When we’re experiencing a negative emotion, chances are we’ve picked something to blame: I’m stressed out because I have a work deadline coming up. I’m angry because someone insulted me. I’m anxious because I have a blind date tomorrow.

Sometimes our suffering confounds us absolutely, but more likely we’ll have a theory of its cause. We’ll be ready to expound on the problems and stressors we face, and we’ll feel sure that if only things were different, if only these problems weren’t in the picture, we wouldn’t be feeling this way. If we’re very anxious, we’ll be able to list the many the dangers on the horizon, assuming that if those threats went away, we wouldn’t be anxious anymore. If we’re overwhelmed, we’ll be eager to describe all the tasks and obligations that are stressing us out, assuming that if everything magically got done, we wouldn’t be overwhelmed anymore. If we’re angry, we’ll be ready to say who did what that ticked us off, assuming we’d be calm and happy if only they hadn’t done that.

This preponderance of explanations is to be expected, of course, because each of us possesses an Explanation Machine — a mind — that’s always at work, evaluating our experiences and trying to make sense of them. Whatever situation we find ourselves in, our Explanation Machine produces a model of what’s happening, why it’s happening, and how the elements of the situation relate to each other. When we see, hear, smell, taste, or feel something, our Explanation Machine attributes these sensations to a cause: it tells us what we’re interacting with and how it got there. When we experience an emotion, have a thought, or recall a memory, our Explanation Machine pins the emotion on some trigger, connects the thought or the memory with the event that prompted it.

When someone says our name, our Explanation Machine tells us that those sounds refer to our own self, that we’re being called, say, because we’re late to a meal. If we wake up in the middle of the night and can’t see, our Explanation Machine tells us it’s dark in the room, which is because the lights are off and the sun is down, which is because it’s nighttime. We don’t need to think through the steps in the explanation, or wonder whether we might be wearing blindfolds, or might have gone blind — our Explanation Machine just delivers the explanation we need at the time and we consider it apparent.

Emotions are more complex and amorphous as phenomena than basic sensory stimuli, but our Explanation Machine tries to explain them just as brazenly. When we’re feeling very bad, explanations are particularly alluring, because the knowledge of why we’re upset might point the way to a cure. If we understand what’s causing our stress, our anger, our fear, we can take action — outward or inward — to improve the situation. The idea of confronting and processing one’s emotions by investigating their causes is central to many forms of therapy and self-help. But sometimes, of course, we can analyze, investigate, and talk through our trouble for hours, months, or years and the suffering doesn’t go away.

That’s because sometimes our explanation of an emotion is part of the problem. Our explanation is holding us trapped. We’re in an explanatory prison. The explanation — indeed the very need to explain — is what’s keeping us stuck. To break free, we need to “unexplain” the feeling. We need to relinquish our ideas about why it’s happening, to treat the feeling as primary, irreducible, even arbitrary — to consider the feeling as a simple matter of fate — so that we can accept it and move on.

Here’s a small example from my life: I woke up the other morning feeling stressed out, overwhelmed, and on edge. The reason seemed quite obvious to me. I had been asked to go on a last-minute trip, and I would soon have to reply with a yes or no. There were so many details to figure out — flights, hotels, taking time off work, packing, rescheduling appointments — that I wasn’t sure I could pull it off. I had begun researching my options but I wasn’t sure how to reach a decision, let alone a “good” decision. The pressure and uncertainty were causing my stress.

But later that day, poof! I got a call saying the plan had been dropped. There wouldn’t be any trip. My source of stress had suddenly disappeared. I felt relieved for a little while, but soon enough, I was back to feeling edgy and upset. Again, the reason seemed obvious to me. Now I was disappointed about not going. Now I was upset because I’d be stuck at home, bored. I wouldn’t be seeing a new place. What a shame!

As my bad feeling persisted, another explanation came to mind: my problem was that I wanted it both ways. I wanted the convenience of staying home while also wanting the adventure of going on the trip. I wanted to have my cake and eat it too. And now that the trip had been called off, I couldn’t accept the new situation and move on. I was being unreasonable. My immaturity was the real reason for my distress. But as my inner monologue became ever more negative, I realized that perhaps I was being harsh on myself. Maybe my problem wasn’t immaturity. Maybe my problem was that I was beating myself up. Maybe self-criticism was the real reason I was feeling so edgy and upset.

As all these explanations travelled through my mind, there was one possibility I never considered. What if my edgy, stressed, overwhelmed feeling had nothing to do with the trip whatsoever? Maybe I hadn’t slept well? Maybe I hadn’t exercised enough in the previous days? Maybe there were a million microscopic factors that all conspired to make me feel out-of-sorts, but they weren’t compressible into any simple story? Or maybe there was no explanation at all. Maybe it was pure, arbitrary fate that I’d feel lousy on that particular day?

Under that last assumption, the whole story can be told in a different way. Now it goes like this: I was feeling upset for absolutely no reason whatsoever — it was just a primal feeling. But my Explanation Machine began searching for fodder to explain the feeling. The trip made the perfect fodder for an explanation. Once my Explanation Machine blamed my stress on the trip, I started thinking of the trip’s details in a more negative way. As I began seeing the trip as the source of my edginess, I began focusing more and more on the potential risks and hassles of the trip, and the more stressed I became — a self-fulfilling prophecy.

