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Events Don’t Cause Feelings

We are all aware of the idea that some things can lead us to ‘feel’ a certain way, whether that’s the rain making us feel miserable, or somebody’s disapproval making us feel ‘down’ about ourselves.

However much we might buy into this ‘idea’ it is NOT a true representation of what actually happens inside the human mind.

Actually, what happens is:

  1. Firstly, our senses detect some external stimulus (sound, sight, smell or ‘feel’)
  2. Our brain takes this information and compares it to the last experience we had that was the same or similar
  3. Based on this ‘internal’ comparison it classifies the experience as being inside that previously stored ‘category’
  4. Next we apply our ‘belief system’ that we use for that experience and attribute a ‘meaning’ to it
  5. Finally, based on what we believe it ‘means’ to us, we respond with a ‘behaviour’ (normally an emotional response but this could be an ‘action’)

This all happens very quickly, particularly for those experiences that we have had before which are very similar. If the ‘stimulus’ is very new to us, then the process tends to be much longer as we need to ‘make sense’ of the stimulus before categorising it.

Conventional Interpretation of an Event


Event with Additional ‘Interpretation’ Step Added


It is this intermediate step where our belief systems provide us with an ‘interpretation’ of what that event ‘means’ that we should be aware of as this ‘filter’ does not necessarily reflect an accurate picture of the event.

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Another Example

“Simon arranges to meet a girl outside the cinema for their first date. Ten minutes after the time she is supposed to meet him there she has still not arrived.”

There are a multitude of ways that this event could be interpreted by Simon, each leading to a different emotional experience, as follows:

  1. “Well that just goes to prove how unlikable I really am, she decided not to bother coming”. – Feels ‘crestfallen’ and ‘sad’.
  2. “Absolutely typical, let down once again. This just proves that you can’t trust people”. – Feels ‘angry’ and ‘bitter’
  3. “She must be stuck in traffic and will probably be here soon. If not, I’ll pop and and see that other film I really wanted to see anyway” – Feels ‘composed’ and ‘optimistic’.

The WAY any person interprets this type of event is based on their underlying belief systems about themselves (1) about other people (2) or their general understanding and sense of optimism (3).

CBT helps people to identify and then modify these underlying assumptions that often give rise to unhelpful emotional outcomes.

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