Josh Schwarzbaum, MD, MBA

Have you ever noticed two kids playing with each other? One does something that upsets the other but a few minutes later they go back to playing, laughing and smiling as if nothing ever happened? How can they shift their moods and emotions so quickly when as adults, we get stuck for hours or days? 

The secret is that kids are intuitively tuned in to our emotion factory. 

Bob and Jane are playing together. Jane decides to tell Bob that he is stupid. Bob gets upset, starts crying and says I hate you. 

What causes Bob to be upset? Is it what Jane said? Most people (including Bob) would say yes. 

But something mysterious happens. In just a few minutes Bob and Jane are playing hide and go seek together as if nothing was ever wrong. 

Did Bob forget about what happened that quickly? Shouldn’t he still be upset? 

If Jane caused Bob to feel that way and Bob didn’t forget what happened just a few minutes ago it would seem to me that he should be in the same emotional state for some time. But that’s not what we see. 

Bob is a 5 year old kid who has no formal training in resilience or wellbeing but he can quickly go from one state of mind to another without missing a beat. 

I noticed countless stories like this working in the ER, on ambulances and in my everyday life.  After thinking about this phenomenon some more, it seemed to me that there must be something else (aside from Jane) that’s causing Bob to feel the way he does, otherwise he wouldn’t be able to cycle so quickly. 

Eventually, I discovered two potential paradigms to explain what was going on. One holds that our feelings and experiences are created by the events in the external world. Jane made Bob feel the way he did. His feelings were a logical reaction to what happened to him.

But then you see two people experience the same event and feel differently, or one person experiencing the same twice and have different reactions. This paradigm suggests that no person, situation, or event can make you feel a certain way nor can it create your experience and calls paradigm one into question. In this second paradigm, the way you feel and the experience you have will be based on your thinking in the moment. 

Jane calls Bob stupid. Bob starts thinking (consciously or subconsciously) about how she called him stupid and from there his feelings are created. 

A few minutes later though he’s back laughing, smiling and playing hide and go seek. 

Prior to the name calling, Bob was in the moment, enjoying himself. Jane called him stupid and his thoughts got pulled there. He got upset. He let that thought go, a new one popped in and was back in his happiness, adventure and creativity, finding the best hiding spot. 

Imagine thought is like a tape. You pop it into the player and the screen shows up with whatever emotion is on the tape. Our mind is like the player and our feelings are the screen. 

This second paradigm doesn’t say that there is anything wrong with any thought or feeling nor does it say we need to change our thoughts or feelings. It is purely a description of how our feelings are created. 

If I pop a cassette into the player I expect the screen to reflect what is on the tape. If a thought pops into my head, I’ll expect to feel what is in the thought. The way we feel is simply an indicator of our thinking at that given time (without any judgment). 

When Bob has a thought of being hurt by the name calling, he’ll feel hurt and he’d be justified. When that thought goes and a new one comes in, he’ll have a new feeling. 

That is our invisible power. The recognition of the thought-feeling complex. Once we recognize where the feeling comes from we know where to look if we’re not feeling good.  

A mother comes running into the ER because the police called her and said her son was in an accident. She was frantic, and you could see the terror on her face. She asks me to see her son and I oblige. She looks at him and her face changes to one of calm. She says that’s not my son and walks out smiling. 

How could she go from being so upset, tearful and worried to happy and grateful in a moment? The obvious answer is that it wasn’t her son. But take a look deeper, her son was never in the accident so it couldn’t have been the accident that caused her initial distress. It was simply the thought. 

This is what is happening to us all the time whether we know it or not. We experience momentary shifts in our emotions based on the momentary shifts of our thoughts. 

Like this mother, using thought, we innocently and unknowingly create a very real looking picture that we call reality. This reality then dictates how we feel. 

Did the mother do anything wrong? Were her feelings unjustified? No. She was using her best thinking at the moment. Nonetheless, it was her thinking that created her feelings. 

If I take an honest look at this situation I can’t blame the accident for the way she felt. Afterall, her son was never in it. This (and many other similar events) made it clear to me that our emotions are manufactured from within us and they don’t come from the outside. 

This is how Bob was able to go back and play so quickly. He had a new thought. 

It didn’t mean that Bob needed to change the way he felt or that he needed to work on his feelings. It didn’t mean it was his fault for feeling the way he did. 

Bob’s feeling gave him a piece of vital information. It revealed to him the thinking that was on his mind and shows us how we, as human beings, have the power within ourselves to create a world of feeling. 

It was on this foundation that I was able to recognize an untapped source of power within. It explained the variety of reactions I see when giving people sad (or happy) news. 

It allowed me to understand myself and other people better. I learned that my feelings were not caused by what comes my way, rather, through my thinking, I was innocently creating how I felt about what comes my way. 

Ever since, I’ve been applying this to my patient interactions and in my relationships and it’s helped tremendously. We all think and we all think differently. The fact that we have the freedom to think allows each of us to have our experience.

Once I saw how thought is the common denominator it all fell into place. There is no other explanation that accounts for the variability of reactions and behaviors that people exhibit. Now, when a patient is rude, threatening, or aggressive I see it as a product of their thinking as opposed to a personal attack on me. There’s a space between their circumstances and their behavior. The same space exists between their behavior and how I respond and feel about it. That space is filled by thought. 

We’re all doing the best we can given our thinking in that moment and if I truly know that, I can more easily find compassion for people who don’t have the best thinking. It doesn’t stop with others though. When I’m feeling down, frustrated, or annoyed I know where it’s coming from and while it may be attractive, looking towards the external circumstances is ultimately futile. 

What each of us has been through in life has certainly shaped the way we think but the beauty of thought is that there is always space for something new. If I let go of yesterday’s thinking. I can start anew today. It doesn’t negate what I’ve been through but it gives me the potential to feel good in the here and now. 

It’s what Bob and Jane are doing on the playground and it’s just as accessible to me too.

Dr. Josh Schwarzbaum is a triple board certified physician in emergency medicine, addiction medicine, and emergency medical services. He consults for organizations and coaches individuals helping them find their natural resilience and peace of mind no matter what life brings their way.

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