When the trip got cancelled and the apparent stressor was gone, my Explanation Machine simply did its job and spit out a new explanation for my distress given the new situation. Now the explanation was disappointment. Once I adopted this explanation, I began focusing on the joy and adventure I would have had on the trip, and the more disappointed I felt.

In both circumstances — anticipating the trip and then not going — I was just taking cues from my Explanation Machine. First, the machine told me I was stressed out by the trip, and I believed it; later, it told me I was disappointed about not going, and I believed it.

What about the idea that I was being immature and wanting to have it both ways? This idea, too, was a product of the Explanation Machine. In a sense, my Explanation Machine was now building an explanation of my distress out of a conflict between the two explanations that it had previously supplied to me. If my Explanation Machine was telling me that I wanted to have my cake and eat it too, well, my Explanation Machine was responsible for that!

When I began to label myself as unreasonable, this was just my Explanation Machine doing its job, continuing to generate explanations for the distress that I still felt. In searching for new explanations, my Explanation Machine “discovered” that negative ideas about me could make very plausible explanations for why I was feeling bad. Self-criticism is potent in an explanatory sense. And my Explanation Machine doesn’t necessarily have my interests in mind at all times: it will happily generate explanations at my own expense. And then it will just as happily negate those explanations: the idea that I was being too self-critical formed yet another plausible explanation for my negative feelings.

So my Explanation Machine carried me on a wild goose chase. The entire project of explaining my distress led me to blame one thing, then another, then another, including myself, in a way that kept making me feel worse. But this effort at explanation was more of a reflex than a deliberate thing. I wasn’t trying to be introspective or to go over-the-top in examining my feelings. I just thought I knew what was going on. All of my conclusions seemed obvious at the time. I was just accepting the explanations that popped into my mind, served up by my Explanation Machine.

What’s the lesson in all this? If we all have Explanation Machines and they sometimes cause us grief, what can any of us do about that? We need our Explanation Machines; we can’t simply fire them. But one thing we can do is to “unexplain” our feelings from time to time, to break the associations and attributions that our Explanation Machine creates, when these connections don’t seem to be helping us.

One way to go about this is through a simple thought experiment. Take however you feel right now and assume that it is primary and irreducible. Assume that it can’t be explained. It’s not because of anything. There’s not anything making you feel this way. There’s nothing to blame it on. Nothing to attribute it to. No mystery to be explored. No root cause to be discovered. The feeling is just a thing that fate has thrown at you. It’s like complex weather that you experience but don’t control and can’t predict. Imagine this:

  • If you’re tired, it’s not because you didn’t get enough sleep. It’s not because you worked too hard. If you’ve slept late and you’re still having trouble getting out of bed, it’s not because you’re lazy. It’s just your inexplicable fate to experience tiredness at this particular moment.
  • If you have a headache, it’s not because you’re ill. It’s not because of stress. It’s not because of something you ate or drank.
  • If you’re depressed, it’s not because you never fulfilled your childhood dream of becoming a ballet dancer. It’s not because your boss doesn’t appreciate you. It’s not because of politics or the news.
  • If you’re anxious, it’s not because you have an exam coming up, or a performance, or a blind date.

You might find yourself saying “But it is because of that…” If you can resist this temptation for a moment, though — if you can boldly imagine, just as an experimental supposition, that your feeling has no cause, no explanation, then you might catch a clearer glimpse of your Explanation Machine in action, trying to supply explanations to fill the void you’ve created, trying to offer up one “because” after another. Whenever the machine tells you that you’re upset because of X, you can ask, “What if it’s not because of X? What if it’s not because of anything?”

The point isn’t that explanations aren’t ever valid or that they can’t ever help us. Explanations can be illuminating, and they often do point the way to solutions. We need explanations. Our lives depend on them. But they can also become clouds that prevent us from seeing our own behavior. They can be traps that keep us stuck in a certain way of responding to a situation. In particular, the urge to explain negative emotions can lead to cycles of deepening negativity and self-criticism. When we’re searching for an explanation for why we feel so bad, we’ll start noticing more and more bad things, including bad things about others, and bad things about ourself, since these bad things are so useful as explanations.

When a feeling of anxiety is searching for something to be about, it will find that thing. When a feeling of stress is searching for something to be about, it will attach to any appropriate material. The Explanation Machine is there to assist. And quite often the Explanation Machine will offer up the self as the scapegoat.

You’ve been asking, “What’s making me so anxious? So stressed? So sad?” Answers are being served by your Explanation Machine. But the explanations and attributions and assignments only perpetuate the anxiety, the stress, the sadness. That’s because the explanations you’re getting from the Machine are the ones that it can find, the ones that are available. And the most readily available explanations are drawing your attention to bad things, especially to bad things about the self — things that seem unsolvable, out of your control. An explanation may appear as a prize that offers insight and understanding, but the practical effect of having an explanation may be that you focus more on the bad things that the explanation is blaming. Having an explanation may mean that you pay more attention to bad things that you’re not able to change.

If our Explanation Machines — our minds — are constantly explaining things for us, we should develop a complementary practice of unexplaining. That’s a practice of clearing explanations away. Undoing attribution. Severing the bonds of blame. We can do this by provisionally accepting our experience as irreducible and inexplicable — a simple matter of fate. Without explanations in the way, we can then see what may have been obscured. We can discover if we had been in a cycle where the explanation was fueling the problem. Now we can step out of that cycle. When we unexplain a negative feeling, we might not cure it, but we might stop making it worse. ■

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