We are in charge of our emotions


By Kathy Berken

It took me decades to drum up the courage to confront a classmate who made fun of me when I was 14. I was an awkward teenager and was never going to be one of the cool, cute girls at the new school I had just transferred to.

A few boys in my eighth-grade class did their best to embarrass me in public but “Bob” was the ringleader who never let up. If social media was a thing in 1962, I’d surely have been bullied online, and God only knows how I would have taken that.

Sad to say, Bob’s words stayed with me for decades until I saw on a class page that he wrote a memoir. I bought a copy and my ego was so disappointed that there wasn’t a word about his bullying me. Instead, he wrote candidly about how at school he belonged to the “in” clique because he was handsome, athletic and popular. At home, life was miserable as he navigated a seriously dysfunctional family and a host of personal insecurities. That explains why he hid behind bravado and looked and acted cool in front of his friends, when in reality, he was suffering.


I decided to contact him through social media. I told him I read his book and reminded him of the incidents that caused me to feel so much shame and embarrassment. He wrote back and said he did not remember me, or any of those incidents. He sincerely apologized for anything he did as a mindless teenager to cause me such pain. I felt so relieved to be free from all that shame that I put on myself all those years.

Most of us will never have the opportunity to confront the people who have caused us pain or, if we do, just don’t want to go there. We live with the memories, the pain and suffering that often spiral into other emotional and physical issues.

Over the years, I’ve listened to many people tell such stories that led to immense suffering. It didn’t matter if they had a healthy ego, affirming friends or a good and successful life. Often one criticism, one word, one look, will bring us down. We ruminate on that and can’t seem to shake it no matter what.

I have some ideas that might help. First, the hard truth is that nobody makes us feel anything. We are in charge of our emotions. We might immediately feel injured when somebody criticizes us, but that pain can stop right there when we accept the fact that emotions last only as long as we want them to. This is proven by the fact that you do not have all the same emotions today that you had a year ago.

We can speed up the dissipation of any emotion with our thoughts. This is a key in trauma resolution therapy. Ask yourself how long you want this feeling to last. One minute? Good. Then believe that when you tell your body that emotion needs to go, you will replace it with something neutral or more pleasant.

Another technique is to believe that Shakespeare was right: “All the world’s a stage and all the men and women merely players” (“As You Like It”). When somebody acts out towards you, imagine that you are in a theater. See all the characters on stage and you in the audience. The actor’s lines always tell you about their character, not yours. Just watch the play unfold and think, “This is fascinating! I’m learning a lot about that character.”

Finally, pray the Serenity Prayer: God, Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.

(Kathy Berken is a spiritual director and retreat leader in St. Paul, Minnesota. She lived and worked at L’Arche in Clinton — The Arch from 1999-2009.)

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