Friday, October 9, 2009

You Make Me Mad

"No one can make you feel something. You choose to feel that way." How many of us have heard this from a school teacher or parent?

"You create your own reality." Have you heard that one a lot? I have. I've heard it in the context of self-help discussions, discussions about mindfulness, and from more than a few psychologists.

I did my postdoctoral training in Dialectal Behavior Therapy. At the clinic where I worked, most of the clients who sought help did so because they were no longer able to continue life overwhelmed by their feelings and emotional reactions. Most of my clients were diagnosed with borderline personality disorder and specifically came to the clinic to receive some of the best DBT therapy that was provided in the area.

I heard many excellent psychologists and psychiatrists say that no one could make us feel something. The gist of this way of approaching emotions is the following: Another person can't open us up and make the complicated series of reactions that cause anger, fear, shame, guilt, or joy. Our feelings are on in the inside and we are responsible for our own feelings and emotional reactions. As one of my mentors would say, another individual might make the situation optimal for an individual to create a particular feeling.

I've said this over and over again to clients. Recently, I said it again only to stop, apologize, and say that this is just a bunch of poppycock. Yes, each of us are completely responsible for how we respond to our emotions. However, our emotional experience is not necessarily under our control at all.

When a driver cuts in front of me during in Boston traffic, my heart beats a little faster and my rate of breathing increases. I am having a physiological response that is out of my immediate control.

From a cognitive perspective, I interpret these physiological cues. I might worry that I might get into an accident (fear) or I might be annoyed at the offending drivers' sense of entitlement (anger). I have agency over my interpretations and thus the popular statements of "you create your own reality" and "no one can make you feel something."

At this level of iterpretation I do not disagree with these statements. I do expect myself to have a degree of agency over how decode my physiological cues.

I might have a variety of behaviors. Perhaps I might duck and start to cry in fear (not likely), or maybe I might issue some sort of special hand signal to express my annoyance (more likely). Again, I agree with the notion that no one can make me cry or make me use special hand signals. At this level of interpretation, I again expect myself to have a degree of agency over how I behaviorally respond to my decoding my physiological cues.

You might be saying "Wait just a minute Jason, you started this off by disagreeing with the notion that we create our own reality."

That's true, I do. It's because these statements contain an a major invalidation of our physiological responses. That initial quickening of our sympathetic nervous system happens without our consent or control. The driver cuts me off and my body responds. I don't make my sympathetic nervous system turn on, it is designed to turn itself on and protect me. While the driver who cuts me off doesn't not have direct control of it either, his/her actions are the stimulus that causes the whole chain of events to start: physiological response, decoding of physiological cues, interpretation of cues, behavioral response.

I try hard to never invalidate another person's experience. If you fall, I don't tell you it doesn't hurt. If you tell me you've fallen and share that you were told it wasn't supposed to hurt, I make it a point to underline the essential invalidation of your experience. It's kills our humanity, a little bit at a time, to invalidate our experiences like this.

Now don't get me wrong. If you've fallen and stubbed your toe, collapse to the ground, and hide in your house in fear for several weeks I'll have a few things to say: you very well may be having difficulty decoding your physiological cues and selecting effective behaviors.

I try very hard, however, to never tell you that it didn't hurt, wasn't important, or didn't happen at all.

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