Have you thought about where your emotions come from? If you are like most people, this is probably not something you spend a lot of time thinking about. When we experience emotions they just happen, they arise from somewhere within you depending on what is happening at that time. Often people will use the expression, ‘you make me…’ following by an emotive description. For example, ‘you make me so angry!’ But emotions are not something that someone gives to you or injects you with – ‘here, have some anger’ – this would certainly make relationships and business meetings more interesting! In truth the anger is within us, we are triggered by the actions of other people, but in the same situation, someone else could have felt a range of different emotions from amusement to pity.
Understanding where your emotions come from is important because if you want to manage your emotions better you need to grasp what is happening. I want to help you think about where emotions come from through the use of two different models that offer differing perspectives. I have found both of them helpful in different ways and in different circumstances.
The Iceberg Behaviour Model
© North Point Coaching Academy
The first is a model from North Point Coaching Academy, I use this a lot in coaching to help clients understand the root cause of their actions. Emotions (or feelings in this model) are just below the surface. They are the thing that precedes the action we take. Just below the feeling is the thought you have and below that are your beliefs and values. Everything below feelings is the answer to the question – where do our emotions come from? Let’s look at an example, we will start from the bottom up of the iceberg model. Let’s say that someone, we will call her Mary, has a core unchanging value of honesty. Mary holds a belief around honesty that if everyone is not 100% upfront with her, they cannot be trusted and are hiding something. Mary holds another belief around honesty that her family must always be honest with her in order to show her that they love her. Whether Mary consciously admits these beliefs or not they are still with her, hidden deep below the surface. These values and beliefs are deeply ingrained in Mary and impact how she approaches all of her interactions and relationships with family, friends and colleagues. Now, let’s say Mary is working on an important project at work. She is running close to the deadline and needs help, otherwise, she will let the team down. This project is important to the whole team and hitting these quarters targets depends on it, with this in mind she decides to ask her colleague Tim for help. She approaches Tim and explains the situation to him and asks for his help. Tim explains that he can’t help her because he is overloaded with a project for another manager. Mary thinks about this. She overheard Tim talking earlier about the competition of this project and is now considering if he is lying to her. Her instinct and the lack of eye contact he is giving her and the change in his tone tells her that he is. Her deep sense of importance she places on honesty makes her think that Tim is untrustworthy, disrespectful and definitely not a team player. She feels the anger growing inside of her and is ready to give Tim a piece of her mind.
The emotion of anger has come from the deeply held value of honesty, an embedded belief about that value and an interpretation of an event based on that belief.
Given all of this then, do we really have a choice about how we feel. There are a couple of moments things could have gone differently for Mary.
- Change the Belief. Mary could have, with self-awareness and reflection before the event has realised that she had these strongly held beliefs and decided to change them. She could have chosen a new belief such as – ‘Sometimes people are not honest with me to protect themselves’ or ‘I can have a successful working relationship with people even if they are not 100% honest’. Holding these new beliefs would lead to a different thought which leads to a different emotion and would have led to a different action and outcome.
- Challenge the Assumption. Another way to change the emotion is to catch yourself at the thought stage and recognise when you are having a potentially unhelpful thought. Mary could have no understanding of her current beliefs and simply notice the situation playing out, observe her thoughts and recognise that she is making some, potentially untrue, assumptions. Mary thinks she is been lied to but has no evidence of this. If she continues down the current path, she will likely accuse Tim of lying or bending the truth and he will become defensive. Even if the issue is resolved there is increased tension between Mary and Tim. Instead, Mary can question her own thoughts. ‘Did I hear him talking about this project or a different on earlier’, ‘Could what Time is saying be true’, ‘Could it be that Time is lying to me but his intentions are good’, ‘Is there something I don’t know?’. All of these new thoughts could lead to a different emotion, action and result.
The ‘State’ Model
The second model to help explain where emotions come from is from Tony Robbins. Robbins says that the source of emotions come from three things:
- Focus – what are you choosing to focus on in any one moment
- Language – what words do you use
- Physiology – how you use your body
Let’s start with physiology. I have written about this topic before in a blog Emotions and Body Language. Essentially this says that what you do with your body and face has an impact on how you feel. So, if you want to feel confident, put your shoulders back, head up and smile. If you want to be happy, start smiling more. As you shift your body you will start to experience these positive emotions and you will also start a positive reinforcement loop with people around you. (For example, try smiling at people as you go about your work today, people will start to smile back, they will be more positive with you and this will build feelings of happiness).
You might think this is nonsense but regardless you can choose to walk around looking dejected and, in a grump, or you can choose to look confident and happy. I know which works best for me.
Language is the meaning you give to events through the words that you choose. Words have impact, choose them carefully. The words that others use impact us and we also influence ourselves through the words we choose. If someone messes up at work and speaking in confidence to a colleague you say – Tareq has destroyed the project, he is such an idiot! Destroyed and Idiot are strong words that are going to make you feel more annoyed about the situation. Changing your perspective and using more accurate words to describe the situation can help manage your emotions. So, the sentence might now be – Tareq missed our critical information in the order and now the delivery is wrong, he has made a massive mistake. The second sentence is more of an objective statement about what has happened and doesn’t exaggerate the situation with sweeping generalizations and judgements. Watch for language where you use words like, always, never, he is, she is, they are. This is usually a sign that you are generalising and stoking your negative emotion. Instead take an objective look at what happened and say what you see.
Focus is where you choose to focus your attention. There are thousands of things competing for your attention at any one time. In the example above, we are focussing on the mistake Tareq made. It dominates our thoughts and we keep replaying it in our mind. There are hundreds of other things we could focus on instead. For example, ‘Tareq has done great work in the past and is a valuable member of the team; The order can be corrected at a small cost; We are all under pressure and mistakes are bound to happen, I have made a similar mistake before!’ None of these thoughts change the reality of the situation but they do allow us to see a different perspective, experience a more enjoyable emption and think about action plans to resolve the situation. It is hard to problem solve when you are stewing in anger!
Although different there are similarities between these two models. Robbins doesn’t explore the deep root cause of the emotions he more focuses on the here and now. The North Point model focuses more on the often-hidden values and beliefs that drive emotions.
What they have in common is that both models give you the power to choose a different path. And critical in both is the stories we tell about ourselves, others or a situation. Start to notice the thoughts you have and challenge and question them, are they true? Could I take a different perspective? Challenge yourself to find a different narrative that will lead to a different emotion.
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