Here’s a question that creates a lot of different reactions! Are feelings a choice? Think about the last time you were really angry. How did you behave? Did you pout? Did you throw something? Did you punish the person you were upset with by ignoring them? What do you do with your feelings? This isn’t only about anger but about all normal human feelings.
After years of debate, I have come to the conclusion that we do NOT choose our feelings. What we choose is our reaction to our feelings. If I’m angry because someone takes something that belongs to me, I don’t have to choose anger, it just comes. If someone I love moves away; I may feel lonely without them whether I want to or not. I will miss them and I can’t control that. How I express my feelings is another matter. I not only CAN choose how I respond, but should do so slowly and carefully.
I used to tell my kids and even my employees to imagine that they have a file drawer full of cards that were filed by FEELINGS. If you flip to the section on Anger, you will find many cards to choose from. On the front of each card is a possible reaction to the feeling of Anger while the back of the card contained the consequence for the reaction. Imagine that you pull out a few cards to read and on them, you find some of these choices:
- Find the person who hurt me and settle it myself.
- Get revenge.
- Tell everyone how I was wronged.
- Let it go.
- Take it out on my family.
- Blame someone else.
- Ignore it.
If those were real choices, which would you say you might take if you were angry? Now imagine taking those possible reactions. What do you think the consequence might be for them? Let’s assume someone steals something from you and decide to get revenge. What bad consequences might you face? You can apply the same principle to all “feelings”. You aren’t a victim of your feelings unless you make a choice to be. Sadly, many people go through life reacting to their emotions without stopping to think of the consequences.
It’s not always easy to choose correctly when we’re overwhelmed with feelings, but we do in fact have the ability to choose our reaction if only we slow down long enough to process the options. Can you imagine what would happen to the crime statistics if people would learn to CHOOSE their reaction to their feelings rather than letting feelings dictate their actions? Road rage, child abuse and murders might all be a thing of the past if only we could pause and choose our reactions.
Here are some examples you might have heard about.
When Amber Hagerman was murdered, there is no doubt her family grieved and experienced anger. In the course of their outrage, they channeled their energy into making sure no other parent suffered the same loss. They became activists and created what we now know as “The Amber Alert”.
John Walsh became involved in fighting crime after his 6-year-old son, Adam, was murdered in 1981. He created the concept for a show that has been on television now for more than 15 years and has aided law enforcement in capturing thousands of criminals nationwide. It’s called “America’s Most Wanted”.
Here is another story and I will let you draw the conclusion on this one; the Goldman Family waited for years to get satisfaction against OJ Simpson for the murder of their beloved Ron. Perhaps you recently saw them on television when he was arrested and tried. In contrast to the example of the Walsh’ and Hagerman’s, how do you think the Goldman’s did in converting their anger into something positive?
So what about you? Do you slow down long enough to think about your reactions or do you blow up when things don’t work out like you want? When you feel sad, do you shut down? When you’re fearful, do you avoid things? Are you reactive or are you someone who “thinks” about your actions. Would you like having yourself as a spouse? A Parent? A boss? Do your reactions sometimes violate your own values? If you can control your reactions in certain settings and with certain people, you can control them all. It is a choice. If you are a walking breathing knee-jerk reaction always blowing up, shutting down or acting out, then you are emotionally immature and you can’t change it until you acknowledge it. There is no easy answer and you won’t always get it right, but if you begin to pay attention to how you react to your feelings, you can change your life and your relationships. Be quick to forgive, and slow to blow up. Take a breath, open the file cabinet in your mind and make an educated and calm choice about your reaction to your feelings. Drama queens and kings may like the attention they get by having volatile reactions but if you’re looking for a way to make your life drama-free, give it a try!