The difference between stoicism and resilience

Nephew: I disagree with you.

Uncle: What? Why? I haven’t said anything! You just got here!

Nephew: You said we need to develop the feeling that whatever happens, we will handle it. That’s rubbish. Our neighbour, Mr Flan, was super tough. He could handle anything that came his way. But he killed himself.

Uncle: Don’t confuse resilience with toughness, or stoicism.

Nephew: Huh?

Uncle: 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, or they might cry and express so much emotion that it scares the pants off the rest of us. Whichever way they express it, they recover.

Nephew: Right . . .?

Uncle: A stoicperson can endure hardship without expressing their pain. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean they can recover. It doesn’t mean they are resilient.

Nephew: So okay, we want to be stoic and resilient?

Uncle: We want resilience. And with resilience, comes stoicism.

Nephew: Now you’re losing me.

Uncle: A man might be stoic his entire life. He might endure hardship and worry, day after day, while 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 down, his family down, and his manhood down. And, in that ‘weakness’ he would feel shame so damning, so overwhelming, it would split his world apart.

Nephew: Have you swallowed a poetry book?

Uncle: At least, that’s how it feels to him. That’s the threat. And so he continues to conceal his pain, day after day, until finally, mercifully, he dies of natural causes. ‘He was a tough man,’ his friends might say. ‘A hard worker. Never complained. There aren’t many men like him left.’

Nephew: I’ve heard that said.

Uncle: Or, he doesn’t die. Instead, he cracks. He suffers a breakdown no one sees coming and does something awful. ‘What happened?’ they ask. ‘He seemed to be coping. Who would have thought?’

Nephew: I’ve heard of that happening too.

Uncle: Or, wonderfully, he seeks help and gets it. As a result, he not only gets through the pain, he gets to keep his stoicism. However, this time his stoicism comes not from his ability to hide his pain, but from his ability to deal with it.

Nephew: Good on him. What are you saying?

Uncle: Do I have to spell it out? Were you even listening?

Nephew: You’re saying it’s no use just being able to hide our pain, we need to be able to copewith our pain, even if that means bursting into tears.

Uncle: I’m sort of saying that, yes. Stoicism is good to have; we don’t want to burst into tears in every awkward circumstance. But if we develop resilience – the feeling that whatever happens we will handle it – we tend to develop stoicism as well.

Nephew: Why?

Uncle: Knowing we will recover from the pain makes that pain easier to bear. That knowledge makes us stoic.

Nephew: So a parent aiming to make their child stoic should instead aim to make their child resilient?

Uncle: Yes, because when the child becomes resilient, it becomes stoic.

Nephew: You’re still losing me.

Uncle: When we cry it’s as though we dissemble, and when we assemble again we are a little more solid than we were before. When a child is allowed to express their suffering, with the support of those around them, they come to realise that the suffering passes and that they have handled it.And once you discover you that, it’s easier to be stoic.

Nephew: What do some parents do?

Uncle: Some parents tell their children to not cry because they want their child to become tough. They want their child to be able to bluff the bullies, and show strength instead of weakness. That’s understandable. However, they are confusing resilience with stoicism.

Nephew: So what should a parent say to a crying child?

Uncle: I don’t know. But telling it to stop crying isn’t going to help.

Nephew: You don’t know, do you?

Uncle: They could try, ‘Do you feel frightened because the dog is barking? Is that possible?’  ‘Do you feel sad because you are missing your sister? Is that possible?’ ‘Do you feel angry because you believe we should give you the lolly? Is that possible?’That way, the child learns to label their emotion. They are then on the way to learning how to deal with it. That’s when resilience comes.

Nephew: I know a woman who cries freely when she watches a movie or reads a book. I used to think she was fragile, but she seems to handle life well.

Uncle: There you go.

Nephew: I also know an adult who cries at any little thing.

Uncle: Some people cry because they are not coping; others cry because it provides the necessary release for them. In some tribes in Papua New Guinea the men cry freely, yet there is no suggestion they aren’t resilient.

Nephew: So you’re saying if I feel like crying, I might as well? Don’t hold back?

Uncle: Yes, if you’re alone, or in a supportive environment.

‘It can be a great release to cry. If you stay quietly present, your tears will run their course. Do not fear. They never go on forever. Tears wash the soul. They cleanse the heart. Unshed tears can hurt.’  
Susan Halpern, author.

‘Sometimes the most empowering thing you can do is get real, get ugly, express your emotions and bawl your eyes out.’
Caroline Southwell.

Nephew: What if I want to cry but can’t?

Uncle: At least make the choice to cry. Give yourself permission to cry. That’s a start. And give yourself permission to suffer. Even that can provide relief.

Nephew: You’re weird.

Uncle: By the way, a person resilient in one area of their life may not be resilient in another.

Nephew: Like, someone physically resilient might not be emotionally resilient?

Uncle: Or vice versa.

Nephew: So where does this get us?

