By Jennifer Richardson
I was having a conversation with a friend a few years ago, and the subject of emotions surfaced. We talked about some things that had taken place in her life, and the residual emotion that was still triggered when random circumstances brought reminders of the pain she had experienced.
She shed a few tears recalling some events, and shook her head sadly, as if to say, what can I do with these feelings? I was troubled to hear how she was feeling, and I took a few moments to tell her that I loved her and I hoped the sensations would pass after she allowed herself to feel them.
She said emotion does not seem to cause you the same stress, what is your secret? I wasn’t sure how to answer; I did not know I had been carrying any kind of secret strategy to handle emotion.
She went on to say that she had read somewhere that past hurts seemed to shape our lives, like our understanding of life is formed by the wounds we have survived. We are simply people always in a stage of recovery from the injuries we suffer, and we unconsciously learn to avoid the triggers that produce pain. Our deepest convictions are formed simply as the by-product of pain.
The thought intrigued me, and over the next few months I asked other friends as well. What do you understand about handling emotion? I also asked myself the same questions—what had my upbringing taught me about emotions, feelings, and overwhelming thoughts. There did not seem to be a simple answer.
I can’t pretend I know all the factors that impact our emotional lives, but I have come to understand the tools my parents passed down to me about the spectrum of life’s feelings.
Perhaps most importantly, they told me plainly that human beings could change their attitude. That I could change my attitude. And they asked me to do so often.
When they saw my feelings taking over my expression and my behaviors, they stopped me, reminded me that my attitude was the only thing that was truly under my control, and they expected me to learn to turn the corner and rejoin the people who were moving forward.
The second thing they taught me was not articulated, but they lived it in front of me every day. Their lives proclaimed that negativity was waste, and our very limited time is better spent on solutions rather than problems.
The third important lesson I absorbed about emotions was that life was not all about me. With loving and wise parents who were raising six children in a house with one bathroom, along with my grandmother who lived with us for twenty-three years—there was no shortage of clarity about where emotions fell in the pecking order of what was vital in life.
I am not minimizing the wounds we all feel; they are real, and intense. And I don’t believe that my parents overlooked my feelings, or ignored the situations in my life that injured me. On the contrary, they allowed me to feel; nothing bottled up ever empties. But by asking me to change my attitude, they encouraged me to let the emotion be a temporary resident in my soul.
These life lessons reinforced for me that personal power is found in your response, not your circumstance. My learned ability to change my attitude fostered a belief in myself that has served as bedrock in my life. My emotions, although important, are ultimately under my control. My parents knew I would not be able to control everything around me in life, so they taught me to control myself.
If our principles are formed and our lives are directed by only our wounds, we become reactive. Life is just floating from one emotional storm to the next. That makes life one big emotional minefield—where we never learn the power of managing ourselves, we just learn a more and more complex map of where we cannot step for fear of exploding another landmine and sustaining another injury. That feels like living in fear.
Building proactive, unmovable anchors of belief takes emotion out of the driver’s seat. Your anchors in the storm may be different, but mine are: my faith, my belief in my self-worth, and the conviction that I can change my attitude if I choose to. My life is not shaken or disassembled each time I face emotional disaster; I am safe in the tempest of emotion because the things I am holding on to are not subject to the storm. And that feels good.