We think our emotions happen to us. The internal experience of an emotion makes it feel inevitable. Our language even tricks us: that phone bill made me angry.

But that’s an illusion.

To prove that our reactions and experiences are entirely within our control, I present one Thích Quảng Đức.

Thích Quảng Đức Self-Immolation

Thich Quang Duc Self-Immolates (Click to Enlarge)

Thích Quảng Đức, a Buddhist monk, burned himself alive in 1963. If you’re like me, your skin crawled and your heart jumped when you saw this picture. We project our expected internal experience on him, so we vicariously experience agony when we see him burning.

But look again, at his face, bubbling and flaking off his skull as it is. Serenity. Centered calm. Witnesses reported that he did not move a muscle or make a sound, until his burnt husk finally collapsed forward after about ten minutes of burning.

You should not expect that kind of adamantine self control from yourself. I’m sharing this with you to remind you that your experience of the world, and your reactions to it are entirely your choice.

The Script

  • Some asshole with chrome rims and no door handles cuts you off in traffic. The spurt of adrenaline constricts your chest, and your head throbs as you grip the steering wheel. Asshole, you yell.
  • Your room mate is playing his music at 1am again, and you’re frustrated.
  • A friend flakes on you for the second time in a row, you’re pissed, you feel disrespected.

All these are normal reactions. These are the kind of reactions your parents demonstrated to you while you were growing up. Your friends and family won’t think twice if you react like that.

But the normalcy and inevitably of these reactions is an illusion. You’re just running a script, a program, that’s been passed on to you, that you haven’t thought hard enough about to stop.

But now you will.

The Choice

The limbic system is the seat of emotions in the brain. Even though our internal experience as humans seems like it takes place in the frontal lobe, with language and rational thought, the limbic system is the older, more powerful part of us. It’s the reason we can’t resist chocolate. It’s the reason rape turns our stomachs, or turns us on. It’s the reason that guy cutting you off in traffic makes you so very upset.

When people talk about choices, they usually mean a rational choice: analyze your options, then choose the one that makes the most sense. You don’t feel like emotions are a choice because they aren’t… a rational-level choice.

Emotions are a limbic-level choice, and you can’t make a limbic-level choice the same way you’d make a rational level choice. If you try to rationally choose not to be upset at your loud room mate, you will fail. The limbic system doesn’t respond to reason. The limbic system only responds to sensation and chemistry.

Think of your limbic system as a machine that you can put an experience into, and get a feeling out of. Loud noise in, frustration out.

Training Your Limbic System

Before you can train your limbic system, you have to know that experiencing, remembering, and imagining are virtually identical cognitive processes.

So a dog scares you when you’re a child, and every time you remember that experience, you are scared as if it’s happening to you again. That reinforces your limbic-level idea that dogs are scary. That’s how phobias develop: an early experience gets trapped in an echo chamber until it becomes an overwhelming emotional burden.

The good thing about how this works is that just like your early experience planted an emotional seed, you can deliberately choose new experiences that will plant a similar emotional seeds that can “echo” and grow in your mind.

If that’s not feasible for your situation, you can imagine or remember differently—remember that those are almost identical to experiencing.

Desensitization

The first option I mentioned is to deliberately experience your fears in a safe context. People afraid of spiders can conquer that fear by looking at pictures of spiders, then video of spiders, then real spiders. Then touching the spiders.

People afraid of approaching hot women cure their fear by approaching anyone at all, then women they aren’t interested in, then hot women.

What’s happening is that your limbic system is learning that nothing bad happens in these contexts. The more you do it, the more that safety is anchored, the more that well-being is associated with the experience.

It doesn’t matter that you already “know” that spiders are mostly harmless. You have to feel it.

Emotional Anchoring

This is a big topic that spans most of NLP, but I’ll give you a broad overview. The goal is to use “anchors” to trigger a desirable emotional response.

Anchors can be any action or thought. Maybe for you, going back to your parents’ house and eating a meal your mom cooked triggers a deep sense of safety and love. An NBA star might feel a rush of confidence and competence as he steps onto the court.

These are rituals that trigger emotional responses because of past experiences.

The basic steps to creating an anchor are:

  1. Choose an emotion you want to be able to call up at any time.
  2. Relax deeply by breathing and clearing your mind.
  3. Remember a time when you truly felt the emotion you chose. Put yourself back in that moment, remember how you felt, how did everything look to you? how did it feel, smell, taste? Don’t skimp here, you must really feel this emotion deeply.
  4. While fully in that relaxed state of remembering and imagining, perform some ritual. Squeeze your left hand into a fist, say some unusual combination of words, imagine yourself bathed in light. Whatever you want, it’s up to you.

Perform the steps again for the same emotion and ritual, but this time with a different experience. The more you do it, the more heavily the emotion will be anchored.

So you’ve anchored serenity and joy into a phrase: the world is beautiful. Next time a jerk cuts you off, the adrenaline still spurts, but you focus and you say: the world is beautiful. You feel better instantly.

Over and over, on your commute, you’re cut off, and each time you say: the world is beautiful. Eventually you’ll condition your mind to react with serenity and joy when you’re cut off in traffic, without even invoking the anchor.

If you don’t think that’s possible, remember Thích Quảng Đức. A lifetime of anchoring serenity and detachment through meditation. Not even being burned alive could shake him. You can choose to be joyful in your life.