(7 Minutes Read)

What is the Emotional Dripping Faucet?

There’s a great moment in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance when the narrator notices that his friend’s faucet has been dripping for over a year. One day the narrator sees that his friend’s wife is struggling to speak above the dripping noise. Her kids enter the room and she loses her temper at them. The main character observes:

“It seemed that her anger at the kids would not have been nearly as great if the faucet hadn’t also been dripping when she was trying to talk. It was the combined dripping and loud kids that blew her up. What struck me hard then was that she was not blaming the faucet, and that she was deliberately not blaming the faucet. She wasn’t ignoring that faucet at all! She was suppressing anger at that faucet and that goddamned dripping faucet was just about killing her!”

How often does this happen to us?

How often do we, like the wife, feel angry (or any other emotion) and don’t acknowledge it until it’s too late, and then lose our temper at something else?

Which brings me to the first question:

Question 1:
What emotions am I feeling right now?

Although our emotional state profoundly influences every aspect of our life, many of us aren’t aware of how we’re feeling at any given moment or what the impact may be.

Moreover, we don’t take the time to name the specific emotions we’re feeling. Or we’ll use blanket statements like angry or sad, instead of digging deeper to uncover anxiety, insult, or disappointment.

Naming our emotions makes a big difference! When you name your emotions you diffuse their charge and lessen the burden they create – making them less powerful. You also receive the opportunity to take responsibility for them, which allows you to change them and makes it less likely that they will spill out at the expense of others.

However, we are so overwhelmed with thoughts and to do’s and notifications and podcasts and who knows what, that we don’t stop to understand what the hell is going on with us.

Or we numb what we’re feeling with Facebook, or a glass of wine, or overworking. And this doesn’t usually work. In fact, denying or avoiding feelings has been shown to lead to lower well-being and more physical symptoms of stress.

So the number 1 rule (in therapy and in life) is to check in with yourself.

Credit: Unsplash


Ask Yourself: What am I feeling, right at this moment? And name the emotions. Use 2–3 words to describe what you’re feeling. Then ask yourself again, ‘What am I really feeling?’ and see if you get a different answer.

I do this at least 3 times a day.

Question 2:
What Thoughts are Causing These Emotions?

Naming the emotion is the first step. The second step is correctly identifying the thoughts that gave rise to the emotion. It’s asking ‘what thoughts are causing these emotions?

This has been a game changer for me.

In the example above, the wife believes she’s just angry at the kids. She doesn’t realize that it was not just the dripping faucet, but her thoughts about the dripping faucet, that were triggering her anger.

The dripping faucet is a metaphor for any circumstance in our lives. Sometimes these circumstances are obvious — e.g. someone yelling at us — but most of the time they are subtle. A bad feeling will come over us. We think that we just feel bad and carry this feeling with us forward, without even realizing that it was triggered by a thought.

There is a simple model that outlines how we come to feel things:

circumstances (sensations, stimuli) > thoughts (perception & interpretation) > feelings (emotions) > actions

This is a cause and effect relationship. Circumstances (physical sensation, someone yelling at you, a long line at a supermarket, etc.) give rise to thoughts. And these thoughts trigger emotions, which motivate actions. In any circumstance, emotions are always subjected to our thoughts, our perception, and our interpretation of things.

Mind is a flexible mirror, adjust it, to see a better world

Amit Ray

The problem is that the process (from thought to emotion) takes a fraction of a second. And as we’re so overwhelmed and distracted throughout the day, we don’t even notice there is a process taking place.

The result is that we believe that we just feel things. Or that other people cause us to feel things. But this isn’t true.

Our thoughts are the sole drivers of our emotions — only our thoughts cause us to feel something (angry, sad, frustrated, happy, etc.). And the way to get some control over our emotions (and our reality) is to understand what it is we’re thinking and gain control over these thoughts.

Emotions are a signal. Understanding what we’re feeling helps us understand what we’re thinking.

For example, how often have you suddenly felt angry and didn’t know why? Chances are that if you trace back your line of thought you’ll find that not only that you saw something or got a notification, but that you also remembered something that made you angry in the past. Now you’re feeling angry, and this old anger is lurking, just like the dripping faucet.

