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.’
  I could have pointed out that he had given me an opinion, not a feeling, but I didn’t. Instead, I persisted. ‘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.’
  I knew it did worry him because he had tried hard to keep the dog.
  Talking with Oscar can be like talking to a zombie. It’s not just Oscar: many people lack the ability to express what they are feeling. They use expressions such as ‘I don’t know’ or ‘It doesn’t worry me’, or they provide an opinion instead of a feeling. However, when we regularly fail to articulate our emotions we can deaden ourselves.
  Yes, I understand that Oscar may not have wanted to reveal his feelings to me. Sometimes we don’t want to reveal what we are feeling, and purposely evade the questioner. That’s fine. But some of us simply lack the skills to label what we are actually feeling, and end up going through life talking like zombies.

‘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 in her TED talk, The Power of Vulnerability.

If we lack the ability to express our feelings we will have trouble fully connecting with others, and from making friends. Worse, if we do start to feel our emotions, we won’t know how to handle them. We might do something we’ll regret.

To ask someone what they are feeling and get a shrug and the reply,‘Nothing’, suggests not that the person has no emotions about the topic, 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 were to feel emotions they may again experience the pain they used to feel. 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.

I’m suggesting: 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.
  If you don’t want to explain how you feel, fine. But make it a choice to refrain, don’t make it your default position. If you don’t want to reveal what you are feeling, try something like, ‘I’d rather not discuss how I feel’ or ‘I’d rather not talk about it.’ Be direct. And, to make sure you’re not being lazy, figure out for yourself what you are feeling.
  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.
  In short, 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. And say it.

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Charlotte and the Creatures of the Dark Forest

One day, young Charlotte was walking down a country road alongside the spooky Dark Forest. Out from the Dark Forest strode Anger. Anger was a ferocious looking creature. It was white with rage, and its huge, warty mouth had long, sharp teeth like breadknives. It drooled venom as it stormed up to Charlotte. Charlotte trembled.
  Anger complained bitterly and demanded she act immediately. Charlotte told it, ‘Go way! I don’t want you here! Go away!’ But the creature continued to complain, and drip venom, until eventually it strode away, back into the Dark Forest.
  Charlotte felt dreadful.
  The next day, Charlotte was again near the Dark Forest when out stepped Prejudice. The creature’s skin was mould, its head looked like a garbage tip, and its rotten teeth looked like black carrots. It 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.
  Next day, Sadness emerged from the Dark Forest. Sadness was soggy from crying a thousand tears of lemon juice. 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 lemon-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: although Sadness was a drag to be with, it had come to assist her. It had come to tell her something was wrong in her life. Charlotte then realised that 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.
  A week later, Anger visited again. But 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.
  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 them visiting, she accepted them and dealt with their concerns. After a while she got to know them, and she became adept at dealing with them.
  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.
  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.
  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. They always had been.

Of course, I have been talking about the Dark Forest within each of us. We can learn from Charlotte. We need to give ourselves permission to feel all our dark emotions. 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.
    We may not enjoy their visits, but those dark emotions require our attention. If we pretend they aren’t there 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. But 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.
  So, if we are hateful, for example, so be it. Instead of pretending the hatred is not there, or criticising ourselves because it is there, we can simply accept that it’s there and learn how to deal with it. We can look to see what’s behind it. Is it fear? If so, the fear of what?
  Let’s observe that hatred like a scientist would. And try to understand precisely what it is we hate, and why. Then we can give thought to our response. We can still act wisely; hatred doesn’t have to influence our behaviour.
  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 what’s behind the emotion.
  In short, don’t criticise yourself when you have an unwanted emotion. Don’t say, ‘I shouldn’t be feeling this,’ or ‘I’m a bad person for feeling this way’. Instead, accept it and listen to it, and then give thought to your response.
  You might like to say to yourself, ‘Hey, I feel that way and that’s okay. I am allowed to feel that way.’  Or, ‘I’m feeling this and it feels awful, but it can stay.’ Then look for the fear, or the ‘should’, behind the emotion. Figure out how you’re going to deal with it.
  You can also remind yourself that at some point your suffering will go away, and until then it can hang around for as long as it likes.
  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.’
  Whatever you try, do that often enough and you also will become softer and wiser, and build within yourself a confidence that you can handle life. That’s a big step towards developing resilience, and happiness.
  What happened to Charlotte? She lived happily ever after.

‘. . . 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

Q. ‘You mentioned jealousy.’
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.’
   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.

Q. ‘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?’
Yes, sadness hurts. All the dark emotions involve pain. Accepting them instead of distracting yourself from them, or pretending you don’t have them,  or using alcohol to hide from them, will make you feel 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 will benefit. By acknowledging your pain, and allowing yourself to undergo it, you give yourself the opportunity to heal.
  “If I don’t . . .?’
Then 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.

Q. ‘I notice Charlotte didn’t meet the positive emotions.’
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. We usually embrace them.
  ‘Usually?’
Not always. I once heard someone say that only when they gave themselves permission to be happy did their life change. So yes, we need to welcome all our emotions, dark and light.

Q. ‘What if I were a paedophile or pyromaniac? Should I welcome my desires and invite them to stay with me?’
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 these feelings?’
That’s an important question to ask, and you couldn’t ask it if you refused to acknowledge those feelings in the first place.
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.

‘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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Ignore the dills in the peanut gallery.

In the 1800s theatre audiences were noisy. If the entertainment was deemed poor the patrons would express their displeasure by heckling, or by throwing peanuts at the actors. The biggest nuisances were the less sophisticated patrons sitting in the cheap seats in the upper balcony. That section became known as the peanut gallery.
     Today, someone who needs to refrain from presenting ‘unsophisticated’ (stupid) advice might be told, ‘No comments are required from the peanut gallery, thank you!’
  People like to give advice, but often the advice is from patrons sitting in the peanut gallery, and it’s not worth much.

‘That’s my advice, but I wouldn’t take it.’
Dyon Balding, nephew.

One of our unceasing jobs in life is to distinguish between the good advice we receive and the bad. However, we should avoid taking advice about our emotions. A friend sitting in the peanut gallery might tell us: ‘Gosh, you must be livid!’ Or,‘I bet you’re devastated.’
     It’s not our companion’s job to decide what we are feeling, it’s our job. If someone says to you, ‘Oh, you must be feeling angry about that!’ stop and think. Work out what you are feeling and tell them. ‘No, I feel dismayed, and apprehensive.’
     If the person is correct and you are feeling angry, find the right word for that anger. Are you vexed? Miffed? Annoyed? Use the word you provide, not theirs. You can even add accompanying emotions:I’m frustrated too.’
     That way, we get a far clearer picture of what is going on inside us.

