Can People Make Us Feel Things?
We hear all the time when we’re upset, “No one can you make you feel anything.” It’s a phrase those who love us invoke to try to empower us to take control of our emotions - and on one hand, they’re right. And on the same hand, it’s effective. If your parents criticize your choice of major or a job change or your choice of spouse, and it overwhelms you emotionally for days, weeks, or even months, a friend might come to you and say, “Hey, your parents can’t make you feel anything, man.” And when he says that, you think to yourself, you know what, he’s right. I’m in control of myself and I choose how positively my [major, job, spouse, etc.] makes me feel. And in that case, they’d be right about the sentiment and the sentiment would be effective… sadly, this isn’t always the case.
Let’s say that mom and dad said that your fiancé, we’ll call her Carmen, was not a good fit for you because her family was poor and too controlling and not Mexican. Your foolishness and your impulsivity will ruin your life forever and only their wisdom can save you. A five-step process happens now, and each step is COMPLETELY. OUT. OF YOUR. CONTROL.
1) YOUR BRAIN PERCEIVES A THREAT. See, the thing about the brain is, it treats all kinds of threats the same. Threats to your physical health, threats to your mental health, threats to your emotional health - the brain makes no distinction. And it has a prescribed program that it uses to keep you safe from threat, and while the program is particularly adept at keeping you safe from physical threats, emotional and mental threats don’t really benefit from the program. So, here’s the program:
2) YOUR BRAIN IS FLOODED WITH CHEMICALS. A handful of chemicals are produced by the adrenal and pituitary glands. These chemicals have a handful of basic physical effects. They increase your heart rate, your blood pressure, your breathing, your situational awareness, and your energy level. They can even increase your physical strength. The purpose of these chemicals is to give you the necessary resources within your body to respond to the threat. There are only a handful of ways, categorically, that we respond to threats, but they all require the same basic resources. So, you’ve been threatened, and your body is prepped to respond, but a few more things need to happen first.
3) YOUR BRAIN PARTIALLY TURNS OFF. The final physical effect of these chemicals is that the part of your brain that is responsible for both short-term memory and for abstract processing (like, say, seeing something from someone else’s point of view) SHUTS OFF ENTIRELY. Which is a huge bummer, ‘cause it’s kind of an important part of navigating conflict situations. Essentially, what this means is that, when someone insults you or in any way triggers a defensive response in you, your brain will FORCE YOU to ignore their perspective and to not reliably remember anything that anyone (including you) said or did after that moment. The reason for this has to do with physical safety. If you’re about to be, for example, mauled by a bear - you might not want to take time to consider what the bear is really thinking or take notice of the flowers or the smell of the trees. Your brain is preparing you to do the minimum amount possible with your higher-order functions so that it can give the most energy and priority to your physical body as possible to keep you alive. Unfortunately, this, combined with step 4, just really screw you over in interpersonal conflict, through no fault, choice, or intention of your own.
4) YOUR BRAIN ACCESSES YOUR EMOTIONAL MEMORY. The first handful of times in your life that something like this happened, you used environmental and situational cues to determine how you should feel. Maybe you were at a sporting event and someone told you that you didn’t have what it takes to win, so you felt shame and embarrassment at what you assumed was your weakness. Maybe your parents were overprotective when you were a toddler, so you developed a fear of trying things because you might get hurt. Whatever the case, as the chemicals shut down your rational brain they also activate the amygdala, the emotional center of your grain, and supply you with the same emotion you’ve used in these situations since you were a child. Again, this is not consciously selected, but automatically provided by the brain in order to protect you. Embarrassed? Now you’re motivated to change your behavior. Afraid? Now you’re incentivized to stay away from danger.
5) YOUR BRAIN PICKS ONE OF 3 ACTIONS. Steps 1-4 are all to get you ready for step 5. Step 5 is where this simultaneously complex and near-instantaneous process becomes visible to the world around you. Based on how you’ve dealt with these situations in the past, your brain will calculate which of three choices is the most likely to ensure your survival: fight. flight. or freeze. You’ve identified the threat. You’ve got your energy. You’ve maximized your body’s potential to take action. And you’ve been incentivized to do something. Now it’s time - are you going to give a beating, run from a beating, or take a beating? Each requires the same set of resources; those resources are just directed differently depending on what your brain CHOOSES FOR YOU.
So when mom and dad imply that you’re not qualified to make your own decisions because you lack the necessary maturity to make good ones, how do you feel? What do you do? You feel the threat, not just to you but also to Carmen, whose entire family is being insulted. You get all hopped up on adrenaline, epinephrine, and cortisol. You can’t think straight - all you see is how to defend yourself from these attacks. You remember all the times your parents have said something like this before and you feel… angry, for sure. But what else? Lonely? Sad? Afraid? Exhausted? Embarrassed? Indignant? Hopeless? Whatever it is your brain provides, it turns that into fuel for your action. Maybe you feel sad, but your social and environmental cues have taught you to express that aggressively, so you angry-cry at your parents while you scream at them. Maybe you’re so overwhelmed with exhaustion at having to do this over and over again that you just walk away from the conversation. Or maybe you’re hopeless and embarrassed by what a failure they’ve conditioned you to think you are, so you freeze in place and admit that they’re right. They’re always right.
No matter what your initial reaction to an emotional situation like this is, it’s almost always something that the stimulus causes inside you - something you didn’t choose. It just happened. Your parents said something crappy about your choices, in general, and your fiancé specifically, and that MADE you respond however you responded…
Here’s the rub. What happens immediately after that initial response is up to you. With the right tools and training, you’d be amazed how fast you can regain control of your emotional processing, turn your prefrontal cortex back on, and make intentional choices about how to move forward. So, in a strictly immediate sense, people can make you feel things. But, nobody can KEEP making you feel things. You can reestablish control almost immediately. And we can help you do that! We’ll be talking more about how exactly we can help you do that in this week’s podcast, so make sure to subscribe to our podcast “The Cord” on Apple Podcasts or Spotify, or check back right here on this page on Thursday! If you just can’t wait, you can check out a sneak peak of this week’s podcast topics by checking out our Resources page right here.
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