Taking Responsibility for Your Emotional Reactions

I was reminded this past week that I am responsible for my emotional reactions – and not for anyone else’s reactions. Typically, when we experience a negative emotional reaction towards someone else, our first inclination is to blame the other person. “When he said ‘such-and-such,’ he hurt my feelings.” We see our hurt feelings as the other person’s fault, and we believe we need to prevent him from repeating his hurtful behavior or else try to avoid him in the future. Although it may feel as though the other person “caused” your emotional reaction, the truth is that your reaction arises from a preconditioned sensitivity to certain stimuli. Certain kinds of scenarios trigger you. This is most evident in situations where you find yourself upset by someone else’s behavior while others who are present are not bothered by that same behavior. Each of us has our own unique, built-in “hot buttons.” A favorite expression of mine is “Your family can press your hot buttons better than anyone else because they created them.” You developed many of your emotional sensitivities during your formative years. And you have inadvertently strengthened those sensitivities every time you’ve reacted to your hot button issues. In this way, certain mental patterns become entrenched. If, for example, I become upset when someone doesn’t thank me for a gift, I have reinforced my emotional sensitivity to behaviors that I perceive as bad manners. Mindfulness practice can be invaluable in dealing with your hot button sensitivities. If you find yourself triggered by someone else’s behavior, try taking these steps: 1. Take responsibility for your negative reaction. This is your own emotional response. It is not someone else’s fault that you are sensitive to particular behaviors. You have a habitual mental pattern that arises when you perceive and interpret certain situations in a negative light. 2. Name the emotional reaction you’re experiencing – fear, anger, hurt, shame, etc. 3. Drop the blaming storyline. Your mind will want cast the other person as the perpetrator and yourself as the victim. Poor you. If So-and-So hadn’t done such-and-such, I wouldn’t be feeling so … blah blah blah. Do your best to drop this drama-trauma storyline. 4. Rein in the desire to blame the other or defend yourself self-righteously. 5. Take the time to feel and then investigate your emotions. 6. Identify your hot button. After you’ve done the work of feeling your emotional reactions and then identifying your hot buttons, you can look forward to three improvements: 1. You’ll recognize your old friend, Hot Button Issue #123, and therefore be less apt to project your emotions onto the offending party. 2. You’ll remember to take responsibility for and care of your...

Read more »

Doubting Mind

After being awoken at 4:30 this morning by a bad case of ruminating doubt, I was reminded of how unpleasant and difficult doubt can be! Unfortunately, most of us do not see doubt as doubt per se, but instead we experience it as an objective assessment of reality. As a result, we swallow—hook, line, and sinker—the lies our doubting mind tells us. The first and most important step in handling doubt is recognizing it for what it is. Here are some examples of thought streams indicating that your mind may be stuck in doubting: Doubts about Yourself You’re unable to make a decision. You obsess over current circumstances, such as, “Oh no, I owe money to…” and are filled with anxiety. You replay some recent incident and then envision a potentially unpleasant outcome. You rehash a negative incident and are harshly critical of your own part in it. You mentally jump from one concern to another in a worry-wind tornado. You pass judgment on yourself as not “likeable” or “up to the task” or “good enough” or “smart enough” or “inadequate” in some other way. You feel the need to reach out to someone else for reassurance. You feel an unexplainable internal panic. You escape being “you” by pretending to be someone else. You engage in addictive behavior to camouflage feeling badly about yourself. You feel overwhelmed. Doubts about Others You worry about someone else’s choices or actions. You rehash an unpleasant interaction with someone else. You feel apprehensive and uncertain about how to approach or speak to someone. You gossip about somebody else. You feel inadequate and perhaps hopeless about effecting positive change in an interpersonal situation. Once you’re able to recognize doubt as a mental state—doubting mind—it’s important to discern the origin of doubt. Does the doubt spring from wisdom or insecurity? If its origin is wisdom, you will most likely experience it as a sage-like inner voice, coming from a place of stillness and unharried, intuitive certainty. This is the doubt to heed, for it arises from a realistic assessment of circumstances and guides you to avoid a negative outcome. But if you experience the doubt as an inner yapping laced with fear or insecurity, recognize that your inner “Doubting Thomas” is weaving stories that you do not need to believe. This sort of doubt is simply a manifestation of fear, and your inner voice of doom and gloom most likely doesn’t have an objective apprehension of reality. In these cases, doubt the “doubt.” If you recognize your doubt as fear-based, but it still won’t loosen its stranglehold on you, there are steps you can take to work with your doubt: Bring mindful attention to the...

Read more »

