Emotional Cause & Effect

Imagine a time when you had an unpleasant run-in with a stranger. Maybe you both rounded a corner simultaneously and crashed into each other. Maybe you said something or they said something seemingly innocuous and the other took offense. Small incidents like these happen to us all from time to time.

Now occasionally something interesting can happen: we can become offended by their offense at us.

They become irritated by us in some way, then we can find ourselves ruminating for hours on why they acted the way they did. Perhaps we even become angry at them for overreacting to our error.

What underlying assumption is driving these thoughts?

“They did what they did because of me”.

On the face of it, this statement seems perfectly reasonable. We perceive their reaction to what we did, as being caused by us. And if that reaction seems unwarranted, then we can become offended.

But consider this…

What if how they responded had only 1% to do with what you did and 99% to do with them?

Because here’s the truth, often the effects we see in people were created by causes we have no clue about.

This article will be an exploration in how not to take things personally. How to maintain your center, when it seems like people are treating you poorly because they detect some fault in you.

Now a quick disclaimer:

This is very hard to do.

The assumption that they are responding to exactly what we did from some imagined neutral emotional baseline, is for some reason, deeply ingrained in many of us. It seems logical.

But more often than not, it’s false.

See, people are always trying to resolve and meet their needs. And we’re constantly getting signals from our environment (“causes” if you will) that give us information about what needs are going to be met, and in what way. Some of these are good and some are bad. And as humans, we’re all trying to mitigate the signals that certain needs might not be met, by whatever means we can (“effects” if you will).

Here’s an example of how this concept, working constantly to meet and secure needs, might play out on a delayed timescale (and it often does; how often is something in life solvable in an instant?)

Say someone wakes up late due to a long night with a newborn baby and races to work. Once they get there, they’re berated by a demanding boss, but of course they have to bite their tongue; talking back to the boss would lose them their job. But inside, they boil.

A need has just been birthed.

A need to verbally stand up and explain the good reason they had for being late.

Now the reason this response has been created in our fictional person, is often because of deeper and deeper layers of unresolved needs extending back to childhood, a discussion of which is beyond the scope of this article.

For now, let’s just accept that this person now feels they have an unresolved need. A need that can’t be expressed where they are.

So what will happen?

The very next time it seems like that need can be fulfilled, they will do it.

Imagine you run into this person later that same day and cause them to spill their coffee. They respond by diatribing you for 5 minutess on your clumsiness.

Your initial response might be something along the lines of “I can’t believe how angry and unsympathetic this person is. I already feel embarrassed and now they’re just rubbing it in my face. What a jerk”.

Now you’re probably correct.

They are acting like a jerk.

But if you could see the chain of events that led up to their monologue, you’d see that they were 90% assured of acting the exact way they did.

And here’s the humbling part:

If you were in their shoes and had experienced everything they had that morning, you probably would have responded they same way they did.

Now it’s not as if they didn’t have freewill and were predetermined to be unkind to you, but (and this is a very important “but”) they were set on an emotional heading by earlier events. Events that gave rise to the feeling of unmet needs which were given an easy outlet to be soothed by your forceful redistribution of their coffee.

It’s exactly the same way a ball, rolled down a hill is not 100% predetermined to end up at the bottom, but that’s what’s most likely to happen.

Now being aware of when we’re triggered and likely to behave in ways we might later regret is a lifetime effort to be aware of and correct for and that’s a topic for another article.

Now it should be fairly obvious why it’s actually unwise to spend undue time thinking over or feeling offended at nasty people.

Because it really has very little to do with you and a lot to do with them.

Nothing you could do will change what needs that person feels they need to fulfill.

Just smile, take a deep breath and move on and remember 2 very important things:

1. Most people are responding the way they are, not because of who you are, but because of past events.

2. It’s therefore, a waste of time and energy to get offended at the jerks of the world.


Using this mental framework is quite liberating once you get the hang of it, but I would be remiss if I didn’t point out something.

Thus far we’ve been exploring this concept as it relates to strangers. People you’ll probably never see again.

This is level 1 difficulty.

Where it gets really hard is in level 2.

Level 2 is when these situations happen with people you know very well; family and friends ect.

And when I say this is really hard, I mean infuriatingly difficult. Just so we’re clear.

But that’s a topic for another time…