Uncle: I have no idea. You started this conversation by having the temerity to disagree with me.

Nephew: Did I? What did I say?

Uncle: (Sigh) The point is, don’t aim to simply ‘tough it out’. Instead, focus on developing the ability to feel you can handle whatever happens.

Nephew: You keep saying that. How do we actually do it?

Uncle. One good start is to be aware of what we are feeling.

Nephew: I’m feeling hungry right now. How does that help?

Uncle: (Sigh)

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What are you thinking? What are you feeling?

Nephew: You say we need to be aware of what we are feeling? Aren’t we already?

Uncle: Many people aren’t. Some people try to be always rational, and lose touch with what they are feeling. Others focus on what they are feeling and fail to think things through. Both types tend to live troubled lives. The trick is to think things through, yet be fully in touch with our emotions.

‘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, The Prophet)

Nephew: Most of us can do that, surely? Surely most of us are in touch with our emotions?

Uncle: Many of us aren’t. Some of us grow up with mixed messages: 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, won’t they?

Nephew. I suppose so.

Uncle: 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.

Nephew: Where is this heading?

Uncle: And, some emotions are uncomfortable, so we might become adept at avoiding them.

Nephew: For example?

Uncle: Someone not wanting to acknowledge their jealousy may become possessive. Someone fearful might not realise it, and turn their fear into racism. Someone might think they are angry when the emotion they are actually feeling is envy, or humiliation, or loneliness. Or shame. Some people aren’t even aware of their disappointment – they are so stoic they don’t let themselves experience it.

Nephew: Could some people not realise they are joyful?

Uncle: It wouldn’t surprise me. The point is: if we are not aware of an emotion it can undermine us or lead us astray. It can prompt us to engage in behaviours we ourselves don’t fully understand. 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.

Nephew: Okay. I understand. We need to be aware of our emotions. Gotcha.

Uncle: 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.

Nephew: Then what?

Uncle: Then we can 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.

Nephew: There’s more, isn’t there?

Uncle: Further, the more we understand ourselves and accept those 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.

Nephew: You make it sound like it’s almost worth the effort.

Uncle: What I am saying is, one way to feel safe is to get to know ourselves: to be aware of what we think and 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.

Nephew: How does knowing what we are feeling help?

Uncle: If you don’t know what you are feeling, how can you address it? You can’t. So, that feeling keeps niggling you. If, however, you know precisely what you are feeling you can deal with it. Then you become less anxious, because you know you can cope with the situation.

Nephew: And with less anxiety comes core happiness?

Uncle: Yes.

Nephew: How do we know when we have fully experienced an emotion?

Uncle: 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.

Nephew: Who said anything about trauma?

Uncle: I’m just saying.

Nephew: 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.

Uncle: 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.

Nephew: Alright. I give in. How do we get that ability?

Uncle: One way is to label our emotions.

Nephew: Give them name tags?

Uncle: What a good idea!

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Label it. And be specific!

Nephew: You said one way to become aware of what we are feeling is to label our emotions. To that I replied, ‘Give them name tags?” and you agreed! What the hell are you talking about?

Uncle: Recently I invited someone to dinner. I prepared the food and by 7pm everything was ready. By 7.30pm she hadn’t arrived, so I rang her.
  ‘Didn’t you get my email?’ she asked me. ‘I sent it this morning.’
  ‘I haven’t looked at my emails’, I told her.
  ‘If you had, you would have known I wasn’t coming tonight.’
  Through gritted teeth I said it was neglectful of her to assume I would look at my emails, and anyway, she should have rung me to give me as much notice as possible, to prevent me buying unnecessary food. The rest of the conversation was brief.

Nephew: She treated you badly.

Uncle: Anyway, after the call I felt inside me turmoil. So, 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.’

Nephew: Fair enough, too.

Uncle: And a few more. When I understood what was I was feeling, I relaxed. I felt better. It’s far easier to cope with a feeling when we know what it is.

Nephew: Why?

Uncle: When we don’t know what’s happening inside us, it’s turmoil. That can be scary. But when we identify each individual emotion we see that each one is familiar to us. They are the same old friends we have felt in the past. So, the turmoil evaporates.

Nephew: Maybe.

Uncle: Furthermore, by being specific we can reduce its intensity, like when we realise we aren’t devastated, merely disappointed.

Nephew: I see.

Uncle: We can also uncover emotions we didn’t realise we had. As well as feeling miffed, for instance, we might also realise we feel frustrated. Then we can begin to address that frustration.

Nephew: Alright. So, the next time I’m feeling crap I just need to label it. I say to myself, ‘I’m feeling like crap.’

Uncle: No. That’s 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. We need to avoid blob words and be specific.

Nephew: Blob words?

Uncle: Like ‘awesome’. There are so many richer, more accurate words to describe something that pleases you than the word ‘awesome’, and the closer you get to describing that feeling accurately, the richer life becomes.

