It’s common to think that emotions are caused by circumstances “out there,” and to say things like “he made me angry,” or “he made me sad.” As a mentor and coach, I hear people say this sort of thing all the time. But in reality, someone outside of yourself doesn’t make you angry or sad; those emotions come from the operation of your own mind. Emotions are caused by what we think about the circumstances we find ourselves in, rather than by the circumstances themselves. So, a person’s anger and sadness are caused by his patterns of thought and beliefs, rather than by someone else.
If you step on my foot, you can cause me pain. The pain sensors in my foot will get stimulated, send a signal to my brain, and I’ll feel pain. Whether I get angry as a result, will depend upon my thought process. If I believe you stepped on my foot intentionally and maliciously and meant to hurt me, I’d probably get angry. If, on the other hand, you are a close friend and I know that you’re playing, I may squeal at the pain, but not get angry.
Similarly, if I walked outside my house and found an African lion on my porch looking at me, I would likely become frightened. The fear would occur as a result of my mental process.
It’s almost mechanical: my mind perceives a stimulus, analyzes whether it is threatening or helpful based on my beliefs, and emotions are elicited based on the results of the analysis. Specifically, in this case, my mind perceives the lion in close proximity, remembers my belief that lions are dangerous, and concludes that “I’m in danger!” This conclusion naturally leads to feelings of fear.
The lion isn’t causing my fear. Instead, the fear results from my mind’s assessment that I’m in danger.
If, on the other hand, I were a lion-tamer and the lion I find on my doorstep is my beloved pet, I would likely feel love for the lion rather than fear because my beliefs about the lion, and the conclusion my mind would reach, would be completely different.
So, emotional reactions are caused by beliefs and thoughts about things, rather than by the things themselves. This was taught by the ancient Greek philosopher Epictetus, and it remains true today.
Swami Veda Bharati has said that negative emotions are like bombs that hurt us and hurt others. He suggests that whenever we have an emotional reaction, rather than pointing the finger, we look to see where that emotion came from within ourselves. When we find what in us caused the emotion, then we can take steps to change that pattern, to “defuse” the emotion, as we might defuse a bomb.
So, rather than blaming people or situations for our emotions, if we take responsibility for them, then we can work to change them.