You are standing in line at Starbucks to get your morning coffee and a guy in a blue shirt comes up, cuts in front of you in line and then, 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 is 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 guy in line behind you says, “If the same thing happened to me, I’d be just as angry as you.” The anger that you feel comes completely from the present – its the same anger anybody else in the same situation would feel.
The next week you are waiting in line at Starbucks again and a different guy wearing a blue 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 and you just start yelling. You are glad that you kept your fist to yourself when you realize that all he wanted to do is ask you directions. The guy in line behind you says, “What’s your problem?” 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.
Another week goes by and you are standing in line for your coffee and a different guy wearing a blue shirt comes up to you and cuts in front of you but he doesn’t stomp on your toe. 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. The guy behind you in line leans over and says, “I know he shouldn’t have cut in line like that but did you really have to go that far?” Your anger is coming from the present but it’s amplified by the past – that blue shirt guy who pounded on your toe two weeks ago.
Emotions – anger, anxiety, sadness, guilt, etc. – that are only coming from the present make sense in the present and lead you to do things that are appropriate in the present. Emotions that come from the present have you react in ways that every one else in line at Starbucks either would do or at least would think of doing.
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.