As well as telling us what we are feeling, the people sitting in the peanut gallery might also tell us what we should be feeling. Again, don’t allow it. If a well-meaning soul tells you:
‘Come on, it’s not that bad!’  tell them you can decide for yourself how bad it is!
‘This shouldn’t be hurting you so much.’   The fact is, it does hurt. Say so.     
‘You’re making a mountain out of a molehill.’   That’s for you to decide, not them.
‘It’s not like it is a real problem.’    Let the person know that minimising what you are feeling is not helpful.

The more accurate our understanding of what we are feeling is, the easier it is to deal with that feeling and the more grounded we will feel. But if we listen to our friends in the peanut gallery it becomes harder to get that accurate understanding.
  Besides, when you decide what you are feeling, and no one else, you become the authority on you. Which is how it should be.

The same goes for us. Let’s avoid telling someone what feelings they might having, such as:
‘You should be grateful that —’
‘Don’t cry.’
‘I bet you’re feeling really —’
‘You shouldn’t feel that way.’
‘You have to be pleased with that!’

If you’re a parent reading this, assist children to find the right word without telling them what they’re feeling by asking them:
‘Is it possible that you feel frustrated because the dog keeps bowling you over?’
‘Do you feel irritated because you can’t find any Easter eggs?’
The children can decide for themselves whether or not the words apply.

In short, let’s not let ourselves be told what we are feeling. Let’s ignore the peanut gallery and work it out for ourselves.

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The Adventures of Sir Thrustalot.

‘. . . there is a tendency among some men to convert any and all emotional experiences into anger. Feeling anxious, jealous, sad, embarrassed, or ashamed, these men tend to display nothing but anger. You see the justification of this emotional funnel system again and again on television and at the movies. A man’s wife or friend is hurt or killed, but masculine men are not supposed to experience vulnerable emotions like sadness and grief – the natural reactions to psychological losses. Instead, they can only experience anger, and they do not react by merely feeling, they must also react by doing, which usually translates into hunting down and hurting or killing the perpetrator, thus doubling the amount of violence that takes place.’    
Christopher Kilmartin.

Here is an old Scottish fable I made up.
  One day, centuries ago, in the days of knights and damsels, Sir Thrustalot slew two black knights and a dragon before lunch time. To celebrate, he and his friends enjoyed a feed of haggis at the local Scottish inn. It was from there they spied through the window a vagabond stealing a saddle from a horse. Sir Thrustalot hoisted his trusty sword into the air and cried, ‘I shall send to purgatory that wretch WITH MY SWORD!’
  He ran outside and skewered the poor thief.
  While dragging the body off the road, Sir Thrustalot’s companions suggested that perhaps death was a penalty too harsh for such a crime. As they re-entered the inn debating the matter they discovered two men walloping each other. Sir Lancelot bellowed, ‘I shall break up this fight WITH MY SWORD!’
  He promptly ran his sword through the chest of the man nearest to him, killing him instantly.    
  ‘Why did you do that?!’ cried the man’s shocked opponent. ‘Why did you kill my brother?!’
  Sir Thrustalot’s companions were also appalled. They heatedly remonstrated with Sir Thrustalot, who patiently pointed out that he had successfully broken up the fight.
  Before the matter was resolved, our hero spied through the window a comely woman walking by. He shoved the protestors aside crying ‘Oh what a fair, sweet damsel! I shall impress her WITH MY SWORD!’    
  He strode out of the inn swinging his sword in an artful way. For extra oomph he sliced a sleeping cat into two neat halves. Sprayed with cat’s blood, the damsel shrieked and ran away.
  I can’t tell you what happened next because I haven’t made it up yet, but you get the idea.
  On the battlefield Sir Thrustalot had found himself to be an excellent swordsman, and his skills had saved his life many times. He had come to believe that his sword could solve all problems. He even shaved with his sword. (There, I made that up too.)

I used to work at the counter for the Department of Housing, in Sydney. Our hardworking staff were there to find emergency accommodation (a hotel room or boarding house) for people who had nowhere to sleep. One day, a young couple jumped the queue and screamed to be assisted. That puzzled me. After all, we were there to assist them. Later, I expressed my bewilderment to a co-worker and he explained to me: ‘These people have learned that if they yell loudly enough, people will help them. Today they are frightened they will have nowhere to sleep, and they believe that if they ask nicely they will be ignored. They are yelling because they think it will get results.’
  I pointed out that their method was counter-productive and would hinder their efforts, and our efforts, to find them accommodation. ‘Nevertheless,’ said my co-worker, ‘yelling is the only way they know to get what they want.’
  In the same way that Sir Thrustalot dealt with different situations with the one method, this young couple habitually solved their problems with the one method. It had worked for them in the past so they persisted with it. They chose to not find more appropriate ways to meet their needs. Which is probably why they were in living in a car.

Someone at Speakers’ Corner once asked me for a favour and I refused politely. (It was a favour not in keeping with my values.) He persisted in asking me. He tried to deceive me. He tried to bully me. I admonished him bluntly and he became angry. For a while I couldn’t understand why he was so upset. After all, I had done other favours for him, and had declined his current request respectfully. He continued to express his anger with me, week after week. Why didn’t that anger dissipate? Then it dawned on me: he was feeling other emotions. Hurt, perhaps? Shame? Disappointment? Frustration? Something else? Whatever it was, he was converting it into the one emotion: anger. Anger was his default emotion.
  And, by converting everything into that one default emotion, he couldn’t deal with the emotions he was actually feeling. That’s why he continued to be angry, week after week after week. He was ignoring all his other emotions, and if you are not aware of an emotion, it will lead you astray..
    
Anger isn’t the only default emotion a person can have. Someone might experience their isolation as anxiety, their anger as anxiety, resentment as anxiety, confusion as anxiety . . . Result: an anxious person. Some people convert disappointment to despair, fear to despair, powerlessness to despair . . . The result? You guessed it.

In short, if you tend to convert your emotions to one habitual emotion, be aware of it. Discover what it is. Then get into the habit of looking beyond that default emotion and searching yourself for what you really are feeling. Then, instead of being led by those emotions, you can begin to deal with them in a constructive, appropriate manner. Do that and your life will change for the better.

Do you have a default emotion?
Step 1. Ask yourself: ‘Do I often get angry? Do I often feel despair? Get lonely often? Do I feel some other emotion, often?’

     (If you do, it is not necessarily a default emotion.)
     If necessary, ask a perceptive friend if you seem to have the same emotion often. Or monitor yourself for a few days, using a logbook.
     Label your emotions regularly and you will find your default emotion (if you have one).

Step 2.Make a list of the times when you felt that emotion. For example, if in Step 1 you answered ‘I feel despair often’ make a list of past incidents prompting that emotion:
      I felt despair when I – failed the test.
  – was mocked by the children.
  – was ignored by my friend.
  – lost money.
  – found my job painful.
  – was rejected.

