Are You Okay? The Difference Between Being a Thermometer and a Thermostat

When taking a sick child to the clinic, a common preliminary question is “has she had a fever?” Many times I’ve had to answer “Yes, but I don’t know what her temperature has been.”  My practiced mother’s hand has assessed the fact that my child has a fever but it hasn’t been high enough for me to be worried.  I know that a fever is the body’s way of fighting off infection or viruses so the low-to-mid-grade fever itself isn’t cause for concern.
In the same way, as women we are often sensitive to the emotional states of those around us—especially those closest to us.  A tilt of the head, a sigh, a slight movement of the corner of a mouth gives us a clue to the thoughts or emotions of our loved ones.  This can be a good thing. These signs can help us narrow down whether they need a hug or a re-direction of their thoughts and behavior.
To take it further, we mentally add up our spouse and children’s actions and try to decipher their motivation.  Any time they do something that doesn’t please us or make us “feel” loved and appreciated, we do the math and come up with our own answers to the equation.  There are two possible problems with this:
First, our amazing brains have a complicated memory system that strives to make associations and place our experiences in categories.  Any time a new experience happens, our mind searches its database to see if anything similar has happened in the past.  It will probably find something, and the emotions attached to that previous experience will come up, even if the previous experience happened thirty years ago.  Think about the emotions you feel when something reminds you of a pleasant childhood memory.
When we choose to let that association stand, and feel the feelings all over again, the new experience is attached to the old experience.  This doesn’t have to be a huge, traumatic event.  It can be as simple as a stubborn child with whom you are frustrated.  You will approach that child the next time with that emotion and attitude, even speaking words over them and about them that reinforce your association.
Second, it’s important to realize that when we constantly take everyone’s emotional temperature to make sure that they are okay with us, that is actually very self-centered.  We tell ourselves that we’re concerned about their feelings but in reality we’re concerned about ourselves in the relationship.  This can come up especially in marriage and in relationships with older children. 
It can help tremendously just to be aware of these scenarios when analyzing our relationships.
When you feel emotions that are disproportionate to the present situation, that’s a pretty good indicator that past experiences are mixed in.
Take care that last week’s disagreement or discipline issue isn’t coloring today’s reaction to your loved ones.
Focus on loving and caring behaviors towards your family without the constant temperature-checking of “are they okay with me?”  Be preoccupied with serving others rather than trying to make everything about you being right and being liked.
Rather than being a thermometer and registering what we think is going on around us, we can choose to be a thermostat and set the temperature.  Just like setting the thermostat eventually changes the temperature in the house, the behavior that we choose eventually changes our feelings.
Please leave a comment below!


  1. Loved, loved, loved this, Charlotte. Thank you!

  2. Jan Jones says:

    Wow, this is very timely.  Just yesterday I saw a poster that said “My attitude is based on how you treat me” or something along those lines, and I thought, ‘Well, it shouldn’t be!’  I hope there are a lot of people who see this and realize that we do not need to let others decide how we are going to feel.  It is something that we are having to constantly remind ourselves of, though.  Like you said, there can be past experiences that create a knee jerk reaction that we later wish we had not had.  I have also heard it said “You give away your power when you let someone else decide how you are going to react (feel) about something.”  I am trying to teach my children this so they hopefully won’t have such a hard time with this issue when they are grown.  Thanks for another great reminder.

  3. Oh, how timely!  I have noticed when dealing with my older children I am much more sensitive about how they respond to me, especially if we had “an issue” recently.  This is a reminder to quit looking back to past offenses…move on and take today as it comes.  

    Thank you for your article.  My relationship with my mother is not what I always hoped it would be but your article encourages me in my relationships with my children.

    Many blessings!

  4. Wow. You hit the nail right on the head with this one. I have found that on Mother’s Day especially, I have a much better day if I set the climate by accepting who I am, serving others (my own mother, another woman, or my husband and children0, and doing something fun for MYSELF on MY day. Remembering I can have an awesome day if I want. And that should be true for any day. Thanks and Happy Mother’s Day to all of you.

  5. Penney Douglas says:

    Wow, very wise.  Selfishness is a love-killer.  We definitely need to come out of that into true love for our family.  Great post!

  6. Several years ago when I served as women’s ministry leader at our church I did a lesson on being a thermometer or a thermostat! I’ve never known of anyone else who saw it like this. We are like-minded, unified in spirit!

  7. Sarah Clachar says:

    Charlotte, I’ve just been struggling to bring myself back to this understanding. Found a long lost description written by my great grandfather about his wife and how she kept him positive through all their challenges. Knowing what they were taking on and what I have to contend with today gives me pause when I start to get grumpy and mope around. And when I shift – amazing what happens around me! Old wisdom that stands the test of time.

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