Nephew: Awesome.

Uncle; How did I know you were going to say that?

Nephew: You’re awesomely psychic?

Uncle: ‘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 so we don’t give ourselves the opportunity to address it. So it hangs around.

Nephew: All this just because we aren’t describing what we are feeling?

Uncle: We aren’tawareof what we are feeling. Describing it brings that awareness.

Nephew: 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?

Uncle: In western culture that question is a standard greeting and a form of acknowledgement, so it’s alright to use ‘I’m fine’. Or just nod. However, if the person knows you well, and is genuinely enquiring into your wellbeing, be honest and accurate.

Nephew: So when I notice I’m feeling a strong emotion, I label it?

Uncle: Yes, and 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 say it.

Nephew: That sounds like hard work. I can’t really see the benefit.

Uncle: Get into the habit of labelling your emotions and it wil become second-nature. 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.

Nephew: I feel irritated. I feel bored.

Uncle: Yes, good examples!

Nephew. No, I was . . . that’s how I feel right now.

Uncle: Oh.

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: alwaysand 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.

Uncle: How do you feel about circus lions being kept in cages?

Nephew: It’s cruel. It’s wrong. It shouldn’t be allowed.

Uncle: Wrong answer.

Nephew: Huh? Why?

Uncle: How do you feel about your basketball team losing yesterday?

Nephew: We were unlucky. Our best player was out with a crook knee and we lost by three points.

Uncle: Wrong answer.

Nephew: What?!

Uncle: I asked you how you felt about circus lions being kept in cages, and you gave me your thoughts on the matter. Big difference. A correct answer might have included words like ‘concerned’, ‘appalled’, ‘irritated’. Those words describe feelings.

Nephew: I get you. How did I feel about my basketball team losing? Disappointed. Deflated. Flat.

Uncle: Very good.

Nephew: Thanks for your sympathy.

Uncle: 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.

Nephew: “I think it’s cruel to keep animals in cages. I feel distressed when I see one in a cage.”

Uncle: Good work! Make it a habit! From now on, use the right word, ‘think’ or ‘feel’, when you speak. Do that, and over time you will become skilled at knowing precisely what you are thinking and what you are feeling. That will significantly help you become aware of what is going on inside you.

Nephew: I feel I have had enough . . Wait. l think I have had enough of this conversation, because I feel like a break.

Uncle: Good work! Now clear off.

‘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!

Exercise
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.

Example:
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?

Uncle: Rolf would become incensed when a driver cut in front of him.

Nephew: Who’s Rolf?

Uncle: One time, when the driver in front of him 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.

Nephew: Is this another lecture? About how I shouldn’t become a hardened criminal? Gee, that’s a good idea. Thanks for that.

Uncle: Most of us have ‘buttons’, which 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.

Nephew: Psychos, the lot of them.

Uncle: You’re trying to press my button, aren’t you? The thing is, we all need to become aware of our buttons, for two reasons. First, being aware of our buttons can help us moderate our behaviour.

Nephew: How do you mean?

Uncle: If Bill realises he gets narky every time Jill leaves the toilet seat up, he can say to himself, ‘Oh, this is where I get narky. This is one of my buttons. Alright, I won’t chuck a wobbly about it. In a few minutes all will be forgotten.’ And he’s right. By recognising that button and moderating his behaviour accordingly, an argument has been averted and the violation is soon in the past, and soon forgotten.

Nephew: Second reason?

Uncle: Being aware of our buttons also allows us to search for the deeper concerns behind them. That can make a big difference to how we feel overall.  

Nephew: How do you mean?

Uncle: 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 he had been treated poorly. 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 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. All the emotions Rolf felt as a child: frustration, exasperation, powerlessness, humiliation . . . rose within him and incited his fury.

Nephew: Bummer.

Uncle: But when Rolf realised he was making false assumptions about other drivers, and becoming unnecessarily upset, and understood that those drivers were mere triggers for his own emotions, he focused on not taking it personally.

Nephew: So when someone cut him off, he didn’t care?

Uncle: 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 had added to his ability to handle what happens in life. Had he had not bothered to identify his ‘button’ and examine it, he might still be road-raging today.

Nephew: So the message is . . . what?

Uncle: Become aware of your buttons, because 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.

Nephew: When you say, ‘Become aware of your buttons . . .’?

Uncle: ‘I become irritated when Jim sings in the shower. That’s a button.’ Or, ‘I become grumpy when Kim suddenly ignores me when her phone rings. Button!’

Nephew: Yeah, got it. Once I identify each one of my buttons, what then?

Uncle: 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?

Nephew: Even if I do that, won’t I still be irritated when Jim sings in the shower?

Uncle: 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.

Nephew: How? Why?

Uncle: 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.

Nephew: Do you have a button that gets pressed sometimes?

Uncle: Being fussed over. Witnessing acts of cruelty and neglect. Being asked for my star sign.

Nephew: Your star sign?