Step 3. For each instance, search for other emotions you may have felt. List every emotion that comes to mind, including the enjoyable emotions. Repetition is fine. For example: When I failed the test I also felt disappointment, fear, humiliation, insecurity, relief.
  When I was being mocked by the children I also felt powerlessness, humiliation, etc.
  When I felt ignored I felt . . .  (And so on.)

Step 4. The next time you feel your default emotion, remind yourself that you are probably experiencing other emotions as well. Search for them. Label them. Get to know yourself.

‘. . . there is a tendency among some men to convert any and all emotional experiences into anger. Feeling anxious, jealous, sad, embarrassed, or ashamed, these men tend to display nothing but anger. You see the justification of this emotional funnel system again and again on television and at the movies. A man’s wife or friend is hurt or killed, but masculine men are not supposed to experience vulnerable emotions like sadness and grief – the natural reactions to psychological losses. Instead, they can only experience anger, and they do not react by merely feeling, they must also react by doing, which usually translates into hunting down and hurting or killing the perpetrator, thus doubling the amount of violence that takes place.’    
Christopher Kilmartin.

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Find the hidden concerns.

How often have you snapped at someone for something trivial? Or felt uneasy while travelling, until you finally realise you have left the stove on?
  Sometimes we feel unsettled, or grumpy, or anxious, or stressed, and don’t know why. That’s when we need to look a little deeper. We need to uncover the hidden concerns behind the emotion.
  This morning I became testy with someone who chose to visit me unannounced. I thought about why I was testy and realised I had done nothing important that morning, and was worrying about being unproductive. All morning, thoughts about being unproductive had been clamouring to be heard and I hadn’t listened to them. The anxiety that resulted from having those thoughts was there, and it was that anxiety that prompted me to flare up.
  When I became aware of my concerns about being unproductive I felt better. The concerns clamouring for my attention had finally been heard. I relaxed, and made the person feel welcome.
  Occasionally I toss and turn in bed, unable to get to sleep. I make a list in my head of each and every one of my concerns: my health, the odd jobs to be done, the project I keep putting off . . . Those little concerns have been clamouring for my attention, and after I have noted each and every one of them I fall asleep.
  Simply, the strategy is to ask myself, ‘What precisely is unsettling me?’ and then list the answers. When we listen to our deeper concerns we can relax a little, and there is a good chance the unsettled feeling will fade away. (Not always. When we are a hundred kilometres from home and figure out that we have left the stove on, we won’t feel better!)
  When I thought about why I was testy I gave myself the opportunity to go deeper. I could ask myself, ‘Why do I feel anxious about being unproductive? What do I fear?’
  My answer might be, for example: ‘My self worth might depend partly on me accomplishing the task I have set myself, and when I procrastinate, the further I am from earning that self worth.’ If that answer is correct I could go even deeper.
  You get the idea.
  ‘Not really. I still don’t know why it is important to list our concerns if we feel unsettled.’
  Once we observe and listen to those concerns they can cease nagging us, and become less intense.
  ‘Unless you’ve left the stove on.’
  Unless we have left the stove on, yes. Plus, we increase our chances of addressing those concerns.

In short, when we are grumpy for no particular reason, or feeling stressed for no particular reason, or feeling any dark emotion for no particular reason, let’s figure out the reason. Let’s look for the concerns behind the emotion.

‘When you are feeling negative towards your mate, it’s not a great time to tell him/her. It’s time to pick up the mirror instead of the magnifying glass and get to the truth of why you are upset. By being truthful to yourself, you can get to the heart – and hurt – of the matter. And you can proceed to talk to your mate in a much more loving and responsible voice.’
Susan Jeffers, in her book, Embracing Uncertainty.

Reveal those deeper concerns:

Step 1. When you feel unsettled, and can identify the feeling, label it.
‘I feel resentful.’
‘I am grumpy today.’
‘I’m worrying about something.’
‘I feel angry.’
‘I feel intense and earnest.’

Step 2. Search for the concerns behind the emotion, and label them.
‘I feel resentful. What is behind that resentment? What’s on my mind asking to be heard?’
     Your answer might be: ‘Ah, envy!’
     Can you go a little deeper?
     ‘Why do I envy her? What do I fear that prompts me to envy her?’

‘I am grumpy today. What am I concerned about? What thought asking to be heard?’
     Your answer might be: ‘Ah! I’m angry with Kevin and I’m afraid to tell him so.’

‘I can’t get to sleep. I’m worrying about something. What would it be?’
  Your answer might be: ‘I’m worried about my test result.’
  Identify your other concerns as well.

‘Why did I get angry after Paula criticised me? Do I tend to get upset when I am criticised?
     Your answer might be: ‘Yes, I have that tendency. What does that say about me? Do I feel insecure when criticised? Do I crave approval? If so, why?’
     You might decide that answer is incorrect. Then try again:
     ‘Ah! I’m frightened of being seen as stupid, because I might be rejected. Being rejected would lead to me feeling abandoned and isolated.’
     Can you go even deeper?
     ‘Why do I fear being isolated?

‘Why am I so intense, so earnest? Why do I fight so hard to win an argument? Why do I need to be right? What is the thought, or fear, that drives me to prove that I’m right?’
     Your answer might be: ‘Ah, in life I feel unimportant, and I am trying to avoid feeling that way.’

‘I feel irritated with my partner for no real reason. What are my deeper concerns? What is the real source of my annoyance?’
Your answer might be: ‘I resent her because she is more popular than me.’ If that rings true, go a little deeper. Why would it matter if she is more popular than you?
     ‘I feel unimportant and I’m frightened of being left behind and feeling isolated.’

The deeper we search, the better we understand ourselves, and the more likely we are to become gentle with ourselves, and of others. We become more accepting of our flaws, and of Life’s vagaries. As a result, we add to our resilience.

Exercise: List in your mind all the minor and major concerns you have right now.

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Be aware of your emotional beliefs

Water diviners believe that if they hold a switch a certain way (a switch is a flexible shoot cut from a tree) they believe they can find underground water. If there is water below where they stand, their switch supposedly bends downwards.
  Every few years The Australian Skeptics arrange a test for water diviners. It’s a test both parties believe to be fair. If a water diviner passes the test they receive $100,000.
 The water diviners are taken to a paddock in which six holes have been dug. Six full drums of water are rolled into the holes and each is covered with a thick sheet of plywood. The water diviners are then asked to walk on the sheets of wood and use their switch to see if it’s working. The diviners find that yes, their switches do indeed work. Their switches bend downwards each time they stand above a drum of water.
  The diviners are then taken away while three of the drums are replaced with empty drums. Can you see what’s coming?
  Yes, the diviners are brought back to the site and told that to get the prize, all they have to do is let their switches indicate which three of the six drums still hold water.
  In theory, it should be easy for them because they have already established that their switches are working.

‘As easy as shitting in bed and kicking it out with your feet.’
Australian saying.

