How Your Emotions Are Made (And How To Change Them To Serve You Better)

How Your Emotions Are Made (And How To Change Them To Serve You Better)

I’m a highly reactive person.

So many people are… something happens in our life, and we immediately feel it.

And the most difficult part about feeling emotions strongly is the ensuing actions afterward. Anger, withdrawal, loneliness, angst.

If we can discover how we think, we can change what we think.

Once we learn the patterns that cause us to feel and act differently than we’d like, we can finally take ownership of the way we feel about ourselves and the world around us.

After I read this intro book to NLP, I learned so much more about the way my mind creates emotions.

Sometimes, it can feel like our minds are a mystery. Like they do things on their own.

They cause us to feel things we don’t want to. They cause us to act differently than what we expect of ourselves.

And as much as we want to change, we find ourselves resisting our very desires to grow and develop.

Our minds really aren’t as deceptive as we think. The problem is that we’re too close to the problem for us to get a larger perspective that can help us grow.

Our minds really aren’t as deceptive as we think. The problem is that we’re too close to the problem for us to get a larger perspective that can help us grow.

Frankly, we all have the same process of forming thoughts… and once you realize how you form thoughts, you’ll finally be able to control what you think.

And control in this circumstance is a good thing.

Because finally, you’ll get a glimpse into how to shake the negative thought patterns, emotions, and behaviors that are causing you so much grief.


Here are the 4 steps that our minds walk through to form emotions.

  1. A stimulus happens
  2. Our minds attach a meaning to the stimulus
  3. The meaning crafts an emotion
  4. We act from our emotional state

Stimulus > Meaning > Emotion > Action

Let’s break it down…

Whatever the stimulus is that’s coming in, you assign a meaning to it, you have an emotion, and it’s those emotions that generate your reaction.

NLP: The Essential Guide to Neuro-Linguistic Programming

1. A Stimulus Happens

If we take a step back and slow down our autonomous reaction cycle, we can immediately begin to recognize that everything around us that happens is just a stimulus.

Every interaction, situation, and circumstance is just something that’s happening. It’s existing, and that’s it.

This is a predominant teaching in mindfulness meditation. Mindfulness meditation is the growing practice of awareness.

And a powerful teaching in mindfulness meditation is something called “noting”.

In noting, you just become aware of something, label it, and move on.

Headspace, the popular meditation app, has a perfect teaching here:

In this process, we recognize a stimulus as just a stimulus and we move on. We don’t give it more power than it deserves.

And in the process, we learn how we can add a little more space between the stimulus and how it causes us to react.

2. Our Minds Attach A Meaning

Immediately after a stimulus happens, our minds are desperate to ascribe a meaning to the stimulus.

Our minds are in continual pursuit of things that make sense. We need story and substance to understand the world around us.

Our minds naturally believe that an empty stimulus, with no attached meaning, is just that… an empty life.

So, we traffic slows down our already unproductive day, we take it personal. Of course we got stuck in traffic again. “Today is just not my day”.

Instead of traffic simply being traffic, our mind has now made traffic to mean that today isn’t working for us. That something is wrong. And the stimulus caused it.

The big problem with our minds attaching a meaning, is that often that meaning is completely false.

And that meaning is created without our active thought.

Our mind takes what we’re already believing and stretches the stimulus to fit into the grand narrative we’re already living in.

The meaning stage happens so quickly that we are unaware that we’re even creating a meaning and attaching it to a stimulus.

3. The Meaning Crafts an Emotion

Our emotions are directly created from the meanings our mind attaches to the stimulus.

If the meaning is “you fail at everything”, our emotions will become sadness and despair.

If the meaning is “everything keeps attacking me” our emotions will be that of frustration and defensiveness.

It is impossible for us to have an emotion that exists without reason…

Or, at least, a reason that our brain created.

Have you ever seen a toddler crying over something pointless? Like, completely pointless…

Maybe they spilled a drink. But their reaction is a chaotic screaming that only a parent can withstand.

