Once when I was watching the news, I saw a story about a man in southern California whose house had been destroyed by a mudslide.
He was crying, and he told a reporter that he wanted the federal government to step in and help. Down the street, the reporter found another man who had suffered the same fate. “My family got out all right,” this man told her. “All our stuff is buried in the mud, but we can save a lot of it.” When she asked him what would come next for him and his family, the man said, “I’ve always wanted a third bedroom.”
The first man looked at his ruined house and saw nothing but loss. The second man saw the opportunity to save what he could of his past and then go on to build a better future. The first man saw loss, and what he got was helpless sorrow. The second man saw possibility, and what he got was hopeful energy. In other words, how you interpret a situation determines what you will feel about it. By the same token, what you’ve felt about a situation in the past will influence the way you interpret a similar situation in the future, even though the similarity may be slight.
For example, if you’ve become hypersensitive to signals of rejection, then you may feel snubbed by something as random and meaningless as two strangers at your bus stop having a conversation that doesn’t include you. And, as you might expect, if you’re frequently angry, then you may tend to interpret neutral events in anger-provoking ways.
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 inter- pretations you’re bringing to events, since your interpretations may be promoting angry thoughts that color your expectations about how your life will unfold.
When you hold on to past hurt, you’re actually trying to relieve your pain by putting other people down and building yourself up. You may imagine that nursing old wounds is the way to be in control and prevent the humiliating exposure of your imperfections. You may even entertain vengeful fantasies of finally achieving fair- ness by hurting the people who hurt you. But instead of trying to control or redeem a hurtful situation, you can focus on managing your reaction to it.