Emotions Looking for a Reason

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Sometimes when we are puzzled by our emotions, when they seem out of proportion to the incident that evokes them, it may be because the emotion came first — the emotion was there and we needed something to attach it to.

It seems to me that our emotions usually come as part of the package. Even on this table before me, the cover of Bill Bryson’s book At Home [Amazon-US | Amazon-UK] is more interesting than that headset. This is clearer when we have a strong reaction — a gasp at a beautiful scene, or an intake of breath when we see somebody slip over. During an emergency or when shocked this usual response is suspended — we feel distanced, as if we were just observing. This is, for most of us most of the time, unusual.

I think what is usual is that our emotions are part of our perception. We don’t see a tree, we see a majestic or ordinary tree. We don’t just see the day outside but have a feeling about it too (which may vary wildly — I like warm and sunny, a friend of mine loves grey and cool).

Why I’m pointing out the tie up of emotion and perception is to pay attention to another time when they are separate. This is when we have a feeling (especially about ourselves or other people) that isn’t tied to any definite experience we are aware of. In this situation we can go looking for an experience to tie the emotion to.

Perhaps the most serious example of this is children who are judged by their parents for no good reason. Usually these judgements are negative. A child may be told that they are bad — and have this reinforced by random punishments — and given no reason for this. They can’t find anything that they have done wrong. So, they will keep looking. And usually, children — not being perfect (like adults) — will find some reason for the judgement.

This leads to difficulties understanding our feelings. We are puzzled that the behaviour matters so much — there will usually be a feeling that we think is wildly out of proportion to the behaviour. We are unable to understand why this behaviour should be so bad. And we may try hard to find some other rationale for our feeling that we are such a bad person.

I’m suggesting that when we have this sense that our feeling/judgement about our behaviour seems out of proportion to the behaviour, there may be a reason. And the reason may be that we took on an entirely irrational feeling/judgement from others. This means that there really is no way to understand why this behaviour matters so much to us — because it didn’t matter to us. What mattered was the judgement from one or more authority figures — and we attached behaviour to justify the feeling/judgement of others.

The feeling came first, and we attached the behaviour to justify others’ judgement of us.

I think that this can be a reason when we are puzzled about the strength of our feeling about an incident in the past. It may be that the feeling was not a part of our own response to an experience: the feeling was ‘floating around’ in our environment, and we found something to attach it to. In one sense the feeling was not ours at all.

To realise this can be quite a relief.

One clue I think is the disproportion. A person may believe that their parent was justified in beating them because, as a child, they cried. It is only as we gain more experience of what is usual that we can begin to spot the disproportion — that there hasn’t been a child born who doesn’t cry.

The difficulty can be that by the time a person is an adult they have internalised the idea that they are bad. They may believe that it would be bad to treat other children the way they were treated, but their parents were justified in treating them this way because they were an especially bad child.

This can run very deep and can be very hard to deal with. It is very likely to require support. However, if we do have a sense that our reaction to something is far stronger than we can understand, then it could well be worth considering that our reaction is not to the situation itself — that the feeling was due to the other’s perception, not our own.

I’m wondering if you have had the experience of disentangling a very strong emotion from an experience and found that you had actually had the feeling first and then attached it to the experience. I would love to hear from you in the comments.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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