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This post is by Maia ten Brink, Ph.D.
How do we change an emotion that’s unhelpful in a particular situation? How do we react better to situations that frustrate us so that we don’t take it out on our friends, co-workers, or family members? How can we live a happier life?
Emotion scientists have boiled it down to a three-word answer: Trust the process.
I know it might sound like I’m selling something or preaching spiritual enlightenment. But that deceptively simple phrase holds infinite possibilities for change.
Emotions Are a Four-Step Process
Research suggests that emotions are actually a process that typically unfolds in four steps:
- the situation
- what we pay attention to
- our interpretation
- how we respond
Let’s unpack each of the steps.
Step 1: The Situation
First, the situation is whatever event triggers the emotional response. This could be external, like your family member leaving a mess for you to clean up, or it could be something internal, like thinking about an upcoming meeting with your boss.
Let’s take the first example. This is the situation you find when you arrive home from work: Your dog puked on the floor, there’s a massive pile of unwashed dishes in the sink, and all your family member texted was, “Sorry about the mess,” accompanied by an emoji of a grimacing face.
Most people would probably find this infuriating (and rightly so!). There’s an important nuance here, though. These events alone don’t directly produce anger or any other emotion. Two more key steps lie between the situation and your emotional response.
Step 2: Attention
The second step of the process is attention. What we pay attention to further constrains the situation.
What about the situation are you paying attention to?
- Is the dog puke drawing most of your focus? (With the smell, it’s hard to ignore.)
- Are you immediately focused on the future, thinking about what you have to do to clean up?
- Are you focused on what your family member might have been thinking when they left the house in such a mess?
In all versions, the basic facts of the situation remain the same. But the focus of our attention can impact the emotion we end up feeling.
Step 3: Interpretation
In the third step of the process, our thoughts, beliefs, and expectations shape our interpretation of the situation. Our interpretation is often based on the information we have and what we’ve learned from prior experiences.
Perhaps your thoughts jump to how this situation fits into the prior events of your day. You think, “This is just like what happened at work. People never pull their weight and I always end up cleaning up their messes.”
Or perhaps you think, “I know my family member left a bunch of unfinished chores, which was not cool, but they aren’t responsible for the dog puking.” You could blame the dog, but you try to bear in mind that your dog is adorable and worth cleaning up messes for periodically.
These interpretations are a key part of the emotion process. They can radically shift the emotion we end up feeling and the ways we end up responding.
Step 4: Response
Finally, there are a range of ways to feel and act in response to the situation.
- You could feel resentful. You could clean the mess, but grump and seethe and wait until they return home to unleash your frustration on them.
- You could feel defeated. You could do nothing and let them clean up when they get home.
- You could feel a wry laugh bubble up. When your family member returns, you could joke with them about the dog having a great sense of comedic timing and trying to provoke family fights.
Each of these different responses becomes more or less likely depending on the two middle steps: where you focused your attention and how you interpreted the situation.
So How Do I Change?
Understanding emotions as a process instead of a single state of being is a pretty powerful idea, if you think about it. It means that no emotion is inevitable. It also means that we have the agency to change the process, like placing stones to alter the path of a river.
One first step to changing your emotion is simply trying to lay out each step of the emotion process in your own mind, or even writing them down. Then you can choose any point in the process to try shifting things in the direction you want to go. Here are some examples:
- At the situation step, you could immediately modify the puke smell situation by opening the window and taking a breath of fresh air.
- At the attention step, you could focus on the apologetic text message your family member sent.
- At the interpretation step, you could be appreciative that they tried to warn you and acknowledge that you don’t always leave the house in perfect condition either.
- At the response step, you could take a few deep breaths to calm down and then put on some music to groove to while you mop up the puke on the floor.
You can also be curious and ask yourself: What other possibilities could I consider at each step of the process? How could I think or behave differently to change the course of this emotion?
Experiment and Learn About Yourself
It’s unrealistic to expect yourself to transform right away from a raging river to a placid lake. Experiment with what works for you and for the situation you’re in. The more practice you get thinking about your emotions as a process, the more aware you’ll become about the patterns you tend to fall into and the possibilities you have to try something new.
Trust the process, taking it one step at a time, and you can change.