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. Here I explore 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 teaches us that it’s not OK to feel what we’re feeling and it teaches us to blame objects and people as causal.

It trains us away from the fact that emotions come and go, with no reason at all, they are just energy in motion and that they’ll go all the quicker if we leave them alone and don’t tangle them up in our stories.

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.

And so begins an experience of seeking what we think brings happiness and resisting what we think bring difficulty.

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 behave in certain ways. 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 generated 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 or that it’s OK to be imperfect. 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.

Then we start to get dubious about all this. It doesn’t seem to be working. Or it’s REALLY exhausting trying to stay on the ‘right’ side of all this.

What’s really going on

No ‘thing’ outside of us can cause us to feel anything. It’s impossible. They’re neutral.

We haven’t been experiencing a world, we’ve been experiencing our thoughts about a world.

The more we explore this simple truth, the more we fall back into where we began.

We see all the stories that have been collected and that it is them that are creating our experience. We’re not experiencing the emotion itself, but what we think about it. The layers of stories have changed a pure emotion into a tangled, confused, contaminated feeling.

Like a little kid, we can experience one pure 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.

This 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 life we’ve been trying to manufacture through control. The more we experience this, the more we are the freedom and happiness we’ve been seeking.

How do we do this?

The mind will always jump in at this point saying ‘I want this, I need this, how do I get this?’ But it’s that very activity of mind that hides what it’s looking for.

In our misunderstanding that we have a job to do in figuring this out we hold the whole thing in place.

The only thing I’ll invite you to do is get curious, and notice.

Notice where the story doesn’t hold true.

Notice when something that would normally bother you and doesn’t cause a problem, and vice versa, notice when something that wouldn’t normally be an issue seems a big deal.

Expand your horizons, be a detective, look for the counter evidence.

That’s the beginning of the shift.

With love, Helen

I work with disillusioned leaders. Disillusioned about their career, about their leadership development till now, or about their life. I work from the level of the human experience system — guiding clients to insights about the mechanics of the how the system works, for sustained change and lasting clarity. Find out more here.

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