How Much Do We Choose Our Emotions? Do We Allow People to Hurt?

By | March 18, 2012

I’m not sure but I’m thinking I might be afraid to be open when I’m upset about something because I don’t want people to try to “fix me”. I don’t want that because it says “there’s something wrong with you”. Yes, there might be something wrong in the sense that I’m not happy, but I’m looking for people to acknowledge that and understand and accept. I mean, it’s one thing if someone is upset that the new phone they ordered is going to take a day longer to arrive than they expected. That’s arguably not that important. On the other hand, it’s generally acceptable to be upset if a close friend or family member dies. The thing is, I think there are other things which fall into the latter category—things which really do make a difference—yet many people don’t accept others being upset about them.

I don’t mind people offering advice. The problem is that at least some people tend to go straight to suggesting where you are and/or were wrong. It communicates that the problem is really you, or at least it’s not acceptable to be upset about it. Last summer I broke my hand playing volleyball. To use this as a metaphor, the difference is one person saying “wow, that’s really got to hurt; can I take you to the hospital?” and another saying, “I’m sure that hurts; you should watch where you’re running and shouldn’t have gone for that ball.”

A popular quote I’ve heard says something like “you are about as happy as you choose to be.” I believe there’s some truth to that, but I don’t like the quote because it makes it sound more simple than it really is. The thing is, I didn’t sit down one day and think, “you know what, I think I’ll be depressed—that sounds like a great idea!” The pop-positive psychology would suggest that everything is just a matter of trying harder and attitude. Again, it’s not that there is nothing to this, but this suggests that if you have a problem, it’s because you’re either not trying hard enough or not choosing to be happy. In either case, you are problem and doesn’t have anything to do with externals. This just isn’t true.

We do have a lot of choice over our attitude and how we respond to external things in our lives. But everything isn’t always this simple, in part because there are things which really do affect us. If someone takes more than their share of cake at a party and therefore leaves less for us, I’d argue that we have more control of our response in this situation because they haven’t taken something that we really need (except perhaps for respect). Though some people would respond this way, there’s no need to be overly angry because we’ll get along fine without the cake. If on the other hand someone is choking us, being upset make a lot more sense. This is of course because we have a real need to breathe and fear that we might pass out and die if this situation persists.

Feelings are affected by what we think (see my formula for emotion). For example, I may feel depressed because I think that I am not a person people really like. If I choose to think this, I likely will feel depressed (because we have a real need for love); if I choose not to believe this, I am less likely to feel depressed. In this sense, I can choose how happy I am. But the problem is that it’s not an “all things being equal” choice. It’s not as simple as deciding “I’ll raise my right hand now.”

Beliefs, at least for me, aren’t randomly decided upon. Beliefs are based on input I receive (along with processing this information). Continuing with the example, I didn’t randomly decide to believe that a majority of people feel indifferent toward me. That belief was based on data—observation of people’s behaviors and actions over and extended period of time. Now I understand this data may be limited or giving a false impression. But my belief is my best understanding of what input I have to work with. In this way, my feeling isn’t as simple as merely choosing to be happy. It appears to require a change of belief. And the change of belief seems to require a change of input or additional data.

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