Most emotional pain is self-inflicted. People tend to unconsciously hurt themselves through destructive mental habits. With time, we can change these habits, and this can let us free ourselves of mental self-harm. Once we understand the cause of emotions and how we are creating them, we can change the mental patterns we have built.
Events Do Not Cause Emotions
How is emotional pain caused? At first glance, it’s obvious: shit happens, and it hurts you.
Except that’s not what happens. This misconception is a major cause of dysfunctional mental habits. It causes us to write off the origin of our emotions as unchangeable, and implies we must fight our emotions as the only chance of improving how we feel, which is one of the worst things for reducing emotional pain.
On closer inspection, we see a missing step.
- Something happens.
- We think about it.
- We react to the thoughts.
This sequence leads to most of the emotions we feel. This is important, because we can examine our thoughts and our reaction to them, and modify them over time.
Change Your Thoughts, Change Your Emotions
Perception of events often has nothing to do with reality. It filters through our current emotional state, what our mind deems important, and our worldview.
Men are disturbed, not by things, but by the principles and notions which they form concerning things. Death, for instance, is not terrible, else it would have appeared so to Socrates. But the terror consists in our notion of death that it is terrible. When therefore we are hindered, or disturbed, or grieved, let us never attribute it to others, but to ourselves; that is, to our own principles.
—The Enchiridion by Epictetus
Perception is subjective, and we can change it. Stoicism modifies our thinking so the negative emotions don’t happen in the first place.
This is something that is easier said than done. The way we view the world has cemented in our brain over our entire lives. But it is possible, and it can change your life.
The Vicious Cycle
For many people, vicious cycles create most emotional pain. We cause vicious cycles by reacting to emotions we already feel.
Thought creates emotion, but emotion also influences thought. Since emotions prime the brain to think a certain way, this can lead to an avalanche of negativity that lasts for days. Although this can happen from thoughts about subsequent events, vicious cycles usually happen when we turn on ourselves, as follows:
- You feel a certain way.
- Then you feel it is unacceptable to feel that way.
- And that you are weak for feeling it is unacceptable.
- Also that you are dysfunctional for calling yourself weak.
To escape a vicious cycle, do these three things:
- Notice the emotion.
- Give the emotion room to exist in your body.
- Do not fight or try to stop it.
Noticing the emotion prevents you from giving the emotion your identity and letting it take you over. When you can see the influence an emotion is having over you, that influence diminishes. On the other hand, not noticing or ignoring an emotion’s influence gives it more power over our thoughts and actions.
Allowing an emotion to be lets it run its course. The emotion may feel too painful, or like it will swallow you whole, but giving an emotion room to exist lets it subside and dissipate. Trying to keep an emotion at bay prevents it from leaving.
Fighting an emotion makes it grow. Once an emotion exists, it’s too late to stop it. When we try to cover up an emotion, we give it more room to influence our thoughts subconsciously. When we try to rationalize an emotion away, we invite the emotion to color our reasoning.