Yet, not one diviner has successfully discerned which drums held water and which didn’t – not above levels expected by chance. No one has claimed the $100,000.
  One diviner accused the Skeptic officials of cheating, but was silenced when three full drums and three empty drums were revealed.
  Other diviners have pointed out that the sceptics’ negativity interfered with their detecting powers. It was pointed out to them that their switches worked well when they knew all six drums held water, and the sceptics had been just as sceptical then.
  Other diviners profess that they have successfully found water, so their skills must be real. They ignore the fact that it’s easy to find water because three quarters of Australia has underground water. And, a water diviner would intuitively look in the more likely areas.

“Jack and Jill went up the hill to fetch a pale of water.”
The question is: who dug a well on a hill?

Here’s the interesting bit: despite their failure to find the drums under conditions they thought to be fair, not one diviner could be persuaded that they could not divine water! They continued to hold their beliefs.
  Why? Because they had an emotional belief in their abilities. If we have an emotional belief in something, almost nothing will change our mind. There are names for it: ‘Belief Perseverance’,  and ‘Conceptual Conservatism’. That’s when we maintain a belief even though plenty of information firmly contradicts it.
  Such beliefs may even be strengthened when they are debunked. That’s a phenomenon known as ‘the backfire effect’.
   So, what exactly is an emotional belief?  First, there are three kinds of beliefs:
(1) rational beliefs  
(2) irrational beliefs  
(3) emotional beliefs
  While watching the horror film, ‘Alien’, we can hold two beliefs interchangeably.
(1) Rational belief: the film is fiction, with actors and special effects.
(2) Irrational belief: the film is a documentary made to warn us about space exploration.
(3) Emotional belief: ‘Don’t go in there, Ripley! It’s dangerous!’ (On an emotional level, we believe what we see is happening.)
  When a zebra foal is born, its mother stands in front of it for the first two days of its life. The foal instinctively learns the pattern of its mother’s stripes so that if mother and foal are separated in a stampede, the foal can later find its mother. The foal also learns its mother’s smell. It’s called ‘imprinting’. If in a cruel experiment you were to place a billboard advertisement for a can of cola in front of the foal for the first two days of its life, that foal would develop a strong emotional attachment to the billboard. It would feel that the billboard was its mother; it would have an emotional belief that the sign is its mother.
  Do you believe in Santa Claus? If you were raised to believe in him you might have an emotional belief in the existence of Santa, which is why retailers use Santa in their advertisements. That’s harmless, because Santa is a good character to have around. And, water divining is just a harmless self-delusion. And, having an emotional belief that Ripley is in danger enhances our enjoyment of the film. There are many ways to have an emotional belief, and most are harmless. The trouble occurs when we have disabling emotional beliefs.

(A) Rational belief: ‘Like everyone, I make mistakes. Mistakes are part of the learning process.’ 
(B) Irrational belief: ‘I made a mistake. We are not supposed to make mistakes.’
(C) Emotional belief: ‘I keep making mistakes, so I’m stupid and worthless.’
Many of us believe (B) & (C). Some of us believe all three, despite the contradictions.

The zebra foal cannot feel comfortable having a misplaced emotional belief in a billboard. In the same way, we humans can’t feel comfortable with emotional beliefs disabling us. And, like the zebra foal, we can’t easily ditch our emotional beliefs, even if we are presented with plenty of evidence to suggest our beliefs aren’t true. We will ignore that evidence because our emotional beliefs feel so true. Beliefs are more potent than evidence.
  Here are three ways we can hold disabling emotional beliefs:
(1) We have emotional beliefs about ourselves. Some people grow up feeling they are ugly, dumb or worthless, when it’s obvious to the rest of us that they’re not. Or, someone might grow up believing they are wonderful, which can be just as limiting. (If someone believes they are wonderful they might not be able to see their flaws and limitations, so they can’t grow. And, when people reject them they can’t understand why, and might become frustrated, bewildered, even isolated.)

(2) We can have emotional beliefs in how things are. Some people have emotional beliefs in wacky New-Age science, superstitions and magic, absurd conspiracy theories, or in an unwavering faith in their opinions and in the political party they vote for. They are unable to see the obvious flaws in their arguments and nothing will change their mind. That’s because their beliefs have become emotional beliefs.

‘If you believe that all salesmen are thieves or that all police are corrupt, it becomes impossible to see what is there. Instead you see a projection of your own ideals, beliefs and prejudices.’
David J. Lieberman in his book, ‘Never Be Lied To Again’.

(3)  Emotional beliefs in how things should be. We look at that in the next chapter.

Q. ‘How badly can we be disabled by an emotional belief?’
How would a child feel if they were brought up to believe homosexuality is evil and unnatural, then discovered they were gay? How would an overweight child feel being brought up in a world that says being fat is unattractive? How would a child struggling academically feel living in a world that mocks stupidity?
  In 1997, thirty-nine people killed themselves because they believed their souls would fly up to a spaceship hiding behind a comet. Their emotional belief in their cult leader, Marshal Applewhite, was so strong they didn’t question their belief in him; instead, they succumbed to it. Had each person known their belief was just an emotional one they may have made a sharper decision.
  Yes, some emotional beliefs can be pretty disabling.

Q. ‘Why do we hold emotional beliefs? If someone thinks they’re dumb or ugly, why don’t they jump at the chance to have their mind changed?’
Because emotional beliefs feel comfortable. When we have a thought it connects neurons in our brain, along which a signal is transmitted. Have that thought often enough, or have it imprinted, then we will create a well-worn, comfortable pathway. Soon it becomes so easy to use that pathway it’s hard to form a new one. That’s when a belief seems real and true, even if to the rest of us it’s obviously hogwash.
 
Q. ‘Could having an emotional belief lead to cognitive dissonance?’
cognitive dissonance = having beliefs that contradict each other.
Yes. Jill believes stealing is wrong, but also believes it’s okay for her to steal. Both views have strong pathways, so both views seem valid to her, though you and I might see her as a hypocrite.

Q. How do we get rid of disabling emotional beliefs?
Remember the water diviners and ‘Belief Perseverance’? Almost nothing will change a believer’s mind. We hold our disabling emotional beliefs close to our chest, and prop them up with a scaffolding of related beliefs, hoping that if we insulate ourselves from the truth we will protect ourselves from it. When someone proves our emotional belief wrong, for a second or two we feel disoriented, and then we jump straight back into that comfortable belief.
  That’s why I believe that no child should be imprinted with a prejudice or religious belief. Let’s give them the freedom to form their own philosophies.
  So, if we can’t get rid of our disabling beliefs, what can we do? See you in the next chapter.

