If you are young . . .

. . . this book is for you. It’s to tell you things I wish my sister and I had known when we were young.
It’s a  pre-self-help book, designed to help you to not become anxious in the first place. It’s to help you develop the feeling that whatever happens in life, you will handle it. Then, when the bad times happen, you will be ready for them.
  In a way, it’s about ‘building ourselves a person’ so that we can become confident and resilient. And happier.
  I wrote it for my long-dead sister, Jane. I wrote it for you. And, while writing it I discovered I was also writing it for me.
  I hope you benefit from it.
Mark Avery.

‘We are all in the same boat, in this stormy sea, and we owe each other a terrible loyalty.’
G. K. Chesterton.

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What is happiness?

Being happy is not about living ‘life’s spectacular journey’. Nor is it about avoiding pain. A happy person feels all the dark emotions: anger, fear, sadness, grief . . . They’re just not broken by them.
  There are two kinds of happiness: ‘temporary happiness’ and ‘core happiness’.

Temporary happiness occurs when we experience the pleasure of winning money, seeing our team win, being with someone we love . . .  and when we experience emotions such as wonder, pride, and gratitude. In each instance, chemicals flush our brain to make us feel good. Our happiness soars, but after a while we return to normal.
  In troubling times, like when a pet dies, our happiness can plummet, but we again return to normal.

Core happiness, or ‘set point’ or ‘baseline’ happiness is that general day-to-day sense of wellbeing we experience when nothing in particular is happening, like getting up in the morning, or taking a shower, or walking down the street. It’s innate. It is our default happiness. It’s the happiness which makes life worth living. We are not usually conscious of it, but it’s the lubricant to life.

This book focuses on our core happiness. But don’t get me wrong: pleasure is important. Life would be drab and pointless without pleasure. However, people with access to countless pleasures – think of some celebrities – will still find life unsatisfying if they have a weak core happiness. Conversely, people with a strong core happiness, who don’t have access to many pleasures, will find pleasure in the little things of life.

Of course, if something bad happens in our life – if our house burns down, for example – we will suffer. Our core happiness will be swamped by suffering. But midst the suffering we will still consider our life to be a happy one; we will instinctively know that life is worth living. We will endure the pain with the knowledge that at some point our grief will cease, and our happiness will return.

Core happiness has nothing to do with joy. It’s what we feel when we are not joyful, and not suffering. As I said, it’s what we feel when nothing in particular is happening. When our house burns down, something in particular has happened, and understandably, our core happiness will be overwhelmed.

It’s helpful to distinguish between the two types of happiness. When I ask people what makes them happy they often say something like, ‘bushwalking’ or ‘being with friends’ . . . but those things provide the pleasure kind of happiness, not the core kind.

When we need to make a decision we can ask ourselves the same question the Dalai Lama asks himself:  Will it bring pleasure, or happiness?’

In short, to have an enjoyable life we need to experience both the temporary happiness we get from short-term pleasures, and the milder, more pervasive ongoing core happiness. You can figure out for yourself what pleasures give you temporary happiness, but what about core happiness? How do we get that? To answer that question, let’s first look at why core happiness evolved, because then we can understand what is required to keep it healthy. See you in the next chapter!

(If you aren’t sure about the meaning of the word ‘evolved’, click here for a basic understanding of the process of natural selection. And discover why poo smells bad!)

‘When I think of happiness I think of a bed. The most essential part of a comfortable bed is a solid mattress. On top of that mattress you have crumpled sheets, you have to change those sheets and pillowslips every week, you have disorganisation, you have cold, you have warmth. But the solid foundation is there and that’s your mattress, and all of the things on top of that mattress is what happens in life. The foundation is your happiness.’
Linda Burney, MP of NSW Legislative Assembly.

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How did happiness evolve?

It is hard to speak of evolution without inadvertently attributing to it intent. I might say, ‘beetles evolved to fly’, which sounds like the beetles had a choice in the matter. Of course they didn’t. Or, I might say, ‘evolution guides us’, or ‘evolution wants us’. No, evolution can’t guide us or want us to do anything; it’s not a sentient entity, it’s a process. I use these expressions because they are a convenient shortcut to refer to the process of natural selection.

