Key 1. Label it!

To improve my public speaking skills I became a soapbox speaker: a person who stands in a public place and talks.

The practice began millennia ago when about the only way to impart ideas to the public was to stand on something and address people directly. Julius Caesar was a famous orator, or soapbox speaker, though he probably had a balcony stand on. Jesus Christ was another, though he and his contemporaries had to make do with a hillock, at best. The luxury of standing on an actual soapbox, or wooden crate, didn’t appear until the 1800s.

Public speaking continued this way for centuries. In the 1500s, in an English village called Tyburn, a popular variation developed. Once a month, the authorities would hang twenty or more prisoners, and those doomed souls were allowed, even expected, to shout a few dramatic words before their neck was stretched.

It is said that truth sits upon the lips of dying men. Those prisoners said things a person with a future dared not say: they railed against the government, the aristocracy, and against anyone else who had earned their displeasure. The speeches were so forthright and entertaining that they drew crowds, and platforms were erected to accommodate thousands of fee-paying spectators.

It was free speech in its ugliest and most pure form. ‘Dancing the Tyburn jig’ became a euphemism for being hanged.

In 1783 the Tyburn gallows were taken down, but speakers continued the tradition. The area’s name was later changed to Hyde Park (London), and people still go there to speak and listen. Speakers’ Corner, as it became known, is now a major tourist attraction.

There are Speakers’ Corners throughout the world, and I speak in Sydney’s, every Sunday. (There are four other speakers, and a few part-time speakers.) Not only have I improved my public speaking skills, I have also received valuable feedback from passers-by.

I get to say it ‘like it is’ just as those prisoners did so many years ago. There is value stating outright what we believe to be the truth. That is what this key is about: searching for the truth about how we feel, finding it, and stating it. That’s the first step in developing emotional resilience.

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 to give me as much notice as possible, to prevent me buying unnecessary food. The rest of the conversation was brief.

When I hung up, I knew I was feeling bad. So I labelled that feeling. I said to myself, ‘I feel irritated. And betrayed. I feel unimportant.’

I had stated the emotions I was feeling. I had labelled them.

Often we don’t notice what we are feeling because we are too busy focusing on the problem. Once I knew what was happening inside me, I relaxed. It’s far easier to cope with an emotion when we are aware of it. Its intensity diminishes.

If we don’t know what we are feeling – if we don’t recognise our jealousy, humiliation, irritation, hurt or loneliness . . . we will be tossed about by those feelings. If we say ‘I feel like crap’ we won’t know what we are actually feeling. Those ‘blob’ words are non-specific and won’t help us. Terms like ‘I feel okay’ and ‘I feel fine’ are blob terms too; they don’t convey information or properly describe emotions.

If we don’t properly describe what we are feeling, we can lose touch with that feeling. We might be feeling lonely, but if we simply say ‘I feel lousy’ we might not become aware of that loneliness. So, we don’t get to address it. It hangs around.

People who simply say they feel ‘bad’ might be feeling afraid, and are unaware of it. Others might feel fear but expect to be angry, so they assume they are angry, and act in anger. They waste time and energy being angry, and don’t address the fear.

If we are not aware of an emotion, it will lead us. It will influence our behaviour. We might assume we run our life, but if we are not aware of our emotions they will run the show. We will do things and wonder why on earth we did them.

If we don’t want to be a puppet led by unseen forces, we need to know what we are feeling, and the best way to understand our feelings is to habitually search for what we are feeling and label it.

‘I feel irritated.’       ‘I feel apprehensive.’        ‘I feel isolated.’

We may, for instance, realise we feel annoyed. We would tell ourselves: ‘I feel annoyed.’

That’s labelling it.

Further, the expression, ‘I feel annoyed’ is more helpful than ‘I am annoyed’, as we are describing the emotions we are feeling, not defining ourselves in terms of that emotion.

Even if we don’t want to reveal to anyone what we are feeling (that can be wise sometimes!), we still need to acknowledge it to ourselves. We can still think the words, ‘I feel annoyed’.

