On Catching Thoughts Before They Become Emotional Reactions


“I am not what happens to me. I choose who I become.” ~Carl Jung

Recently I experienced a big shock, the kind that most of us don’t encounter very often.

I was with a friend when I discovered evidence of a physical disaster near my home. I did not, at that time, know any of the details, nor did I know what kind of impact it might have on my own life.

Now, normally, I am a person who likes, even needs, to process my emotional impact verbally. In other words, I really like to talk things out. (What else would you expect from a professional therapist, right?)

But in this circumstance, I found myself unwilling to talk about my inner workings at all. My friend who was with me was even a little frustrated. She couldn’t understand why I shut down. I didn’t even know, myself.

So What Happened?

Later, as I recovered from the feeling of shock and that first big emotional wallop, I had some insight into my own process.

Usually, I am pretty grounded. I know how I feel pretty quickly, and I’m agile and adaptable, able to examine my shifting thoughts and feelings within a few minutes.

When something like that shock hits me, though, I don’t know how I feel. I hear lots of my inner parts giving all different kinds of feelings and ideas. I can feel my core self listening to them, kind of like a trained cop handling tens of panicky witnesses.

And I discovered that the reason I didn’t want to talk about these thoughts and feelings as they came up was because I didn’t want to commit to any of them. I could have explored any one of those thoughts and followed it down the rabbit hole, getting worked up about a particular story.

In that vulnerable state where I still wasn’t grounded enough to know what I believed, I sent up my boundaries so that I could calm the riotous crowd inside me until I knew what thoughts and emotion I decided to allow to fully exist.

How Did I Do That?

This may sound like some kind of zen mentalist magic, but the truth is that anyone can learn to do this.

In her book Emotional Alchemy, author Tara Bennett-Goleman talks about “the very latest research in neuroscience–including the neurological ‘magic quarter second,’ during which it is possible for a thought to be ‘caught’ before it turns into an emotional reaction.”

It’s so much easier to nip a feeling in the bud before it really takes root and spreads throughout my system and I have to go digging up the entire weedy garden.

Dr. Carl Jung knew, more than fifty years ago, that such mindfulness was possible. I’m so grateful to live in an age where the tools to achieve it are so readily available, so that each of us who wishes to can achieve true peace.

Photo here

About Rachel Whalley

Rachel Whalley is a psychotherapist and energy healer in Seattle, WA. She helps people who are struggling with body image and self-esteem issues connect with their whole and healed Selves. She also teaches folks about the personality system called the enneagram.

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  • “I hear lots of my inner parts giving all different kinds of feelings and ideas. I can feel my Core Self listening to them, kind of like a trained cop handling tens of panicky witnesses.”

    I love that description! It's so accurate!

    I find that I'm getting better at being able to stop in that split-second before I say or do something based purely on my emotional reaction. It takes practice, but it's totally possible. All it takes is fostering self-awareness and patience, and I feel so proud of myself when I can control my reaction before it bursts out and potentially does damage.

    Thanks for this helpful article!

  • lizzybee182

    This was such a great article. Everyone i forwarded it to LOVED it. Thank you thank you thank you!

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  • N.Ali

    Hi..this is not an easy one to rationalize.
    The nature and impact of shock, is to bring everything to a standstill, because we don't know or haven't worked out the that moment.
    Shock has changed and moved the boundaries,and broken the rules we live by each day. It's working out what ground we are standing on now, because it's outside of our experience..shutting down is the time lapse where we are still trying to identify what has happened, how we feel about it, how to reason it and then which direction to take that makes us feel safe and makes the most sense…
    I still shut down, alot actually, and it's widespread. What I mean by that, is I take myself away from everyone and everything. I can't and don't want to connect with people, while I'm trying to sort out my place in the midst of whatever 'shock' I've experienced. It's an old reaction, like a reflex, from my time growing up in children's homes.. I don't know if that will ever go away.
    I think life is less peaceful these days, because we are exposed to events on a global level, and the 'shockwaves' are daily..Haiti ofcourse is the most recent of those shocks. The Earthquake is bad enough, but worse still have been the human behaviours that emerged in the aftermath of the disaster..more shocking than the disaster itself!
    I don't know the right way with all of this, I really don't. Ive engaged with the process many times, because that's been my life experience, but I don't think I'm any better at handling the 'shocks'. Some of them are the same, so I can use previous reasoning to deal with them, but that's not going to work everytime..
    The thing about 'feelings' is, they are our inner-guidance system, and usually tell us the truth about what we are experiencing, through the 'viewfinder' of our own individual personalities and frame of reference. What's a shock for me, isn't a shock for someone else and so on, and so all depends upon individual personality and life experience…
    We do the best we can, with what we have.

  • @Melissa: Thanks so much for your comment! I feel so blessed that something I write can impact people I don't even know. 🙂
    That's fantastic that your practice is paying off. To me, every single person who works with herself to be kinder and more self-aware is changing the world.

    @Lizzybee: You are so welcome. Thank YOU for passing it along.

  • Nova, this is so true. Each of us has a different set of voices inside, with unique needs and commentary.

    I really valued my shock response. It taught me a lot about some things that I do without full consciousness. It protected me from being too raw or vulnerable in the moment.

    I also love my feelings, even the ones that feel crappy. They are essential tools to knowing myself and the world better.

    AND, I would add that I keep practicing ways to stay grounded in spite of the changing ground beneath our feet. Becoming more aware of my own process is one way I do that.

    We are all, always, doing the best that we can.
    And to me, the point of places like tinybuddha is for us to keep learning and growing and trying to make that “best” be even better.

  • N.Ali

    Hi Rachel..

    Self-knowledge is definitely the key, that and building self-reliance, is where our greatest strength is, and our strongest ali in these situations.
    We live inside a life that is constantly changing, upon an Earth in perpetual motion and constant state of change, organic and alive, always evolving..
    Do you remember at school, jumping in to the skipping rope..we had to time it just right, and then once inside the whirling loops, we had to jump rope and keep going, moving with the rythm of the rope as it spun around our heads and beneath our feet..and we did, without thinking, we were fluid, part of the motion of the spinning rope…it's like that in life, just jump in and be part of it..we can't stop the shocks, but if we stay in the rythm, we'll be ok…

  • alexahart

    very interesting! thanks for a great read 🙂

  • Glad you enjoyed it, Alexa! I appreciate you stopping by to say so.

  • Glad you enjoyed it, Alexa! I appreciate you stopping by to say so.

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  • Kioutas

    You are not living in an age where these tools are readily available, rather you are living in an age where this has been largely forgotten. The Orthodox Christians have touted “watchfulness” for at least 1000 years.

  • kavin paker

    I feel a great deal better after reading this. Iwill try to stay in the moment more often. Great job. Thanks.
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