Emotions : conditioned to find a cause

From a young age we’re taught our experience can’t just be experienced. There must be a cause. This piece explores how we got here and why it trips us up.

I see it from raising my own kids. When they were babies and were crying – poop, food, burp, sleep checks all done – still crying. What’s wrong? What’s the problem? How do I fix this?

Already assuming there was a problem with this experience of crying. With a small baby you can’t tell if there’s a ‘real’ problem or not, they obviously can’t tell you. Sometimes there is — maybe the onset of an illness, or reflux, or… — but sometimes there isn’t. They were just crying.

Then as they got older and they could talk I started to think they should have some kind of rational mind so I would ask ‘what’s wrong?’ Assuming there was a rational reason they would tell me about.

I can’t remember if they would come out with reasons at age 2 or 3 but I know they were there by the time they got to 5 and beyond, and by this time they’d learnt the drill.

‘When I have an experience of an emotion, I need to attribute it to a something outside of me.’

I’m happy because…

I’m sad because…

I’m angry and hitting my sibling because…

I taught them this. I trained them that when they had an experience of an emotion they should scan the horizon for the external cause of that — be it happy or sad or anything in between — and name that as the cause.

This trains us to be victims to the world around us.

It trains us to believe that it’s things outside of us that make us feel what we feel.

It trains us to assume there’s something wrong with us if we’re having a ‘negative’ emotional experience and that it should be fixed / stopped / changed.

It trains us away from the fact that emotions come and go, sometimes with no apparent reason at all, and that they’ll go all the quicker if we leave them alone.

So how does this training trip us up

The problem with this training is that it teaches us that our experience of life comes from the objects and people around us and so, to have a better experience of life (which we’ve also been taught by this point is what we should have), we need to control those objects and people.

First we usually try and control the things out there. Try to make people behave a certain way. Try to make income go in the right direction. Try to make sure it’s this house / car / other object we can buy. Try to make people waste less to save costs. Try to make the ‘right’ decisions.

Then we’ll see this isn’t always successful so we’ll move on to controlling our thoughts. At this stage we see that our feelings are created by our thoughts and so we attempt to have better thoughts to get better feelings. We try to cognitively re-programme our brain with thoughts that will stop us being triggered. We recite mantras and affirmations telling oursleves we can, or that we’re worth it. We practice habits to direct our thoughts to the good stuff, the positives, the things to be thankful for. Still working on the basis there’s a better experience to have and that we need that experience to be OK.

And then, when we see this also isn’t reliable, or we run out of energy to keep controlling our internal and external world, we fall back into where we began.

We let go of all the story about there needing to be a reason for feeling a certain way.

Sometimes feelings appear for no reason that we can fathom — so we don’t need to fathom it.

Sometimes feelings appear because we’re believing some thoughts that are generating those — but we don’t need to do anything about it. And in fact the less we do the more we stay out of the way of the system’s natural flow.

Like a little kid, we can experience one emotion and then another without any need to manage, control or change it. Without any need for there to be a reason outside of us.

That can sound scary. It used to scare me, the thought of becoming more emotionally changeable, like a child. But paradoxically, the more we see this is how it works, the more we get to experience the nice life we’d previously been trying to manufacture through control. The more we experience freedom and lightheartedness.

And from there, everything gets easier.

With love, Helen

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