What does emotional control really take?
How can I have a better reaction to the events in my life I cannot control?
Why is it that we react differently to the same events? Take your team losing an important game — some people are seemingly inconsolable, others figure out what they to improve before the next one. Or maybe you get stood up by a date or a friend. Are you angry, frustrated, amused, or indifferent? Does it change your mood for the rest of the day or week?
All of this connects back to a core question: how do we make meaning of the world around us? Do we ever have any emotional control over what meaning we get, or are we locked into our current story forever? (Hint: it’s not the second one.)
Here we’ll cover what makes up the cycle of meaning. Understand the steps that make you react and behave the way you do, then you’re closer to creating lasting change in your life. Controlling reactions is just the surface to understanding emotional control. So we’ll slow down, unpack the cycle, and look at ways to make meanings lift you up instead of dragging you under.
Meaning and control
There are plenty of things we can’t control: the weather, our children, traffic, and love are just a few. But we can always control one thing: the meaning we take away from events. Meaning connects to our larger life blueprint; it’s a way to either give up control of our lives or create control.
For example, let’s take Tony inviting some of his friends to his place in Fiji. It’s a lush, tropical paradise with sun and sand; but in order to be that green it rains a lot. So Tony’s waiting for his friends to arrive and it’s raining and he’s stressed out. He wants everything to be perfect with the tide in and the sun shining. So he’s miserable because what he thinks is supposed to be isn’t; life doesn’t match what he perceives as the ideal.
However, what’s really great about the rain in Fiji is that it’s warm, not chilly. So when his friends arrive, they’re having fun like little kids in the rain. It’s a bunch of grownups running around and splashing. They’re completely happy even if the place doesn’t look like a postcard. So they’ve gotten a completely different meaning out of the same occurrence.
Emotions, feelings and emotional control
Let’s stick with this Fiji example. What emotions are now flying around? We’ve got Tony feeling upset because he believes he needs to create a certain kind of environment for his friends to be happy. He’s not controlling his reactions. Instead, he’s got an image of that ideal — sunny — and even though he knows that no one can control the weather, he’s still frustrated. So instead of enjoying his friends, he’s stuck in a bad mood. Then here are his friends. They’re having a great time and are happy, even ecstatic. They’re not at all disappointed, but maybe they’re a little confused why Tony seems unhappy.
So even though everyone has the same stimulus (the rain), the meaning they’ve attached to it has caused completely different emotional responses. The same process occurs throughout our lives. Change the meaning and you change the emotion. The reverse also holds true — change the emotion and you’ll change the meaning.
The power of words
Another key factor in the cycle of meaning is what words you use. What do you feel when someone says that you’re mistaken? What about if they say “You’re wrong.”? Chances are that you don’t feel very good, no matter your level of emotional control, and that’s you just thinking about it, not it actually happening.
It’s a small example, but it illustrates just how crucial words are to how we make meaning (and thus what we feel). This is why Tony has people think about the words they’re in the habit of using, especially if they’re trying to make major life changes. Simply put, whatever words you attach to your experience become your experience.
Actions and the formula that makes up our lives
When you feel certain ways, you do certain things. Our patterns of behavior, from smoking to going to the gym, all stem from our desire to meet some of our six human needs, the meaning we’ve assigned, and the feelings we have. The pattern then becomes our life story, what we tell ourselves about who we are and why we are that way. Instead of emotional control, we likely feel adrift and powerless.
So while we can’t control the triggers we encounter in our lives, we can control the meanings we make, therefore controlling our feelings and, more broadly, our lives. That’s why if you’re trying to make a change in your life, you have to examine what meanings you already have, then make up new ones. Emotional control is all about making the meaning you want. Otherwise you’ll continue to repeat old patterns and not make any lasting change.
We can reduce the cycle of meaning’s complexity to a single formula:
Meaning = Emotion = Life
So if you’re looking to change your mood, change the meaning you’re taking from the triggering event.
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