Where Do Feelings Come From?

Where do feelings come from? Do your feelings come from outside you, from what other people say and do? Or do feelings come from within, from what you think?

The Mentos & Soda Theory of Feelings

Ever drop Mentos in soda? If you do, a lot of gas is produced that erupts out of the soda bottle with considerable force. This is how some people think emotions work. If you add irritations and setbacks into your life, the result is emotions. According to this theory, if you don't vent these emotions, they will erupt uncontrollably as anger or turn inward as depression.

Many people believe this is how emotions work but there are some things this theory doesn't explain. Like why sometimes something will make you angry but other times the same thing won't. For example, the car in front of you stops suddenly. Sometimes this might make you very angry. Maybe it's clear the driver is a tourist and doesn't know where they're going. Other times this might not make you angry at all. Maybe you see an ambulance approaching and you realize the driver stopped to let the ambulance pass.

The second problem with this theory is that it's not just irritations and setbacks that can “make” you angry. Just thinking about something can trigger anger. It might be that just thinking about something someone did to you a long time ago can still “make” you angry.

The third problem with this theory is that it implies the way to handle your feelings is to express them before too much pressure builds up. But research has shown that people who frequently express their anger aggressively and inappropriately tend to get more and more angry over time. That approach just doesn't work.

Cognitive-Behavioral Theory

According to cognitive-behavioral theory, emotions don't just happen automatically in response to outside events. Emotions are mediated by our thoughts. An event occurs, we evaluate the event, this generates a feeling, which leads to a behavior, which leads to a consequence. For example, someone cuts us off in traffic, we think “They're a jerk and they have just disrespected me,” we get angry, we speed up and cut them off, and so we get in an accident. Event, thought, feeling, behavior, consequence.

Cognitive-behavioral theory avoids some of the problems with the Mentos and Soda Theory. We sometimes react differently to the same situation because we have evaluated it differently. Thinking about old events can still trigger your anger because it is the thought that leads to the feeling. And finally, and most importantly, cognitive-behavioral theory points the way to how to manage your feelings – manage your thoughts.

There are advantages to the cognitive-behavioral approach for people who are learning to manage their anger–

Sandra Nettles, LCSW, MSSW
Jamie Nettles, MS

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