Why does he make me feel this way?
What was going through my mother’s head when said such hurtful things to me?
Can’t my boss tell that his words cut me down and make me feel so small?
These are examples of our thinking sometimes when we feel hurt, ashamed, or angry – that the other person or some external event is making us feel the way we do. But is it? Can someone else make us feel a certain way? Can an event in our life directly cause us to feel a specific way?
Michael Edelstein, in his book Three Minute Therapy, argues the line of cognitive-behaviorists and rational emotive therapists have argued for decades. External events and people cannot make us feel any one certain way, even though it often seems that way.
We enter into every situation with certain beliefs or expectations. Those beliefs and expectations directly influence the way we are going to end up feeling about the event or person. Here’s an example Dr. Edelstein provides from Chapter 1 of his book:
Suppose a hundred airplane passengers are unexpectedly given parachutes and instructed to jump from the plane. If a physical situation alone could cause emotions, then all the hundred people would feel the same way. But obviously those who regard skydiving positively are going to have a [reaction] very different from the others.
In other words, our beliefs and expectations about a person or event or situation directly influence and, many would argue, cause our feelings. They are not the result of or inherent in of the situation itself. Others do not cause our feelings — we cause them ourselves.
This turns out to be great news, because that means that we have control of our feelings, much like we have control over other choices we make in our life. That also means that psychotherapy that focuses on helping a person overcome their belief system that’s causing them so much pain or distress in their lives is short-term and more solution-focused.
Your feelings come from your thinking. This doesn’t mean that if you tell yourself everything is fine and you have no problems, then you will feel fine and your problems will disappear. [Rational emotive and cognitive behavioral methods do not] recommend “thinking positively,” telling yourself to cheer up, or fondly dwelling on comfortable images that everything is wonderful.
The advice glibly offered to emotional sufferers, such as “Worrying doesn’t do any good, so why worry?,” is usually of little help because the anxious person doesn’t know how to stop worrying. Such a person has a definite system of beliefs, which has become a fixed dogma, and which automatically generates distress. Without attacking and changing that system of beliefs, there will probably be little progress in reducing anxiety. But the sufferer doesn’t think much about the system of beliefs, doesn’t consider that the beliefs might be questionable, and doesn’t notice how the beliefs lead to counterproductive and self-destructive behavior.
To start on the path to healthy thought patterns, it’s first necessary to identify the sufferer’s system of beliefs. This isn’t a lengthy process of excavating “unconscious” memories. Usually a few minutes of asking simple questions will elicit a person’s faulty thinking.
Sound too good to be true? It’s really not. This is the foundation of most modern psychotherapy as practiced today (cognitive behavioral or rational emotive therapies). These concepts have been empirically tested in hundreds of research studies and shown to be effective in helping a person become empowered over their own beliefs, which directly influence their feelings.
So next time you’re feeling down about someone’s comment to you, or a situation that “made you” feel awful, consider that the pain and distress you are feeling is in your hands. And so is the solution.
Want to learn more? Check out Michael Edelstein’s book, Three Minute Therapy: Change Your Thinking, Change Your Life.