We evolved happiness in the same way we evolved our eyes, ears and kidneys. Happiness serves a purpose. Consider the first kind of happiness, pleasure: when we engage in short-term behaviours that benefit us and our species, such as eating, having sex or playing (playing hones our skills), we are immediately rewarded with pleasure. That pleasure is evolution’s way of persuading us to engage in those behaviours.
  We are also rewarded when we engage in beneficial ongoing behaviours. However, ongoing behaviours cannot be rewarded with instantaneous pleasure. But they can be rewarded with a milder, ongoing pleasure: a relaxed, general feeling of wellbeing – core happiness. Core happiness is evolution’s incentive, and reward, for engaging in beneficial ongoing behaviours.
  What would those ongoing behaviours be?
  (1) Living in a tribe is one. In prehistory, hominins* born with an inclination to live in a tribe were more likely to live long enough to pass on their genes. Those who didn’t live in a tribe were more likely to starve or be eaten.
  The inclination to live in a tribe involved the need to contribute to the tribe and feel valued for that contribution. That helped them feel connected. Some people call that need for connection ‘the deep need to belong’. When we engage in behaviours that satisfy that deep need to belong we are rewarded with core happiness. When we don’t satisfy that need we feel isolated and unsettled, even anxious.
  (2) However, although we felt the need to be in a tribe we also had to hunt and keep ourselves fed. With too much anxiety we would be too afraid to leave the safety of the tribe, and we’d starve; with too little anxiety we would take too many risks, and die. To get the right balance we needed to feel frightened in a scary situation yet feel we could handle it. When we achieve that balance we are again rewarded with core happiness.

In summary, we have an innate need to satisfy our deep need to belong, and an innate need to feel we can handle life. When we satisfy those two needs we feel strong and resilient, and we are rewarded with core happiness.
  And, when we don’t satisfy those needs we feel lousy. That’s evolution’s way of prompting us to change the situation.
  There are other long-term innate needs we need to satisfy, but this book is about those two. How can we satisfy them and become resilient? And in turn, happy?
Keep reading!

*  (Hominims are, according to the Australian Museum, “the group consisting of modern humans, extinct human species and all our immediate ancestors. Hominids are “the group consisting of all modern and extinct Great Apes (that is, modern humans, chimpanzees, gorillas and orang-utans plus all their immediate ancestors.)”.

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Getting the balance right.

Every day we experience fears: the fear of failure, of rejection, of looking stupid, the fear that our dinner will get cold . . .  We have a myriad of fears. We can reduce those fears by developing the belief that whatever happens, we will handle it. ‘I can handle failure. I can handle rejection. I can handle looking stupid. I can handle my dinner getting cold.’
  If you feel you can handle those things, you are not going to fear them, are you?
  In her book, Feel the Fear and Do it Anyway, Susan Jeffers points out that we only fear what we think we can’t handle.

‘Peace is not only in a place where there is no noise, trouble or hard work. Peace is in the midst of things as they are, when there is calm in your heart. That is the real meaning of peace.’
(Author unknown)

Imagine pygmy twins: one is raised to hunt spiders, snakes and crocodiles; the other is raised to avoid those creatures. Which twin do you think will grow up competent and confident, and as a result, happier? Which twin will grow up anxious and unhappy?
  I claim the twin who learns how to handle those dangers, rather than avoid them, will most likely become the happier of the two. The twin who avoids those creatures will not learn how to handle anxiety, or life itself, and as a consequence will tend to suffer anxiety and unhappiness. That means the best way to feel safe is not to avoid scary situations, but to learn how to handle them. As Helen Keller says, ‘A happy life consists not in the absence, but in the mastery of hardships.’

It is often said that people in poorer countries on the whole seem happier that we westerners. It’s a bit simplistic and convenient to think that, because there are countless poor people suffering, but no doubt there are poor communities that do have happy people. In his book, ‘The Resilience Project: Finding Happiness Through Gratitude, Empathy & Mindfulness’, Hugh Van Cuylenburg explains how he was motivated to create his Resilience Project by a village of poor but happy people. He claims they have the tools we need for happiness: gratitude, empathy and mindfulness. He might be right, which prompts me to ask: why do they have those tools and we, presumably, don’t?
  I suspect that people in less fortunate societies learn they can handle hardship, and as a result gain an inner confidence that they can handle life. So, when nothing bad is happening – when they’re not starving, and not diseased, and not in danger – they can rely on a confidence that we haven’t had the opportunity to gain. In our relatively safe, comfortable western society we learn (like our anxious pygmy) to fear our environment, because we don’t get the opportunity to discover we can handle life. So, it becomes easy to be anxious, even over trivial things. Then, it becomes hard to be happy, because we are not getting our evolutionary reward for ‘feeling capable’.
  We could, unwittingly, be fostering unhappiness. An increasing number of children in our western society are not allowed to climb trees, or walk to school alone, or do anything that might be considered risky. So, they don’t learn how to handle situations, or to handle their fears. Instead, they learn how to avoid them, and that’s a recipe for anxiety.
  We adults have rights, and insist upon them, and when they’re not met, we complain to the higher-ups and wallow in the unfairness of it all when we don’t get the outcome we want.
Further, we spend a great deal of time trying to get people to not bully or coerce, and precious little time teaching people to become resistant to bullying and coercion.
  And, we spend a great deal of time vilifying the perpetrators of domestic violence and sexual harassment, and precious little time teaching people how to avoid experiencing those assaults in the first place, and precious little time teaching them how to deal with those assaults as they occur.
  Counsellors, social workers and lawyers can spend plenty of time with a troubled person after the event, trying to help the person feel better. But surely prevention is better than the cure? Though if someone does make the ‘outrageous’ suggestion that we should teach people coping skills, they are accused of blaming the victim.

