How are things going in your life? You might answer these questions by pointing to either positive or negative circumstances going on in your life. Your ex blew up at you on the phone and threatened to take you back to court. Your kids were extra slow this morning, causing you to be late for work and your boss scolded you. Your bank account has less money than you thought.
These are just circumstances. Facts of our lives. In and of themselves they are neutral. Yes, neutral. It is not until we think a thought about them that we feel either a negative or positive emotion. How is this true? Let’s take the example of your ex. He’s angry on the phone, threatens to take you back to court. Do you feel fear? Frustration? Resentment? Rage?
Each of those feelings would stem from a different thought you have about this circumstance of him calling you on the phone and saying those words: “I can’t afford to keep going to court!” “He keeps doing this to purposely try and control me,” “I hate this man! He makes my light a nightmare”
Other thought could be “Oh, this is so typical…he’s trying to be a tough guy” and you feel contempt, but you wouldn’t be afraid. Or you might think “This is not how I want to handle conflict anymore” and you’d feel determined to demonstrate that you’re not going to engage with him on this basis anymore.
The circumstance is the same, but different thoughts create vastly different feelings (and generate different behaviors). Really understanding this concept brings more freedom into our emotional life as we recognize that there are multiple ways to think about any circumstance. Often our belief systems have convinced us that there is only reaction possible, but this is not true.
I just had a situation with my 17-year-old daughter; she accused me of lying to her when I had simply been mistaken about something I told her. In response to what she said I thought “She’s so rude!” and felt angry. In the past I would have ruminated on that thought and been angry the entire day. Today, I recognize that I don’t have to be consumed by anger: it doesn’t serve me or my goals for the day.
I’m free to choose other thoughts about this circumstance which create softer feelings such as “She’s totally stressed about work and this is how she behaves when she’s freaked out,” “she has a fiery personality, much like mine”, and “I trust that she will outgrow type of behavior”. I may toggle back and forth between the original thought and a new thought, but ultimately I’ll arrive at a more peaceful place; later, I’ll be able to have a calm discussion with her about her behavior. (p.s. she apologized to me before I had to say a word).
This a fundamental aspect of how I coach: teaching clients the difference between circumstances and thoughts. Living from this standpoint makes all the difference in how we thrive regardless of the facts our lives.