Develop the habit of labelling your emotions. For example:
 ‘I feel grumpy!’  ‘I feel pleased!’ ‘I feel afraid!’ ‘I feel powerless.’

When we are in the habit of labelling our emotions we become adept at recognising what’s happening inside ourselves. If we discover we are angry, we can figure out how we are going to express that anger. Instead of that anger leading us, we can direct it to make necessary changes. If we discover that we are afraid, we can work out what to do next. Either way, we can start making wise decisions on how to deal with what we are feeling. And, just knowing what we are feeling can reduce its intensity. When we replace our inner turmoil with the realisation that we are angry, the accompanying frustration and fear evaporate.

In short, figure out precisely what we are feeling, and label it.

It’s a good way to get to know ourselves.

‘Why would labelling an emotion reduce its intensity?’
There are various reasons:
* 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.)
* Labelling an emotion can provide a similar outlet to swearing or other forms of expression.
* We may discover that our emotion is less extreme than we realised (for instance, that we are not furious, merely peeved).

‘You suggest that we use the expression “I feel annoyed” instead of “I am annoyed”. Why?’

As the psychotherapist, Gay McKinley, explains:

‘It is the subliminal message that such usage gives yourself. If I say, I feel stupid, that is valid.  It is what it is – just a feeling.  Harmless.  If I say, I am stupid, and my sense of self is robust, it may also be harmless. If my sense of self is fragile, and I say this, I am laying down and reinforcing the neural pathway in my brain that tells me I am stupid.  This is all done out of awareness.  So we need to be aware of the words that we use.  It’s okay to feel stupid; it’s pretty stupid to think that you actually are!’

‘Sometimes people ask us how we are, expecting the answer, “I’m fine, thanks.” That’s the answer I give. But what if I’m not feeling fine?’
In western culture this question is a standard greeting and a form of acknowledgement, so it’s alright to say, “I’m fine”. However, if the person knows you well, and is genuinely enquiring as to your wellbeing, consider being honest and accurate. For example, ‘I feel disconcerted, thanks.’

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Key 2. Be specific when you describe an emotion.

There are thousands of colours. Paint charts describe just a few. We have navy blue, royal blue, baby blue, cobalt blue and so on, but most of the time we just say ‘blue’. That’s fair enough, because most of the time the shade of the blue isn’t important.

In the same way, there are thousands of emotions, but only a few hundred words to describe them. The emotion you might feel at seeing the ocean for the first time would be different to the emotion you feel seeing a caterpillar for the first time. We might use the word ‘wonder’ to describe both, but the emotions being described would be different.

It’s understandable that we only have a few hundred words to describe thousands of emotions, but it’s a shame we use only a handful of those words. By limiting our language, we limit our understanding of what we are feeling.

For example, if we say things are ‘awesome’ or that they ‘give us the shits’, we are not being precise, and those words don’t help us unravel the turmoil within. On the other hand, if we can find the precise word, such as heartened, encouraged, pleased, astonished, curious, we become aware of life’s richness.

More importantly, we understand exactly what we are feeling, which makes that emotion easier to deal with. And, we can uncover emotions we didn’t realise we had. For instance, as well as feeling ‘miffed’ we might also realise we feel frustrated.

Furthermore, by being specific when labelling an unwanted emotion we can reduce its intensity. We might realise we aren’t devastated, merely disappointed.

The key to describing an emotion is to be specific. Instead of simply saying we feel angry, for instance, let’s ask ourselves: ‘What type of anger am I feeling? Am I miffed? Vexed? Peeved? Irritated? Frustrated? Furious?

There are two other main ways to be specific.

Don’t exaggerate or catastrophise
Don’t use the word ‘ecstatic’ when you feel delighted.
Don’t say ‘I’m furious’ when you feel annoyed.
Don’t use the word ‘fantastic’ when you only feel pleased.

When we exaggerate, we don’t get to know ourselves; we get to know a caricature of ourselves. (Catastrophising is an extension of exaggeration and even more damaging. It is so important that it has its own key.)

Don’t use clichés
Don’t say ‘I’m mad as a bull’ when you feel annoyed.
Don’t say ‘I’m scared out of my wits’ when you feel nervous.
Don’t say ‘I’m as sick as a dog’ when you have a cold.
Always search for the word that best and most precisely describes your feeling, and use it.