‘Don’t aim to have an easy life, aim to be a strong person.’
John F. Kennedy.

  In short, we’re soft. Hugh might be right with his Resilience Project. Perhaps we have become so soft and spoilt we have lost our capacity to feel grateful, empathic and mindful of the moment. I don’t know. But this book is not about how we can deal with anxiety; it’s about how not become anxious in the first place. It’s about reducing our capacity to become anxious, and satisfying our ongoing innate need to feel that whatever happens in life, we can handle it. That includes satisfying our deep need to belong.
  Satisfy both needs and we have resilience.
  Our reward? Core happiness.

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Should we even seek happiness?

Q. ‘Who wants to be a grinning idiot with no real substance?’
Being happy is not about being a grinning idiot. Happy people still suffer; they still feel all the dark emotions – hurt, anger, fear, sadness . . . They just aren’t shattered by them. And when you are not shattered by your emotions, you can grow.

Q. ‘Isn’t suffering supposed to make us happy, in some bizarre way?’
Many people have suffered and become twisted and bitter. It’s not the suffering which helps us grow, it’s how we deal with our suffering.

Q. ‘If I become happy I will become content and lose my passion and motivation. My chance to excel in life will dissipate like smoke in the wind.’
On the contrary, with a strong core happiness you won’t have a chance to live a bland, passionless existence. Instead, you will be taking risks and extending your boundaries, because you will know that whatever happens, you will handle it. With a strong core happiness you will be more productive. Happiness is not about contentment. Contentment is for cows.

Q. ‘There is a German proverb: ‘Happiness is a butterfly. Chase it and it eludes you. Sit down quietly and it will alight on your shoulder.’
That proverb is right in one way: if we try to be happy we will fail. However, I’m not suggesting that we try to be happy. I am suggesting we build ourselves a resilient person. As a result, we will become happy.

Q. ‘Why shouldn’t we try to be happy?’
What does it mean to ‘try to be happy’? To ignore our dark feelings and pretend they aren’t there? To replace our dark feelings with ‘happy thoughts’, and a happy disposition? No. We can’t simply flick a switch and be happy.
  Instead of trying to manufacture an emotion we don’t have – happiness – we need to deal with the dark emotions we do have. Those dark emotions are there for a reason, and when we get good at responding to them we gain the feeling that we can handle life. That’s when core happiness comes. If a well-meaning person tells you, ‘try to be happy’, dismiss the advice.
Q. ‘Can we can aim to be happy?’
We can aim to engage in behaviours that will satisfy our innate needs. By doing so, we will become resilient and add to our core happiness.

Q. Even if we can seek happiness, should we? The book, ‘Against Happiness’ by Eric G. Wilson. Eric points out that unhappiness has prompted wonderful art and stirring music. Eric fears that we might become bland without these ‘agitations of the soul’. Doesn’t he have a point? Don’t we need the agitations of the soul to create things like music or poetry?’
A happy person will still have the agitations of the soul. There will always be something inside each and every one of us that niggles. Being happy will not kill that; instead it will give you the freedom and confidence to express those agitations. A musician might in dark times compose music so beautiful it feeds the listener’s soul, but that does not mean the musician can’t enjoy the better times. When we have a strong core happiness we can deal with the dark times, and what better way to deal with them than to express them in music, or in poetry, or in what drives you?

Q. Isn’t searching for happiness twee? Surely we have more important things to focus on? Such as living life?
I’m not suggesting the aim of life is to be happy and that we should focus on that. Life is to be lived; happiness is merely the lubricant to make it worth living.

Q. What if our happiness is in our genes? Wouldn’t that mean happiness is out of our hands?
Your genes play only a part. Someone born with ‘glum’ genes can still become happier if they cease undermining their core happiness and become resilient. So can a cheery person.
  I’m not suggesting we can raise our level of core happiness above our natural level, but we can make sure it’s at the level it should be.

