I was talking to a client last week who was feeling a lot of anxiety and stress around the notion of being successful. We both knew that it was nothing to do with her external circumstances. She told me she’d been round the block enough times to know that reaching a goal wasn’t going to make her feel better — she’d done the “I’ll be happy when…” about her weight, about money, about relationships, and she knew that there was no such thing as ‘when’.
It was the same with business. The reality was that her revenue tripled last year, and was on track to triple again in 2017. Yet she felt constantly anxious around money and success. What was going on?
In the course of the conversation, she remarked that she had read this phrase in a book the previous day,
Emotions Are Information
Even though she knew the feeling she was looking for wasn’t going to be found in the success she craved, she also, at some level, believed that the emotions she was experiencing were telling her something important. She just didn’t know what.
We explored this. It’s something I have a particular perspective on, and the way I see things can have remarkable results when my clients see it, too.
Some people believe their emotions are triggered by things that happen to them; but given that we can feel differently about the same experience on different occasions, or that different people can experience the same event in different ways, I don’t see how this can be true.
What my client saw (and I see, too) is that our emotions are created from the thoughts that flow through our head. As those thoughts change, so the feelings we experience change with them
We both also believed it to be true that what we think in any moment is pretty random — thoughts ‘happen to us’ was the way my client expressed it.
If we don’t have control over the thoughts we experience, we don’t have control over the emotions that accompany them. In any moment we can be struck by the humour in something, or we can experience a wave of sadness and nostalgia (seemingly) out of nowhere.
What then are those ‘randomly generated’ emotions telling us? Or, indeed, are they telling us anything at all?
Information About What?
That same day I had the conversation with my client, I read an article about the power of our brain to create a made-up reality. We confabulate — meaning we create explanations that have no basis in reality.
As humans, our brains are driven to want to explain things. But, we create those explanations from what we think we see, rather than what is actually true; thus manufacturing a causality that doesn’t exist.
The neuroscientists I was reading about demonstrated this with patients who had a severed connection between their left and right brain hemispheres. The patients were shown unrelated images through one eye at a time, and, then they were asked to pick related images from a selection in front of them.
Because of the severed brain, their two hands went to different images from the image cards in front of them. The respective cards picked out were connected with the image that each eye had been shown, but the two cards chosen had no relationship with each other.
When asked to explain why they had picked out these cards, the patients came up with a very plausible, but completely untrue, explanation. We, of course — and those smart scientists — knew what had really triggered the choices because we could see what the patients did not know they had seen.
Life Is an Incomplete Projection
What if life’s like that most, or even all, of the time? What if we walk around manufacturing explanations between events and experiences that aren’t connected, while we walk around blind to connections we can’t see?
Wouldn’t that mean that most of what we tell ourselves — most of what we think — comes from stories? It’s what happens, after all, when we justify an expensive purchase, or we link our partner’s bad mood to something we did or didn’t do. The reality is usually very different from the story we make up.
If we live in a self-generated reality, where what we think doesn’t come from the things we experience, but what we make up, why then, do we expend so much energy trying to make those stories mean something?
We Don’t Need to Believe Our Stories
Like all good fiction, the stories we tell ourselves come from our imagination. We could, I guess, make an argument that they’re based on some prior experience, or on a projected (i.e., imagined) future reality. Either way they’re still made-up — as in the neuroscience experiment.
The evidence is unwavering — our brains seek to explain things whether there is an explanation or not, ergo, the brain — and the thoughts that pass through it — are untrustworthy guardians of ‘the truth’.
For my client, the only thing her emotions were telling her was that she had an imagination; that she was human; and that her brain function was as normal as the next person’s.
Now, I don’t want to trivialise her experience. She really did feel anxious, and I can empathise because I have similar feelings from time to time: “Have I done a good job with a client, will my programme sell, will I be able to support my child through a tough year at school, what if X happens…?” and so on.
I know enough, however, about the human experience and how the mind works to know that these thoughts, and therefore the feelings they generate, have little or no connection to my reality. Which means I don’t need to waste time and energy paying attention to them.
AND — and this is the important point — I don’t act from those feelings. They are as unreal as a puff of smoke and they can (and will) disappear in an instant.
Here’s Why This Is Good News!
“What is real then?” you may be asking. “If I can’t believe my emotions, how do I know what action to take?”
Our best actions come from choices we make when we are clear-headed. If my client’s bank balance had been declining, and if this was a problem for her lifestyle (not a given, by the way), she could have chosen to do something about it — whatever that might look like.
But, since her emotions didn’t reflect her reality, she didn’t need to do anything at all — and here’s the good news part — she could continue to do the work that inspired her, that made a real difference to the people she was interacting with, and that were contributing to a better world. No need to distract herself fighting imaginary fires!
When You Look at It That Way…
As soon as we can see that our emotions are not giving us any information other than we are human, we will find our experience changes. What feel in any moment — good or bad — becomes less important. And, if we don’t pander to our emotions, they naturally fade into the background.
That’s true for every single one of us. We feel what we feel deeply, but we don’t need to try to control those feelings, or the thoughts that create them. There is no need to meditate or do breathing exercises or mindfulness. Our thoughts pass of their own accord; and they pass more quickly– and this is our secret weapon — the less attention we pay to them.
This idea, that our thoughts don’t mean what we think they mean, might be a new idea for you — as it was for my client that day — and I’d love to invite you to experiment with it. Maybe you could try on the notion that the feelings you experience are not a valid indicator of reality. The only thing that is true about them — and the information they are giving you — is that you are having a perfectly natural human experience.
If you’re willing to experiment, then go and enjoy your human experience this week, whatever it feels like!