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. Did you notice that he said ‘guilty’? He may not have been aware of that before. Now, he can examine his guilt and ponder about why he feels it. Knowing that he feels these 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, but not know what it is. 
 Mind you, being specific can have its problems:
Rolf: ‘I’m feeling discombobulated.’

Beatrice: ‘Huh?’

‘We are often encouraged to exaggerate in the name of positivity. The self-help guru, Anthony Robbins, for example, reckons that if we habitually use positive words like “spectacular” instead of “good” we will benefit. He also suggests we replace expressions such as “I feel angry” with the words, “I feel a little bit peeved”, “I feel a tad out of sorts”, or “I feel a smidge cranky” to reduce the emotional intensity of an experience. What would you say to that?’

I believe it’s more important to accurately state our true feelings, to get to know ourselves better. We need to make the unconscious conscious. Fibbing to ourselves will hinder that. If you are genuinely furious, tell yourself, ‘I’m feeling furious’, rather than, ‘I feel a little bit peeved.’ To really know ourselves, honesty is important.

‘What if I don’t feel anything in particular? What if I feel nothing?’

Be specific about that. Do any of these words more accurately describe what you feel?
listless      impassive       apathetic       cool        indifferent        serene
     deadened      calm
unmoved      bored      ambivalent
When you feel nothing in particular, still search for the right word and be specific.

‘Does it matter if I can’t think of the right word to describe my emotion?’

No, because even the attempt to find the right word is important, because that will bring us closer to what we are feeling. There are countless emotions that don’t have words that can adequately describe them.

Step 1. Think of a time when you felt angry.

Step 2. Do any of these words accurately describe that anger?
irritated       displeased    irritable      peeved       exasperated    irked           irate      perturbed     annoyed        miffed        ruffled       perturbed       dismayed
If not, does another word come to mind?

Step 3.
Did you also feel:

If so, do any of these words more accurately describe what you felt?
dislike           distaste         contempt       disdain       detest
 repulsed        hostility         despise          disgust       appalled
 repelled        disturbed       revolted        uncomfortable

Did you also feel:
afraid? anxious?  worried?  If so, do any of these words more accurately describe what you felt?
cautious       unnerved   nettled       concerned    alarmed
 pensive         nervous     uneasy      apprehensive
 intimidated  tense         perturbed   scared         bothered

stressed? If so, be specific. Do any of these words more accurately describe what you felt?
panicky           flustered         overwrought           anxious
    uneasy            alarmed           uncomfortable      worried

frustrated? If so, be specific. Do any of these words more accurately describe what you felt?
helpless           powerless         exasperated       discouraged            
 disheartened   disappointed     embittered        irked

resentful? If so, be specific. Do any of these words more accurately describe what you felt?
bitter         indignant      incensed      jealous used

betrayed? If so, be specific. Do any of these words more accurately describe what you felt?
lonely    isolated   forsaken   despair  abandoned  indignant

humiliated? If so, be specific. Do any of these words more accurately describe what you felt?
embarrassed    subdued   uncomfortable    crushed     sad
 degraded         shamed    disgraced            humble       hurt

powerless? If so, be specific. Do any of these words more accurately describe what you felt?
helpless           feeble          weak          ineffective hopeless useless

Step 4. Did you also feel any of these emotions?
relieved  exhilarated          powerful            invincible        burdened        lost                 defiant                disassociated      disappointment    guilt

Completing that exercise might have taken a while, but when we are in the habit of identifying our emotions and clearly labelling them, we can do it quickly.



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Key 3. Don’t catastrophise.

Another way to be specific is to avoid catastrophising. Resist making statements such as, ‘This is terrible’ and ‘I’m devastated’ when it’s not terrible and you aren’t devastated. When we accurately state how we feel, people appreciate the honesty and may take us more seriously. And, when we find that we are not devastated, merely disappointed, we realise the situation isn’t so bad after all. Most importantly, we are more in touch with what we actually are feeling, because it’s not lost in the drama.