In summary: being happy is not about becoming a grinning idiot. It’s not about contentment, or suffering, or not suffering. It’s not about keeping yourself well back from the abyss. It’s about approaching the abyss, and peering deep down into it, so that although our very soul may shiver we will know, on a deep and fundamental level, that we will not succumb. It’s that confidence, that knowledge that we can handle what happens in life, that allows our anxiety to evaporate, and core happiness to rise in its place.

‘Only through recognising my happiness did I really appreciate it.’
Gretchen Rubin.

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The difference between stoicism and resilience

Let us not confuse resilience with stoicism, or toughness.
     A resilient person might endure hardship, but will recover. That’s what resilience means: having the capacity to recover from hardship. Resilient people might express their pain by talking about it; they might cry and express so much emotion it scares the pants off the rest of us. But they recover.
     A stoic, or tough, person can endure hardship without revealing pain. That stoicism doesn’t mean the person can bounce back afterwards and recover. It doesn’t mean the person is resilient.
     A man might be stoic his entire life. He might endure hardship and worry, day after day, desperately hiding his pain, believing that if he were to reveal his suffering he would be seen as weak and unworthy, and would be letting himself, his family and his manhood down . . . and in that ‘weakness’ he would feel shame so damning, so overwhelming, it would split his world apart.
     At least, that’s how it feels to him. That’s the threat. And so, he continues to hold in his pain, day after day until finally, mercifully, he dies of natural causes. ‘He was a tough man,’ others might say. ‘A hard worker. Never complained. There aren’t many men like him left.’
     Or, he doesn’t die. Instead, he cracks. He suffers a breakdown no one sees coming. ‘What happened?’ they ask. ‘He seemed to be coping. Who would have thought?’
     Or, he doesn’t die. Wonderfully, he seeks help, and gets it. He not only flourishes,  he keeps his stoicism. This time, however, his stoicism comes not from his ability to hide his pain, but from his ability to deal with it. He has become resilient.
     Of course, a degree of stoicism is good to have. For example, we don’t want to burst into tears in awkward circumstances. However, if we develop resilience (the ability to deal with our pain and recover) we tend to develop stoicism as well. Why? Because knowing that we will recover from the pain makes that pain easier to bear. That makes us stoic.
     Not everyone who cries and talks about their pain is resilient. It is not the ability to express our pain that make us resilient, it’s the ability to deal with our pain. Expressing it is just one way to deal with it.
     Further, a person resilient in one area of their life may not be resilient in another. For example, someone who is physically resilient, as tough as wombat stew, may not be emotionally resilient. Or vice versa.

Q. ‘Are there other ongoing innate needs?’
Yep. You might already be satisfying the other ongoing innate needs. The needs discussed in this book are the need to feel that we can handle life, and the deep need to belong.
They are two of the big ones many people lack.

Q. ‘If I apply the umpteen keys when will I notice a change?’
It may take a year or two, perhaps more.
The keys to resilience aren’t snappy catch phrases that are applied in five minutes. You will need to absorb their lessons gradually and apply them consistently over time. You don’t turn an ocean liner around in five minutes, and you are not going to change your life in five minutes.
  ‘But two years?!’
Those two years will come quickly. Also, it depends on how long it takes you to adopt each key. On an intellectual level you might easily grasp the precepts presented, but for you to fully believe them and for them to become an integral part of the way you live your life takes time.
   ‘Two years is too long.’
You might already be applying most of the keys to resilience, in which case, you’re halfway there. You won’t notice the changes happening, but one day you will look back and see that you have changed. You will see that you have created a more confident, accountable person. You will gauge your happiness and see that your effort has been rewarded.
The changes you will be making don’t rely on willpower, but on awareness – a useful quality to possess in life.

Q. ’If I apply the umpteen keys to resilience, how much will I increase my core happiness?’
Enough to be pleased with the difference. To expect a complete transformation in your happiness levels may be unrealistic.
     Recall a time when you were elated: you won a contest or just received a promotion. Would you hope or expect to maintain that feeling throughout your everyday life? No! Now imagine you are outside playing a game, but it’s nippy. You want to enjoy yourself, but keep being reminded of the cold. If it were just a couple of degrees warmer you could forget about the chill and enjoy yourself. A small change could make a big difference. Or, think of a cup of coffee. The difference between a regular cup of coffee and a great cup of coffee can depend on a few drops of milk. Again, a little thing can make a big difference.
      In the same way, if you can increase your core happiness even a little, your whole life will change significantly.
     Ready? Let’s start.

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What are you thinking? What are you feeling?

