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Master Your Responses To Unpleasant Experiences ‒ Part 2

Written by: Marc de Bruin, Executive Contributor

Executive Contributors at Brainz Magazine are handpicked and invited to contribute because of their knowledge and valuable insight within their area of expertise.


Last month I wrote about a life and leadership skill called “Experiential Ownership” (find it here). To quickly summarise this personal and professional mindfulness concept: our emotions are sensations in our bodies which arise because of our strong (i.e., positively or negatively) judgemental thoughts about a particular situation. In other words: no-one can really make you “feel” anything other than by touching you. All our emotions are produced internally, and are based on our thoughts, perspectives, ideas, beliefs, convictions, etc., about what happened and about what was (not) said and/or (not) done. They are energies in motion: “e-motions”.

Business people meeting brainstorming ideas inside the office building.

How does this work out in personal and professional life? The experiential ownership concept is most important in interpersonal relationships. Oftentimes we “just react” and say or do something when dealing with another person, without thinking about it too much. Here’s an example. Say you’re having a discussion with a staff member, who at some point walks off because: “I don’t want to talk about it anymore; you guys never listen anyway.” You find this disrespectful, so you react back: “It’s pretty rude to walk off when we are having a discussion!” Your conversation partner then reacts to that and bites back: “that’s because you stop being reasonable whenever we talk about important topics.” Etc etc. Tempers go up, agitation goes up, and you’re now both in fight-flight mode, internally (or expressly!) blaming each other for how you now feel, and neither of you wants to back down.

What, from a mindfulness perspective, actually happens is this. Your conversation partner says or does something. You think that s/he shouldn’t have said or done that (based on your own beliefs about their words or behaviour). Your body now produces strong physical sensations about this (heart rate up, breathing changes, temperature changes, shaking, etc.). This is what we actually react to the thoughts we have, combined with the physical sensations (the “energies in motion”; e-motions) we feel, NOT to what happened or what was said per se.

You might think: “what’s the difference?” Well, in the outcome, the difference can be massive if we allow ourselves to be mindful. Not taking responsibility for our own emotions (as in we react to our own internal processes) often feels disempowering. We feel we’re at the mercy of other people’s words and actions. Additionally, it makes us look to others when we want to feel better. They have to change so that I will feel better! Moreover, not owning our own experiences often leads to less compassion for others’ strong reactions to what YOU said or did (or did not say or do).

Owning our own experiences mindfully, on the other hand, can be very empowering. We are the ones who influence our feelings; we don’t need to rely on others for this. They can most certainly help, but we are not dependent on them. We can also learn to develop more empathy that way, not only for our own plight but also for that of other people. If they react strongly to what we say or do, we can learn to be more mindfully compassionate by realising that they ALSO are merely reacting to their own internal processes, not to what WE say or do, per se. It allows us to look for common ground and for solutions that work for all of us.

Perhaps, in the example given, the person who walked off could have decided ‒ owning their experience with mindfulness ‒ that walking away is not helpful in a work environment. And even if they did walk, you could have decided ‒ owning your experiences ‒ that snapping back was not the most effective approach, either. Ideally, each conversation partner fully owns their own experiences. Yet, even if it’s too hard for BOTH, then one person doing so can still make a big difference to the outcome of the conversation.

Whenever you feel your brain and body react, practice mindfulness: breathe deeply. Realise you are now in “reactive mode.” What happens next depends on whether you are willing to own that reaction or want to blame the other for it. There is a choice point, but many people will not see that choice point and shoot straight past it into reactivity.

By – what I call “slowing down the movie” mindfully, we can learn to recognise what happens that triggers our system. We can then also notice that our bodies (and brain!) immediately respond to this trigger by going into fight-flight mode. We can learn to use that process as our queue to “own” what just happened inside us and choose a more helpful response to the situation. Or we continue to disown this process (i.e., blame the other person/the situation for it) and most likely automatically pick a reaction that will be less helpful (or even unhelpful).

This is where the adage “if it is to be, it is up to me” proves quite accurate. We cannot control events in our lives and what other people say and do. We can, however, manage our response to it, and experiential ownership is a solid first step in that direction.

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Marc de Bruin, Executive Contributor Brainz Magazine

Marc is a Registered International Counsellor, Supervisor and Educator "with a twist". If you're looking for a run-of-the-mill mental health professional, feel free to contact one of his very capable colleagues. Marc looks at life through a different lens, with a transpersonal, even "spiritual" filter. Expect to discuss your life from a bigger perspective, while still being very practical (Marc is an ex-litigation lawyer, too, so very solution-focused); and expect to work from the inside out: YOU will change before your circumstances will. In order for things to change, you'll be the one to change some things. If that sounds like something you are up for, Marc is ready for you.



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