The Inner Workings of Emotions

17.09.2020 |

Episode #2 of the course Control your emotions, control your life by Dr. Sofia Santiago


In the previous lesson, you learned why regulating your emotions matters. Now we’ll look at how emotions really work in your day-to-day life.



Do you ever find yourself saying things like…

• “My boss criticizing me at meetings makes me feel stupid!”

• “My partner drives me crazy; he/she never does what I ask!”

• “My job stresses me out!”

Welcome to a very large club.

Most of us tend to use language that represents the emotions we feel as a direct result of what other people do or events that happen to us.

Do emotions really work that way? Can external people or things cause how we feel?

Not really.


From Event to Results

This diagram below illustrates how we respond to experiences:

When something happens to you:

1 → 2 That event is filtered by your belief system.

2 → 3 This leads you to have certain thoughts to interpret (or make sense of) what happened.

3 → 4 You then feel something about it.

4 → 5 Your emotions motivate your behavior

5 → 6 …And your behavior determines the results you get.


After the Emotion

As the diagram illustrates, the emotions we feel determined how we behave:

• If you feel angry you might yell, slam the door, impulsively quit your job, or hurt someone you care about.

• If you’re anxious, you might binge-eat, binge-drink, smoke, or become unable to focus.

• And, if the emotion is a positive one, you might dance, buy drinks for everyone, or call a friend to share the joy.

Then, your behavior determines the results you get from life.

• Quit your job? Oh, dear. Now you’re unemployed.

• Attack someone? Yikes! You could be arrested and lose a friendship forever.

• Binge drink? Pass the aspirin and dark sunglasses.

Behaviors have consequences.


Before the Emotion

Now, let’s break down what happens before you feel an emotion.

Do events cause emotions? No! When you claim that an event directly caused an emotional reaction, you’re skipping two steps. And this makes a huge difference: It implies you have no power to choose feeling different emotions as if your reaction to the event was “a given” and out of your control.

That’s not the case.

It’s not what happens to us (the trigger) what determines how we feel and the results we get, but our interpretation of the trigger.

For instance,

• A colleague pays you a compliment (trigger). Whether you feel flattered or insulted (emotion) will depend on whether you appraise it as sincere or as sarcastic (your interpretation).

• Standing on a zipline platform waiting to repel down a ropes course (trigger), you may feel thrilled or terrified (emotion) depending on whether you consider this a fun activity or a dangerous, unnecessary risk (your interpretation).

To interpret an event, we filter it through our values, belief system, knowledge, and previous experiences. Our personality and culture are also factors, as well as any unconscious bias we’re not even aware we have.

When evaluating an event, the bag of beliefs we’ve accumulated about the world (“should,” “if… then,” etc.) swirls around in our minds and influences our reaction to the trigger.



• A new supplier arrives half an hour late to a meeting with you (trigger), and you’re aggravated (emotion). Perhaps you thought, “He doesn’t respect me,” because you believe that “if you respect someone, then you don’t waste their time.”

• You confide a personal problem to a friend but later discover everyone knows about it (trigger), so you feel disappointed (emotion). Perhaps you thought, “I considered this person a true friend, but now I see that he/she is not.” You thought that because you believe that “True friends should be loyal and retain confidential information.”



1. Recall a time you recently felt good. What “made” you feel that way? What happened? What did someone say or do—or was it something in the environment? What were you thinking? (I opted for a positive emotion because sometimes memories trigger the same emotions as the original event did, so enjoy reliving that moment!)

2. As you do that, try to see that it was not the circumstances that led to your feelings but your interpretation of the events.

* * * *

A better understanding of how your emotions work lays the groundwork to start learning how to manage them like a STAR™. That’s what we’ll focus on in the next lesson.

See you tomorrow!



Recommended book

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy: Techniques for Retraining Your Brain by Jason M. Satterfield and The Great Courses


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