Have a question?
Message sent Close

Have you ever wondered why people behave irrationally? Or why they sometimes can’t seem to stop themselves uttering put-downs or engaging in other low-grade abusive behaviour for no obvious reason? The answer lies in these three simple words: emotions precede thoughts.


I have no idea who first articulated this very profound observation, but it can be found in Edward Carpenter’s 1899 book, Civilization: its Cause and Cure. In it, Carpenter—an early gay rights advocate who was well ahead of his time—noted that what we somewhat wishfully term ‘civilization’ is actually a society of emotionally immature people constantly triggered into unbalanced, destructive behaviour by the simple but largely unobserved principle of ‘emotions precede thoughts’.

Be unobservant no more. A century on from Carpenter, the principle holds more than ever in today’s hyper-stressed world. Anytime you see someone acting in an unbalanced or ‘triggered’ state, they have shifted out of conscious control of their lives and are ruled by their unconscious, wounded ego.

Anytime you see someone acting in an unbalanced or ‘triggered’ state, they have shifted out of conscious control of their lives and are ruled by their unconscious, wounded ego

The wounded ego

The wounded ego just wants to lash out to make itself feel powerful and distract itself from the pain its experiencing. In order to do this, our ego has to override our ability to act rationally. So either people act unconsciously—with no clear awareness of their actions—or they fashion a distorted rationalisation that makes sense to the small part of their logical mind that’s still functioning.

How does one deal with someone whose emotions precede their thoughts?

I have already blogged on How to handle triggered people on social media and How to handle triggered people face-to-face. The key things to remember are (a) you cannot logically convince them to alter their behaviour because it isn’t logical, and (b) they are trying to trigger you to make themselves feel better. It’s a toxic situation. If you can leave, leave. If you can’t, stay above the fray. And if you feel yourself getting triggered, use conscious deep breathing to help yourself simmer down.


Another valuable tool here is presence. People who are emotionally agitated are responding to some form of unprocessed past pain. Part of their awareness is stuck in the painful past. They may seek to escape that pain by fantasizing about the future. The net result is that they’re not particularly present in or connected to the ‘now’ moment where life happens.

This is your opportunity to get a grip on the situation. In the presence of emotionally volatile people it’s very easy to ‘phase out’ and not really be present. It’s an easy way of dealing with what’s going on. But it’s far more effective to show up fully. Bring your full presence into the ‘now’ moment, the full force of your consciousness. Be aware of everything that’s going on. Listen closely to the triggered person. Stare them in the eye—not confrontationally, but in way that lets them know you are really tuning in to them.

This will scare their wounded ego, because it doesn’t want its pain or its pathetic, dysfunctional pain-avoidance strategies to be uncovered. You’ll be surprised how quickly they may back down and revert to rational behaviour. Remember to be compassionate—triggered people cause pain because they are in pain. With a few simple emotional tools, you can be the one who restores balance.

Of course, if it’s you whose emotions are preceding your thoughts, you can diagnose the underlying issue by remembering that your life is a constant feedback loop.

Photo by Elijah Hiett on Unsplash.

Leave a Reply