1. Don’t use other people’s disabling expressions:

‘It’s all too much.’          ‘I can’t cope.’        ‘Life’s a bitch.’        ‘I am devastated.’
‘I hate that.’      ‘What an absolute, total disaster.’           ‘I’m freaking out.’

Try instead: 
 ‘This is unpleasant.’    ‘I don’t like this.’     ‘This is inconvenient’     ‘I’m feeling anxious’.
These expressions can accurately describe how you feel and reduce the intensity of the emotion. Plus, you see the problem in a healthier perspective.

‘. . . 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

2. Ask yourself: ‘Is it serious? On a scale from 1 to 100, what score would I give the situation?

3. Avoid these two particular words of exaggeration: always and never

‘It always rains on my birthday.’

 ‘You always do that.’

‘It always happens at the last moment.’

‘You never do what I suggest.’

‘We never go out.’

‘I never have any luck.’

Avoid other exaggerations too:  such as everyone and no one.
‘Everyone is corrupt.’

 ‘No one cares.’

Avoid standard complaints such as:
‘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. 
 And, they make us LOOK powerless, frustrated and discouraged.

‘Making broad, generalised and global conclusions on the basis of only a little evidence can leave us thinking that things are really uncontrollable, inevitable and out of our hands. A sense of helplessness often accompanies such over generalisations.’
                                              From an article found in

Expand your vocabulary
Practise expanding your vocabulary to include new words that convey more subtle distinctions.
a) List the words you use regularly to describe your feelings, such as awesome, great, fantastic, cool.

b) Use a thesaurus to list new words to use from now on. Make sure they accurately describe what you are feeling. If they don’t, keep searching rather than falling back on your old words.

 ‘If you describe a magnificent experience as being ‘pretty good’, the rich texture of it will be smoothed and made flat by your limited use of vocabulary.’   

Anthony Robbins, ‘Awaken the Giant Within
However, if the experience is only “pretty good”, stick with that description or use words like, adequate or acceptable.

Complete the sentences
Using the thesaurus, find the most accurate word to complete these sentences. Remember, be specific!
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 very 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 …………………

(sentences compiled by Belinda Ballan, Sydney University)



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Key 4. Are you feeling other emotions?

Apparently, leprechauns hide their pots of gold at the end of a rainbow. When I see a rainbow I estimate its coordinates and go looking.

I don’t intend to steal the gold, just borrow it for a while.

A rainbow has two ends, so instead of looking for one pot of gold, I look for two!

It’s the same for emotions. Remember Key 1, where we learnt to label our emotion? The thing is: when we feel one emotion, there are more lurking about. Some are contradictory. Label them all. ‘I am feeling angry. What else am I feeling? Hurt? Fear? Shame? Resentment?’

Develop the habit of looking for more than one emotion. Each one is a ‘pot of gold’, waiting to be discovered.

Importantly, if you feel only the slightest trace of an emotion – if it’s just one percent of what you are feeling – acknowledge it out loud or to yourself. For example,
‘Along with my jealousy, I’m feeling just a smidgeon of contempt.’
‘I can feel a trace of envy as well. Just a trace.’
‘Yes, I certainly feel pleased for her. But is that a touch of resentment I feel as well?’

It’s important for us to be aware of those one-percenters, because they are the ones that lead to self-knowledge.


Step 1. What emotion are you feeling right now as you read these words? Frustration? Impatience? Curiosity? Find the right word. Be specific.

Step 2. Search for other emotions. For example, is there apprehension? Hope? Distrust? Pessimism? Optimism . . .?

Step 3. Congratulate yourself on discovering the enormous range of emotions you can experience by just doing something as simple as reading an article. How complex are the emotions people can feel!

Do this exercise regularly: mute the television advertisements and search for the various emotions you are feeling. It only takes a minute or two. After a while, you’ll be adept at identifying what you’re feeling, and feel comfortable feeling those feelings. That’s a big step towards emotional resilience!

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Key 5. Distinguish between thoughts and feelings.

