In my experience, emotions usually indicate something is afoot. But that “something” is not always what we think it is. And it’s not always as big or as little as we think it is. Emotions are sign posts telling us we need to look deeper into ourselves and the situation that has generated the feeling. The skill of Awareness does the rest of the work. Awareness helps us uncover exactly what lies at the root of the feeling that troubles us so much.
According to Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Emotions are generated by thoughts/attitudes/interpretations. We can consciously generate emotions through our imagination – imagine you have just won the lottery. How do you feel? Imagine you have lost your most recent pay check. How do you feel? If we can generate emotion and its physical manifestations, simply through imagining a fictional situation, it stands to reason that our day to day emotions are, to some extent, governed by our own minds.
So how reliable is our thinking for assessing the significance of the events in our lives?
Sometimes totally accurate, and sometimes totally inaccurate… and often somewhere in between.
What we need is a method of distinguishing between reality and what we bring to reality in the shape of our attitudes and beliefs. Unfortunately there is no easy to operate, fit-all system, but what we can do is become aware of our mental tendencies, our default mode of thinking. Here are some ways we distort our perception of life events and circumstances:
Catastrophizing: Expecting and anticipating the worst possible outcome. Example: My boss has asked to see me in his/her office – I think I’m going to be fired.
Minimizing: Dismissing any negative outcomes or negative motivations in others. Example: The utility company has sent me a notice that I have not paid my bill for several months – I think they’re never going to get around to cutting me off.
Self-Blame: Blaming myself for anything that goes wrong. Example: There’s a water leak in my friend’s bathroom – I think I used the bathroom when I visited them yesterday, I must have left the water running.
Generalization: Draw broad conclusions from isolated incidents. Example: If I let someone down, I think that I let everyone down all the time. If I fail at one thing, I’m a total failure at everything.
Focus on Detail: Pick out one aspect of an issue or event and obsess about that to the exclusion of all other aspects of the event. Example: I had a great time at a party except that I spilled some food on the carpet – I focus so much on the one mistake that I can hardly remember the rest of the party.
Psychologizing: Attributing motives, usually negative ones, to others based on very little or no evidence. Example: The hostess at a party spent only a few minutes talking to me before moving off – I think I must be boring and that’s why she left.
If we can identify our default thinking, we can be aware of that pattern in the midst of our emotional swamping and then we have something concrete to work with.