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emotions are decisions

Has something like this ever happened to you?

When I was first dating my husband, we were having a lovely time laughing and carrying on, and then oops! — I tooted.

Yes, I audibly passed gas. It’s embarrassing to even type that sentence.

But he didn’t react – I mean, at all. So I found myself caught between being embarrassed (my normal reaction) and continuing the nice time we were having together.

Uncharacteristically, I asked, “Should I be really embarrassed?”

His response was spontaneous and genuine and perfect: “Only if you want to be.”

Only if you want to be.

Those six words gave me permission to not be embarrassed. But they also gave me a model of how to be in the world, with myself and with others.

Getting Emotional Cues From Others

From the time we’re quite young (about 13 months) we look to others to see how we should feel. It’s the first step in learning to regulate our own emotions. You’ve seen this before:

Your little one pulls in a bit closer when an unfamiliar person starts making small-talk with you in Target. (Or maybe you’re the one who’s being friendly in the check-out line while wide eyes and little hands snuggle closer to his mama.)

But as soon as the caregiver smiles and begins talking, the child – without necessarily knowing why – feels safer and relaxes his body against hers. He waited for his mom’s cues to tell him how to feel about the stranger. Had mom been wary, his body would have remained tense; he would have experienced fear or discomfort.

We see another version of this when a toddler takes a tumble on the sidewalk. It makes us cringe internally, but if we can manage a whole-hearted and smiling, “Oopsy-daisy!” most times the kiddo will get up unphased. Likewise, I suspect we’ve all had moments when we’ve rushed over with a horrified look, realizing too late that our little one was fine until he saw our reaction. Let the wailing begin!

Now of course, if there was really pain involved, no amount of our grinning through it would stop that toddler from expressing himself. But often, the fall has just startled rather than hurt him, so he reads mom’s expression and listens to the tone of her voice for cues, and proceeds to play happily when he discerns that mom thinks everything is fine.

Regulating Our Own Emotions

Over time, we learn to regulate our own emotions. We determine for ourselves how we feel in any given moment.

But don’t we sometimes still check in with others?

You wonder if you’re a bad person because you didn’t cry when your grandfather died. Or maybe you wonder if you cried too hard and made too much of a public display.

If I’m not distraught about a friend’s illness, agitated about my mother’s state of mind, or guilt-ridden about circumstances my friend wouldn’t be in if she hadn’t been helping with my project, does that mean I don’t care enough?

None of us wants to be cold and unemotional toward others. Wouldn’t that make us like the sociopath in a Hollywood thriller? Well, yes.

But that doesn’t mean our emotion has to be fully-charged in all circumstances, either.

Should I be really embarrassed?

Only if you want to.

The words remind me that I get to decide which emotions I feel, and to what intensity. I don’t have to be embarrassed for the sake of someone else. And I don’t have to ruin a pleasant time feeling overly-guilty about a biological function I couldn’t control. Or anything else.

The Take-Away

You get to choose your emotion. You can continue to look to others to see how you should feel, as we all did when we were young. Some of that is okay. But you don’t have to follow their lead.

You get to decide how you feel about the situation, and emote accordingly.

What About You?

  • Do you sometimes worry too much about how you’re “supposed to” feel?
  • How can you adopt an “only if you want to” emotional attitude in your life?

I’d love to hear your thoughts!