Quite often we see a group of individuals who have experienced the same situation reacting in very different ways. Take for example, a company informs its employees that they may have to lay off a number of them if their financial situation doesn’t improve by a certain date. Some employees respond in anger, damning their bosses for not protecting their employees and the world for being so unfair. Panic and fear sets in for others, who think about how horrible and unbearable their life is going to be when they get their notice. Still others get depressed when they anticipate losing their jobs and what that losers that will make them. Others are frustrated about the situation, concerned about the potential for being unemployed, and/or saddened at the thought of leaving their company and coworkers. Of course, these are just a few examples of the reactions that may occur, many more idiosyncratic responses are likely to be present in this situation. So where does the difference lie? How can the same situation affect everyone so differently?
Simple, it was never the situation that made anyone feel any particular way in the first place! They did it to themselves! At first, this sounds kind of crazy because we are constantly hearing how things make us feel one way or another. Not to mention it could be a little intimidating to think that we are actually the ones making ourselves feel so bad. But, isn’t it actually quite liberating and empowering to recognize that our emotions aren’t so dependent on external circumstances and we can actually make ourselves feel better just as easily as we make ourselves feel worse? I think it is actually pretty amazing that we have this element of control over our emotions and we can choose how we want to handle various situations. In the end, we aren’t powerless over our emotions at all, even when we are facing major life challenges or difficulties.
The key is that the way we think about the situations we are experiencing is what causes how we feel. When faced with a negative situation, such as potentially losing a job, we can think in a way that causes us to feel unhealthy negative emotions, such as anxiety, depression, or unhealthy anger, or we can think in a way that causes us to feel healthy negative emotions that are appropriate and functional in the situation, such as concern, sadness, or frustration. Because emotions are a part of the human condition and actually help us improve our circumstances, we wouldn’t want to be void of emotion, especially in the challenging and difficult times. Thinking rationally, meaning evaluating it in a way that is most logical and consistent with the reality of the situation, allows us to take conscious control over our emotions and enables us to problem-solve to the best of our abilities, which sometimes includes accepting that a situation cannot be changed.
Truly believing that it is our way of thinking about situations, not the situations themselves, that causes our emotional reactions (in REBT terms, the B-C connection), is in my opinion, one of the most helpful things we can do for ourselves in the most trying of times. Taken alone, it is reassuring to know that we don’t have to get totally taken down by unfortunate situations. More importantly though, it paves the way to be able to decide how you want to feel and change your thinking to achieve that goal. In the end, the choice is up to you!
Next up: Chris Smith, Ph.D. on Priorities