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Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy Workshop

Thoughts Cause Feelings, Not Events

Here is a concept that you may think is a bit strange at first. Many people believe it is an event that happens around us that causes us to feel emotions. In reality, it's not the events themselves that cause us to feel certain emotions. Instead, it is our thoughts about the event that cause feelings. We have to make meaning out of a situation before we can feel an emotion about it. This can be difficult to believe since there is often just a split second between an event and an emotion we experience around it.

To illustrate this, imagine you are at a grocery store trying to decide which brand of cereal to purchase. You are facing the cereal boxes with your back to the aisle. As you are looking at them, you are suddenly hit from behind with a shopping cart. Even before you can turn around, what is your very first thought about this event? Many people might think something like, "What an inconsiderate so-and-so!" or "They should be looking where they are going" or "They hit me on purpose!" or "They don't respect me." Again, before you can turn around, what feelings might you have? Some might feel anger or rage at being hit with a shopping cart. So, in a split second you have made some meaning of this situation and experienced a feeling about it. Suppose you turn around and discover that the person who hit you was a small elderly woman who hadn't realized what she has done until you turn around? She seems to struggle as she walks and it's clear that she's having trouble managing her cart. As you turn toward this woman who looks up at you with surprise and begins to apologize, what thoughts and feelings do you have now about this event? You might immediately change your thought to something like, "Oh, it was an accident," or "She didn't mean it." What would happen to feelings of anger or rage? Those strong feelings may turn quickly to forgiveness or a much milder form of irritation. The event itself has not changed, but your thoughts about it have. The different thoughts you had about the same situation before and after you turned around generated very different feelings.

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