It is a common misconception that we do not have control over our emotions. At least, generally speaking, people especially tend to strongly believe that in "bad" situations or circumstances, that it is THAT bad thing that directly causes us to feel upset. This is a common belief. But it is not true.

Emotions & Our Perspective

Many philosophers, including Epictetus, believed that us human beings upset ourselves over situations (and not the other way around). He was famously quoted “Men are not disturbed by things, but by the view of which they take of them”. Things, people, places, occurrences, happenings, don't make us feel our emotions, in themselves. Technically, we make ourselves feel whatever emotion we wish!

This is the basic underlying principle and premise of cognitive behaviour theory, which serves as a basis for the cognitive behaviour therapies, a.k.a the current gold standard treatment of psychotherapy for (most) emotional problems and disorders as per The Australian Psychological Society (APS), The American Psychiatric Association (APA), and  The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) in the UK - and presumably, what most psychologists are trained in and planning on using to help you with.

Our Internal Voice

Let’s make this more practical: If you took a survey of 100 people who had all failed at something important to them, not all of them would have reacted the same way, would they? No. Nobody likes to fail, so although there would be a good few who would feel appropriately disappointed but coped, some would feel downright dysfunction-ally MISERABLE and would continue to suffer… Take any other situation and you can apply the same logic - as we all respond uniquely to situations, we can infer that it is not external events that directly force us to have the feelings we do about them.

However, what is mediating how strongly we feel depends on what we are telling ourselves about what happened. In other words, if we think irrationally and negatively we can disturb ourselves emotionally. For example, condemning ourselves as “FAIIIIIILURE’S!” for having failed is going to get us depressed and anxious - almost a guarantee! And lead to unhelpful behaviour, like avoiding possible things in the future we might do badly at. But accepting ourselves as “imperfect” and “fallible” will produce more self-helping emotions, such as sadness, and lead to more productive, effective behaviours (e.g. we don’t let our failures stop us and keep on persisting).

Putting It Into Practice!

Let’s experiment: the next time you feel anxious, depressed, angry, guilty, ashamed, etc., ask yourself “What am I thinking?”, "What’s going through my mind?”, “What am I telling myself about what’s happening that’s making me feel this way?” Focus less on the situation and more on your thoughts. You may garner some interesting results!

I wonder how your life could be different if you began accepting this principle of emotional responbility? To be held accountable for how you feel and react in situations..? Even the tougher situations life often throws at us!

More Help

If this blog interested you or perhaps you believe that this way of looking at life’s problems could be useful, I would encourage you to read one of Albert Ellis’ books where he suggests the use of Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy (REBT) as a means to gain mastery over your emotions. A good place to start is the book “How to stubbornly refuse to make yourself miserable about anything: Yes, Anything!”


Article by Alexander Cameron, Psychologist at ATUNE Health Centres

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