Uncle: In past years, if I were on a date and asked for my star sign I would become passionate in my criticism of astrology. My earnestness would sour the date.

Nephew: Typical Gemini.

Uncle: That was predictable. When I finally figured out that astrology was one of my ‘buttons’, and that it was disabling me, I moderated my behaviour. I would say to myself, ‘Uh oh. That’s my button.’ I’d then grimace inwardly and adeptly change the subject. My awareness of that button allowed me to behave appropriately.

Nephew: You’re still single.

Uncle: Yes, but . . . (Sigh)

Nephew: I’m off. I have buttons to press.

Uncle: Why am I not surprised.

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Don’t talk like a zombie.

Uncle: I once asked an acquaintance . . . let’s call him ‘Oscar’. . .

Nephew: No, let’s call him R2D2.

Uncle: Shut up. I once asked Oscarhow he felt about losing custody of his dog. He shrugged and replied, ‘These things happen.’

Nephew: Ah! He got it wrong, didn’t he? You asked him how he felt, but he gave you his opinion!

Uncle: Well done! I persisted with him: ‘Do you miss your dog?’ I asked, ‘Do you feel like you are a victim of injustice?’ He replied, ‘It doesn’t worry me. Mary can look after Bosley better than I can.’

Nephew: So there was no problem?

Uncle: I knew it did worry him because he had tried hard to keep the dog.

Nephew: So?

Uncle: Talking with Oscar can be like talking to a zombie. He seems to lack the ability to express what he is feeling. He uses expressions such as ‘I don’t know’ or ‘It doesn’t worry me’, or he provides an opinion instead of a feeling. By being unable, or unwilling, to articulate his emotions he deadens himself.

‘The trouble is, we cannot selectively numb one emotion. We cannot say, here’s the bad stuff, here is shame, disappointment, fear – I don’t want to feel these. You can’t numb them without numbing other emotions, like joy, gratitude, happiness.’
(Brené Brown, TED talk, The Power of Vulnerability.)

Nephew: He becomes a zombie?

Uncle: And, his inability to express his feelings prevents him from fully connecting with others, and from making friends. Worse, my fear is that when he does start feeling all those emotions he won’t know how to handle them. He might do something he’ll regret.

Nephew: Like what? Listen to one of your lectures?
    
Uncle: To ask someone what they are feeling and get the reply,‘Nothing’, suggests not that they have no emotions, but rather, they aren’t good at identifying them. Perhaps they think emotions are frivolous things and more trouble than they’re worth. Or, they might be concerned that if they feel emotions they may again experience the pain they used to feel.

Nephew: Where is this leading?

Uncle: The trouble is, when we don’t allow ourselves to feel emotions, a big part of us doesn’t get to see the sun. It doesn’t get to blossom.

Nephew: It doesn’t get sunburn either.

Uncle: What doesn’t get sunburn?

Nephew: Never mind. What’s your point?

Uncle: I’m just saying that if you are asked how you feel about something, search for what you really are feeling, and say it. Don’t be a zombie. Don’t say something lame like, ‘I don’t care’ or ‘it doesn’t worry me’ or ‘no problem’.  You are only telling the person what you don’t feel instead of telling them what you do feel.

Nephew: But what if I don’t want to say how I feel?

Uncle: Then say so. Try, ‘I’d rather not discuss how I feel’ or ‘I’d rather not talk about it.’ Be direct. To make sure you’re not being lazy, figure out for yourself the emotions you are feeling.

Nephew: Got it.
    
Uncle: The more adept we are at recognising what we are feeling, the more adept we become in dealing with those emotions. Then our confidence in ourselves grows and we feel safer, not because we are protecting ourselves, but because we have lost the need to protect ourselves.

Nephew: Yep. Got it.

Uncle: The next time you are tempted to say ‘I don’t feel anything in particular’, or ‘I don’t care’, or ‘I feel nothing’, search yourself for an emotion. Any emotion. Even if it’s just an atom of an emotion, say it.

Nephew: No problem.

Uncle: How do you feel right now?

Nephew: Fine.

Uncle: (Sigh)

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Charlotte and the Creatures of the Dark Forest

Uncle: Here’s a bedtime story for you.

Nephew: At my age? At midday? I’m overjoyed.

Uncle: Once upon a time, young Charlotte was in a paddock warming herself in the sun and throwing pine cones at Farmer Brown’s beehives.

Nephew: Okay . . .

Uncle: Alongside the paddock was the spooky Dark Forest.

Nephew: Ooh, scary!

Uncle: Out from the Dark Forest strode Anger. Anger was a ferocious looking creature. It was white with rage, and its huge, warty head had big, sharp teeth like breadknives.

Nephew: Breadknives? Is that the best you can do?

Uncle: It drooled venom as it stormed up to Charlotte, and she trembled. It complained bitterly to her about something and demanded she act immediately. Charlotte told it, ‘Go way! I don’t want you here! Go away!’ But the creature stayed and continued to complain, and drip venom, until eventually it strode away, back into the Dark Forest. Charlotte felt dreadful.

