Uncle: What makes you angry?
Nephew: . . . Traffic jams.
Uncle: Wrong answer.
Nephew: Here we go.
Uncle: Traffic jams don’t make you angry. You become angry in traffic jams.
Nephew: Yep. Fair enough. If you want to split hairs.
Uncle: You can nod your head and say you knew that already, but I bet you often say things like, ‘That makes me angry’ instead of saying, ‘I feel angry with that.’ And ‘That makes me happy’ instead of ‘I feel happy with that.’ Our language gives us away. It indicates that most of us do believe on some level that what happens in the outside world creates our emotions.
Nephew: It’s just semantics. You knew what I meant.
Uncle: I knew what you meant, but there is a big difference between ‘Traffic jams make me angry,’ and ‘I become angry in traffic jams.’ The first statement says the traffic jam makes me angry and the second says I do. Big difference. You undermine yourself when you get it wrong, so it’s not semantics.
Nephew: It’s a harmless figure of speech.
Uncle: It’s not harmless. If you want to grow, that has to change. That figure of speech reinforces your belief that incidents in your life make you happy, or unhappy, or whatever. The truth is: the outside world does notcreate our emotions. We do. And we should say so when we speak. When I asked you what makes you angry, the only correct answer you could have given me was, ‘I do.’ What makes you jealous? ‘I do’. What I makes you fearful? ‘I do.’ You create all your emotions, and for your life to run more smoothly you need to fully accept that. And, to fully accept that, you need to change the words you use.
‘If we are careless with our words we will be careless with our thoughts.’
Nephew: What’s the big deal? Even if I make myself angry, who cares? I’m still angry. Or are you suggesting I shouldn’t get angry, or feel fearful, or feel jealous?
Uncle: No, I’m not saying that. You might have a good reason to feel those emotions, but you do need to be aware that you create them.
Nephew: Why? Why is that important?
Uncle: 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 whatever stimulus we happen to encounter: ‘Oh, that makes me angry!’ ‘What you said hurt my feelings!’ Can you see how disempowering those statements are?
Nephew: I guess.
Uncle: But as I have said to you before, when we fully realise that we create our distress we also realise that we are the solution to it. We start to draw upon our resources, and 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.
Nephew: But if there were no traffic jam I wouldn’t get angry.
Uncle: 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.
Nephew: So we need to change our thoughts?
Uncle: No, that’s way too difficult . Simply be aware that you create your emotions. That’s all. It’s the awareness which is important, because when you have that awareness – when you fully understand that you are responsible for how you feel – you will realise just how much power you have. And you gain the inner authority we have talked about. And, automatically, you begin to deal with the situation.
Nephew: What power would I have in a traffic jam?
Uncle: Knowing that you are creating your distress, you might ask yourself questions like, ‘I feel angry. Why do I get angry in heavy traffic? What buttons are being pressed? Why do I get angry in traffic jams when my friend doesn’t? What can I do to become less angry?’ See how empowering those questions are? But if you blame the traffic jam for making you angry you become a wus, feeling powerless and upset, and every time there is a traffic jam you will continue to get angry. Nothing will change.
Nephew: I know someone learning Spanish. At every red traffic light she learns a new word.
Uncle: There you go!
Uncle: We develop coping skills as we mature, but if we blame incidents for our distress, those coping skills atrophy, and we succumb. If we believe the outside world is causing our distress, we are at its mercy. That’s a pretty lame position to put ourselves in.
Nephew: So, what are you suggesting?
Uncle: Fully accept that you create your emotions. We all need to. And the best way to do that is to change our language.
Nephew: To what? Spanish?
Uncle: Get in the habit of saying, ‘I feel angry with that,’ instead of ‘That makes me angry’. ‘I feel hurt with what Jack said,’ instead of ‘Jack hurt my feelings’. Can you see the difference?
Nephew: Sort of. But if Jack says something nasty and I feel hurt, why isn’t Jack to blame for how I feel?
Uncle: 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.
Nephew: I dunno . . .
Uncle: And don’t blame yourself for the misery you feel, either. Although you create your distress that does not mean you are to blame for your distress. Blaming yourself for being hurt, or angry, 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.
Nephew: I guess so.
Uncle: See the difference? The phrase, ‘Jack hurt my feelings’ is weak and disempowering: Jack says something and ‘makes you feel hurt.’ Jack can play you like a puppet! But 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.
Nephew: Like what?
Uncle: 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?’
Nephew: Can I punch his lights out?
Uncle: 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 will have lost his power over you. Or more accurately, you have regained your power. By realising that you create the hurt, you have empowered yourself.
Nephew: Can you stop using the word ‘empowering’? It’s irritating. . . . No, wait. I become irritated.
Uncle: Well done! Good work! Now let’s say you become anxious when you encounter a spider.
Nephew: A rock spider?
Uncle: A huntsman spider. You can either blame the spider for making you anxious, and keep fearing spiders every time you encounter one; or, you can acknowledge the fact that you are creating that fear.
Nephew: That second option.
Uncle: Yes. Not, ‘Spiders scare me’ but, ‘I become frightened when I see spiders.’
Nephew: Tell me again, how does that help?
Uncle: By accepting that you are creating the fear, and not the spider, you will be more likely to take steps to become less anxious with spiders in the future, and increase your confidence with them.
Uncle: Which approach is the more empowering? Which view will decrease your anxiety? Which view will prevent you from growing?
Nephew: Yeah okay. But there are stressful occupations. Doesn’t that mean we are stressed by outside forces?
Uncle: 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.
Nephew: Let’s say I have something important stolen and I feel unhappy about the theft. What am I supposed to do? Blame myself for the distress I feel?
Uncle: 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.
Nephew: That’s it?
Uncle: If you make that observation each time you feel distress, over time your life will change.
Nephew: In what way?
Uncle: When you fully accept that the source of your anger is you, and not the other guy, you will feel more in control of your life. You will feel more confident and more self-assured. In that calmer state of mind you might even find a solution to your problem.
Nephew: To the theft?
Uncle: To your distress.
Nephew: Hang on! 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?
Uncle: No one could have that resolve, but that’s the idea. In day-to-day life it’s an easy habit to acquire.
Nephew: 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, his actions didn’t make her feel upset!
Uncle: But . . .
Nephew: 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 sucks!
Uncle: Initially yes, we can blame the thief or rapist for the misery we feel. We can 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.
Nephew: That’s not fair!
Uncle: 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.
Nephew: Now you’re saying ‘at some stage’.
Uncle: 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?
Nephew: . . . Maybe not.
Uncle: I would have to 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.
Nephew: What you are saying is rubbish. When my cat was run over I was pretty upset. Are you saying Chugga’s death didn’t upset me?
Uncle: I’m saying you were upset. You became upset when Chugga died.
Nephew: His death didn’t upset me?
Uncle: That’s right. His death didn’t upset you. You became upset with his death.
Nephew: Whatever way you put it, I felt upset.
Uncle: 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’ve talked about. It leads to resilience.
Nephew: Even though I might be terribly upset?’
Uncle: There will be tears, but you will experience the pain without the panic, without the yawning abyss.
Nephew: So it’s not about getting rid of the unwanted emotions? I only have to be aware that I create them? And the best way to do that is to change my language?
Uncle: Correct. That’s why I’m suggesting that from now on say, ‘I feel upset with what Jack did’ instead of saying ‘Jack made me upset’. It will be awkward at first, but when you develop the habit you will benefit.
Nephew: I don’t even know a Jack. But when I meet one I’ll punch his lights out.
Uncle: That’s the spirit!
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 withit.’ versus ‘I am pleased byit.’
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.