Is it hard to shut your mind off from its constant thinking and judging? Do you mentally replay upsetting events over and over even though they keep you in a bad mood? If so, join the club. Upsetting feelings are a normal part of life, but they're often magnified because we aren't given the tools we need to take control of our emotions.
Think about it. You get a toolkit for lots of things in your life. To cook, you have pots and pans. To style your hair, you have a blow dryer and gel. But when it comes to your emotions, you don't get a toolkit. Imagine what life would be like if you had an emotional toolkit. When you're confused or upset, you'd have powerful tools at your fingertips to help you understand your emotions and master your troubling feelings. Wouldn't you want something like that?
Before you can choose the right emotional tools for you, you need to understand what a feeling is. If you're stuck in traffic and late for work, you may feel anxious. Since a feeling is a full body experience, your anxiety will be expressed through your body and your mind. Your body may have a clenched jaw or rapid heartbeat, and in your mind, you'll probably have worrying thoughts like, "What if I miss the meeting?" or "What if I get fired?" This combination of physical tension and worried thoughts leads you to anxiety.
Let's focus on the mind part of a feeling. There is a clear connection between what you tell yourself and your moods. Consider two women, Lynn and Teresa. Both interviewed for a job they really wanted, both were equally qualified, and neither got hired. After the interview, Lynn said to herself, "Of course they didn't want me. Why do I even bother? I'll never get a job." Her likely reaction to those thoughts is sadness and hopelessness.
When Teresa wasn't offered the position, she thought, "I wanted that job, but it's only one possibility. I'm sure there's another job out there for me somewhere." Her likely reaction is a milder one, disappointment. You might think the next thing I'll say is, "So when you're in a bad mood, do positive affirmations." Maybe Lynn could say the same things Teresa says to herself, and she'll feel better. Right? It's possible this could work, but in my opinion, it's too simplistic.
Have you ever seen the Stuart Smalley character from Saturday Night Live? Struggling with low self-esteem, he looks into his mirror everyday and says out loud to himself, "I'm good enough, I'm smart enough, and doggone it, people like me." But it's clear that his positive affirmations aren't working. Why? In part, because he doesn't believe them. And Lynn probably wouldn't believe her affirmation that there's another job out there for her.
If you don't believe what you tell yourself, it won't get you out of a bad mood. The answer is to change your upsetting thoughts in a way you can believe. To do that, you need an emotional tool called Thought Shifting, a powerful, scientifically proven strategy to help you get rid of the thoughts that keep you in a bad mood. There are three steps:
1. Notice Your Thoughts: To change your distressing thoughts, you first have to notice you're having them. It's possible that Lynn is so used to saying negative things to herself that she doesn't even realize she's doing it. Her thoughts are like the Musak in an elevator. To become aware of what you say to yourself, you must actively focus it. There are two ways to do this.
One way is to become aware of what you say to yourself just before you start to feel bad. What thoughts did Lynn have just before she felt hopeless? Another way is to notice what thoughts run through your mind when you lay in bed at night. Maybe, in the darkness of her bedroom, Lynn thinks, "I'll never have what I want."
2. Challenge Your Thoughts: People make the mistake of thinking that a thought is always a fact. If I think it, it must be true. Don't buy into that. Put your negative thoughts on the stand and question them like a trial lawyer. "Is it true that I'll never have what I want? Never is a long time; how can I know that for sure?"
3. Take Action: Sitting around stewing in your negative thoughts will only make you feel worse. Instead of recycling your worries, take action. Do something to address your fears. When you know how to change your thoughts, you're in charge of your feelings rather than having your feelings in charge of you!
Dr. Darlene Mininni is an emotional health specialist and former UCLA educator with a Ph.D. in clinical psychology and a master's degree in public health. She is the author of "The Emotional Toolkit: 7 Power-Skills to Nail Your Bad Feelings" (St. Martin's Press; 2005). For more information, visit www. emotionaltoolkit.com or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.