Emotions: Do You Have a Choice?

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Anger, fear, sadness, hopelessness, joy, hope, gratitude, back to anger, fear, and sadness, in no particular order and sometimes all together, at once. When your relationship is in trouble, you’re on an emotional roller coaster. Let’s take a step away and look at what emotions are and what, if anything, we can do about them.

The way you might talk about emotions reveals a misconception of how they work.

You may say something like, “He makes me mad when he acts like a dick.” As if the author of your emotion is him, in the way he acted. You had no choice but to be mad. He was the only one with a choice; he didn’t need to act like a dick.

If you believe emotion works like that, the solution seems simple. He has to stop being a dick, then you can stop being mad. But it’s not so simple. You can’t get him to stop being a dick. You believe that, by telling him off, you’ll make him feel guilty. When he doesn’t feel guilty, you think there’s something wrong with him; but there’s not. There’s something wrong with your theory.

You go to see a therapist. If this is someone who specializes in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), she listens to your story and patiently explains, sorry, you’re missing a step. Sure, maybe he’s acting like a dick; but he didn’t make you mad. You made yourself mad. You had a choice in the matter. You’re the author of your feelings.

“How do I have a choice?” you ask. “I don’t want to be mad.”

She asks you, “When you say is being a dick, what is he doing?”

“He’s always correcting me in front of others. Then, when he’s wrong, he never admits it.”

“That can be annoying. If you couldn’t call it being a dick, if that expression was banned for some reason, what else would you call it?” She’s looking for other interpretations of his behavior.

“He’s being disrespectful,” you say, getting more angry.

“What else?”

“He’s trying to make me look stupid.” Getting even more angry.

“If that were true, if you’re in a relationship with someone who tried to make you feel stupid, how would you feel?”

“I’d feel stupid, like I didn’t see it coming.”

“Well, you don’t seem stupid. Is there a another explanation?”

“He’s acts like an English teacher, correcting my grammar all the time. Of course, he is an English teacher, that’s what he does for a living, but he’s not my English teacher.”

“If he were to correct you in public and you said to yourself, there he goes, being an English teacher, would it make you as mad as if you thought he’s being a dick, or disrespectful, or trying to make you look stupid?”

“No, I guess not. It’s still annoying, but I guess I’d just roll my eyes and say, there he goes again, I guess he can’t stop himself. Then, I guess he can’t admit he’s wrong ’cause he has this reputation of being an English teacher to hold up.”

The idea implicit in CBT is that you can make yourself feel all sorts of things, depending on how you interpret an event. If you end up feeling angry or stupid, you interpreted the event in such a way that made you feel angry or stupid; but it could have been interpreted another way, a way that helped you understand, perhaps, or a way in which you could be patient.

Similarly, your boyfriend has a choice about how he feels; he can feel guilty when you’re angry, like you want, or he can interpret your anger another way. He can say you’re just being a bitch and not take your complaints seriously.

The ideas behind CBT are really nothing new. It’s based on an ancient Roman philosophy called Stoicism. These ideas have been around for a long time because they work 90% of the time. Most minor emotional storms can be quieted this way, simply by re-interpreting the precipitating event. If you’re angry all the time, about every little thing, or if you cry all the time, or if you’re always feeling hurt, then CBT or stoicism, is a great idea, so you’re not constantly buffeted about by your emotions. Take charge of your emotions so they don’t take charge of you.

However, CBT, or stoicism, is one thing when you believe a stranger, or distant associate, has done something to you; it may be less appropriate when the offender is close to you. If you’re on the bus and someone steps on your foot, it makes sense to give the person the benefit of the doubt and assume they meant no harm. If you were to go off on them, you’d be the one out of control. But, when someone close to you does something that bothers you, it matters more because they’re in a position to do it again. You have to address problems promptly before they get out of control. Therefore, if your boyfriend is being a dick, then it’s important to say something because he might persist in his dickishness if he doesn’t know it bothers you.

This doesn’t mean you should complain all the time, about every little thing. There are good and bad times to bring up stuff and good and bad ways to bring it up. Here’s where stoicism is a good idea, even if you can’t be a complete stoic. It can help you calm your emotional storm till you get a chance to have a discussion with your boyfriend about how he corrects you in public, then it can help you have that discussion without turning it into an attack.

There’s another situation where CBT doesn’t help; in fact, it’s useless when you need it most: when the emotional storm has risen to a category five.

The following week, you have another appointment with your therapist. You sit down and immediately start to cry. Your boyfriend, the guy who you thought was a dick, died yesterday; he got in a car accident and was killed. You’re beside yourself with grief, feeling guilty that you ever were angry, then angry at the guy who hit him, then scared about dealing with this alone.

No therapist, even a CBT therapist, would ever say you have a choice not to feel those things. It sucks that your boyfriend died; there’s no two ways about it. There are a few ancient stoics who say it shouldn’t matter when someone close to you dies, they say we shouldn’t get close to anyone; but we can’t take them seriously. In acute loss, you definitely feel you’re in the grip of something you can’t control no matter how hard you try to manage it.

Thoughts and emotions are often conceived as being in opposition to one another. Emotions, are urgent and hot, while rationality is cold and calculating. Strong emotions take you over. At such times, rationality can’t touch them. If emotions are subservient to such cognitive operations as interpretation and judgment; if they are something you can chose or shape, then why do you suffer and lose yourself when you are in their grip? Why can’t you handle them?

I’ll tell you why. You can conceive of emotions, not as in opposition to thought, but as old, foundational thoughts and decisions, upon which everything thing else is built. Take fear, for instance. If someone lets a tiger loose in a room in which you are sitting, you’re going to feel fear, hopefully not disabling fear, but fear that motivates you to arise out of your chair and run away. You don’t want to have to think about it; you want to act first and ask questions later. Fear is there to take over the relatively slow way you normally make decisions and to make decisions for you; not because fear is an irrational force, but because it is acting on instructions necessitated by a prior, foundational decision. A long time ago you decided it was better to remain alive.

You may not remember deciding to remain alive, but that doesn’t mean you haven’t done it. We call self preservation instinctual, meaning, I think, that we were born with this decision written in our software. Maybe, but it’s a decision that can be countermanded any time we choose, and many do; it’s called suicide. Anytime you elect to remain alive, rather than commit suicide, you are reinforcing the decision to remain alive; you also do it when you chose to pay attention while you are driving, rather than allow yourself to drift into the oncoming lane.

Love also is a decision. Yes, you may have been swept off your feet and fell in love, but it’s not like you didn’t have any choice in the matter; you decided to go for it. Additionally, you already committed yourself to grieving when you chose to love. Grief was hidden in the fine print. You can’t value someone without feeling terrible when he is gone.

There are other terms and conditions you also signed on to when you chose to love. You agreed to forgive. You can’t be adding up all the good and bad points about your partner, or parent, or child, according to how you feel every day. Everyone has their bad days; we love them, no matter how annoying they can be. You would want him to forgive you, so, to be fair, you forgive him.

I’m not saying you have to put up with everything. I’m not saying you have to tolerate abuse or even persistent dickish behavior. All I’m saying is that’s why divorce is so hard. It’s supposed to be hard. Choosing to sever the bonds of love is like digging up the foundation of an old house and re-laying the stone to create a new footprint. You can do it, but it”s not something to take lightly, even if you could.