Ignore the dills in the peanut gallery.

Uncle: A century ago, 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.

Nephew: We should revive that custom.

Uncle: Then you will be pleased to know that remnants of that custom still exist. When you say to someone, ‘No comments are required from the peanut gallery, thank you!’ you are asking them to refrain from presenting their opinion.

Nephew: Sounds good. I’ll try that on you some time.

Uncle: No doubt you will. 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: What are you trying to say?

Uncle: One of our unceasing jobs in life is to sort the good advice we receive from the bad. But if the advice is about our emotions, be extra cautious. A companion sitting in the peanut gallery might tell us: ‘Gosh, you must be livid!’ or, ‘I bet you’re devastated.’ However, it’s not our companion’s job to decide what we are feeling; that’s our job. If someone says to you, ‘Oh, you must be feeling angry about that!’ stop and think. Work out what you are actually feeling and tell them. ‘No, I feel dismayed, and apprehensive.’

Nephew: What if the person is right? What if I am angry?

Uncle: If you are feeling angry, find the right word for that anger. Are you vexed? Miffed? Annoyed? Use the word you provide, not their word. 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.

Nephew: Why are we doing this?

Uncle: The more accurate our understanding is of what we are feeling, the easier it is to deal with that feeling, and the more grounded we 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.

Nephew: You make life complicated? You know that, don’t you?

Uncle: And, 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!’  decide for yourself how bad it is! If they say, ‘This shouldn’t be hurting you so much,’ don’t listen to them. You decide how much it hurts, and say so. You don’t need comments from the peanut gallery.

Nephew: I don’t need comments from a peanut, either.

Uncle: You cheeky blight.

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The Adventures of Sir Thrustalot.

Uncle: Here is an old Scottish fable I made up.

Nephew: Oh. Great.

Uncle: One day, centuries ago, in the days of knights and damsels, Sir Thrustalot slew two knights and a dragon before Happy Hour. To celebrate, he and his friends enjoyed a meal 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!’

Nephew: To purgatory?

Uncle: That’s a stopover on the way to heaven.

Nephew: Oh.

Uncle: Sir Thrustalot ran outside and skewered the poor thief. Then, while dragging the body off the road, Sir Thrustalot’s companions suggested that perhaps death was a penalty too harsh for such a crime.

Nephew: Not harsh enough, I say.

Uncle: 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!’

Nephew: Don’t tell me . . .

Uncle: Yes. Sir Thrustalot 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?!’

Nephew: His brother?!

Uncle: 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.

Nephew: He is not the brightest, is he, this Sir Thrustalot?

Uncle: Before the discussion was over, our hero spied through the window a comely woman walking by.

Nephew: Comely?

Uncle: Good looking.

Nephew: Thank you.

Uncle: Be quiet. Sir Thrustalot shoved the protestors aside crying ‘Oh what a fair, sweet damsel! I shall impress her WITH MY SWORD!’    

Nephew: Uh oh.

Uncle: 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.

Nephew: I wonder why.
    
Uncle: I can’t tell you what happened next because I haven’t made that bit up yet, but you get the idea.

Nephew: No, I don’t!

Uncle: 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 just made that bit up, too.

Nephew: Where are you going with this?

Uncle: I used to work in a government department. Our hardworking staff would find emergency accommodation – a room in a hotel or boarding house – for people who had nowhere to sleep that night. One day, a young couple jumped the queue and screamed for attention. That puzzled me. After all, we were there to assist them and they only had to wait their turn. 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 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.’

Nephew: This is all very interesting, but . . .

Uncle: In the same way that Sir Thrustalot dealt with different situations with just the one method, this youngcouple habitually solved their problems with just the one method: yelling. It had worked for them  in the past so they were persisting with it. They chose to not find more appropriate ways to meet their needs, which might explain why they were living in a car.

Nephew: I think I could handle living in a car.

Uncle: Someone 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. He continued to express his anger with me, week after week. ‘Why didn’t that anger dissipate?’ I wondered. Then it dawned on me: he was feeling other emotions as well. Hurt, perhaps? Shame? Disappointment? Frustration? Whatever emotion he felt, he converted to 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, and that’s why he couldn’t come to terms with the situation. He was ignoring all his other emotions, and if you are not aware of an emotion, it will lead you astray.
    
Nephew: A van, maybe. I’d travel Australia.

Uncle: What?

Nephew: Sorry. Keep going. I’m listening.

Uncle: 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?

Nephew:  . . . Anxiety?

Uncle: Yes! They’d be an anxious person. Some people convert disappointment to despair, fear to despair, powerlessness to despair . . . The result?

Nephew: Euphoria?

Uncle: Pest. My point is: if you tend to convert your emotions to one habitual emotion, discover what it is. Then get into the habit of looking beyond that default emotion and searching yourself for what you really are feeling. So instead of being led by those emotions, you can begin to deal with them.

Nephew: First stop, Omeo.

Uncle: What?

Nephew: Nothing. I’m listening.

Uncle: I’ve finished.

Nephew: Brilliant. Wait, what happened to Sir Thrustalot?

Uncle: I don’t know. It doesn’t matter! I was trying to make a point.