Nephew: I’m going to feel dreadful too if this story doesn’t get a move on.

Uncle: The next day, Charlotte returned to the paddock, and with a stick began setting off Farmer Brown’s rabbit traps. Out from the Dark Forest stepped Prejudice. The creature’s skin was mould, its head looked like a garbage tip, and its rotten teeth looked like black carrots.

Nephew: You’re really struggling, aren’t you?

Uncle: Prejudice insisted on speaking with Charlotte, and this time Charlotte just shrugged, knowing she didn’t have much choice in the matter. The creature rambled on and on with breath that smelled like fresh spew, until finally it wandered away back into the Dark Forest. Charlotte felt flat.

Nephew: Did the creature have eyes of pus?

Uncle: It did. On the third day . . .

Nephew: How did it see?

Uncle: What? Oh. Echolocation, like a bat. On the third day . . .

Nephew: It had big ears, did it?

Uncle: Yes, it had big ears! Like trampolines! Now let me finish the story! On the third day, while Charlotte was in the paddock shooting bullets into Farmer Brown’s ‘No Shooting’ sign, Sadness emerged from the Dark Forest. Sadness . . .

Nephew: Let me guess! Sadness was soggy from crying a thousand tears of lemon juice?

Uncle: Lime juice, but close enough. This time, Charlotte decided to welcome the creature, and listen to what it had to say. She even gave it a kind word and wiped a lime-juice tear from its left eye. After a while, Sadness went quiet. It disappeared without her noticing. Charlotte felt okay. Then it dawned on her . . .

Nephew: What did?

Uncle: Keep quiet and I’ll tell you. It dawned on her that although Sadness was no fun to be with – a real drag, truth be known – it had come to assist her. It had come to tell her something was wrong in her life. Charlotte then realised Anger and Prejudice had also come to assist her. Anger had come to fight for her values, and Prejudice had come to address her fears.

Nephew: And the postman had come to deliver her mail.

Uncle: Shut up. The next day, Anger visited again. This time, instead of trying to shoo the scary creature away, Charlotte welcomed it and listened to its complaints. She then worked out a way to solve its problem. Anger considered her advice and agreed with her solution. It wandered off with a mild grumble.

Nephew: Let me guess . . .

Uncle: No, I’m not going to let you guess! You’re a pest. Over time, other creatures emerged from the Dark Forest: Grief, Fear, Jealousy, Envy . . . and many others. Most of them visited more than once. All of them could see pain in her life and had come to assist her. Although Charlotte didn’t want their assistance she accepted them and dealt with their concerns. After a while she got to know them, and she came to understand their desires, foibles and fears. Although the creatures were hard to get on with, she became adept at dealing with them.

Nephew: Good for her.

Uncle: Charlotte knew that none of the creatures was bad; each was just a troubled soul trying to deal with the world – her world – the best way it could.

Nephew: Then what? When does this story get interesting?

Uncle: You cheeky blight. Over time, the creatures grew softer and wiser, until they rarely needed to leave the Dark Forest. And when they did, they didn’t stay long. They would have a quiet chat with Charlotte and return content.

Nephew: Why didn’t she visit them in the Dark Forest?

Uncle: She did! Charlotte lost her fear of the Dark Forest and ventured into it. She discovered new paths and extended her boundaries. When she met the dark creatures in there she felt safe with them. And she came to realise: they were her friends. Always had been.

Nephew: . . . Aw! Gosh, what a lovely story! I have no idea what you are talking about.

Uncle: (Sigh) I am talking, of course, about the dark forest within each of us. We can learn from Charlotte. Her message is clear . . .

Nephew: . . . to the village idiot, maybe.

Uncle: . . . we need to give ourselves permission to feel any emotion. It is natural to feel emotions such as jealousy, envy, anger, hatred and greed. They are in our dark forest and they are meant to be there. When they venture out, let’s welcome them and deal with their concerns.

Nephew: Why not just tell them to clear off?

Uncle: If we pretend they aren’t there, or tell them, ‘No, I’m not feeling you! Go away!’ they will just keep coming back, and keep nagging us. And, we won’t learn how to deal with them. They will remain ornery and hard to handle.

Nephew: Should we thank them for coming?

Uncle: What a good idea! Yes! ‘Ah. You again! Thank you for coming. What would you like to tell me today?’

Nephew: You didn’t have to take me seriously.

Uncle: We may not enjoy their visits, but those dark emotions require our attention. When we accept them we become skilled in dealing with them. And, like Charlotte, we also come to realise: they are our friends. Always have been.

Nephew: Some friends! With friends like them, who needs anemones.

Uncle: What? No. Shut up. When we learn how to deal with our dark emotions they also grow softer, and wiser. Anger, for example, has now become a friend I value highly. It is a wonderful emotion to have and I enjoy its visits.