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Weaken your disabling emotional beliefs

We can undermine their influence upon us by becoming aware of them. If the zebra foal in the previous chapter had realised its attachment to the cola sign was just an emotional belief imprinted upon it, it might have made the more rational decision to join its real mum, despite misgivings. In the same way, we can make sharper decisions when we accept that our disabling beliefs might be false, even though they feel so true.
  ‘For example?’
  If someone felt it would be catastrophic to be disliked by others, but realised that may be only an emotional belief, then that person might find it easier to behave in a less needy and less sycophantic way. They might end up feeling more confident about themselves.
  Or, let’s say you like someone but think you’re not worthy of their company, or you want to apply for a job but believe you’re not up to it. Although the belief feels right and true, you might consider the possibility that it’s just an emotional belief that could be wrong. So, despite the voice in your head saying ‘Forget it, I’m not worthy!’ you would approach the person, or apply for the job, anyway.
  ‘There is a good chance the belief was right, and I’ll be rejected.’
  True. But it was the right decision to try. If we have an emotional belief hammering in our heads, our decision making faculties will be wonky. That means we won’t know the truth of the matter until we try. At the very least, just by trying, we are not letting our emotional beliefs direct our life.
  In life we have an obligation to ourselves to make sharp, responsible decisions despite the voice in our head giving us poor advice. Recognising our emotional beliefs is a step towards fulfilling that responsibility.
  ‘I can ask out a super model? Is that what you’re saying?’
  Do you know her?
  ‘No.’
  I’m not suggesting you abandon commonsense! But if you know her, and like her for the person she is, then yes.
  In short, the next time you feel hopeless or stupid, or poor, or defective, or better than someone else, remind yourself that it’s an emotional belief and it might well be wrong, even though it feels right. Then make the right decision, even if it feels wrong.

Exercise 1. Discover your emotional beliefs.
Step 1. Find a strong belief you have about yourself or about how things should be. For example:
– I’m not worthy
– Cruelty to animals is wrong/is necessary
– There is/is not human induced climate change
– there really is/isn’t a conspiracy.

Step 2. Answer the following questions.
Q1. What could prove you wrong?
Q2. If someone challenges your belief do you try to prove them wrong?
Q3. When someone questions your point of view do you avoid answering their question by answering a different question, or by asking them a question?
Q4. Do you search for information that supports your view, and ignore information that contradicts it?
Q5. Does your intuition tell you that you are right? Do you ‘just know’ that it’s true?

If your answer to the first question is ‘nothing could prove me wrong’ there is a good chance it is an emotional belief. 

  If you do immediately look for evidence to prove the other person is wrong, or if you avoid answering their questions, or only look for evidence to support your view, or if you ‘just know that you’re right, then again, it’s probably an emotional belief.

Step 3. If it is an emotional belief is it undermining you? Is it making you look like a goose? Preventing you from maturing? Wasting your time or money? Does your belief dishearten you? Would you be better off without this belief?
   If so, try the next exercise.

Exercise 2. Ways to weaken your emotional beliefs.
Emotional beliefs are almost impossible to eradicate, but we can diminish their influence upon us.

1. Keep being aware of them. Label them. ‘Ah. That’s my emotional belief kicking in again.’

2. Make a written list of all the ways that belief is undermining you.
For example, Sam has vowed to never marry because he believes women only want a man for his money. Sam might write:
‘By believing that women are only interested in my money,
1. I might not realise when a woman I like thinks I’m special.
2. I will continue to miss out on the pleasure of trusting someone.
3. I will continue to miss out on the pleasure of being trusted.
4. I will look like a goose, because it’s obvious many women are not interested in a guy’s money.
5. I will miss out on the pleasure of feeling close and intimate with someone.
6. I will miss out on the pleasure of knowing that someone is enjoying my company.
7. I will continue to have a tunnel-visioned, myopic, superficial understanding of love.
8. I will miss out on the possibility of making a close friend.
9. I will continue to foster bitterness and resentment within me.
10. I will doom myself to remain lonely.’

3. Bid the disabling belief, ‘Goodbye’. In his book The Happiness Trap, Dr Russ Harris gives a few ideas on what do do when an emotional belief pops up and tries to interfere. He suggests we tell ourselves: ‘Here’s that thought about me being bad. Hello thought. Goodbye.’
‘Here comes the “I’m the victim” story. Hello story. Goodbye.’
‘Hi thought, see you later’ and let that thought drift away.
After telling the thought ‘Goodbye’ we can then make the right decision, even though it might feel like the wrong decision. It’s the right decision even if the belief turned out to be true.
  ‘When I say ‘Goodbye’ to my thoughts they keep coming back.’
  They will. Keep saying goodbye. Meanwhile, make the right decision, despite how wrong it feels.

4. Challenge the thoughts behind your emotional belief.  Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) involves disputing core beliefs in a particular way. Apparently it often works. My concern is that if we don’t apply that strategy properly and simply try to prove to ourselves we are not ugly, or not stupid, a voice inside us might insist that we are. As Nassim Nicholas Taleb says, ‘Good, enlightened advice and eloquent sermons do not register for more than a few moments when they go against our wiring.’
  If you do try CBT, do it with a psychologist.

5. Choose to not feed your emotional beliefs. If there is a film, conversation, magazine article or anything else that might reinforce your emotional belief, avoid it. Be the gatekeeper of what you feed your mind.

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The Tyranny of the Should – our expectations of the world.

In the sentence, ‘I should study if I want to pass the test.’ the word ‘should’ is appropriate. It’s commonsense. However, we sometimes we adopt beliefs based not on common sense, but on values, and those beliefs can be unhelpful.

In 1939 American psychiatrist Karen Horney wrote about that type of misleading belief, labelling it ‘The Tyranny of the Should’. She pointed out that we have ‘shoulds’ about how the world should be.

Julie dates men with firm beliefs about how men should behave: ‘Men should pay for the first date. Men should not expect a kiss on the first date. Men should not drink more than two glasses of wine. The man should be taller than the woman,’ and so on. Julie had so many ‘shoulds’ and ‘should nots’ in her belief system that every man she dated failed to meet her expectations. She found it hard to find, or keep, a boyfriend. She had allowed her shoulds – her expectations – to limit her.

‘Your son doesn’t clean his room. You’re frustrated/angry because your son is supposed to behave differently – he’s being inconsiderate, you’ve told him a thousand times, etc. Your anger is not caused by your son, but by your ideal of how he should behave.’
From Leo Babauta’s booklet, ‘Letting Go’ on his website, ‘Zen Habits’.

Bob has a lot of shoulds in his life: ‘People should clean up after themselves. Teenagers must speak to me respectfully. We ought to save money for things important.’
  When Bob uses the words ‘should’, ‘must’ and ‘ought’ he is effectively saying, ‘This is the right and sensible thing to do.’ His statements are based on his values. Bob values cleanliness. He values respect. He values saving money. The thing is, other people have different values to Bob. They don’t value cleanliness, they don’t value Bob’s feelings when they speak to him, and they don’t value saving money. So, they’re going to act contrary to how Bob would like and expect. And, because Bob expects other people to act according to his values and expectations, he has a problem.