Sometimes our parents tell us what we are feeling, or should be feeling, instead of allowing us to experience what we are actually feeling. Tell a child they’re happy, or grateful, when they’re not, and they’ll get confused.
  And, some of us are told to not feel certain emotions: ‘Don’t feel bad, Don’t be angry, Don’t be jealous!’ So, we get good at avoiding those emotions. We still feel angry or jealous, but we have lost our awareness of it.
  And, some emotions are uncomfortable, so we might become adept at avoiding them.
  The trouble is, if we don’t understand what is going on inside us, problems arise. Someone not wanting to acknowledge their jealousy may become possessive. Someone fearful might not realise it, and turn their fear into anger. Someone might think they are angry when the emotion they are feeling is envy, or humiliation, or loneliness. Some people aren’t even aware of their disappointment – they are so stoic they don’t let themselves experience it.
  If we are not aware of an emotion it can undermine us by leading us astray. It can prompt us to engage in behaviours we ourselves don’t fully understand. After all, if we don’t know what we are feeling, how can we address that emotion? We can’t. So, that feeling keeps niggling at us and influencing our behaviour. We might do something silly and later ask ourselves in exasperation,‘What was I thinking?!’ A better question would be, ‘What was I feeling?’ Only when we are aware of what we are feeling, and fully experience it, can we begin to deal with that emotion in a healthy, constructive manner.
  It’s not just emotions. We need to be aware of all the ‘dark bits’ inside us. Instead of keeping those dark bits hidden from ourselves and from others, we need to acknowledge them. And when we do, we come to realise they aren’t so bad after all. Then after a while we come to accept them. And when we come to accept them, we come to accept ourselves. We begin to relax. We feel better about ourselves and go easier on ourselves. With nothing to hide we can lower our guard with people, and connect with them on a deeper, more meaningful level.
  Further, the more we understand ourselves and accept our dark bits, the more we understand other people, and accept their dark bits. With that empathy, we become less judgmental and more easy going. We adjust our expectations of others, and become more flexible and easier to be with.
  In short, one good way to develop resilience is to get to know ourselves: to be aware of what we think and of what we feel. In particular, we need to be attuned to the dark bits inside us, because it’s those dark bits that create anxiety. And with less anxiety we feel more resilient, and add to our core happiness.
  So, how do we get to know ourselves? The following tips will help with that.

Q. ‘How do we know when we have fully experienced an emotion?’
When the emotion has lost its sting. Fully experiencing emotions isn’t easy, and it takes time. Take all the time you need, especially if you have experienced trauma. Delve into your emotions at your own pace. There is no correct amount of time.

Q. ‘We don’t always have to be aware of our emotions, do we? It would be a pain in the proverbial if we always had to go around being aware of what we are feeling.’
We want the ability to identify what we are feeling, particularly when we feel unsettled. If we have that ability, we can apply it when necessary.

Q. How do we get that ability?
One way is to label our emotions. See you in the next chapter!

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Label it. And be specific!

One day, a friend treated me shabbily. I searched for the emotions I was feeling and labelled each one. I said to myself, ‘I feel annoyed. I feel betrayed. I feel belittled. I feel disappointed.’ (And a few more.) When I understood what I was feeling, I relaxed. I felt better.
  Because it’s easier to cope with a feeling when we know what it is. When we don’t know, it feels like a turmoil, and a turmoil can be scary. But when we identify each individual emotion the turmoil evaporates, because emotion is familiar to us.
  Furthermore, by being specific we can reduce the intensity of the emotion, like when we realise we are not devastated, merely disappointed.
  We may also uncover emotions we didn’t realise we had. As well as feeling miffed, we might also realise we feel frustrated. Then we can begin to address that frustration.

But be specific. Don’t just say to yourself, ‘I’m feeling crap.’ The word ‘crap’ is a blob word. If you use a blob word you still won’t know precisely what you are feeling. Terms like ‘I feel okay’ and ‘I feel fine’ are blob terms too; they don’t convey enough information.
  Another blob word is ‘awesome’. There are so many more accurate ways to describe how pleased you are, and the closer you get to describing that feeling accurately, the richer life becomes.
  ‘Bad’ is another blob word. Someone who says they feel bad might, for example, be feeling afraid, but not know it. So, they don’t address the fear.
  We might be feeling lonely, but if we simply say ‘I feel lousy’ we might not become aware of that loneliness, and we won’t give ourselves the opportunity to address it. So, it hangs around.
  Avoid blob words. Be specific. If you are feeling angry, what word would you use to accurately describe that anger? Are you annoyed? Irritated? Peeved? Miffed? Vexed? Find the right word and use it.
  In summary, get into the habit of labelling your emotions, and be specific when you do.
  When you know precisely what you are feeling, life runs more smoothly.
  Plus, there is a bonus: when we make the effort to accurately state how we feel, people appreciate the honesty and tend to take us more seriously.