This is what’s happening:

A stimulus happened, a drink spilled, but the meaning created in that child’s mind is vastly different.

The meaning might be “my parents are going to get frustrated” or “that’s the end, there’s no more juice ever” (my worst nightmare). Obviously, these meanings are over-reactions, but our minds function in this exact way.

And the child is not mature enough to slow down and observe the meaning they are ascribing to the stimulus.

So, they move straight into the emotion… frustration, sadness, irritability.

This is how our brains work most of the time. We’re processing and reacting to stimuli so quickly that we immediately emote rather than process what the stimulus is leading us to believe about ourselves and the world around us.

4. We Act From Our Emotional State

The majority of the actions we take are driven from the emotional state we’re in.

We may be acting directly out of a dominant macro-emotion. But, often, many of our actions are driven from the underlying emotional state we’re in.

And until we slow down to realized the meanings that we’re creating, we’ll continue to be victimized by our emotions.

Continually falling into the cycle of feeling like the world around us is more powerful than our own willpower and thought.

We become reactionary. Not grounded enough in the truth of the present to remain emotional constant when things don’t go as expected.

The Secret That “The Meaning” Is Trying To Hide From You

Even though the process of forming emotions goes like this:

stimulus > meaning > emotion > action

We often only perceive this:

stimulus > meaning > emotion > action

We completely bypass the meaning because we allow our mind to create it without our present consent.

We can get so caught up in protecting our self-image that we can only see stimuli for how it makes us feel rather than the true meanings that are involved.

To not be controlled by the automatic, worst-case meanings that our minds ascribe to stimuli, we have to slow down our thoughts and emotions.

We need to compare the true meaning of what has happened to the way we react.

I was talking with a friend of mine who mentioned that over the past few years he continually came in as the #2 salesperson in the office.

I asked him how he felt about being #2. He mentioned that he felt unworthy after constantly being beat out. And frustrated that he couldn’t do enough to get the #1 spot.

Then, we traced back to the beginning, before those emotions were formed…

So here we are… a stimulus happened. He got the #2 spot this year. No meanings attached. It’s just something that happened.

But, we know that our minds ascribe meaning to stimuli. Because empty stimulus makes us feel like we’re in an incomplete story.

We talked about what his mind told him about himself because of that stimulus. He mentioned that he allowed the announcement of his spot in the company to give permission to his mind to be critical.

The meaning his mind created was that he didn’t have what it takes and that he could never do enough.

Which led to the emotions of hopelessness and fear.

Do you see the danger when we process like this?

When we allow the meaning to be created, our emotions usually back us into a wall. They cause us to feel less valued. More at risk.

Instead, when we slow down and note the stimulus, we create an open space for us to re-shape the meaning that we give to ourself and the situation we’re in.

We create open space to say, “even though this didn’t happen the way I wanted it to, I’m still loved, I’m still valued, and really, this was out of my control anyway”.

And that open space where we allow ourselves to find value and worthiness is the key to opening up freedom of emotionality and actions that resonate we who we truly are.

People who are comfortable in their skin. People who resonate with their quirks. People who take ownership of how they’ll influence and bond with others.

How Will You Slow Down?

Give it a practice… if you notice a prominent emotion today, trace it back to where it began.

Find the stimulus that started it. Don’t judge what happened. Just allow it.

Find the meaning you gave the stimulus in your mind and how your mind took that and ran with it to make an emotion.

Are your emotions in line with what’s true about you and your world?

Does that stimulus deserve your energy and attention?

Looking to discover more fulfillment in your life, but not sure where to begin? We made a free ebook that walks you through our core values exercise so you can discover and practice purpose in your life wherever you are in whatever you do. Click here to download the ebook.

Read More:


Life Purpose Guide

Kyle Seagraves

I exist to help people explore their identity and connect their unique story to culture. I’m an avid learner and am endlessly curious about the world around me (YouTube has taught me everything I know). When I’m not lost in a book, I’m usually brewing naturally-processed black coffee and picking up strange and unusual flavor notes.

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NLP The Essential Guide to Neuro-Linguistic Programming

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