John was running late to work because the bus had broken down. When he arrived at his office he was worried that his boss would be angry at him. He informed her about the bus, but she just frowned and said you cannot control things like that. John felt huge relief and as though his boss cared about him. Mary was trying on clothes in a store and she overheard one of the staff comment on how fat she was. She peeked out the door of the change room and saw that the staff member who had said it was a thin, tall girl, like all the girls in the store. She immediately felt self-conscious about her body and ashamed.
The two little stories above are examples of events that many people have probably experienced at some point in their lives. What I find curious is the different answers I get from people when I ask them, “Who makes John and Mary feel the different emotions they experience?”
Some people will answer that John has no control over how he feels, it is his boss who decides if he will feel relieved or frightened about losing his job based on how she reacts to him being late. In the case of Mary, she is powerless to prevent herself from feeling self-conscious and ashamed when someone calls her fat. The skinny girl makes Mary feel bad about herself.
However, other people have a completely different perspective on emotions. These people would say that John and Mary both have total control over their own emotions. John worries about being late because he wants to get to work on time; if he did not care about being late, he would not have worried. John chose to want to get to work on time; therefore, John chooses to worry. It might be even more interesting than that: John does not actually appear worried about himself being late to work instead he is only worried about his boss’ reaction to him being late because when she was sympathetic to his ordeal, he stopped feeling worried. John valued being in his boss’ good graces, not starting his day on schedule, and by choosing to value the good mood of his boss, he chose to feel worried about being late in case it might upset her.
Mary, meanwhile, values being admired by other women. When she realises that the women around her do not admire her body, she feels self-conscious and ashamed. Mary chose to value the opinions of other women, in this case, skinnier women whose standards of beauty she values on some level, and thus she put herself in a position where she will feel ashamed of herself for not living up to other women’s standards of beauty. Mary values being thin, Mary values being admired by other women, therefore, Mary makes herself vulnerable to feeling self-conscious and ashamed.
It is not easy to determine how many people would agree with the first perspective of “other people determine how I feel” and how many people agree with the second perspective of “I determine how I feel.” What is important is that these two different philosophies on how emotions work are completely at odds with each other. They are so far at odds with each other that it is difficult for a person to find any middle ground between them. People tend to be one or the other and the results have a profound impact on how people perceive themselves and their relationships.
Edward believes that he has no control over his emotions. This means he feels powerless when dealing with other people. They can make him feel good or bad at will and he cannot stop them from doing this. From Edward’s point of view, he has some important decisions to make. How is he going to stabilise his moods if he has no control over them? How can he guarantee that his emotional needs are met so that he can have a stable mood? Edward may decide to seek out people who say and do pleasing things to him because they make him feel safe and emotionally stable, however, these people may just be lying, in the case of con artists who rely on arousing feelings of joy and trust in people in order to manipulate them, or idiots, in the case of people who are irrationally optimistic and positive. Both of these types of people are not good sources of friendship for Edward, but he might feel he has no other choice but to seek out such people because they at least tell him pleasant things that help stabilise his moods in the moment.
At some point Edward will realise that he is surrounded by liars and idiots, people who are completely unreliable sources of support and guidance in his life. Since he does not believe he can stabilise his mood without these people, he relies on these people to support him, even though he knows they are not reliable people. At this point, Edward will reason that he has no control over his emotions, because he believes they are controlled by other people and Edward will realise that, logically, that means he also has control over how other people feel. Thus, Edward will begin lying or withholding information from his associates in the hopes he can increase the reliability of his otherwise unreliable supporters. The logic being that if he can control the emotions of other people, he can make them control his emotions in the way he wants to feel. He will tell someone they are beautiful because he wants them to tell him he is beautiful in return, not because he actually believes the other person is beautiful.
Edward lives a very chaotic, paranoid, stressful, and lonely life, constantly trying to figure out new ways to get the people around him to be reliable and consistent in their support for him. He wants to be honest with them, but if he tells them too much information, they will become unpredictable and unreliable for his emotional needs. He feels a distance between himself and other people that cannot be easily bridged and he trusts no one because he does not want to be left at the mercy of his feelings of fear, loneliness, and helplessness. He feels a need to control other people to provide himself with the security that someone will be with him.
In stark contrast to this, Yvonne, believes she has total control over her emotions. She feels powerful when dealing with other people because she does not worry about how they might react to what she thinks, feels, and observes. If someone calls her fat, she either agrees with them if it is true, or if it is not true, she laughs at them for being silly. If it is true, and she is fat, she can decide if she values being thin enough to worry about it or if she does not care enough about being thin to worry about it. If her boyfriend dumps her, she can decide if she should be mournful of the lost opportunities the relationship offered her or if she should just be glad she avoided a long and painful marriage with a man who was not appropriate for her. If she chooses to be mournful because the relationship meant a lot to her, then she is comforted by the fact that her sadness is her own choice and that it serves a valuable purpose for her helping her to grow and mature so that the next time she finds such a man, she will either make wiser decisions or work extra hard to make that relationship work.
For Yvonne, every emotion is a choice and every emotion has its place and value in her life. She feels angry when she needs to assert herself, she feels love when she needs to be tender, she feels fear when she needs to be alert, and she feels sad when she needs time to reflect carefully about events in her life. Her emotions are not random, but chosen and exist to serve her needs in completing her goals. She feels no need to try to control other people in order to regulate her emotions and she feels threatened by anyone trying to exert control over her emotions, because she does not want other people to hijack her emotions and use them to serve their interests instead of hers. Yvonne feels safe and secure within herself because she knows and trusts herself.
To conclude, these are two completely different viewpoints people have about emotions: whether they are under our own direct control or whether other people make us feel certain ways. The philosophical consequences of believing one way or the other have a profound impact on how we organise and structure our relationships with friends and family. Who we decide to be friends with is a large part reliant on if we see those people as having control over our emotions (and moods) or not. So what are some of your thoughts after reading this? Do you make yourself feel the way you do, or do others make you feel that way?
(This article was one that I originally published on http://www.fourbirdseducation.com)