Which view is more empowering? Which view will decrease your anxiety? Which view will prevent you from growing?
Q. ‘You are suggesting that we say, ‘I get stressed with that,’ instead of ‘that stresses me?’
‘Without doubt there are stressful occupations. It’s no coincidence.’
Yes, those occupations have stress triggers, but it’s the person who becomes stressed. There are people in those occupations who remain unstressed. If you accept that you are creating the stress you will look for ways to feel less stressed, but, if you assume it’s the job making you stressed nothing will change.
In short, what makes you curious?
What makes you happy?
Nothing makes you angry, or envious, or joyful, except you.
To fully accept that, change your language.
Exercise 1. You might be tempted to not bother completing this exercise. But for real change we need to change our awareness so that we automatically use the correct terminology in day-to-day life. The sentences below provide practice.
Both sentences express what we mean, but only one says the truth. Which one?
‘That stresses me out’ or ‘I feel stressed.’
‘I become angry with what my spouse says.’ or ‘My spouse makes me angry.’
‘Seeing cruelty upsets me.’ or ‘I become upset when I see cruelty.’
‘I feel happy when I am with my friends.’ or ‘Being with friends makes me happy.’
‘I see her and become jealous.’ or ‘She makes me jealous.’
‘I felt frightened watching the film.’ or ‘The film frightened me.’
‘That gets up my nose.’ or ‘I don’t like that.’
‘I became irritated by his antics.’ or ‘I became irritated with his antics.’
‘The accident ruined my life.’ or ‘I feel that my life is ruined.’
‘Her jokes make me laugh.’ or ‘I find her jokes funny.’
‘I feel annoyed by that.’ or ‘I feel annoyed with that.’
‘I feel hurt with what you said.’ or ‘I am hurt by what you said.’
‘I am puzzled by your decision.’ or ‘I am puzzled with your decision.’
‘Her mocking led him to cry.’ or ‘He cried after she mocked him.’
‘It pleased His Majesty.’ or ‘His Majesty was pleased with it.’
‘He was crushed by the decision.’ or ‘He felt crushed when he heard the decision.’
‘You offended me with your comment.’ or ‘I’m offended by your comment.’ or ‘I found your comment offensive.’
Yes, the incorrect sentences above are well used and well accepted in society, and we know what the speaker means. Nevertheless, they do reinforce the idea that our emotions are created by outside forces. So, consider getting into the habit of not using those old, misleading sentences. Your friends will barely notice the difference, but your life will change for the better.
Exercise 2. From the previous exercise did you notice the difference a few words can make?
I am pleased with it. versus I am pleased by it.
I become — versus It makes me —
How would you rephrase the following sentences?
You make me feel worthless.
You make me so annoyed.
Winning the lottery would make me happy.
I was hurt by what you said.
It makes him mad when she does that.
He does that to make her feel jealous.
It irritates him no end.
She makes him feel special.
Philosophy interests him.
He was unnerved by the question.
After a while, being accurate with our speech becomes a habit, and easy, and we come to accept that we create our emotions. And, instead of blaming ourselves for those emotions, or being tossed about by them, we develop the resources for responding to them. We increase our capacity to ‘handle whatever happens in life’, and increase our resilience.