Same Event, Different Experience: How to Deal with Unexpected Emotions

Written by: Jorinde Berben
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Today was the first day of school. My daughter had been looking forward to it for days, impatiently asking me how many more nights she needed to wait. Telling me she missed school so terribly.
My son, on the other hand, has been dreading today since last June. He started in first grade today, which meant he had to be on stage with all the other first graders as they were introduced to the school. He hates being looked at. He has been tense about today for weeks to come, and since he has a hard time dealing with emotions, this tension came out in not-so-fun-ways more than once.

My two children had completely opposite reactions to what, in fact, was the same event: the first day of school. There are, of course, many, many situations in which someone responds differently to a situation than we would. In fact, it’s what makes up much of our individuality as we appear to other people: ‘he’s someone who usually wakes up grumpy’, ‘she’s a ray of sunshine every morning!’ But even though we know that people have different reactions to different situations, even though we know people experience things differently, we still seem to judge someone’s reaction by how we interpret events from our own framework.

Let me give you some common examples of reactions we give to someone’s experience of a situation or their reaction to it:

  • A child loses the rock it picked up earlier and has been carrying around for a while. She is crying. The parent says: ‘There’s no need to be sad, it’s just a rock!’
  • A wife says to her husband: ‘Don’t get mad at the computer, it’s not like it’ll do you any good. I always just let it be for a while’.
  • You overhear yourself telling a friend: ‘And then she really started stressing out over how messy her house was. I mean come on, who cares?’

In all these cases, we can imagine having different reactions to an event than someone else, and yet, we often see our own reaction as the ‘normal’ or ‘logical’ one. I’m not sure we can stop ourselves from feeling this way, but we can be aware of our biases when it comes to emotions. We all have them. We have all been taught to respond in certain ways to certain events, and our patterns are just that: OUR patterns. They aren’t logic, or truth, or the best.

Being aware gives you choice. A choice in how to respond when you may think someone is overreacting, or underreacting for that matter. You find yourself with the invitation to investigate your own patterns, and the patterns of others, not to see which one is right but to understand where they might both be coming from.

I get this invitation quite often. My children challenge me in taking their disappointments seriously when I, with my perspective on life, might make light of them. My partner challenges me in acknowledging when things might be harder for him than for me, and I do the same for him. Society at large challenges me in taking fear into account as a motivator for people’s actions, and to understand the effects it can have on our behaviour.

So what can you do in this situation? Well, the answer is pretty simple: you just give them empathy for their experience of the situation. If you find your response is stronger than someone else’s, and you want to communicate this, it helps to show them where you are coming from. And even if they don’t understand, you can always ask them to just respect that this is tricky for you. There is no shame in this. On the contrary, it takes real courage to admit when things are difficult.

Many people won’t change their emotional blueprint, but they can.
My son mentioned, at dinner, that today he had told his teacher he was sad the day had ended. From my boy, who’s always disliked school, this was quite surprising.
‘Does this mean you don’t mind going back to school tomorrow?’ I ask with mild surprise?
‘No, I want to go back.’
He notices my stunned look.
‘That’s the first time, right?’
I nodded, laughed, and cried tears of joy.
Not everything is set in stone.

2 thoughts on “Same Event, Different Experience: How to Deal with Unexpected Emotions

    1. True, their patterns are definitely more flexible. But I can also have that experience, even now, of doing something because I have to and I end up enjoying it anyways.

      Liked by 1 person

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