• joe@jhanderson.biz   
    (206) 351-5607   

  • My wife was once rescued from a perilous highway situation by a kind stranger driving a red pickup truck. When she sees a red pickup today, she still experiences a feeling of gratitude!

    Your emotions are made of two things: the sensations in your body, and the story you’re telling yourself about those sensations.  (See Lisa Feldman Barrett’s How Emotions Are Made for the full and fascinating account of how this works.) And where does your story come from? Your memories. Like that red pickup truck. Or, if you were chased by an angry raccoon when you were young, you probably have an iffy relationship with raccoons now.

    Consider the places on the path of your life where you encountered danger, difficulty, or exaltation. When you come to new places that look like the old ones, you’re much more susceptible to repeat experiences: a sort of déjà vu.

    Being aware of the accumulated memories that stir up reactions helps put some space between you and the reactive emotions that the new circumstances evoke. It’s not that the reaction won’t happen, but you can step back, see what’s happening, and make a choice about how to proceed.

    The list of material that contributes to emotional reactions can be pretty long. There’s no need to be comprehensive (that sounds exhausting). But it is useful to focus on a few things, particularly the things that get in your way, be conscious of the impact they have, and investigate the cause-and-effect relationship with curiosity.

    Try It: Consider one simple class of stored-up reactions you have: your pet peeves. These might include other peoples’ driving behavior or grocery store cart-pushing tendencies, particular ways of writing code or thinking about design, or a tone of voice that just rubs you the wrong way. Where might your reactions come from? What past experiences do they mirror? How are you likely to behave in response? Choose one or two of your favorite peeves and investigate the memories that make you more susceptible to over-the-top responses.

    Photo: Mr.choppers via Wikimedia Commons