Is It Fact or Fiction?

I received some interesting responses to my recent article about ‘feeling good’ being a primary goal in life. The majority of your comments centered on the role that friends, family and even TV news programs play in making us feel good or bad. Though I appreciate the reactions, I suspect that some of you missed the point.

Personal responsibility and mental health are closely interconnected. The working example here is the mistaken idea that other people can ‘make’ you feel a certain way. When you feel a certain way, it’s because of an idea you hold in your mind. These ideas are subject to verification. Let’s say, for example, that Joe sells you a bad car. Your subsequent anger at Joe is based on the belief that he knowingly did this to you. But did he? That point is subject to verification. If you have solid proof that he knew, then your anger is justified. But even if that is the case, Joe didn’t make you angry. Your belief that Joe willfully cheated you is the source of your anger.

This might seem like a technical and unimportant point. ‘What does it matter whether Joe made me angry, or my belief made me angry? Joe was wrong, either way.’ True enough. But what about the times when our beliefs and assumptions are mistaken or incomplete? In those situations, it’s dangerous to assume that a person ‘makes’ you feel a certain way when, in fact, the emotion stems entirely from the ideas you have formed in your mind.

My point is this: Believing that other people make you feel a certain way is a surrender of personal responsibility; a surrender to the false view that ‘I’m not responsible for the workings of my own mind.’ Indeed, feelings and emotions are tricky, and it can be easy to fall into that trap. Your emotions represent automatic and compelling indications of what’s going on outside of you. Left on their own, they seem to be clear indicators of facts and the truth. But they can be misleading! When we don’t exercise the responsibility to scrutinize these feelings, we can lose control over the course of our lives. What a waste to spend your life holding unfounded conclusions about things your emotions told you were true, when these same things don’t stand up to reality.

Blaming others for ‘making’ you feel one way or another is the same as handing over your intellectual and psychological destiny to other people. If Sue can ‘make’ you feel happy, then you’re dependent on Sue for your happiness. If Jack can ‘make’ you feel enraged, then you’re relying on Jack to do something different so you can become calm and happy. Those of you who watch National Geographic Channel’s ‘Dog Whisperer’ will recognize this as Cesar Millan’s primary technique for making dogs ‘calm and submissive.’ Mr. Millan (who would make a great therapist in his own right) proves over and over again that canine behavior is easily predictable simply by examining (and maybe changing) the moods, feelings and stability of the owners. This might work well for your Shih Tzu, but do you really want to go through life controlled by the actions of others?

It’s often the case that the people upon whom you depend for your feelings don’t even know they have that control and don’t necessarily even want it. A lot has been written about depression as the main cause of mental dissatisfaction and breakdown. The simplest definition of depression is that it’s an all-pervasive sense of helplessness. The attitude and lifestyle of ‘learned helplessness’ becomes the day-to-day existence of the chronically depressed person. The first step to avoiding this is to discover whether you harbor the mistaken belief that others can make you feel a certain way. This can be difficult for people who are used to accepting their emotions as truth. Like I said, emotions are compelling: There they are, right in front of you, and they’re hard to deny. Sometimes they can be right on target, and sometimes they can be painfully wrong. Going back to my example above, imagine if you angrily ended your friendship with Joe; never giving him the chance to prove to you whether or not he knew the car was defective.

This is why reason is so important. It separates fact from fiction. By themselves, emotions and feelings aren’t automatically right or wrong, good or bad. They’re simply a ‘printout’ of what’s going on outside of you. Unlike the Dog Whisperer’s canines, we humans have the ability to modify our own feelings by exercising reason and objectivity to validate (or invalidate) our emotions. Reason and objectivity not only separate us from our four-legged friends, but they are also the keys to a rational and fulfilling life.