Becoming Embodied

Are you one of those rare humans who consciously reside within their bodies? Or are you more like the majority of folks—disembodied? In my previous article, “Coming Home to Your Body,” I discussed how to begin the process of returning to your body. The first step involves bringing mindful awareness to your beliefs, biases, and preoccupations with your body image. Along with this mindful awareness, it’s important to cultivate compassion for your body and for the psychological pain caused by any “negative body talk.” I also suggested that you intentionally practice feeling gratitude and appreciation for the wonder of life made possible by the miraculous gift of your body. Continue these practices daily to rewire old disembodied thinking patterns. Now, it is time to intentionally come home to your body. What does that mean? It essentially means that you bring regular awareness to your body’s sensations, energy levels, moods, and needs. You may think you are already doing this, but think again. Most of us readily notice our bodies if we are experiencing aches, pains, or any discomfort. But we seldom pay attention in the absence of physical distress. Guess what? It’s equally important to tune in to your body in good times and bad. Ideally you will maintain body awareness most of the time. How can you do this? Take regular time-outs throughout your day and do the following: Stop whatever you’re doing. Sit or stand in stillness. Check in with your body’s breathing. Are you breathing deeply into your lungs, engaging your abdomen? Or is your breathing shallow? You may even discover on occasion that you’ve been holding your breath for several seconds at a time. If so, take a few deep, restorative breaths and try to remain more closely attuned to your breath. Next, expand your awareness to the rest of your body: How does your body feel overall? What is your energy level? (For example, energetic, fatigued, anxious, lethargic, weak, or just right?) What specific sensations are arising and passing through your body moment by moment? It can be helpful to name bodily sensations as you notice them. Examples would be throbbing, tingling, tickling, stabbing, coolness, warmth, moisture, numbness, pulsating, rippling, pressure, piercing, and shooting. Now notice your reactions to the various sensations: Do you find a particular sensation pleasant? Unpleasant? Neutral? How are you responding to each sensation? If a sensation is unpleasant, do you resist it and try to push it away? Or are you able to allow its presence in your body? Are you noticing or ignoring neutral sensations? How are you responding to pleasant sensations? Lastly, open your awareness to your body’s signals. Can you sense what your body needs right...

Read more »

Coming Home to Your Body

I have noticed a phenomenon among a majority of the people who come to me for meditation and/or spiritual counseling: they are disembodied. They clearly are not connected with their bodies—mentally, emotionally, or even physically. Our culture is absolutely obsessed with body image and particularly with bodies that are youthful, slim, sexy, and with pleasant symmetrical features. You can see our cultural obsession everywhere. Perfect bodies appear on television, in movies, on billboards, and in marketing messages. Think Brad Pit or Angelina Jolie. Once in a great while the media may offer up a quirky fictional character portrayed by someone with less than perfect features. But most of our successful film actors, newscasters, and performers could easily win beauty contests. Due to this cultural barrage, we ourselves have become preoccupied with body image and appearance. We constantly compare and size up our own and everyone else’s bodies to see who makes the cut. Who has the better looking body? Clothes? Hair? Skin? Teeth? The list is endless. And who of us can live up to these ideals? Even if you have a near-perfect, beautiful body, you will sooner or later meet others who are equally, if not more, gorgeous! You just can NOT win. As a consequence, many of us judge our bodies as inadequate. We view our bodies as somehow failing us. And as we age, it only gets worse. Our bodies sag and wrinkle. If we’re overly identified with body image, our insecurity about our bodies’ perceived failings may make us feel defective as human beings. Wow! Do you see the vicious cycle? We are obsessed with a body image we can never live up to. This is an insidious and very painful loop to be stuck in. As a martial arts instructor, I taught my students to use the mirrors on the wall to view the correctness of their form and technique. One of my adult female students was so traumatized by her perceived physical flaws that she burst out crying at the mere thought of looking at herself in the mirror! She told me that at home she purposely hung her mirrors high enough so that she wouldn’t have to look at herself. Sadly, this student was not alone in her distress. Many other adult students communicated their unease with looking at their mirrored images. To begin freeing yourself of unrealistic beliefs about body image, bring mindful awareness to all thoughts you have about your body, others’ bodies, and body image in general. Challenge these thoughts. Are you subscribing to the belief that physical beauty implies youth, slenderness, and a similarity to the iconic, airbrushed models in media? If so, remind yourself that beauty comes...

Read more »

Are You Mindfully or Mindlessly Tired?

We live in a go-go-go society. It often feels like our work is never done and that something is always demanding our attention. Surrounded by all this clamor and stress, no wonder we feel tired! Actually, as long as you have a body, you will experience fatigue. Tiredness happens. But you will either be mindfully or mindlessly tired! You should prefer to be mindfully tired. Why? Because mindless fatigue can easily lead to negative repercussions like these: Grumpiness which you may take out on others Cravings for unhealthy foods or addictive substances to boost your low energy levels Feelings of depression or, at the very least, of complacency Habitual patterns of vegging-out or avoiding the world Repetitious and intensely negative thinking patterns When we are mindfully tired, we may still experience difficulties like those listed above. But when we shine mindful awareness on our tired thoughts, feelings, and urges, they remove themselves from center stage and do not bother us to the same degree. With mindful awareness, issues of fatigue either dissipate or else we gain insight into them. Try to monitor your energy level periodically throughout the day. Do this especially when everything seems to be harder than usual. Check in with your body – does it feel heavy, sluggish, or slow? Check in with your mind – does it feel foggy or dull? Check in with your emotions – do they feel heavy, dark, or lifeless? If any of these signs are present, you are most experiencing fatigue on a physical plane, mental plane, emotional plane, or on multiple planes. If you recognize that you’re tired, bring your awareness to all the sensations of fatigue. Do not wish these sensations away. Accept them. Allow your mindful awareness to illuminate your present experience, mentally noting the sensations you encounter (heavy, dark, slow, thick, foggy, etc.). Sometimes, fatigue will lift almost immediately with mindful awareness. If not, stay present with the sensations of fatigue. Remaining present makes your mind a fertile field from which insight can bloom. Sometimes insights arise in the shape of an intuitive thought, feeling, or internal voice that presents you with a nugget of wisdom. For example… You just need a short nap or a good night’s sleep. You need to stop trying to force some situation to happen. It’s time to let yourself off the hook and stop expecting so much from yourself. Your body is needing exercise. You are being worn down by external negative influences (which you may have chosen or allowed). Your mind/body could benefit from a positive change of environment. Your body is crying out for healthy food. You need a break – a day off, weekend off, or even...

Read more »