Nephew: Anger?!

Uncle: And some creatures disappear into the Dark Forest never to be seen again.

Nephew: Like what?

Uncle: Hatred. Jealousy. Contempt.

Nephew: Have they left you permanently?

Uncle: I haven’t seen those friends for years. Admittedly, sometimes when I talk to you Homicide visits me from the Dark Forest. I have to chat with it for a while before it changes its mind.

Nephew: So . . . that’s it? That’s the end of the story?

Uncle: Yes.

Nephew: Is there a sequel? Like, with a bushfire or something?

Uncle: (Sigh) No.

Nephew: That’s encouraging.

Uncle: The point is: we are given all the emotions. They are in our forest and they are meant to be there. It’s what we do with them that counts. If we are hateful, so be it. Instead of pretending Hatred is not there, or criticising ourselves because it is there, we can simply accept that it is there, and deal with its concerns. We can look to see what’s behind it. Is it fear? If so, the fear of what?

Nephew: The fear of long stories.

Uncle: When we observe an emotion without criticising it, we get to know it better and its hold on us weakens. After a while we might even stop feeling hateful, or jealous, or whatever, because we understand the fear behind the emotion. So, let’s avoid criticising ourselves when we have an unwanted emotion. Let’s not say something like, ‘I shouldn’t be feeling this,’ or ‘I’m a bad person for feeling this way’. Let’s instead give that emotion permission to be with us. First identify it, then accept it, and then give thought to how we respond.

Nephew: Why?

Uncle: Why?! To build within us a confidence that we can deal with our dark emotions. That’s a big step towards developing the feeling that whatever happens in life, we can handle it.

‘. . . it is important to totally give yourself permission to feel. And then feel it. Strange things happen when we feel our feelings. They themselves morph into another feeling and often we have a feeling of relief for honouring our own feeling.’
Gay McKinley, psychologist

Nephew: Shouldn’t I at least try to stop feeling hateful? It doesn’t seem right to give myself permission to hate someone.

Uncle: No. Accept your hatred. Give it permission to be with you. Feel it, and observe it like a scientist would. Try to understand precisely what it is that you hate, and why. That’s not easy, but give it a go. Then, give thought to your response. You can still act wisely; the hatred doesn’t have to influence your behaviour.

Nephew: If I feel jealous?

Uncle: The same. Notice it and label it. ‘I’m feeling jealous.’ Then remind yourself it’s okay to feel jealous and it has your permission to be with you. ‘Hey, I feel jealous and that’s okay. I am allowed to feel jealous.’  Then look for the fear, or the should, behind the emotion. Figure out how you’re going to deal with it. In his book ‘The Happiness Trap’, Dr Harris suggests we say something like, ‘I don’t like this feeling, but I have room for it.’ And, ’This feeling is unpleasant, but I can accept it.’

Nephew: Is Dr Harris invited to parties?

Uncle: If you’re suffering, tell yourself: ‘I’m feeling this and it feels awful. But it can stay.’  Remind yourself that at some point your suffering will go away. Until then, it can hang around for as long as it likes.

‘For the most part, emotional pain has a cure – and that cure is time.’  . . .
  . . . ‘The pain you are experiencing will build, peak and then ebb. It has its own energy force and its own time schedule. You’re simply its passenger . . .
     ‘Be an observer of the process. Tell yourself, “I’m watching myself be in pain but not wasting time trying to fix it.”
Toby Green, psychologist.

Nephew: If I am sad, why would I welcome Sadness? Won’t I become even sadder? What if I end up sinking into a sadness I can’t get out of?

Uncle: Yes, sadness hurts. All the dark emotions hurt. Accepting them instead of distracting yourself from them, or pretending you don’t have them,  or using alcohol to hide from them, will make us feel even more uncomfortable, but the pain will dissipate. It’s like lancing a boil, or having an injection: in the short term it hurts, but in the long-run you benefit. By acknowledging your pain, and allowing yourself to undergo it, you give yourself the opportunity to heal.

Nephew: And if I don’t . . .?

Uncle: It will keep nagging you, like the creatures that kept nagging Charlotte before she accepted their presence. And you won’t learn how to deal with that emotion.

‘It won’t go away! And you will feel it in unexpected ways and at unexpected times – in all its glorious messiness. It takes time to heal, but feeling that pain is a crucial step towards healing.’
Gay McKinley again.

Nephew: There is one flaw in your argument.

Uncle: Just one?

Nephew: Shame. Some people feel shame daily. It keeps coming back to tell us we are bad people, worthy only of suffering. Do we really want to keep welcoming Shame into our lives? Do we really need to keep listening to its cruel and ignorant message, over and over and over?

Uncle: Ah . . . You make a good point. Shame is the one exception.

Nephew: Exception?

Uncle: The other dark emotions like anger, prejudice and contempt are feelings about how the world should be; Shame is a feeling about how you should be, and it can say some awful things, things you shouldn’t accept from any friend, no matter how well-meaning.