 Think back to the lesson my Uncle Geoff taught me, described in the introduction to Part 2. He asked me how I felt about circus lions being caged and how I felt about my football team losing. I had given him my thoughts on the matters. He told me I needed to distinguish between my thoughts and my feelings when I spoke, and avoid confusing what I was thinking with what I was feeling. That way, my life would run more smoothly.

When you say: ‘I feel —‘ describe a feeling. When you are about to describe a feeling, preface it with ‘I feel’. 
 When you say, ‘I think —‘ make sure you give your thoughts. When you are about to express an opinion, preface it with ‘I think’.

Practising this skill helps us to distinguish our feelings from our thoughts, and that grounds us. Consider these statements:
‘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. He needs to search himself. Try again, Bill.)
Bill: ‘I feel awful.’  (That’s an improvement, 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, though he is 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.

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 do this?                                        I feel in my body . . .
Will it be alright?                                   a knot in my stomach, tense, nauseous,

How do I cook a rabbit?                        goosebumps,

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

A friend tells you she is pregnant, and is happy about it.
Six thoughts you might have:             Six feelings you might have:
 I think . . .                                                   I feel . . .

In short, get into the habit of differentiating between your thoughts and feelings.

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Key 6. Don’t talk like a zombie.

I once asked an acquaintance – let’s call him ‘Oscar’ – how he felt about losing custody of his dog. He shrugged and replied, ‘These things happen.’

Oscar had given me his opinion, not an expression of how he felt, so I asked again, ‘How do you feel about losing custody of your dog?’

He shrugged again.

I persisted. ‘Do you miss your dog? Do you feel like you are a victim of injustice?’

‘I don’t know,’ he replied. Then he added, ‘It doesn’t worry me. Mary can look after Bosley better than I can.’

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

Talking with Oscar was like talking to a zombie. He was adept at avoiding telling people what he felt. He denied emotional involvement by using expressions such as ‘I don’t know’ or ‘It doesn’t worry me’, or he gave an opinion. Being unable, or unwilling, to articulate his emotions made it difficult for him to deal with them, and it made him feel deadened.

‘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.)

By numbing his dark emotions, Oscar had numbed the fun ones too. His inability to express his feelings to others also prevented him from fully connecting with them and making friends.

When people ask us what we are feeling and we reply,‘Nothing’, our answer indicates not that we have no emotions, but rather, that we aren’t yet good at identifying them. Perhaps we think emotions are frivolous things and more trouble than they’re worth. Or, we might be concerned that if we feel emotions, we may again experience the pain we used to feel.

The trouble is, when we rely solely on logic we deny ourselves emotional release, whether it be in joy or in pain. A big part of us doesn’t get to see the sun, and it doesn’t get to blossom. Identifying the emotions we are feeling may sound scary, and may in some cultures be considered unmanly, but it is safe and it is manly. It just takes getting used to, that’s all.

So, if you are asked how you feel about something, don’t say ‘I don’t care’ or ‘it doesn’t worry me,’ or ‘no problem’, because you are only telling the person what you don’t feel. Instead, answer the question and tell the person what you do feel. More importantly, do it to become aware of what is happening inside yourself.

The more adept we become at recognising our own emotions, the better we become at dealing with them. 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.

So, the next time you are tempted to say ‘I don’t feel anything in particular’, or ‘I don’t care’, or ‘I feel nothing’, or ‘no problem’, search within yourself for an emotion. Any emotion. Even if it’s just an atom of an emotion, say it!

Jim: ‘How do you feel about your car being stolen?’

Mel: ‘I’ll get used to it.’ (Incorrect – that’s an opinion, a thought.)

Mel: ‘No problem.’ (Incorrect – Mel is not expressing what she is feeling.)

Mel: ‘I don’t care.’ (Incorrect – she is telling us what she is not feeling. Mel, tell us what you are feeling.)

Mel: ‘Nothing in particular.’ (Incorrect – she would be feeling something. Mel, figure it out, and label it.)

‘What if I don’t want to tell someone how I feel?’
Say so:
‘I’d rather not discuss how I feel.’
‘I’d rather not talk about it.’
‘I’d rather not say, but thanks for asking.’
Be direct. Don’t use weak or vague phrases such as,‘I don’t know’ or ‘I’m fine.’
 To make sure you’re not being lazy, figure out the answers for yourself. Label them. Figure out what other emotions you are feeling and label them too. And be specific.

