Emotional reactions don’t come out of the blue – they always come from somewhere. So when you have a reaction that doesn’t make sense in the present it means that it isn’t coming from the present. Since it can’t be coming from the future that only leaves one option — your past.
You are standing in line at Starbucks and a guy in a red shirt cuts in line in front of you and for no reason he stomps on your toe as hard as he can. All of a sudden your heart rate zooms up from 70 to 140 beats per minute as the adrenaline rushes through your body. You feel your head pounding as your blood pressure soars and he runs off before you bury your fist in his face. The anger that you feel comes completely from the present – its the same anger anybody else in the same situation would feel. The person in front of you and the person behind you are thinking the same thing, if it had happened to me I would be just as angry.
The next week you are waiting in line again and a different guy wearing a red shirt comes up to you. Your heart rate and blood pressure soar again and you have a strong urge to punch him in the face. Somehow you resist the urge to hit him but you raise your voice in obvious anger. You are glad that held back when you realize all he wanted to do is ask you directions. This time none of your anger is coming from the present – the only thing the second guy did wrong was that he triggered the memory of the first guy. All of your anger is coming from the past. This time the person in front of you and the person behind you are thinking “I better keep my distance because here is somebody who has some real anger management problems.”
Another week goes by and you are standing in line for coffee and a guy wearing a blue shirt comes up to you and cuts in front of you. Your blood pressure and heart rate take off and you are fighting mad once again. You yell at him so loudly that the entire store looks in your direction. He takes one look at your angry face and realizes that he picked the wrong person on the wrong day and moves to the back of the line. You’ve had rude people try to cut in front of you before and you always get angry but you can’t remember ever getting quite that angry. That’s because only some of your anger is coming from the present, the rest is coming from the red-shirt guy who pounded on your toe two weeks ago. So your anger is from the present but it is abnormally amplified by the past. The rest of the people in line understand why you got angry but think that you really overreacted.
Even though it may seem like your emotional reactions come out of the blue at times, there is no such thing as a random emotion. When you have an emotional reaction to some event it always comes from somewhere. Since it can’t be coming from your future — it must be coming from the present, the past or some combination of the two. Once you understand this you can stop beating yourself up every time you over-react, under-react or just plain wrong-react. You can put away the cat o’ nine tails that you have used to flog yourself for all of those unfortunate emotionally-driven reactions and instead put on your detective cap and start searching for clues to solve the mystery locked away in your mind. Once you do, you will always find that even though your reaction may make little or no sense in the present, there is a time in your past when it made perfect sense.