You’re at a cocktail party (remember those?), and you see your friend Jessica close by. You smile, excited to see her, and looking forward to saying hi. She’s walking in your direction—but walks right by you without saying a word.

What just happened?

How does that feel?

What do you do about it?

When I pose this scenario to a group and ask the questions above, I usually get answers that range from:

  • She must be mad at me. I have no idea what happened. I’m totally confused and a bit upset. I’ve got to find her and ask her what she’s mad about.
  • Wow, well, I thought we were friends but I guess not. And I don’t even know anyone else here. My feelings are hurt. I’m going to leave.
  • If she didn’t say hello to me, she must have had a really hard day and be in a bad mood. I wonder what happened. I’ll send her a text to make her smile.
  • She must not have even seen me. You laugh and think of how distracted she always is and figure you’ll catch up later to say hi.
  • Wow, she must be headed to the buffet and really hungry to not even say hi. But she always knows where the good snacks are, so I’m going to follow her to them!

There’s a step in between that happens so fast that we’re not always conscious of it. When an event happens that triggers a memory, it can trigger a flood of feelings without that memory even coming front of mind.

Notice that the answer to question 2, “How do you feel?” relies solely on the answer that you created to question one, “What just happened?”

The thing is, the answer you create to, “What just happened?” occurs so quickly that you are usually not even conscious of the process.

Think for a moment of something that you almost always have a strong reaction to. It could be the phone ringing late at night. If you’ve had a loved one in trouble often, let’s say a kid on the streets, that phone ringing is going to cause an instant pit of dread in your stomach. Without even being conscious of it, you automatically have created an interpretation that the phone ringing at that time can only mean something bad has happened.

In the situation above, if you are not feeling very good about yourself in that moment, it’s very easy to jump to the conclusion that Jessica has snubbed you and to feel rejection.

The simple fact is that Jessica walked by you without saying hello. Any of the above explanations could be true. And depending on which explanation you landed on, you could be feeling anything from amusement to rejection. And most importantly, what you do, your behavior is a direct response to how you feel about what you believe happened.

This happens in life all the time when we are at work, and in our closest personal relationships. An event happens, whether that’s an interaction with your boss, a key client, or your spouse.

Something happens or someone says something and we create our interpretation instantly. We’re certain we’re right and don’t even recognize any other possible explanations for what happened. This triggers a flood of feelings, which in turn determine what action we take in response.

What’s really helpful is to recognize that while your feelings are real, your assumptions aren’t always valid. When we can pause for a moment, fully acknowledge what we’re feeling, but question our assumptions before reacting, we open a new world of possibility for better outcomes.

A couple of simple questions I like to ask myself in any situation are “What else could be true?” and “What might I be missing here?” I notice these are really helpful for shifting my feelings as well.

What happens is just what happens. The story we tell ourselves, and how we react to it, is what is in our control and what influences the outcome in any situation. How we react is rooted in how we feel, and how we feel is rooted in the meaning that we’ve created. Taking that pause to recognize that is in your control.

Vicktor Frankl, the Austrian psychologist, and Holocaust survivor summed it up well, “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”

alana-winter-headshotAlana Winter is a serial entrepreneur, creative thinker, and guide on the path to self-aware leadership. She is recognized as a leader of leaders for her extensive work with Entrepreneur’s Organization and Young President’s Organization forums. She is also the founder and President of MI6 Academy and Stiletto Spy School and has been featured on NPR, The Today Show, E!, CBS Morning News, and more.

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