The Importance of Meanings in Our Reactions

Aaron T. Beck, M.D., President Emeritus

People often make statements such as “You upset me,” “She makes me so angry,” or “The news is depressing.” They do not realize that the specific event is not directly responsible for their feelings. Rather, the meaning they attach to the experience accounts for feelings of sadness, anger, or anxiety. Our emotional response to an event is generally so rapid that it seems as though there is an inexorable bond between the stimulus situation and the feeling. For many years this notion was dominant in the field of psychiatry and psychology. Then it was discovered that there was a link between an event and the emotional response. The missing link was termed an “automatic thought.” This occurs rapidly and automatically in response to the event and incorporates the actual meaning of the event.

For example, a wife angrily reprimanded her husband “You upset me” after he forgot to run an errand. On reflection, she recognized her automatic thought was “He always lets me down.” The automatic thought and the meaning embodied in it were exaggerations, but they led to anger and recriminations. By identifying excessive, inappropriate, or exaggerated meanings, people can reduce the intensity of their reactions. The meanings we attach to our experiences may enrich our lives on the one hand, but on the other hand negative meanings can lead to excessive frustration, conflict, and misery.

Once we reflect on our automatic thoughts we often realize that the meanings are exaggerated, illogical, or without basis. We can question their validity, examine the evidence, consider alternative explanations, and arrive at more realistic meanings.

For more information see A. T. Beck, “Prisoners of hate: The cognitive basis of anger, hostility and violence.”

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Dear Dr. Beck,

I read with interest the brief note on “The Importance of Meaning in Our Reactions.” I certainly agree that there is an intermediate step between an event or situation and our reaction. However, I believe that what you state also misses a crucial aspect- i.e.that words or cognitions point to something “more,” that they are also labels or shorthand for a more intricate felt sense that can be directly contacted in the body. For example, when the wife tells her husband, “You upset me,” because he did not run an errand, these words are symbols for a felt meaning that is not yet in awareness. It is not that we attribute or misattribute meanings (automatic thoughts) but that anything explicit such as this statement is a “shorthand” for a much more complex implicit experiencing.

So we might for instance say, “So there is something about your husband not doing the errand that evoked a reaction. Maybe you can sense that…” which points toward a bodily felt sensing of the reaction. Another possibility would be to invite the wife to attend to the whole quality of the “upset” so that more specific information comes. etc.Then if she pauses and says, “Well, it is more like feeling disappointed…” and there is a slight easing or sigh. that is actually a bodily shift, a change-step. Then if we stay with that, we might invite her to sense into the felt quality of (or felt meaning of) disappointment, and more would come and so on.

Thus any specific or explicit content contains to a wealth of implicitly sensed or bodily felt information that can open up and unfold into deeper meanings and steps forward if we help clients directly refer to the bodily felt quality (felt sense) of the whole situation or issue. This feels more organic and respectful of the person who carries these meanings then to label it as “irrational” etc. That part of the person (partial self) that feels or believes this is based on its history, and experiencing, so I would recommend allowing that aspect to unfold just as it is. Eventually it will open its implicit meaningfulness into something more and different than when it started- and will carry forward the client’s living in new and expansive ways- including developing new cognitions and meanings that often come.

Thanks for listening and for offering this opportunity to express a Focusing-orientation to cognitive change.

Sincerely,

Dr. Glenn Fleisch, PhD, MFT

Mill Valley, CA.

Response from Dr. Aaron T. Beck

Dear Glenn,

You are quite correct. The individual’s reaction is not simply a disembodied thought but a definite feeling state, oftentimes described as a “hurt” feeling. This is rapidly replaced by a retaliation in a motor form such as yelling, but also by another feeling state, generally described as “anger.” I go into this in great detail in “Prisoners of Hate,” and will come back to this in a later note when I describe the genesis of anger.

In any event, thank you for your comment.

Dr. Beck

AARON T. BECK, M.D.
University Professor Emeritus of Psychiatry
University of Pennsylvania
Perelman School of Medicine
Aaron T. Beck Psychopathology Research Center
Room 2032
3535 Market Street
Philadelphia, PA 19104-3309

2 replies
  1. jules
    jules says:

    So, all our reactions then, stem from PAST reactions to a similar stimulus? So, then, none of my upset-ness has a thing to do with NOW, it is all about the past, yes? So, staying present and aware is the best way not to let the past programming run the show. ‘Nothing changes if nothing changes.’ 🙂

    Reply
  2. Armando Ribeiro das Neves Neto
    Armando Ribeiro das Neves Neto says:

    The beauty and simplicity of cognitive behavioral therapy is to rescue an ancient wisdom that resonates well in the words of the Greek philosopher Epictetus “There are things that disturb us, but how we interpret its meaning” and also in the words of Buddha “We are our thoughts “and provide a safe and scientifically valid for the modern man to fight the old human issues. Anger, fear and sadness, and basic emotions are laden with personal meanings. Mindfulness is a way of learning to recognize our automatic thoughts and promote a more balanced and happy life. Thank you Dr. Aaron Beck to be a guide in this modern world.

    Reply

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