Q. ‘What if I genuinely don’t feel anything?’
If you search for an emotion but fail to find one, use the term ‘I feel indifferent’. That’s better than telling the person what you are not feeling, and it’s more accurate.

In short, make a promise to yourself: when asked what you do feel, don’t tell the person what you are not feeling. Never again say:
‘I don’t care’      ‘No problem.’       ‘It doesn’t worry me.’        ‘Nothing.’
Instead, tell the person what you are feeling. Search for an emotion within, and say it.
Or, if you don’t want to tell the person what you are feeling, say so: ‘I’d rather not talk about it.’

In the same way, if you are enjoying something, admit it. Don’t be cool or offhand. Don’t say:
‘It’s okay.’       ‘It’s alright, I guess.’
Try instead: ‘I feel elated’ (or any word that accurately reflects what you are actually feeling).


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Key 7. Alice and the creatures of the Dark Forest.

Once upon a time, a young girl called Alice stood in a paddock throwing pine cones at Farmer Brown’s beehives.

Alongside the paddock was the scary Dark Forest. Out from the Dark Forest strode Anger. Anger was a ferocious looking creature and when it stormed up to Alice she trembled. The creature demanded to speak with her.

Alice told it, ‘Go way! I don’t want you here! Go away!’ But it stayed, and complained bitterly before it eventually strode away, back into the Dark Forest.

Alice felt dreadful.

The next day, Alice was in the paddock with a long stick, setting off Farmer Brown’s rabbit traps. Out from the Dark Forest stepped Prejudice. The creature insisted on speaking with Alice, and this time Alice shrugged, knowing she didn’t have much choice in the matter. Prejudice rambled on until finally it wandered off back into the Dark Forest.

Alice felt flat.

The next day, while Alice was in the paddock shooting bullets into Farmer Brown’s ‘No Shooting’ sign, Sadness emerged from the Dark Forest. This time, Alice welcomed the creature, and she listened to what it had to say. She even wiped a tear from its left eye. After a while, Sadness went quiet. It disappeared without her noticing.

Alice felt okay.

Then it dawned on her: Sadness had come to assist her. It had come to tell her that something was wrong in her life. And, because she had allowed Sadness to be with her, and had listened to its concerns, she had managed to deal with it.

Alice then realised that Anger and Prejudice had also come to assist her. Anger had come to fight for her values and warn her of an injustice, and Prejudice had come to reveal her fears.

The next day, Anger visited again. This time, Alice welcomed the scary creature, and listened to its complaints. She even worked out a better way to solve its problem. Anger considered her advice, and agreed with her solution. It wandered off with a mild grumble.

Over time, other creatures emerged from the Dark Forest: Grief, Fear, Jealousy . . . and many others. Most of them visited more than once. All of them had seen pain in her life and had come to assist her. Although Alice didn’t want their assistance, she gave each and every one of them permission to be with her. She listened to all their concerns. She  came to understand their desires, foibles and fears – and their messages. Although they were all hard to get on with, she became adept at dealing with them.

Alice kept welcoming them and kept listening to their concerns. The creatures grew softer, and wiser. After a while they rarely needed to leave the Dark Forest, and when they did, they didn’t stay long. They would have a quiet chat with Alice and return content.

Alice lost her fear of the Dark Forest, and ventured into it, and discovered new experience, now paths. When she met the dark creatures in there she felt comfortable with them. And safe. And she came to realise: they were her friends. They always had been.

Of course, I’ve been talking about the dark forest within each of us. We can learn from Alice. Her message is clear: we need to give ourselves permission to feel any emotion. It is natural to feel emotions such as jealousy, envy, hatred, anger and greed. They are in our ‘dark forest’ and when they venture out let’s welcome them and give them permission to be with us. Let’s make them a cup of tea and give them a biscuit!

Because if we tell them, ‘No, I’m not feeling you! Go away!’ they will just keep coming back. And we won’t learn how to deal with them. And we won’t get their message.