Q. ‘Sometimes people ask me how I am. They expect me to answer, ‘I’m fine, thanks.’ What answer should I give them if ‘fine’ is a blob word?’
In western culture that question is a standard greeting, so it’s alright to say ‘I’m fine’, or just nod. However, if the person knows you well, and is genuinely enquiring into your wellbeing, be honest and accurate.

Q. ‘Why would labelling an emotion reduce its intensity?’
(1) If you understand what emotion you are dealing with you will feel less turmoil. (If Bill is angry, but not aware of it, he will experience turmoil and won’t know why. But when he discovers he is experiencing anger, much of the frustration and fear will evaporate because he now knows what he is dealing with.
(2) Labelling an emotion can provide a similar outlet to swearing or other forms of expression.
(3) We may discover that our emotion is less extreme than we realised. We are not furious, merely peeved.

Rolf: ‘My cat died. I feel awful.’
Beatrice: ‘Be specific.’
Rolf: ‘Huh?’
Beatrice: ‘What are you feeling, exactly?’
Rolf: ‘Irritated, that you’re asking me this.’
Beatrice: ‘Good. What else? How do you feel about your cat dying?’
Rolf: ‘Awful. How do you think I feel?’
Beatrice: ‘Be specific.’
Rolf: ‘Wretched – sad – angry – miserable – flat – guilty . . .’
Beatrice: ‘Good stuff.’
Rolf says he feels awful, and he’s right. But he doesn’t know precisely what he is feeling, and that can be unsettling. And, did you notice that he said ‘guilty’? He may not have been aware of that guilt before. Now he can examine his guilt and ponder about why he feels it.
  Also, knowing that he feels those emotions and that they have been heard, will ease his discomfort.
  Rolf’s pain is still there, but he also knows he feels wretched, sad, angry, miserable, flat and guilty – and now he has a better chance of dealing with those feelings. He won’t have to suffer the ‘noise in his head’ telling him there’s something wrong, yet not know what it is.
  Mind you, being specific can have its problems:
Rolf: ‘I’m feeling discombobulated.’
Beatrice: ‘Huh?’

Ways to be specific:
(1) Search for the word that most accurately describes what you are feeling, as we have just discussed.

(2)  Don’t exaggerate or catastrophise.
Don’t use the word ‘ecstatic’ when you feel delighted.
Don’t say ‘I’m furious’ when you feel merely annoyed.
Don’t use the word ‘fantastic’ when you just feel pleased.
  When we exaggerate we make a caricature of what we are feeling. That won’t help us know ourselves.

‘. . . if you develop a habit of saying you “hate” things – you “hate” your hair; you “hate” your job; you “hate” having to do something – do you think this raises the intensity of your negative emotional states more than if you were to use a phrase like “I prefer something else”?’
(Anthony Robbins, Awaken the Giant Within)

(3) Ditch hackneyed disabling expressions like these:     ‘It’s all too much.’     ‘I’m freaking out.’
‘I can’t cope.’       ‘Life’s a bitch.’          ‘I am devastated.’      ‘What an absolute, total disaster.’
‘That’s typical.’   ‘That’s Murphy’s law!’         ‘I’m such an idiot.’
  Using these trite and whiny expressions prompt us to feel powerless, frustrated and discouraged.
Further, they make us look powerless, frustrated and discouraged! Try instead:
          ‘This is unpleasant.’  ‘I dislike this.’    ‘I’m disappointed.’
  These expressions will not magnify the drama like the other expressions do; instead, they will reduce the intensity of the unwanted emotion. Plus, you will see the situation in a healthier perspective.

(4) Avoid these two particular words of exaggeration: always and never
‘It always rains on my birthday.’               ‘You never do what I suggest.’
‘You always do that.’                                ‘We never go out.’
‘It always happens at the last moment.’    ‘I never have any luck.’
Avoid other exaggerations too, such as everyone and no one:
‘Everyone is corrupt.’         ‘No one cares.’

Exercise 1
Step 1. Think of a time when you felt angry.
Step 2. Do any of these words accurately describe that anger?
irritated       displeased    dismayed      peeved       exasperated    irked     irate      perturbed     annoyed        miffed        ruffled           If not, does another word come to mind?
Step 3.Did you feel other emotions as well? Hatred? fear? stress? frustration? resentment? humiliation? Do other feelings come to mind?

Exercise 2
Using a thesaurus, find the most accurate word to complete these sentences.
When the team I support wins, I feel …………………….   
When the team I support loses, I feel ……………………….
When the team I support draws, I feel …………………………..
When someone ignores me, I feel  …………………….
When someone cries, I feel ………………..
When someone praises me, I feel …………………
When someone talks about themselves all the time, I feel …………………
When someone gets mad at me, I feel …………………
When someone acts superior to me, I feel …………………
When someone is attracted to me, I feel …………………
When someone breaks a confidence, I feel …………………
When someone is late for an appointment, I feel …………………
When I am in a group of strangers, I feel …………………
When someone gives me the silent treatment, I feel …………………

(These sentences were compiled by Belinda Ballan, Sydney University)

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Distinguish between your thoughts and feelings.

