Delay Gratification: Manage your Interpretations

If you see the world as a terrible place in which to live, other people as unfair, or life as having the cards stacked against you, you create a formula for anger, sadness or worry.

Like when you are leaving for work on a dark, cold, wet morning and you hear the announcer on the radio describe the traffic as terrible. You let out a big sigh of anger and fatigue before the day has even begun. Then you glace in the rear view mirror and see your child in the backseat, quietly smiling at you, holding his favorite truck that you had as kid. He is delighted with your company and content being in the safe, dry car. This is how the same event can be perceived in two totally different ways depending on your focus.

When you feel anger or any other emotion, your feeling is the product of two factors:

1 The objective physiological arousal that a particular event produces in you

2 Your subjective interpretation of the event

For example, when someone steps on your toe, you feel pain, and your heart starts to beat faster. These automatic reactions are your body’s initial physical response to the event. If you interpret this event as an accident, you’ll still be in physical pain, but you won’t be angry. But if you interpret the event as a deliberate provocation, you’ll probably react with anger.

The physiological arousal caused by an event is involuntary, but you have a choice about how you interpret the event, which means that you also have a choice about your emotional reaction. It’s your interpretation, not the event itself, that is the key to your emotional experience. If you find that you’re often in a state of anger, you may want to examine the interpretations you’re bringing to events, since your interpretations may be promoting angry thoughts that color your expectations about how your life will unfold.

Sad individuals tend to interpret events as caused by situational factors (e.g., I missed the flight because the traffic was bad), angry individuals tend to attribute the same events to human factors (e.g., I missed the flight because the cab driver was terrible). This is because anger is typically caused by the actions of people and sadness by factors that are circumstantial. As a result, people make different interpretations when angry than when sad.

You are the one who has a choice about what you emphasize. It is similar to a mechanic listening to a car making a screeching noise. How does a mechanic solve the problem? He begins by trying to identify the specific conditions that trigger the noise. Is there a screech when the car is accelerating, or when it’s shifting gears, or turning at slow speeds?

Unless the mechanic can give the screech a context, he’ll never find the broken part. Likewise, it can be helpful for all of us to think like mechanics and interpret circumstances based on a gradual examination of a particular circumstance. If these patterns of thinking can be identified and put in a more manageable perspective, we would be less vulnerable to over-reacting.

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Shared by: Aaron Karmin, LCPC, Contributing Blogger

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