Nephew: Friend?!

Uncle: Yes, it’s a friend, trying to help us, like the other creatures of the Dark Forest.

Nephew: Trying to help us?! No! How?!

Uncle: I’m not saying it does help us; I’m saying it wants to. The thing is, it’s blind.

Nephew: Blind?

Uncle: It has no eyes. And no echolocation! Plus, it’s not very bright. But it desperately wants to help.

Nephew: But how? How would it think that making us feel like scum is helpful? And why do you say it’s blind?

Uncle: Because often we feel shame unnecessarily. The cruel words or actions of other people may unfairly prompt us to feel bad about ourselves, but Shame can’t see that. It is only aware of the violation, and it desperately wants to warn you about it. The creature fears disconnection, and it’s urging you to never be in that position again.

Nephew: But it’s . . . Oh, I see. It’s blind and can’t see where the problem is. And it’s not very bright. Yeah, I get it. Isn’t that a good reason to ignore it?

Uncle: The trouble is, if we don’t acknowledge Shame when it is standing there with us, we may end up believing that someone else is causing our turmoil, and treat them badly. Or, we might take drugs or alcohol to ease our unexplained pain.

Nephew: Oh.

Uncle: Besides, if we ignore it, it will only keep nagging us.

Nephew: Yeah, I got that bit. But when we listen to Shame our self-esteem plummets! People have died listening to shame. They have suicided.

Uncle: They have killed themselves to stop feeling shame. I’m suggesting we do the opposite: allow ourselves to feel it. And the first step towards feeling it is to acknowledge it. ‘I’m feeling shame.’

Nephew: We label it? Like we do the other dark creatures?

Uncle: Yes.

Nephew: Tell me again, how does labelling an emotion help?

Uncle: It allows the turmoil within us to take shape, and once we recognise the emotion it becomes less scary and easier to cope with – we know we have suffered that emotion before and survived it. Further, when we acknowledge the creature by labelling it, it feels ‘seen’, and so it loosens its grasp on us a little. We still hurt, of course, but we can feel the pain slowly evaporate.

Nephew: And then what?

Uncle: Then we deal with it. We might remind ourselves that the feeling will pass. In the case of Shame, we might remind ourselves that we’re human and destined to make mistakes. Or that the incident was not our fault. I don’t know. It depends on the reason we’re feeling shame. The important thing is, once we have acknowledged our shame, we can draw upon our resources to deal with it.

Nephew: You said it was an exception.

Uncle: Yes, when it begins to insult us we can no longer counsel it; we have to reject it. We cannot let it vent on us. That’s a step too far.

Nephew: Sometimes our Shame is justified. If we feel ashamed about bullying someone, that shame might prevent us from bullying again.

Uncle: Good point.

Nephew: I thought so. Should we reveal our shame to our friends?

Uncle: Good idea, if they’re friends you can trust. Yes, the more we acknowledge our Shame, the more heard it feels and the less desperate it becomes.

‘And sometimes saying them out loud can make them feel a little silly. I’ve found that true for myself — saying a belief out loud to another person takes away some of its power, maybe shows me how hard I am on myself.’
Leo Babauta, Zen Habits

Nephew: So, that’s it? ‘Hello Shame‘.

Uncle: ‘Hi Shame! Fearing disconnection again? Talk to me about it.’

Nephew: Not out loud, I hope?

Uncle: Loudly, but in your head.

Nephew: It will still come back.

Uncle: It will, because it’s not very bright, and it’s still desperately trying to warn you. Just keep acknowledging it and dealing with it. It will come to understand that you are taking it seriously; that in itself is a step towards appeasing it. Over time it will become softer and wiser, and visit you less frequently and less ardently.

Nephew: Let’s hope so. I notice Charlotte didn’t meet the positive emotions.

Uncle: Charlotte already felt comfortable with her friends Curiosity, Calm and Confidence, to name just three. Our warm emotions also enjoy the ear of a patient listener, but unlike the creatures of the Dark Forest, they don’t need it. Mostly, they don’t have to fight to be with us. We usually embrace them.

Nephew: Usually?

Uncle: Not always. I once heard someone say that only when they gave themselves permission to be happy did their life change. So yes, you make a good point. We need to welcome all our emotions, dark and light.

Nephew: Give each one of them a name tag?

Uncle: Yes.

Nephew: What if I were a paedophile or pyromaniac? Or anything else starting with P? Should I welcome my desires and invite them to stay with me?

Uncle: Just because you welcome an emotion does not mean you have to act upon it. Instead of telling yourself you should not be attracted to children, or should not have the desire to start a fire, acknowledge that you are feeling that way and explore it. Give yourself permission to feel those things. Tell yourself, ‘I feel compelled to start fires. So be it. I am attracted to children. So be it. Then ask yourself, ‘how can I best deal with those feelings?’