Years ago, when I was visiting my uncle Geoff at his farm in Korumburra, he casually asked, ’Mark, how do you feel about circus lions being kept in cages?’    
     I answered, ‘It’s cruel, it’s wrong, it shouldn’t be allowed’, to which he replied, ‘Wrong answer’.    
     While I was puzzling at this he asked me, ‘How do you feel about your footy team losing yesterday?’
     I told him we were unlucky; our key forward had a crook knee and we only lost by three points.
     Again he said, ‘Wrong answer.’
     Can you figure out why they were wrong answers?

He pointed out that he had asked me how I felt about circus lions being kept in cages, and I had given him my thoughts on the matter. Big difference. A correct answer might have included words like ‘concerned’, ‘appalled’, ‘irritated’, which describe feelings.
     How did I feel about my footy team losing? Disappointed. Deflated. Flat.
     Uncle Geoff explained that if we want our lives to run smoothly, we need to be in the habit of distinguishing between our thoughts and our feelings.
     ‘Why?’ I asked.
He said that some people try to be always rational, and lose touch with what they are feeling; others rely on their feelings and fail to think things through. Both tend to find themselves believing one thing but doing another, and living lives of mild confusion.

‘Your reason and your passion are the rudder and the sails of your seafaring soul. If either your sails or your rudder be broken, you can but toss and drift, or else be held at a standstill in mid-seas. For reason, ruling alone, is a force confining; and passion, unattended, is a flame that burns to its own destruction.’
Khalil Gibran in ‘The Prophet’

‘The trick’, Uncle Geoff continued, ‘is to think things through, yet be fully in touch with our emotions – and the best way to do that is to distinguish between our thoughts and emotions when we speak.’
‘We are taught many things in a lifetime, but rarely do we get a chance to learn about emotion and ways of relating to others. We make a great effort to develop the mind, but apparently we are supposed to deal with our emotions instinctively.’
Thomas Moore, from his book, Dark Nights of the Soul.

In short, a good way to be aware of our thoughts and our feelings is to distinguish between them when we speak. When you say: ‘I feel —’ describe a feeling. When you say, ‘I think —’ give your thoughts. And be specific.
  Over time you will become skilled at knowing precisely what you are thinking and what you are feeling, and adept at dealing with what is going on inside you. That will be a big plus towards becoming resilient, and happy.

Q. ‘Why is it bad to confuse our emotions?’
If you don’t know what you are feeling, how can you address it? You can’t. So, it keeps popping up, and niggling at you and misleading you. But if you know precisely what you are feeling you have a much better chance of dealing with it. Result? Less anxiety.

‘I feel we should look for another way.’ (Wrong)
‘I think we should look for another way. ’(Correct.)
‘I feel frustrated. I think we should look for another way.’ (Correct.)

‘I feel I’m unappreciated.’ (Wrong.)
‘I think I’m unappreciated, and feel hurt and disappointed as a result.’ (Correct.)

‘I feel you are not listening to me.’ (Wrong.)
‘I think you are not listening to me, and I feel irritated with that.’    (Correct.)

Jan: ‘I want to break up. How do you feel about that, Bill?’
Bill: ‘I don’t think we should break up.’ (Incorrect. That’s a thought. Before Bill expresses his thoughts on the matter he should address Jan’s question by telling her what he feels. Try again, Bill.)
Bill: ‘I don’t feel anything; I’m in shock.’ (Bill is not in shock. He’s exaggerating, and indicating that he isn’t aware of what is going on inside him. Try again, Bill.)
Bill: ‘I feel awful.’ (That’s a better answer, but Bill needs to be more specific. He needs to find words that describe precisely how he feels.)
Bill: ‘This is terrible.’ (Incorrect. He’s expressing his opinion again, rather than stating how he feels. Have another go, Bill.)
Bill: ‘I feel terrible.’  (That’s a bit better. He is describing a feeling, although he still not being specific.)
Bill: ‘I feel hurt. Frightened. Anxious.’  (Now Bill is getting the hang of it!)
Bill: ‘I feel nauseous.’ (Good. Bill is also recognising what his body is feeling.)
Bill: ‘I feel surprise, hurt, betrayal, anger, humiliation . . .’ (Good. It might sound like a shopping list, but by labelling his emotions Bill is becoming aware of them. He can now start to deal with them, and think things through.)
     When Bill got it right he: – expressed his feelings rather than his thoughts
          – used the word ‘feel’ to describe his feelings
          – allowed himself to feel vulnerable by expressing what he felt
          – labelled his emotion,
          – looked for other emotions he was feeling and labelled them too.
All in all, Bill did well. But Jan still dumped him!