The worst part is that we don’t even realize we’re angry. We snap at our partner or coworker and then we feel like assholes, and the cycle continues. Or we might simply feel sad and down, all because of an old passing thought.

Credit: Pixabay


By correctly identifying the thoughts that led to the emotion, we 1) Gain clarity about our state of mind and 2) Can take steps to transform these thoughts, and ultimately, gain control over our emotions.

Now that I know what I’m feeling, I can ask: ‘What are the thoughts that are giving rise to these emotions?’.

Question 3:
Is It Absolutely True?

Let’s go back to the model:

circumstances (sensations, stimuli) > thoughts (perception & interpretation) > feelings (emotions) > actions

So far we’ve 1) Clarified how we’re feeling and named the emotions, and 2) Identified the thoughts that gave rise to these specific emotions.

At this point, it’s important to clarify that you can’t change the circumstances. They already happened. You can take steps to change them in the future. But you can’t change what already happened. Therefore, the only way to effectively change your emotions is by changing your thoughts.

For example, a negative thought gives rise to a negative emotion. It, therefore, follows that a way to transform the emotion is to transform the thought.

But It’s not about replacing negative thoughts with ‘happy’ thoughts. This doesn’t work.

It’s about objectively analyzing our thoughts — not just believing them because we thought them.

For example, a few days ago I was feeling down. I’m happy in my new role, I’m happy I’m writing. But I was feeling that maybe I started this whole marketing and writing business too late.

I had the thought: ‘I’m too late in the game’. And therefore I’ll never ‘catch up’ and be successful (whatever that means).

This is a destructive thought. But yet, it comes up.

This also happens with other people. A friend, partner, or colleague will be a bit off one day and we immediately think: ‘He/She doesn’t like me.’

The problem is that we believe our own thoughts all the time. The deeper problem is that our thought patterns are largely formed out of habits. The belief systems and thinking patterns we have are continuously being reinforced throughout our lives — regardless of being true or not. In other words, we think the way we think, because this is how we think.

  • Many of us are reinforcing thoughts that are not only false, but also actively bringing us down and limiting us (remember thoughts cause feelings which cause actions).
  • We believe these thoughts to be True simply because they come from inside our head. But they’re not always true.

Validate Your Thought!

To disarm such negative and maladaptive thinking patterns we can use a quick and simple test – the mental validity test.
Pay close attention to what you’re thinking, and when you recognize a disturbing pattern, ask yourself the following question:

  1. Is the thought True, with a capital T?
  2. Am I absolutely sure it’s true?
  3. What is the evidence?

For example:

  • Circumstance: Hearing about a really successful writer.
  • Thought: I am too late in the game.
  • Is this true? I don’t know.
  • Am I absolutely sure it’s true? No
  • What is the evidence? There are many people who made a career change late in life.
  • *All you need is ONE example that contradicts your initial thought.
  • New thought: It’s true that I’m just starting out, but it’s not True that I’m ‘too late’. I enjoy writing and therefore can continue exploring this path.


  • Circumstance: A co-worker is being less friendly this morning.
  • Thought: She/he doesn’t like me.
  • Is it true? I’m not sure.
  • Am I absolutely sure it’s true? No.
  • What is the evidence? We like and respect each other. We have been working together for a few months. There is no reason for her/him to hate me.
  • New thought: She might be having a bad day. Maybe I should ask her if everything’s OK.
  • BONUS: Try to think of 2 alternative explanations for why he/she is behaving this way.

Whenever I encounter a counterproductive thought, I counter it with this quick validity test. And almost always the answer is that this thought is not True, and things might actually be completely different. Once I realize that the thought isn’t true, I can move on to more positive and constructive thoughts, and with it, to more positive emotions.

What’s Next?

This is just the beginning. I find myself asking these questions whenever I’m feeling down, confused, or upset. Whenever I’m overly upset, sad, or feel that I’m about to snap at someone. And it really helps!


As usual, my goal is to provide a practical application of the expressed concepts. So anytime you’re feeling down or off, ask yourself these 3 questions:

  1. What am I feeling? Name these emotions.
  2. What thoughts are causing these emotions? Locate your thinking patterns.
  3. Are they true? Am I absolutely sure they’re true? Come up with alternative explanations.
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