When we use the words ‘should’, ‘ought’ and ‘must’ we are making claims based on our values. If the other person has different values they will act differently and confound our expectations. As a result, we can end up feeling puzzled and exasperated. And resentful, like Bob.

Let’s stop using the words ‘should’, ‘ought’ and ‘must’ when we are speaking of our values. When we use those words we reinforce our view of how the world should be, and that invites frustration and disappointment. Our sense of justice can be violated.
  Bob has a choice. He can stick with his shoulds and oughts and musts, or he can rephrase his statements as suggestions or preferences.
  Bob visits a park and finds rubbish left by picnickers. He wants to comment and has two options.
Option A: ‘People should clean up after themselves.’ With that imperative, Bob will feel angry, dismayed and disheartened, because people aren’t acting in accordance with his values.
Option B: ‘Gosh, it would be nice if people cleaned up after themselves.’
  That preference will reduce the intensity of his dismay because he isn’t demanding other people to behave in the way he expects. He is acknowledging that other people have not violated an obvious, sacrosanct set of rules; instead, they simply don’t share his values. So, rather than feel angry and dismayed, Bob will merely feel disappointed.

Someone speaks to Bob rudely. He has two options on how to respond.
Option A: ‘You must speak to me respectfully.’
Option B: ‘Speak to me respectfully.’
Option B is the better option because Option A is not true. There is no ‘must’. So, instead of demanding and expecting the other person to be respectful, and leaving himself open to having his demands ignored, Bob is focusing on telling the person his preference.
 Adding the word ‘please’ might help too, because it acknowledges that the other person has a say in the matter. The word ‘must’ doesn’t.
  ‘The other person might still refuse to comply with Bob’s request.’
  Yes, but Bob can cope better with the refusal, knowing that he stuck up for himself, and knowing there is no immutable golden rule in life requiring one person to speak to another respectfully.

Bob is giving his spendthrift adult son advice.
Option A: ‘You ought to save money for things important.’
Option B: ‘I suggest you save your money for things important.’
Option C: ‘I would like to see you saving your money for things important.’
Option B is a big improvement and C is even better, because Bob is forcing himself to relinquish the ‘rightness’ of his opinion. As a result he will be more accepting of his son’s decision, and less anxious. Further, by making it a suggestion, rather than trying to shepherd his son into making the ‘right’ decision, he is no longer taking responsibility for his son’s life. And, importantly, he is not weakening the bond he has with his son.
 
In each case, changing the sentence to a suggestion or a preference means Bob will become less frustrated and less resentful. That’s because he is less attached to his belief of how things ought to be. By being more accepting of the way other people think and behave, he will be more relaxed in life, more easygoing, and therefore, less anxious.
  Further, if we don’t expect people to behave in a certain way, we will waste less time and energy trying to change them. That can strengthen a relationship.

Q. ‘Your ‘preference idea’ sounds weak. I’d much rather tell someone they must stop treating me badly than telling them I’d prefer it.’
Ditch both words. Simply say, ‘Stop treating me badly.’ It’s not an expectation, it’s a preference framed as a direction.

Q. My sister Susan expects her grotty housemate to help keep their place tidy. If she dumped her ‘should’ and made it just a preference, she would end up living in a grotty, cluttered household. She wouldn’t want that.’
Rephrasing our sentences is not giving in, it’s a way to feel better about a situation. If Susan were to remind herself that her housemate has different values to her own, and that her own expectations of life are just that: expectations, then her life would become easier. When her housemate clutters the place she will feel less frustration and resentment. And, when she speaks to her housemate about how she feels, she will be calm and clear minded.
  ‘That doesn’t mean her problem will get solved.’
  But she will feel better about the situation. Besides, she will have a better chance of solving the problem calm and clearheaded, and courteous, than if she were frustrated and resentful. When we drop our beliefs of how things should be, we perceive a situation in a healthier perspective and become less stressed. And, increase our chances of solving the problem.

In short, drop the imperatives from your language. Make the conscious choice to drop the ‘shoulds’, ‘oughts’ and ‘musts’ from your life when they’re based on values. You will become more accepting, more flexible, and more easygoing. And as a result, more resilient.

If you forget and find yourself saying ‘should’, ‘ought’ or ‘must’, retract the word and rephrase your sentence. Do that often enough and it will become a habit. Then you’ll notice just how easygoing you have become.

We have just looked at our expectatons of the world. Try the chapter: The Tyranny of the Should – Our expectations of ourselves.

Exercise 1
Rephrase the following sentences to get rid of the imperatives.
‘He should get a job.’
‘She ought to visit her mother.’
‘He must do the honourable thing.’
‘People should be considerate.’
‘Our house ought be tidier.’
‘Kids should behave when they are in supermarkets.’
‘We should all be nice to one another.’

Exercise 2
We are unaware of most of our shoulds, oughts and musts. How many of these shoulds have you adopted?
‘People should clean up after themselves.’
‘People should be considerate of one another.’
‘People should be courteous.’
‘Life should have some fun in it.’
‘People should not make noise if it’s late at night.’
‘My friends should show an interest in what I do.’

Can you think of other shoulds, oughts and musts that apply to you?

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The Tyranny of the Should – our expectations of ourselves.

This chapter is also based on Karen Horney’s ‘Tyranny of the Should’.

In the last chapter I suggested we drop our ‘shoulds’, ‘oughts’ and ‘musts’ of other people, and replace those words with suggestions or preferences. I said the sooner we realise people value things differently to us, and that there are no golden rules to live by, the better.
  Let’s also drop the shoulds about ourselves.
 Can you see a problem with these sentences? ‘I should always be polite. I should always do things well. I should be a better person. I should be liked by people.’
  Yes, the sentences are imperatives, not preferences. If ‘Harold’ believes he should be liked, but isn’t, he is going to feel hurt, confused, and resentful. We can become disheartened when our expectations are not met. With a more realistic approach – a preference – Harold would fare a lot better.
  When we have ‘shoulds’ and ‘oughts’ about ourselves we can replace them with aims or preferences or ‘coulds’.  For example:
(i) Harold could say, ‘I would like to be liked.’
(ii) Instead of saying, ‘I should always be polite’, we might say, ‘I aim to be polite’ or ‘I could be polite’. Those statements are more realistic, and we are not setting ourselves up for failure.
(iii) Instead of, ‘I should always do things well,’ we might say, ‘I aim to do things well.’ That’s a more sensible, realistic approach. And, it’s a subtle reminder that not everything needs to be done well. Further, if it’s not done well we will find it easier to accept the result. Less resentment, less anxiety.
(iv) Instead of ‘I should lose weight.’ we could say, ‘I aim to lose weight.’ That’s a better sentence. More empowering.
  ‘What if we have no intention of trying to lose the weight?’
  We could say, ‘I could lose weight.’ Or, ’I should lose weight if I am to wear those jeans again’. In that instance, the word ‘should’ is acceptable, because the statement is a fact, not a value.
(v) Instead of, ’I must not stand out’ we could try, ‘I would prefer to not stand out.’ That’s a better sentence because the speaker is reducing the importance of not standing out. That way, they won’t feel so bad if they do stand out.
(vi) Instead of, ‘I shouldn’t feel this way,’ we could say, ‘I am feeling this way.’