Practise distinguishing between thoughts and feelings by naming at least six thoughts you might think, and six emotions you might feel, in each of the following scenarios.

You find a rabbit with its leg caught in a rabbit trap.
Six thoughts you might have:             Six feelings you might have:
        I think —                                                I feel —
it’s in pain.                                             concern, anger, flustered, outrage, distressed
this shouldn’t happen.
who would set this trap?                                I feel in my body —
will the rabbit be alright?                      a knot in my stomach, tense, nauseous, goosebumps
how do I cook a rabbit?

Your turn now.
(1) You discover that your best friend has been stealing money.
Six thoughts you might have:             Six feelings you might have:
I think —                                                               I feel —

(2) A close relative gleefully tells you she is pregnant.
Six thoughts you might have:             Six feelings you might have:
 I think —                                            I feel —

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What presses your button?

Rolf was a road-rager. One time, a car cut him off, and when the two cars had stopped at the lights, Rolf got out of his car and rapped on the driver’s window, screaming. Fortunately for Rolf the incident did not lead to harm or an arrest.
  Why did Rolf become enraged? Because the other driver had ‘pressed a button’.
  ‘Buttons’ are incidents in life that prompt us to react with unwarranted passion. Jan becomes tearful when given a particular insult; Roy feels overly hurt when ignored; Jenny feels outrage when someone refutes the existence of God; Ali feels overwhelmed with exasperation when he sees someone litter.
  We need to become aware of our buttons, for two reasons:
(1) It can help us moderate our behaviour. If Bill realises he gets narky every time Jill leaves the toilet seat up, he can say to himself, ‘Oh, this is one of my buttons. I’ll be careful to moderate my behaviour. I won’t chuck a wobbly about it. In a few minutes all will be forgotten.’
  He’s right. By recognising that button and moderating his behaviour accordingly, an argument has been averted and the violation is soon forgotten.

(2) Being aware of our buttons allows us to search for the deeper concerns behind them. That can make a big difference to how we feel overall.  When Rolf, our road-rage driver, explored the anger he felt when a driver cut him off, he realised he had felt the same way as a child: unimportant; dismissible. He had been well looked after as a child, but when he had tried to express an opinion his opinion didn’t matter. After all, he was ‘only a child’. As Rolf grew older he became sensitive to being ignored and feeling unimportant, and he developed strong ‘shoulds’ in his life: ‘Drivers should respect me. Drivers should think I matter. Drivers have no right to treat me badly.’ And so on. So, as a driver, Rolf’s immediate but subconscious assumption when a driver cut him off was to assume the driver considered him unimportant and worthy of disrespect. All the emotions Rolf had felt as a child: frustration, powerlessness, humiliation . . . rose within him and incited his fury.
  But Rolf came to realise he was making false assumptions about other drivers. When he understood that those drivers were mere triggers for his own emotions, he focused on not taking it personally.
  He still became irritated when drivers cut him off, but he could cope with his irritation. By becoming aware of that button, and dealing with it, he added to his ability to handle life. Had he had not bothered to identify his ‘button’ and examine it, he might still be road-raging today.
  In short, become aware of your buttons. Knowing them will help you deal appropriately with situations when they arise, reduce the intensity of the emotion you are feeling, and it may even help you disable the false underlying beliefs creating those buttons in the first place.
  (Oh, and don’t criticise yourself for having buttons.)

In short, we need to know our buttons, because knowing them can help us deal appropriately with situations when they arise. We can then focus on addressing our distress instead of feeling a victim to the outside world.

Q. Another example, please?
‘I become irritated when Jim sings in the shower. That’s a button.’
‘I become grumpy when Kim suddenly ignores me when her phone rings. Button!’
  ‘What then? What do we do when we have identified a button?’
  What we do with our buttons is our choice. If we want to get mad, we can. But a better approach might be to ask ourselves, Why do I become upset when Jim sings in the shower? What emotions am I feeling? What beliefs do I have about life that are prodded by Jim’s singing? Why do I get upset about his singing when someone else wouldn’t?
  ‘Even if I do that, won’t I still be irritated when Jim sings in the shower?’
  At least you will know that Jim is not creating your distress; rather, you are. That’s a big step forward to solving your distress.
  ‘How? Why?’
  Because when you realise that you are the cause of your distress, you also realise you are the solution to it. Then you draw upon your resources and deal with the problem.

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