Recently, my husband and I were riding together in the car, and got into a brief back and forth about using the GPS to find the way home. I should say up front that this is not unusual for us. Our friends and family have, by turns, teased us, joined in, or abruptly become quiet when witnessing our old-married-couple driving squabbles. But to us, these are essentially nothing fights. Neither person is that deeply invested in the outcome and neither feels threatened or hurt by the other—it has all the emotional impact of a mosquito bite. In some ways, we find these tiffs amusing, and sometimes play them up a bit when there’s an audience present.

Anyway, this particular time, before I fully committed to the role of the nagging wife, I paused. I realized that I had no idea why I was irritated with my husband regarding his driving choice. The decision itself didn’t matter. It wouldn’t impact how quickly we got home, require any deft maneuvering, or route us anywhere uncomfortable or unfamiliar. I wouldn’t be affected in any real sense whatsoever. So why did I care? Why did it bother me?

Here’s where things got hairy. As I sat in the car, now in companionable silence with the play-fight shut down, I went through the possible reasons that my husband’s decision had irritated me. I ticked down the (very short) list of potential consequences, and quickly came to the conclusion that there was no real purpose, no meaningful or sensible reason for my annoyance. Whatever my response was, it was much more about me than it was about my husband. I glanced over at him, driving in peace now that his wife had retreated.

I sat back in my seat, staring out the window at the path the GPS had set, and thought about an uncomfortable truth. Our reactions to what someone has done or said, are in some ways, most ways, almost entirely, about ourselves. We are not a blank space that others write their words and actions on. To each and every interaction, we bring with us a history of conversations and conflicts, the concerns of the day, a rumbling belly even—pages and pages that have already been written. All anyone else can do is scribble in our margins.

This doesn’t mean we aren’t entitled to our feelings, or that we should deny or reason ourselves out of them. Quite the opposite, actually. Instead of reflexively defending our own responses or ignoring them, it’s helpful to get curious about why we may be feeling the way we are. Doing some emotional detective work, we can try to figure out what factors could be triggering the feelings in the present moment. We may be surprised with what we find.

When we are able to become an observer of our emotional experience, while fully embracing it, we become powerful. We avoid being driven by unchecked emotions, or finding ourselves led down dark paths because of unacknowledged desires and hurts. By becoming the all-seeing eye on our internal experience, we have a better sense of what we need and want, and what actually motivates or hinders us. Because of this, we can be better lovers, better friends, better people.

So how do we do this?  How do we become an emotional observer? Like anything else, it takes practice.  But I think, more than anything else, it’s a change in our mindset about our feelings.  Instead of viewing them as inconvenient, or unwieldy, or solely caused by someone else’s actions–we acknowledge that they’re happening for complex reasons.  It’s not just what our partner said to us in that moment triggering the emotion, but also our own history, and also the discomforts and little joys of that day, and also everything that has come before.  All emotion takes place in context. When we take that position, it becomes much easier to step back and try to understand why we’re having the response we’re having, and what it means, and what we actually need.

To be honest, I never did figure out why my husband’s use of the GPS bothered me that day. I have a few good guesses, but nothing that has given me the key-fitting-lock sense of an answer. I did, however, prevent myself from projecting my own crap onto him, and avoided a needless fight.