07/28/2011 08:41 am ET Updated Sep 27, 2011

Perspective: Powerfully Choosing Our Emotions

In the face of adversity, people throw this phrase around: That which does not kill you makes you stronger. It's supposed to be one of empowerment. But to me it's not empowering at all. It's a hopeless, helpless statement, as if we have to go to the edge in order to grow. Sure, sometimes that's how it works -- this beautiful and heartbreaking thing called life. The edge is a very real and sometimes dark place. And coming back from it, whether physically or emotionally, can be vastly powerful.

For the purpose of this essay, however, I'd like to depart from the topic of physical pain and focus on emotional pain. Because in the realm of emotions, I think we need some serious tweaking. We have cultivated a society that is all too often propelled by victim/victor thinking. I'd like that to change. This is a war we don't need to wage. We can actually find peace in emotional pain. Because emotions are our choice. It's all about awareness and re-training your mind.

How? Let's start here: Language. I've been paying attention to the way we speak as a collective we, and I've noticed some dangerous trends. We often mince the physical with the emotional. I think it confuses us and sends negative, disempowering messages to our entire being when we do so. Your back isn't "killing" you. It might be in pain, but it's not "killing" you unless you have a very real disease, and that's a different subject altogether. Your husband didn't "make" (physical) you mad (emotional). Your sister didn't "make" you sad. Your mother-in-law didn't "make" you feel guilty. Again, cruel actions are real, and emotional pain is real too, but it's how we engage someone's actions -- how we relate with them -- that determines our emotional state. The responsibility is ours, no one else's. If someone punches you in the face and you get a bloody nose, that's another story. You are a victim of that thrown blow. But emotionally, it's different.

I invite you to re-read the above quote and, in the realm of emotions, ask yourself: Can a heart really break? Does pain really kill? Can anything really "make" a person emotionally grow?
So much emotional pain comes from words. In the moment someone throws us a verbal blow, we have a choice. Sometimes that blow is so unbelievably cruel that we feel it has lodged in our emotional world without our permission. But that's actually not possible. We have, sometimes at the speed of light, chosen to give it the power to hurt us. And that's the moment at which I'd like to see us pause. Become aware of what's going on. Aware of our choices. What's at stake. What's worth our anger, our tears, our hatred, our guilt. We think there's a bridge there that we have to cross. There isn't, and we don't. I can't say this enough: We choose our emotions, good, bad and ugly. And so often we choose to be emotional victims.

But here's the thing: I don't believe there really is such a thing as an emotional victim. (This is where some of you might be considering sending me some big, bad, "love" letters. Don't. Send yourself a real love letter instead. And in it, ask yourself if you want to be free. Or if you have grown used to certain bondage ... )

Let's define "victim." In addition to human sacrifice (which might actually be the most relevant definition), my dictionaries use these definitions: A person or living creature destroyed by, or suffering grievous injury from another, from fortune or from accident; an unfortunate person who suffers from some adverse circumstance.

In other words, a victim is someone who suffers incontrollable consequence because of someone or something else. But there is a giant hole in these definitions. Emotionally, how does that suffering occur? And, is it so given?

This exercise might help. Imagine the last time someone said something hurtful to you and your response was one of emotional pain. Imagine if that person had said "pass the salt" instead. How does that feel? Less threatening? Are you less triggered? Now imagine that you've prepared a lovely meal that took you hours, and into which you put all your culinary expertise. A beloved family member, without even tasting the food, says, "pass the salt." Now that "pass the salt" could be taken as an insult. You aren't a sufficient cook. You've been slighted, underestimated, judged. You are less than. And there you are, at the bridge. You do not have to cross it. You can simply pass the salt. Or not. Maybe that person just really likes salt. It's really none of your business. It's a free country.

Now, I'm not saying to suppress your emotions or to hold your tongue. Of course there are times to let those words come careening at you over the bridge and to react to them in high emotional candor, but still, you are in control of what that looks like and feels like. You can still take your pause no matter how fast those words (or actions) are coming at you, and you can decide to invite them into your emotional state -- to choose to attach meaning to them and thereby react. But remember, you have options. No one can choose them for you.

This may come as good news to you: Emotional hurt doesn't need to look like a tantrum. You can sometimes just say, "Ouch." And what happens in that case? In my experience, the words or actions go running back over the bridge, or jump in the river and float away. Let them run around somewhere else other than in your being. They can just be words or actions even if they are cruel ones. You do not have to take them personally, even when they're meant personally.

I fought this awareness for a long time. I wanted to believe that someone could emotionally hurt me. I was used to walking around with my finger out, placing blame, rather than making the daunting decision to take responsibility for my emotions. Emotional suffering had become my normal. I chose to play victim all too often. And I was sick of it.

I realized, quite suddenly in a therapist's office, that I was choosing to emotionally suffer at the flung words and actions of people. I was choosing to let things outside my control determine my emotional state. I was choosing to suffer. So I started changing the way I related with emotionally painful moments. When I met with those hard moments, rather than play victim, I'd ask myself powerful questions. Did I want that sadness? Did I want that anger? Sometimes the answer was yes. But if so, I wanted to powerfully choose that yes. I wanted to be in charge of how I translated painful emotional experiences. And statements like That which does not kill you makes you stronger didn't help one bit. I think a far more helpful statement came from Eleanor Roosevelt: No one can make you feel inferior without your consent. We are in charge of our emotions. Period.

I've been going around the country talking about this at conventions, universities, reading series, wellness centers, etc. because I wrote a book called "This Is Not The Story You Think It Is: A Season of Unlikely Happiness" (Amy Einhorn/Putnam). It's been published in nine countries, so I do interviews all over the world, and I've come to see that there are many, many people out there who don't want to receive this message. It means they'd have to get out of blame, out of the victor/victim thinking and into personal responsibility. They'd have to tell themselves a new story about where their power really lies. They resist, complain, deny and make ferocious overtures in the comment section of websites, and sometimes I even get a personal "love" letter (see above).

Why is this so? I've thought about this long and hard. Here's where I've landed: They get to be right. It's an I told you so reaction that supports a story they told themselves long ago. "See the world stinks. See, I'll never get that job, or that relationship, or that break." That is bondage. I'm not interested in bondage. I'm interested in freedom. Are you?

As seen on Sarah Brokaw's blog and These Here Hills