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Commentary | Oct. 24, 2022

Gain control over your emotions by understanding the core beliefs behind them

By Human Performance Resources by CHAMP at the Uniformed Services University

Have you been so angry that our thoughts didn’t seem to make sense? Ever have a tinge of guilt show-up but can’t explain why? Or, your emotions and reactions seemed out of proportion to what you were thinking at that moment? 

If you’ve experienced any of these events or been confused by your feelings, it’s likely that a core belief or value has been activated outside of your conscious awareness. Strong emotions aren’t bad, but when you don’t understand them, they can make you react in counterproductive ways. Unfortunately, you can’t grab control over your feelings until you notice the core belief or value that’s driving them.

Avoid asking, “Why?”

When you experience strong emotions, it’s common to wonder “why” you’re so angry, sad, frustrated, or embarrassed. Sometimes this might help you become aware of what’s going on, so you can calm down and gain control over your feelings. However, “why” is often the wrong question to ask because on the surface it helps you come up with reasons to explain or justify your emotions. This can be an issue for those who tend to fall into “emotional reasoning:” when you feel a strong emotion, assume it must be based in reality, and create facts to justify it. There are two problems with this. First, the “created” facts might not be true. Although your strong emotion is real, at times feelings are caused by inaccurate interpretations of events. When you experience strong negative emotions, it’s harder to use reason to challenge the thoughts behind them. Second, even if the thoughts driving your feelings are true, they might not lead you to the root cause of the emotion: your core belief or value that’s been activated. You might address the symptoms of the strong emotion in the short term—but those strong feelings are likely to reappear.

Try asking, “What?”

When you’re confused by what you’re feeling, it’s important to wonder about those thoughts driving that emotion. It might seem that asking “why” will help you to get that answer, but it leads to searching for reasons to justify your reaction. Instead, ask “what” is confusing about this situation? What about this bothers me so much? Or, you might think, what about this is so important to me? These questions can help you dig deeper and gain more insight into what’s going on and how it’s driving your emotions. Sometimes it might take multiple “what” questions to get to the root of what’s happening. That’s okay. Just keep repeating your answer and asking more “what” questions until you have that “aha” moment that explains why you’re experiencing that feeling.

Try it out. Pick a pet peeve that doesn’t seem to make sense when someone does it. Maybe you get upset when your spouse leaves the cabinet doors open. Ask yourself what about that situation bothers you so much. “What about them leaving the cabinet doors open gets under your skin?” Respond aloud, “Because closing the door is so simple to do, and leaving it open makes the kitchen look messy.”

Repeat your answer asking yourself another “what” question aloud: “Assuming that it’s simple to do and makes the kitchen look messy, what about that annoys me so much?”  Now tell yourself: “They know I think it’s important to keep things neat, so they clearly don’t care that it’s a big deal to me.”

Keep repeating this process until you have the “aha” moment: “Assuming they don’t care that it’s important to me, what about that bothers me so much? It’s they don’t respect me, and respect is the most important thing to me in my relationships. It makes sense that I’d feel so frustrated if I think my spouse is leaving the cabinets open out of complete disrespect.”

Take control

The first step is discovering the core belief or value that explains your strong feeling. Now that you’re aware of what’s driving your emotions, you can decide what you want to do next. You can decide how accurate you might be in this situation, how productive your reactions are, and how you want to address this in the future. Perhaps there’s a conversation you want to have, or you realize there's an issue that you want to work on yourself.

Ask yourself the following “reflection questions” to get a better handle on your thoughts:

  • Accuracy questions. “Is it true my spouse doesn’t respect me? What evidence do I have that counters this?” Answer: “It’s clear my spouse has trouble noticing details, and they likely do not deliberately leave the cabinet doors open to disrespect me. They often tell me how much they appreciate how hard I work; I don’t think they are doing this out of disrespect.”
  • Productivity questions. “Is the way I’m handling this core value productive right now? How can I handle this better?” Answer: “My frustration over the cabinet doors being open is leading to more fights where my partner thinks I’m nitpicking. Our arguments become a competition about who has more on their plate right now, which isn’t helpful.”
  • “Next steps” questions. “What should I do when I’m frustrated because my spouse leaves the cabinet doors open?” Answer: “I still want to talk with them because I believe that keeping a neat home builds discipline, and that’s a habit I want to build in our kids. Now I can calmly explain things to them rather than fly off the handle as I’ve done in the past.”

Bottom line

To know which core beliefs or values are driving your reactions gives you control. You can now clearly express your thoughts to others to explaining your feelings, regulate them yourself to respond in a more productive way, or challenge their value or accuracy. The next time you’re confused by what’s causing a particular emotion, ask yourself a few “what” questions to help you become aware and grab control. To learn more about how your beliefs can impact your performance, use HPRC’s “ABCs of performance worksheet.”

Editor's note: This article is written by the Human Performance Resources by CHAMP at the Uniformed Services University