Over the years, I have learned how much our thoughts control our feelings and, in turn, how much our feeling control our behaviors. There really is a sequence to the way our feeling develop and what the results of those feelings will be. I often find myself telling clients, “There is no such thing as emotions!” Then I wait for their reactions. My hope is that the client will challenge me, as obviously we all experience emotions. It’s the way we are wired.
My next step is to explain that this statement is incomplete. In reality, there really is no such thing as emotions … without though. All of our emotions are the result of how we think about a situation, in other words how we understand what we see, what we hear from others, how our brain translates the situation, etc. The way two people understand the same statement can result in their having very different feelings and reacting in very different ways.
An example of this phenomenon is the client who came into the office very upset. When exploring he origins of her feelings, she said that while she was on the way to the appointment, her boyfriend kept calling and asking where she was. An innocent enough question for one person can become very provocative to the next. When asked why that question bothered her so much, Sheryl answered that he called several times asking the same thing. Once again, “Why did that question bother you so much? In other words, what were you thinking that resulted in you being so angry with him?” Sheryl finally said that she thought he was being controlling and treating her like a child.
Those negative thoughts resulted in her getting angry, calling him names and hanging up on him while she was in the office waiting for her appointment. In other words, her negative understanding of the situation (thoughts) resulted in the negative feelings (anger), which, in turn, resulted in her calling him names and hanging up on him (actions).
This sequence is consistent in all our emotions. When something unpleasant happens to us (trigger), our brain immediately begins the thought process (evaluation and trying to understand based on our own life history), which promotes a feeling. Emotion leads to an action or behavior. Therefore, negative thoughts lead to negative feelings which lead to negative actions. This sequence of events is consistent in all our patterns of feelings and behaviors, whether a child, teen or adult.
Another life lesson I have shared with clients over the years is the concept of the “Anger Circle.” Some readers may remember a series on anger management I wrote in 2010 in which I reviewed the Regesh anger management program. Anger management has become a large part of our out-patient services for teens and adults.
Someone once asked me the following question: is there more anger nowadays or is it that people are more ready to work on their anger issues? Personally I believe it’s both. Quite some time ago I realized how contagious anger is. That is, when one perceives that another is angry with them, one will in turn become angry with the other person. Observe the interactions between those around you. When the parent is angry with a child, the child becomes angry with the parent. Usually, when that happens, the anger is not for the same reason. For example, the parent who is angry at the teen for coming home late finds the teen angry at him for effecting a curfew or for the way the anger is expressed – or possibly some other reason having nothing to do with the situation. Anger is contagious and a major component of anger management is not letting oneself get caught up in someone else’s anger circle.
I’ve come to realize that it is very hard to be a teenager today. There is so much stimulation, so many distractions and temptations that even the most stable individual will find it difficult to avoid that which needs to be avoided. Drugs are literally everywhere, sexual promiscuity has pretty much become the norm, and trust is evasive. It’s hard for teens to make good decisions because it can be difficult to know exactly what a decision is. There is much to consider and learn when it comes to right and wrong and with everything that is thrown at them, its no wonder many can’t function.
In fact, there are many adults who have fallen into the same lifestyle trap. No one teaches us how to problem solve, how to resolve conflicts and how to understand all the various feelings bombarding us. Think about it. Who taught you? Toronto’s mayor has become the butt of jokes because of his temper tantrums, his lies, his drinking and driving, his “drunken stupors” (his own description). And our children watch as this man stays on in his position of authority – though he has finally been stripped of most of his mayoral responsibilities. It would be perfectly normal for a teen to say, “If he can do heavy drugs and have ‘drunken stupors,’ why can’t I?” How do many times can a child hear, “Do as I say, not as I do?” This is an ongoing challenge we must confront if we want our children to become model citizens and family members.
Next, a major discovery: Tough love is alright as long as there is truly love in the formula. So many parents say to me they are kicking out their teen to show them tough love. What they really show is how tough they can be. But, where is the love? How do our children know we love them? Is there really unconditional love? One thing I have learned after running residential group homes for kids for so many years – it’s truly not a good place for kids to be. Don’t misunderstand me, some kids do need to be removed from the home, but it has to be with a major effort to reintegrate them. Kids deserve love, though sometimes adults get so angry they deny their love (if they even have it to give). When parents feel like victims of their kids, they get angry and rejecting. Nothing is wrong with being angry as it’s a true emotion. However, is the anger going to dictate your behavior? We need to be strong parents who are loving to reassure our children and teens that they can survive those terribly difficult years called “teen years”.
A major problem causing conflict and confusion in parent- child relationships is the destructive power of feelings of entitlement. What have we done to our children that make them grow up feeling so entitled? What has happened to our world where everybody truly believes that they are entitled to anything and everything they want? This destructive nature is all around us. Kids of all ages feel that they are entitled to whatever they want. This narcissistic belief system has become so destructive in families. Therapists in the past used to tell clients to use the “I” word. Now the world has become a place where “it’s all about me”. We therapists and parents alike have a major challenge in front of us. I often fear the outcome if we don’t get a handle on this.
The final lesson I want to share is the need to understand how we can learn to balance our conflict management and feel more personal control. Think of the see-saw in the park. Think of one side as our logical, intellectual thinking and the other side as our emotional thinking. Our job, in healthy relationships and conflict resolution, is to learn to keep the two sides as balanced as possible. Remembers what happens if one side gets too strong and overwhelming. The other side drops off and loses its power to influence. It takes a balance of using our intellect and our emotions to make good decisions. If we become too emotional, we cannot use our logic and intellect to help problem solve. If we become too rigid in our problem solving and only think of what is logical, we deny our emotional strengths. A balance is needed to be successful. After all, the Rambam taught us years and years ago the need to take everything in perspective and balance. He taught, “The two extremes of each quality are not the proper and worthy path for one to follow or train himself in. And if a person finds his nature inclining towards one of them or if he has already accustomed himself in one of them, he must bring himself back to the good and upright path.”
As I move forward and Regesh Family and Child Services continues to help children, teens and families, my hope for myself is that my clients will continue to teach me the rules of life and in return, I become a better person to myself, my family and my community.
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