Eugene was having a bad day. On the way to work, some idiot cut him off, then another stupid person slipped ahead into a prime parking spot, making him late for work, which he hated.
If you could be a fly on the wall of Eugene’s mind, you might hear these thoughts buzzing through his head. His face showed that he was upset, but when I asked him if he was stressed about anything, he looked surprised. There was nothing unusual about this morning, compared to an average day in his life.
We retraced the components of that morning’s events, beginning with the upset toward the driver who had cut him off. The thought that the driver was an idiot triggered the feeling of rage and more angry thoughts.
“Learn how to drive or get off the road, you idiot” and the feeling of being personally attacked, “How dare you be so rude to me?” The sequence inside this upset culminated with revenge thoughts. “Nobody gets away with insulting me!” and the action of blasting his horn and speeding ahead while thinking, “that’ll show him!”
The anatomy of an upset
This anatomy of an upset shows how thoughts connect to feelings and how feelings connect to behaviors. Eugene’s upset illustrates the path triggered by an objective event, attributed by Eugene as an intentional attempt to humiliate him. Once triggered, his thoughts dragged him into angry feelings which then lead him to retaliatory behaviors. Eugene’s emotional system couldn’t settle down until the sequence of thoughts, feelings and actions was complete.
This choreography of attack thoughts, anger and retaliation had been played out throughout Eugene’s life, culminating in the reason why he was in my office that morning.
Eugene was in my office because his wife had given him an ultimatum about his anger – either he got help or the marriage was over. He didn’t want to lose his family, but he didn’t believe he had any anger issues either. He felt that his family did not respect him. Without respect, he couldn’t feel strong, and what kind of man would he be if he felt weak?
In therapy, Eugene recognized that he could feel strong without being angry. He learned how to stay centered when he didn’t have the answers to his children’s questions. He enjoyed feeling calm while driving to work or relaxing at home with wife.
Not just Eugene
Do you remember the last time you were upset about something? Could you name the feeling you were having and the thoughts that went with them?
Think about how your thoughts, feelings and behaviours are all interconnected and how they play off of one another. Are you reinforcing your upsets with your thoughts and actions?
Like Eugene, when events around you trigger upsets that activate powerful emotions, what you do and think will impact your actions. While we like to compartmentalize certain aspects of being, they are not as simple as dresser drawers. Maybe your behaviour at work influences your feelings at home. Maybe stress manifests itself in biting your nails, other nervous habits, or a lack of self-confidence.
Understanding and managing powerful emotions may look simple, but is a difficult process.
If you want to take control of your upsets, contacting a registered psychologist is a step in the right direction.
Patients in this story are a fictional composite of people who have sought help for this issue. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead is purely coincidental.
Dr. Eva Fisher is an Ottawa psychologist who has been providing psychotherapy for a variety of issues for over 20 years. Follow her on Twitter @drevafisher, Facebook or Instagram @dr_evafisher. Blog writing assisted by freelance journalist Alyssa McMurtry.
Written by Dr. Eva Fisher C Psych
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