Nephew: I see.

Uncle: Those are important questions to ask, and you couldn’t ask them if you refused to acknowledge those feelings in the first place.

Nephew: What’s for lunch?

Uncle: If you refuse to let yourself have those feelings, or berate yourself for having them, you could foster an inner turmoil that might mean you have less control over your behaviour when it matters. If you find yourself holding a box of matches in a forest and have not yet learned to handle those impulsive feelings, your resistance to the impulse might be low. The first step towards handling those feelings is to accept you have them. Once you do that, you can take steps towards dealing with those emotions, and your behaviour, in times when it matters.

Nephew: Alright. So, what happened to Charlotte?

Uncle: Charlotte met Farmer Brown’s son, Tom. She held his hand and introduced him to the creatures of the Dark Forest, and he also came to realise they were his friends. Tom and Charlotte married, and lived happily ever after.

Nephew: Aw! Pardon me while I puke. But you still haven’t answered the big question.

Uncle: What’s that?

Nephew: What’s for lunch?

‘Allow yourself to be unhappy. When we’re feeling bad, feeling in pain, all we want is to get away from it. Ignore it, pretend you’re fine, comfort yourself from the pain, shield yourself, lash out in defensiveness, numb it with drugs, distract yourself. This is a very human response. But actually, wanting to get away from the unhappiness doesn’t make it better. It usually just prolongs the pain, makes problems worse. Instead, tell yourself that it’s OK to feel unhappy, it’s OK to feel pain. Pause and allow yourself to feel it, to fully be immersed in that unhappiness. See that it’s OK, and be curious about it, explore it, become intimate with it. It’s not pleasant, but it doesn’t kill you. And in fact, it’s where the healing starts, where growth happens.’
Leo Babauta, Zen Habits

Let’s avoid expressions like: ‘I shouldn’t be envious of her. I’m shallow.’ Try instead: ‘I feel envious of her . That’s fine. Although I’d rather not feel this way, it’s what I am feeling. So be it.
  We might choose to add: ‘What do I fear that prompts me to feel that way? What is my deeper concern?

Let’s avoid: ‘I shouldn’t get angry. I’m supposed to be serene and mature. Only losers get angry.’ Try instead: ‘I feel angry. So be it. What’s the best way to express this anger to make changes, and not make things worse?  Or, ‘It’s okay for me to feel angry, but is it worth getting angry about?

Let’s avoid: ‘I’m afraid, but I shouldn’t be. Other people are have gone through worse.’ Try instead: ‘I feel afraid. I’m allowed to be afraid. I will be afraid!
  We might choose to add: ‘What can I do to solve the problem?

Let’s avoid: ‘I hate that person. I must be a bad person to be so hateful.’ Try instead: ‘I hate that person. That’s interesting. Why do I hate that person? Is fear prompting me to hate them? Or envy? The fear or envy of what?  If it’s neither fear nor envy, what is prompting me to hate that person?

When we give ourselves permission to feel what we are feeling, we give ourselves an opportunity to grow.

Do it now. Officially give yourself permission to feel any emotion from now on.

(Say it out loud, and mean it.)    
     ‘I ,      – – – , officially welcome any emotion that arises within me. That includes anger, fear, hatred, self-loathing, envy, doubt, jealousy, contempt, resentment, despair – any dark emotion that might arise within me.
     If I feel any dark emotion, so be it. It can stay for as long as it likes, and while it visits I will listen to it and aim to understand what it is telling me.
     I also give myself permission to feel joy, peace, serenity, humour, happiness – and any other warm emotion that might arise within me.
     All my emotions, dark and warm, will always be welcome.
     Furthermore, I will protect that emotion for as long as it chooses to stay.
     Officially, each and every one of my emotions has my unwavering permission to be. Period.’

It’s official! From now on you are obliged to notice what you are feeling and welcome it. On no account can you criticise yourself for feeling an unwanted emotion. When you feel an unwanted emotion, don’t say to yourself, ‘I shouldn’t be feeling this way’, or ‘Why am I upset over something so trivial?’ No, those statements are now banned. Instead, be like Charlotte and let the emotion be. Welcome it. Observe it. Label it. Listen to its message. Then, if you like, shrug.

          ‘Have the courage to be imperfect.’
          Brené Brown.

Exercise:
Change the following sentences to give yourself permission to feel.

Example: ‘I feel ashamed., but I shouldn’t feel that way. I did nothing wrong.’
Try: ‘I feel ashamed, and that’s okay. Whether I should feel it or not doesn’t matter; I feel shame and so be it.’
You then might ask: ‘What beliefs do I have prompt me to feel this way?’

Your turn:
(1) ’I can’t stop crying. I’m hopeless.’
(2) ‘I can’t stand working with him. I shouldn’t be like that. I should be more patient, more tolerant.’
(3) ‘I feel hurt, but that’s my problem. If I get upset over something trivial like that, it serves me right.’

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