I want to introduce a tool to you that will help you better understand where your emotions they come from and how you can change them.
This tool is called The Path to Action, and to explain it I want to share The Parable of the 16-Year-Old Daughter.
An excited young couple gives birth to their first child — a beautiful baby girl.
As the father’s holding his new daughter in his arms, it hits him that one day she’ll grow up and eventually, she’ll start dating! The thought nearly scares him to death and he realises he needs to prepare her for that day as soon as possible.
First, he decided that she needs to be at least 16 years old before she’s allowed to date. In his mind, that gives him 16 years to prepare her to make good decisions.
So, he created three rules he believed would help keep his daughter in line:
1. Must be home by curfew, no questions asked.
2. No alcohol, drugs, or any illicit substances.
3. Regarding her relationship with boys, must always keep two feet on the ground.
As she grows up, the father ingrains these rules in his daughter’s mind. She knows them by heart and can recite them at any given moment.
Finally, the long-dreaded day comes and she turns 16.
She gets asked out by a young man from school and he comes to her house to pick her up. The father understands that the young man doesn’t know his rules, so he explains them to him as clearly as he can.
The father explains that they need to be back at 11:30, they aren’t allowed to use any illicit substances, and they must keep both feet on the ground. Once he feels assured, he lets them go out on their date.
Around 11:15, the father starts pacing near the front door, anticipating her arrival at any minute.
He looks at his watch and sees it’s 11:30 and she’s not home.
At 11:45 she’s still not home. Then, 12:00 and still no daughter.
Finally at 12:15 — 45 minutes after curfew — he sees a car pull in the driveway. His daughter hops out and walks towards the door, so he decides to “welcome” her.
As he opens the door, he’s almost knocked over by the unmistakable smell of alcohol all over her.
At this point, he’s really fired up.
He looks her and yells, “You are in huge trouble! You don’t even understand how much trouble you’re in.”
She says, “But Daddy…”
He interrupts her, “Don’t ‘but Daddy’ me! I don’t want to hear an excuse. I don’t want to hear anything! You’re grounded forever. Go to your room, I don’t want to talk to you.”
Later that night, he and his wife are going to bed when they pass her bedroom and hear her crying and whimpering. The father feels justified because he believes accountability is the most important thing in his household and she needs to understand his rules.
The Path to Action
Let’s break apart this father’s experience using The Path to Action — the four steps that lead us to our behaviour.
First, we see and hear something. Then, we tell ourselves a story based on what we’ve seen and heard. The story causes us to feel certain emotions, so finally, we act.
Let’s look at the father’s experience. It’s 11:30 (curfew time) and what is the father seeing and hearing that’s significant to the story?
The daughter is not home.
At 12:15 what does the father see and hear?
His daughter walks into the house, smelling like alcohol.
I’m going to make a really bold suggestion here: I’m going to suggest it isn’t that she was late that makes him feel angry. Instead, it’s the story he tells himself that makes him angry.
Sixteen years of teaching her to follow the rules and she betrays me! She was late on purpose. She doesn’t care!
It’s not the smell of alcohol that makes him angry either. It’s the story about the alcohol that makes him angry.
She smells like alcohol because she drank it.
These stories drive the feelings of anger, frustration, and betrayal that cause him to yell at her and not listen to an explanation.
We all do the exact same thing in our lives. Our emotions are not a function of what we see and hear. Instead, they are a function of the story we tell ourselves about what we’re seeing and hearing.
This is just part of how we work as humans. We see something, put it through a filter, it creates an emotion, and then we act accordingly.
We always tell a story, but there are two big mistakes we all tend to make.
1. In the absence of data and facts, we have a tendency to fill in the gaps.
We make up a story, and it’s usually negative — not positive. David Bohm, considered by many to be the father of dialogue, said that in the absence of data, we make it up in the worst possible ways.
2. We pretend that our stories are facts.
Then we feel and act accordingly, and rarely catch ourselves until it’s too late.
The Other Side of the Story
Let’s go back to the story of the 16-year-old daughter.
The next morning, the daughter comes downstairs. She sits down across from her father and he sees that her eyes are red from crying all night.
She tells him she wants to explain herself and he says, “Okay. What’s your side of the story?”
She begins, “We went out on our date last night and everything was fine at first. We grabbed some dinner and then headed to a movie. Things were going great. As we headed back, my date asked if we could stop by a friend’s house for a bit. I knew the friends so I said, ‘Sure.’
“We were hanging out in the basement and I realized that more and more kids were showing up. What started out as a little get together was turning into a big party. When the third or fourth beer keg came rolling in, I told my date I was uncomfortable and ready to go home. He tried convincing me to stay, and when I insisted on leaving, he said I was a prude and could find my own ride home.
“I walked outside to call the house for you to come pick me up, but the line was busy.”
Unbeknownst to the father and mother, the little sister was on the phone at the time chatting with friends and occupying the phone line.
The daughter continued, “I couldn’t get through, so I called a bunch of my friends and finally reached someone who said they could pick me up after they finished work at midnight.
“As I waited for my ride, some of the guys came outside and started to give me a hard time. ‘Why don’t you want to hang out with us? Are you too good for us? Are you scared you’ll get beer all over you?’ Then they poured an entire cup of beer over my head! Finally, my friend showed up and gave me a ride home.”
The father probably felt terrible after hearing this, and most likely had to spend months building trust back with his daughter. That probably included several trips to the mall!
When we tell ourselves a story and believe it to be absolutely true, we jump to conclusions that affect our emotions and cause us to act out.
When we understand the stories we tell ourselves are often incomplete or untrue, we can control our emotions and behave in a more reasonable and justified way.