Friday, September 30, 2011

I'm Responsible for My Feelings - A Neat Trick

I pulled into the bank parking lot, and suddenly it hit me - I had forgotten to bring the safe deposit key. Trip wasted! I exploded with a loud one-syllable expletive. Fortunately, I was still in my car with the windows up. I remembered to bring the list of items to retrieve, but the key was still at home in its drawer. I quickly thought, No big deal. I come downtown all the time. I'll take care of it the next time. Just as suddenly, I was calm and happy.

When I returned home, I warmed up some soup for lunch. I decided that while I ate, I would read this great book that had just come in the mail. I walked to my office to get the book, but when I returned to the kitchen I realized I had retrieved my glasses, not the book. Another monosyllabic expletive. But then I thought, No problem. I'll just go back to my office. The extra walking is good exercise. Carrying the book back to the kitchen, I was feeling happy again.

How about that? From feeling frustrated and angry to feeling satisfied and happy in less than a minute. Pretty cool.

Back in the 1970s, one of the catch-phrases of the woo-woo gurus of that generation was, "You are responsible for your own feelings." Meaning, you can decide how you want to feel. Two people can react to the same situation differently. You aren't bound to react a certain way. Own your feelings. Take responsibility for your reaction. And the corollary: You're not responsible for how other people feel. They have the same freedom to choose how they want to react.

Since then, I've learned that it's not quite that simple. For one thing, I take responsibility for how I deal with people. I want to do what's right, to avoid doing things that are likely to cause distress and pain and expect people to feel fine about it. For another, some people have neurochemical issues. They aren't in full control of how they feel or react.

But still, I like the idea of taking responsibility for my feelings, choosing to react in a way that will best serve me. The trick is simple, actually. When I feel distress, I quickly ask myself questions like, What's the larger perspective? Is this really such a big deal? What can I do to make this problem go away?

This helps me see that while what has happened isn't what I wanted, and while my initial feelings of frustration are real and natural, there's a bigger picture and ways to turn what seems like a negative into a perfectly acceptable positive. In other words, I change my thoughts, and my feelings immediately follow suit.

This trick has helped me past countless frustrations in my marriage. Don't get me wrong. I'm married to the most wonderful woman in the world. But in the real world, we sometimes do what the other person doesn't expect or want. Happens all the time. I feel surprised, disappointed or frustrated. Then I shift my thoughts to the larger perspective. She doesn't know what I want. It's easy to miscommunicate. Neither one of us is perfect. She has a good heart and always means well. What would my life be without her? Feelings of compassion and love come flooding in.

Post by Dennis E. Coates, Ph.D., Copyright 2011. Building Personal Strength . (Permission to use image purchased from


shareandi said...

Simple. True.

Poignant too.

Again, thanks Dr. Coates.


Anonymous said...

I think thats the good thing to do for teens cuz some times i need tips from some one who knows lol