The way human beings experience emotion makes it seem like the feelings are about someone or something else.
Like, it would be normal to think or say that your partner made you angry. Right?
It might take a couple of mental cartwheels and somersaults to get your head around this. But you will get it.
Marshall Rosenberg, Ph.D, author of Nonviolent Communication, explains this really clearly:
“what other people say and do might be the stimulus, but never the cause, of our feelings”.
See how that works? What other people say or do can INITIATE an emotional experience inside you, but the actual cause is how you make sense of it. And how you make sense of it, is about…YOU.
Let’s look at an example. This is real.
I hate when people are early. I know. That seems insane.
I feel a wave of anxiety and pressure because I think they want something from me. To be there now (when I’m still on my way). To bring them into my office when I need to eat a snack between sessions or return a phone call or text message.
In reality, sometimes people are early because they treat themselves nicely enough to not rush everywhere (better than I treat myself most of the time). Sometimes people are early because they are responsible. Sometimes people are early because that is how they grew up: early is on time, on time is late. Sometimes people are early for reasons I don’t even know.
So, someone is early. I have about 50 things I need to do in 90 seconds.
They are not the cause of my feelings. The cause of my feelings is me.
I am the one thinking people expect something from me when they are early. I am also the one living my life so that those 90 seconds to get 50 things done is crucial. They might be totally fine catching up on emails or social media in the waiting room.
See what I mean?
Ok, now that you see, let’s get on with the 3 Reasons You Need to Know Your Feelings Are About You:
I know that seems like a bad word. But, consider that if your feelings are about you, then you have more control over how things go. Like, if you were actually walking around in the world and any person or any circumstance had the power to make you feel anything, you would be like a kite in the wind. The wind changes direction, there you are with it. No choice. I don’t think you would appreciate that very much. How would you ever triumph over big challenges? You would just be a victim of everything going on around you all the time.
There is an idea in the spiritual world about a monk meditating on a mountain not being very evolved. The question is: how is he when he comes down off the mountain and interacts in the world? Interacting in the world, getting close to other people, tends to bring up your stuff.
Yup, early people bring up the fact that I’m not treating myself very well by rushing and being overly busy. Which begs the question: do I need to be treating myself this way? How much damage am I causing my telomeres (and therefore shortening my lifespan) being so stressed? It also brings up how I may be misperceiving what other people are expecting of me. Maybe more than I would like to admit. And, that is causing me stress for literally NO REASON.
So, the fact that your feelings are about you, essentially helps you work through your issues faster. This reason is my favorite because I’m a nerd like that.
Getting What You Want
So, if your feelings are about you, that means that your feelings are revealing when needs are being met or not met. Maybe there is a need that is not being met you didn’t even know you had.
If you just get mad at your partner because they are not acknowledging you for emptying the dishwasher for the last 40 days in a row, they probably won’t be acknowledging you any time soon. They are mostly going to be pissed at you for being pissed at them.
If you realize that heat rising in your body and you realize your anger is because you wanted to be acknowledged (need not being met), you have a higher chance of being able to say (with some vulnerability): “You know what, I was starting to get grouchy over there because I realized I wanted you to throw me a parade and put a wonder woman crown on my head for emptying the dishwasher. If you just give me a kiss and say ‘thanks, babe’, that’ll be good enough for now”.
And there you go. You saved yourself a Cold War that might steal your love, sex and enjoyment in life with your partner. Or a screaming match over bullshit because you accidentally thought your anger was about your partner when it was actually about the fact that you do need acknowledgement (it’s OK, we all do).
The next level of “getting it” will be to figure out how your feelings are about you the next time you are actually pissed off with your partner. That is advanced.
Pro tip: Don’t try to do this puzzle as a way to bypass your anger. That will backfire.
Depending on how mad you are, you probably need vent this off. Send 500 knife emojis to your best friend. Imagine the cartoon knock out scene in your head. Don’t wallow in it or hold a grudge. Don’t freak out at your partner. But, also, don’t stuff it.
After you feel the relief of the anger lifting, that is when your head is back on straight. Then think about how your feelings are about you.