In each instance of rephrasing we are looking after ourselves.

The hard part is remembering to omit the ‘shoulds’, ‘oughts’ and ‘musts’ from our speech in day-to-day life. But when we are in the habit of it we will be more relaxed and easygoing. With that lower capacity to become anxious we add to our core happiness.

Try the chapter, The Tyranny of the Should – our expectations of the World.

Exercise 1
Replace the shoulds in the following sentences with aims or preferences.

‘I should be a better person.’
‘I should forgive myself.’
‘I ought to be someone that people like.’
‘I should be proud of who I am.’
‘I ought be more confident.’
‘I should never say anything that might offend.’
‘I should make the right decisions.’
‘I should not make mistakes.’
‘I should put my needs aside to assist others.
‘I should always look good.’
‘I must do that one day.

Exercise 2
On paper, list ten shoulds, oughts or musts you have adopted about yourself.

Exericse 3
In life,
(1) keep an eye out for your shoulds, oughts and musts. If you say one, etract it and rephrase your sentence.
(2)  if you find yourself becoming exasperated, frustrated, angry, resentful, jealous or despairing, that’s a strong indicator that you have an imperative in your thought. Look for that ‘should’ and question it.
– If you feel resentful when no one expresses interest in your project, look for your ‘should’.
– If you feel overwhelmed, look for your ‘should’.
– If you find yourself despairing when someone isn’t as loving or as helpful as you would expect them to be, look for your ‘should’.

Then ask yourself, ’Is my should a golden rule, or is it just my belief on how things should be? Is it possible that the other person has different values to me? If so, is it worth me getting upset about this? Can I let go of my should and feel better? Can I change it to a preference?’

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Be angry!

Anger is a wonderful emotion to have. It helps subjugated people revolt, it gave women the vote, it can help you stick up for yourself when you are bullied. It can energise us. It’s a good motivator for when change is needed.
  Yet many of us believe anger is a bad emotion because we have seen on the news what angry people do. Or, as children we may have endured a violent, raging parent, and concluded that anger is bad. Or, perhaps our parents punished expressions of anger, so we learned it’s a bad thing to feel.
  Whatever the case, many of us avoid being angry, afraid that if we let ourselves be angry we might look foolish, or undisciplined, or lose control and do something awful. ‘Good people don’t get angry’, many of us think, so we aim to never be angry.
  But being angry is a normal and healthy part of being human. We evolved to get angry, as have most advanced creatures. (Have you seen a mother defend her young?) So, when we become angry but pretend to ourselves we are not angry, we have a problem. The anger will squeeze out in unwanted ways. Here are six:

1. Misdirected anger.
People not acknowledging their anger to themselves might:
▪ slash train seats, undermine workmates, or light fires in bushland, or
▪ pick fights, or
▪ snipe at their spouse, or
▪ punish someone with silence, or
▪ become a chronic complainer, or
▪ be sarcastic often, or
▪ be defensive.
These people may be concerned that if they were to allow themselves to get angry they might lose control and disgrace themselves. So, they find other, more passive ways to express it.

2. Explosive anger.  Some anger avoiders suppress their anger until they eventually explode at something trivial. They lash out physically or verbally, and surprise everyone including themselves. Then they feel ashamed and guilty, which reinforces their belief that anger is bad. So, they strive even harder to avoid feeling angry, bottling it up even more for the next explosive outburst.

3. The anger enjoyers use their anger to get what they want. They might even enjoy the adrenaline rush. They and their loved ones live troubled lives.
  They don’t see themselves as angry. Just assertive, and sometimes, persecuted.

4. Anger turned inwards.  Some people turn their anger on themselves and become
▪ self-critical, or
▪ resentful and bitter or
▪ lose sleep with worry, or
▪ harm themselves.
These people could end up suffering anxiety or depression.

5. Anger and powerlessness.
These people put their own needs aside and become doormats for people to walk over them. They are fearful of:
– how they might behave if they stood up for themselves. Would they lose control?
– how they might be perceived if they were to stand up for themselves (Would they be seen as petty,
   selfish, stupid or ornery?)
– and they may be fearful of being quashed in a confrontation.
Because they don’t get their needs met, they lose a big part of themselves and live only half a life. So, they miss out on feeling relaxed and good about life. They exert no real influence in their relationships or in life, and feel powerless, without necessarily knowing it. That can lead to anxiety or despair.

‘Trying not to get angry affects relationships as well. If you can’t get angry, you and those around you don’t know who you are. They don’t know how you feel, nor do they understand the limits of your tolerance. Anger gives you borders and definition.’
Thomas Moore, from his book, ‘Dark nights of the soul’.

6. Chronic anger. Anger has become a habit, and feels normal. The people suffering chronic anger are the grumps, the bigots, the unforgiving, the righteous.

‘Often with anger there are other emotions underneath that a person either hasn’t been able to face or they don’t have the permission (from others or themselves) to face or they don’t even know are there. My question comes from a sense of curiosity about why they think anger is a bad emotion in the first place. So, if a person says “I think anger is a bad emotion to have” and if I ask what is bad about it . . . I will get some information. Valuable information. If I ask them to use another word it can give an insight into the feelings underneath the anger. A person might equate anger with losing control; another might equate anger with cruelty; another might equate anger with being unfeminine, weak, scary, childish, overpowering, inadequate – these are all different and thus provide different ways in to help someone deal with their anger.’
Gay McKinley, psychotherapist.

7. The Activist.
There is a seventh way anger can squeeze out of a person, though in this instance it can benefit the person or society. I mentioned earlier: anger gave women the vote. It helps subjugated people revolt. It helps you stick up for yourself when you’re bullied or harassed. It can help a parent guide the behaviour of a child.
It’s a healthy, constructive expression of anger. It’s directed at change.
 
In short, when we are not aware of our anger we may destined to explode, or remain grumpy, or stressed, or be doormats. But when we are aware of our anger and can express it in a healthy, constructive manner, we make smarter decisions, and we can focus on changing what needs to be changed.
  And, we gain that inner authority I keep talking about. We become less stressed and more relaxed than a person who doesn’t allow themselves to be angry. That’s because we aren’t afraid of our anger – we know how to handle it.
  We won’t always necessarily solve our problem, but it’s that knowledge that we can handle life – it’s that confidence in ourselves – which allows the turmoil to evaporate and our behaviour to be moderate.
  We might even decide the incident isn’t worth being angry about, and readily let it go.
  There’s a bonus: when we realise that anger is not such a bad emotion to have, we cope better with another person’s anger. Instead of dismissing their behaviour as frightening, or bad and irrational, we can focus more on what they are saying.
 