We may not enjoy their visits, but those dark emotions require our attention. And when we give each of them permission to be with us, and listen to their message, we become skilled at dealing with them. And, like Alice, we also will come to realise that they are our friends. They always have been.

Over time, those dark emotions will grow softer, and wiser. And so will we.

The key?
Let’s avoid expressions like:

‘I’m jealous of her. I shouldn’t be feeling this way. I’m a shallow person.’

Try instead:

‘I feel jealous. 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?’

‘I’m angry. 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?’

‘I’m afraid, but I shouldn’t be. Other people are braver than me, and have gone through worse.’

Try instead:

‘I feel afraid, for whatever reason. I’m allowed to be afraid. I will be afraid!’

We might choose to add:
‘What can I do to reduce my anxiety? What can I do to solve the problem?’

‘I hate that person. I must be a bad person to be so hateful.’
Try instead:

‘I hate that person. That’s interesting. What do I fear the prompts me to hate that person?’

In each instance, by taking the second option we give ourselves permission to feel what we are feeling, and by doing so, we give ourselves the the freedom to grow.

I, Mark Avery, aka Mr Bashful, hereby give you permission to feel any emotion that comes to you.
There: it’s official.
More importantly, give yourself permission to feel any emotion.
Do it now. Officially give yourself permission to feel any emotion from this moment until the moment you die.
(Say it out loud, and mean it.)
‘I , – – – . officially give myself permission to feel any emotion that arises within me. That includes anger, fear, hatred, self-loathing, envy, doubt, jealousy, resentment, despair – any dark emotion that might arise within me. 

If I feel any of those emotions, 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’s telling me.

 I also give myself permission to feel joy, peace, serenity, humour – and any other warm emotion that might arise within me. 

All my emotions, dark and warm, are welcome, and 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.’

You have just given yourself permission to feel any emotion that comes to you, which means that 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 one 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 Alice and let the emotion be. Welcome it. Observe it. Label it. ‘I’m feeling greedy.’ Or, ‘I’m feeling hateful. And that’s fine. I’m allowed to be hateful.’

Then, if you like, shrug.

‘Have the courage to be imperfect.’

Brené Brown.

We are meant to have all the emotions. We evolved to have them. 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, fine – we can choose to not act on the hatred. Instead of pretending it’s not there, or criticising ourselves because it is there, we can simply notice it and accept it. Even better, we can look at what’s behind the hatred. Is it fear? Of what?

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, because we are not acting on those emotions, we are not feeding them. We have listened to them, and understood them.

In short, let’s avoid criticising ourselves when we have an unwanted emotion. Let’s not say something like, ‘I shouldn’t be feeling this; I’m a bad person’. After all, we have given that emotion permission to be there.

Let’s observe it, label it, shrug, and accept it. Then give thought to our response. That will build within us the confidence that we can deal with our dark emotions – that we can handle what happens in life. Result: resilience.

‘. . . 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, psychotherapist.

Q. ‘Shouldn’t I at least try to stop feeling hateful?’
If you’re truly hateful you’re not going to make that choice, are you? But you can choose to:
1.  Let it be, and observe it like a scientist would.
2. Understand precisely what it is that you hate, and why. (That’s not easy.)
3. Give thought to your response. Although you have given yourself permission to feel hatred, (or jealousy, anger, etc.) that doesn’t mean it’s okay to act on it. It’s not okay to be violent, pernicious, or become a stalker, for example. Those are poor ways to express what we are feeling.

Q. ‘What if I don’t give myself permission to feel an emotion?’

As psychotherapist Gay Mckinley says, ‘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.’

Q. ‘So, what do I do?’

Notice what you’re feeling and label it. ‘I’m feeling jealous.’ Then remind yourself it’s normal to feel that emotion and it has your permission to be there.
‘Hey, I feel jealous and that’s okay. I am allowed to feel jealous.’

In his book ‘The happiness trap’, Dr Harris suggests you can say something like,
‘I don’t like this feeling, but I have room for it.’

‘This feeling is unpleasant, but I can accept it.’

