Years ago my uncle Geoff and I were walking in his orchard. 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.
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. We undermine ourselves when we get it wrong.
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?
What I makes me fearful?
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.
‘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, you can almost palpably feel the inner authority.
Thanks, Uncle Geoffrey.
Q. ‘You’re saying 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.
Both Fran and Beth are sacked. When Fran thinks, ‘A new chapter in my life begins’ she creates in her brain the chemicals of boldness and curiosity. When Beth thinks, ‘This is awful’ she creates the chemicals of fear and despair.
I’m not saying Beth 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, because she would focus on drawing upon 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. That’s all. 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, be in the habit of saying, ‘I get angry in traffic jams.’ Get good at that, and your life will change for the better.
Q. ‘I don’t agree. Jack 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. 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.
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. There is a big difference between self-blame and taking responsibility. When you are in the habit of taking responsibility, you develop 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 then realise that the power rests with you. You can then focus on dealing with the hurt, and look for ways to prevent yourself from becoming hurt again. You can start asking questions like, ‘Why did I feel hurt after Jack said that? Which of my insecurities has been breached? Which of my shoulds has been violated? Why is Jack trying to hurt my feelings? How will I express my hurt?’ So, 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 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 develop coping skills as we mature, but we let them atrophy when we get into the habit of blaming.
Q. ‘What exactly are you suggesting?’
Fully accept that you create your emotions. The best way to do that is to change your language. From now on 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 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 in a less intrusive way? 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’ they draw 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.
‘That’s awful! A girl gets raped and you’re saying it’s not the rapist who makes her upset, but her thoughts about it?! That’s shocking! Do we let the rapist go free? Because according to you, it’s not the rapist’s fault she’s upset!’
‘Should we be telling victims they are making themselves upset? Of course not! Many victims can’t stop blaming themselves! Your advice will only reinforce their self-blame. If someone believes they are creating their own misery it could set them back even further. Your philosophy sounds disempowering!’
Initially yes, let’s blame the thief or rapist for the misery we feel. Let’s feel the outrage and 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.
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.
‘Now you’re saying ‘at some stage.’
If I were attacked, blaming my attackers for my distress would be a far healthier response than employing my philosophy, I agree. But do I maintain my anger for the rest of my life?
‘I don’t know.’
I believe I would be better off if I could at some point 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 am creating my pain.
Q. ‘When my cat was run over I was distraught. 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 unwanted emotions, it’s to help us deal with them. If you fully understand that your distress is in your hands you will learn to experience the pain without being broken by it. You will know that you will at some point come to terms with your grief, because you are the source of it. That knowledge gives you that inner authority I keep talking about. It leads to resilience
‘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. ‘Alright. I know I am the one who is making me angry, but it’s not helping any.’
A man said that to me at Speakers’ Corner. I responded by pointing out that he was still saying things like, ‘people’s rudeness makes me angry’, which indicated to me that he still 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 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. The thief can’t force you to think or feel anything. 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. Just tell yourself, ‘I’m creating my distress.’ That’s all you have to do.
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 distress 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.‘Without doubt there are stressful occupations. Doesn’t that mean we are stressed by outside forces?’
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.
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.’
‘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, when we use them they reinforce our belief that outside forces create our emotions. Consider not using those old, misleading sentences. Or if you use one and notice it, rephrase it. Your friends will barely notice the difference.
From the previous exercise did you notice the difference a few words can make? For example:
‘I am pleased with it.’ versus ‘I am pleased by it.’
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.’
‘She makes him feel special.’
‘Philosophy interests him.’
‘He was unnerved by the question.’
When we are in the habit of accurately phrasing our sentences, and automatically say things like, ‘I feel angry with what she did’ instead of ‘She makes me angry’, then we come to fully accept that we create our emotions. Then, 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. That adds to our feeling of being safe, and therefore, to our core happiness.
You have correctly chosen to say, ‘I get the willies when I see a blowfly’ instead of ‘Blowflies give me the willies.’ What questions might you then ask yourself?
If you need a hint, here are three examples:
1. Instead of saying, ‘Jill makes me nervous,’ try instead ‘I become nervous when Jill is around.’ That places the focus on you so that 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 with 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.’ You can ask yourself 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?’
When a person truly accepts that the ‘ball is in their court’ the person draws upon their resources to deal with the emotions they are 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 are.