‘The anger avoider’s pledge: Beginning today, I will allow anger to be part of my family of emotions. Anger has a place in my life, along with sadness, joy, and all my other feelings. I promise to listen to my anger, to use it to help me figure out what to say or do, and to let go of my anger when the situation is better.’  
From‘Letting Go of Anger’, by Ron Potter-Efron.

Q. ‘Anger causes heaps of trouble. You only have to look at the news, with all the stabbings and shootings.’
Poorly expressed anger causes problems, yes. That’s why anger has such a bad reputation. But if the people in the news had expressed their anger in a healthy manner they wouldn’t be in the news. They and their victims would have suffered less, and they may have solved their problem while earning people’s respect.

Q. ‘Anger creates conflict, and conflict creates stress. We don’t want to feel stressed.’
If you avoid necessary conflict with another person you will develop an inner conflict, and that’s the last thing you want. No one likes conflict, but if you have the capacity to meet it head on in a constructive manner, problems get solved and you get over the discomfort.

Q. ‘If we allow ourselves to become angry we will become angry more often. That can’t be a good thing!’
If you practise being angry inappropriately then yes, that will happen. Yelling and throwing things is unhealthy. You will you feel stupid and guilty afterwards, and you might well develop a short fuse.
  I’m suggesting an expression of anger that aims to rectify the situation.
  Paradoxically, when we can express our anger in a healthy way, we become less angry. That’s because we are calmer and our perspective is healthier. And, it becomes easy to conclude that an incident isn’t worth being angry about. We might even conclude that displaying tolerance and compassion, rather than anger, is a more appropriate response to a situation.

Q. ‘When my sister gets angry at work she cries, but instead of taking her anger seriously, the staff think she’s weak.’
I’m not surprised. Crying is another unhelpful way to express anger.

Q. ‘What’s wrong with screaming and shouting at someone? That gets results. A squeaky wheel gets the grease.’
You might get compliance but you haven’t truly solved the problem, so it’s a short-term victory. The respect you will lose will be more far-reaching. And, from then on, the other person will lie to you, or avoid you, to avoid your anger. You don’t want that.
  ‘But ranting and raving can be enormously satisfying.’
   Yes, it can be a release, as can swearing. Instead of aiming to reduce the intensity of their anger, some people aim to increase it by yelling and swearing. They work themselves into a ranting fit! Why? Because they believe that yelling is the best way to get results. And each time they work themselves up they get better at it, and become excellent at becoming angry. Then they get angry over trivial things. Anger becomes their default response.
  Yes, a good, brief yell at no one in particular can be enormously satisfying, but don’t yell at someone. Don’t vent. If you vent on someone it’s not fair on them, and their reaction can exacerbate the situation. That won’t help you or your relationship. And, with your prolonged yelling, your brain will become proficient in creating ‘anger chemicals’.  You don’t want to develop a short fuse and get angry often.
  ‘So, venting at someone is bad?’
  Not always. Sometimes we can have controlled venting, with a friend as a soundboard. Sometimes we need to vent to open things up, to find out what is going on inside. Just make sure you have a plan in mind and have the other person’s permission.

‘One problem with merely venting anger is that the raw emotion may contain memories of many violations and humiliations. You may be angry with many people and for many reasons. To vent this conglomerate of feelings in the presence of a single person is to swamp that person with all your accumulated feelings, most of which have nothing to do with him. Rage turning into violence feels impotent and accomplishes nothing, because you aren’t dealing with the real object of your anger. You are simply giving other people good reason to be angry at you.’
Thomas Moore, from his book, ‘Dark nights of the soul’.

Q. ‘I find that punching a punching bag is a good way to express anger.’
You are creating adrenaline and endorphins that will swamp the bad feeling of your anger. Or, you’re exhausting yourself. Either way, would you consider instead calming yourself, and looking within you to discover precisely what buttons have been pressed? What ‘shoulds’ have been violated? Then focus on rectifying the problem. What needs to change?

‘If you are angry at your spouse or partner, hours of workout at the gym are not going to be nearly as effective as letting your partner know how you feel.’
Thomas Moore, from his book, ‘Dark nights of the soul’.”

Q. ‘When is it okay to get angry?’
It’s always okay to be angry. If you’re angry, you’re angry. You can feel any emotion you like, whenever you like. Remember Charlotte? Charlotte allowed all the dark emotions to be with her. That’s how she learned how to deal with them. So yes, it’s always okay to be angry. What is important is how it is expressed.
   ‘I mean, when is anger a good thing to have?’
  When change is needed. Anger can give us the strength to stand up for what is right and make changes for the better. Anger can be the impetus for courageous acts.

Q. ‘Is the Dali Lama an anger avoider?’
Buddhists don’t repress or avoid feeling their anger, nor do they indulge it; rather, they don’t allow it to arise in the first place. They train their mind to be alert to their emotions, and become aware of their anger as soon as it begins to form. When it does begin to form they observe it in a detached way, then address it using a number of methods, until it fades. One method is to consciously replace it with a cultivated compassion, or loving kindness, called ‘metta’.
  Each Buddhist aims to one day be able to cut off anger entirely and feel only loving kindness. ‘This is, if nothing else, a beautiful ideal to aspire to,’ said one teacher I spoke with.
  So, to answer your question: no, the Dalai Lama is not an anger-avoider. He, presumably, has become adept at being aware of any anger growing within him, and adept at dealing with it before it gets a chance to grow further. If you can do that, fine. My concern is that if you fail to apply the Buddhist teachings properly, you might become an anger-avoider. Anger management methods are relatively easy to learn and apply, whereas the Buddhist methods require training and persistence. But if they work for you, well and good.
  ‘You’ve spoken with Buddhists? What do they think of your claim that it’s okay to express anger in a healthy, constructive manner?’
  They disagree with it. They claim that even when anger is constructively expressed it is still a toxin to the holder of the anger.
  ‘You said anger is a good motivator for when change is needed. If the Buddhists quell their anger before it arises, what do they use as a motivator for change?’
  I don’t know.

To discover if the Dalai Lama was an anger-avoider I wrote to three practising Buddhists. All replied. Their answers were exceptional. You can read them here.

Q. ‘What if I am really angry with someone? What should I do? Write a letter to my Member of Parliament?’
Sarcasm noted. When experiencing a strong burst of anger, take time out. Leave quickly. When you have calmed down think about the incident thoroughly, and from all angles. When you are ready, deal with the situation.
  ‘But what steps can I take to address my anger?’
  Try the chapter: ‘An Incident Occurred and I’m Angry!

 

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