If you’re suffering, tell yourself: ‘I’m feeling this and it feels awful. But it will pass.’ Remind yourself that in a day or so, or in a year or so, the pain will be gone.

‘For the most part, emotional pain has a cure – and that cure is time.’

Toby Green, psychologist.

‘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 again.

Q. ‘It seems Alice didn’t meet the positive emotions?’

Alice already felt comfortable with her friends, Curiosity, Compassion, Calmness and Confidence (to name just a few). They also enjoy the ear of a patient listener, but unlike the creatures of the Dark Forest, they don’t need those things.

Q. ‘Mark, someone cuts in front of you in a queue at the supermarket. You tell them you were next and they ignore you. The person at the checkout ignores you too, and starts serving the person first. What do you do?

My friend, Jan, would feel indignant in that situation, and make a scene until she was served. She would ‘give herself permission’ to feel indignant, and create stress for everyone, including herself. Is this what you want?’

There is a difference between feeling an emotion and acting upon it. I’d suggest your friend notice her indignation (label it) and allow herself to feel indignant. (She probably does!) What she does with her indignation is her choice.
If she felt indignant but denied it, or was ashamed of feeling indignant, she might have a problem. Resentment and powerlessness might grow within her. Especially if she acquiesced regularly in other parts of her life.
‘What should she do then?’

Allow herself to feel indignant, and find a healthy way to express it.
‘Like what?’

She could say everything that needs to be said assertively.
‘That didn’t work.’

When it doesn’t work we can shrug and congratulate ourselves for sticking up for ourselves, and for acting on our emotion in a healthy, constructive manner. That’s the bit we can control.
It’s possible to be bullied, or ignored, and lose the encounter, yet feel fantastic afterwards, because we stood up for ourselves in the best possible manner.

Q. ‘If I am sad, why would I welcome that sadness? Won’t I become even sadder? What if I end up sinking into a sadness I can’t get out of? And become depressed?’

Yes, it will hurt more. Allowing ourselves to feel those emotions instead of pushing them away or distracting ourselves from them will initially be even more uncomfortable. But it will dissipate. It’s a bit like lancing a boil, or having an injection. In the short term it hurts, but in the long run you benefit. By undergoing the initial pain you give yourself the opportunity to fully heal.

Q. ‘Why do we grieve? It provides no evolutionary benefit. We can’t function properly when we grieve.’

True. Grief is a byproduct of feeling love. If we didn’t have the capacity to feel grief we wouldn’t have the capacity to love in the first place. When we fear losing someone we create in our body stress hormones. They prompt us to fight for what we love. When we lose the person we love, stress hormones keep flooding us because there is no happy ending to make them stop. That’s grief.

Change the following sentences to give yourself permission to feel. Here are three examples:
Example 1: ’I’m sad about losing my dog. I shouldn’t feel sad. I have to move on. Other people suffer worse.’

‘I feel sad about losing my dog. To feel sad is an appropriate emotion to have. Besides, I have given myself permission to feel any emotion, so I can feel what I like. However, I don’t want to feel that way, so maybe later I’ll take steps to deal with it.’
Or, perhaps:
‘I’ll let myself remain sad, and see what happens.’

Example 2: ‘I really want that. Oh, gosh, I’m so materialistic. I’m so shallow.’
‘I really want that . . . Oh, that’s envy. So be it.’ (I might want to add: ‘Why do I want it so much? Why is it important to me? What do I fear will happen if I don’t get it?’)
Or: ‘I really want that. I’m envious. It’s okay if I feel envious. What changes can I make in my life to ensure I get what I want?’

Example 3: ‘I feel ashamed, but I shouldn’t feel that way. I did nothing wrong.’
‘I feel ashamed, and that’s okay. But why do I feel ashamed? What beliefs do I have that are prompting me to feel this way?

Your turn:

(1) ’I can’t stop crying. I’m hopeless.’
(2) ‘I can’t stand being with her. 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 that, it serves me right.’

What happened to Alice?
Alice met Farmer Brown’s son, Tom. She held his hand and introduced him to the creatures of the Dark Forest. They married, and lived happily ever after.

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