Nephew: What point was that?

Uncle: . . .!!  Did you say you want to travel around Australia?

Nephew: Yes.

Uncle: What’s the furthermost point?

Nephew: Darwin?

Uncle: When you get there, stay there.

Exercise: 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.)
If other emotions came up, it’s possible that in this instance, despair would be a default emotion. That’s because you are feeling lots of emotions, but perceiving them as despair. In the same way that Sir Thrustalot likes to respond to every situation with his sword, you might be choosing to respond to every situation with your default emotion, despair. Or whatever your default emotion happens to be.

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 thoughts.

Uncle: 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.

Nephew: Good for you. Is your growing gut one of your concerns?

Uncle: You cheeky blight!

Nephew: Just asking! That would keep me awake at night.

Uncle: Nevermind that. In the strategy I have just described I’m simply asking, ‘What precisely is unsettling me?’

Nephew: Why? Aren’t we already aware of our concerns?

Uncle: We know we have concerns in general, but only by observing each one specifically, by making that mental list, do I realise that my health is in my thoughts, as are the bills, and other things.

Nephew: Your point?

Uncle: Sometimes we feel unsettled, or grumpy, or anxious, and don’t know why. Even after we have labelled the emotion we don’t know why we are feeling that way. That’s when we need to look a little deeper. We need to uncover the hidden thoughts behind the emotion.

Nephew: You’re really into knowing what you feel, aren’t you?

Uncle: Yep. Here’s another example. 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? This morning I became testy with someone visiting. It was 11.30am and I had done nothing important.

Nephew: You fiend.

Uncle: I thought about why I was testy. I realised I had been worrying about being unproductive. All morning, thoughts about being unproductive had been clamouring to be heard and I hadn’t listened to them. But the anxiety that resulted from having those thoughts was there, and it was that anxiety that prompted me to flare up.

Nephew: I get you.

Uncle: When I became aware of my concerns about being unproductive I felt a little better. The concerns clamouring for my attention had finally been heard. I relaxed, and made the person feel welcome.

Nephew: You’re still a fiend.

Uncle: The point is: when we listen to our deeper concerns we can relax a little.

Nephew: Like when we are a hundred kilometres from home and figure out we have left the stove on?

Uncle. Ah. Well, no. Not in that instance. But in the example I gave you, I could go deeper. I could ask myself, ‘Why do I feel anxious about being unproductive? What do I fear?’

Nephew: What might your answer be, Uncle Think-Too-Much?

Uncle: It might be ‘My self worth depends on me accomplishing the task I have set myself, and when I procrastinate, the further I am from earning my self worth.’ If that answer is correct I could go even deeper.  You get the idea.

Nephew: Not really. I still don’t know why it is important to list our concerns if we feel unsettled.

Uncle: Once we observe and listen to those concerns, they might cease nagging us, and become less intense.

Nephew: Unless you’ve left the stove on.

Uncle: Unless we have left the stove on, yes. Plus, we increase our chances of addressing them.

Nephew:To sum up . . .?

Uncle: When we are grumpy for no particular reason, or feeling stressed for no particular reason, or feel 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

Uncle: Water diviners believe that if they hold a switch a certain way . . .

Nephew: What’s a switch?

Uncle: A flexible shoot cut from a tree. They believe . . .

Nephew: What’s a water diviner?

Uncle: For goodness sake. It’s someone who uses a switch to find underground water. If there is water below where they stand their switch bends downwards.

Nephew: Uncle Alan found water on his farm that way. But he used a coat-hanger.

Uncle: A coat-hanger?

Nephew: When he wasn’t using it as a car arial.

Uncle: That’s enough about your uncle Alan. 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 in Australia they receive $100,000. If they pass the test in the U.S.A. they get a million dollars and free publicity if they want it.

Nephew: And?

Uncle: No one has yet passed the test.

Nephew: Is the test fair?

Uncle: Judge for yourself: 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.

Nephew: Do they get the money?

Uncle: The diviners are then taken away out of sight and three of the drums are replaced with empty drums. Can you see what’s coming?

Nephew: I think so. Are the diviners 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. Is that correct?

Uncle: Well done.

Nephew: Well, they know their switch works with the drums, so it should be easy for them.

Uncle: You would think so, given their initial success. Yet, not one diviner has successfully discerned which drums held water and which didn’t – not above levels expected by chance. One diviner accused the Skeptic officials of cheating, but was silenced when three full drums and three empty drums were revealed.

Nephew: Would the sceptics’ negativity interfere with the diviners’ detecting powers?

Uncle: Their switches worked well when they knew all six drums held water, and the sceptics were just as sceptical then.

Nephew: Fair point.

Uncle: Here’s the interesting bit: despite their failure, not one diviner could be persuaded that they could not divine water! They continued to hold their beliefs.

Nephew: Why?

Uncle: Because they had an emotionalbelief in their abilities. If you have an emotional belief in something, almost nothing will change your mind. There are even names for it: Belief Perseverance,  and Conceptual Conservatism. That’s when you maintain a belief even though plenty of information firmly contradicts it. Such beliefs may even be strengthenedwhen they are debunked. That’s a phenomenon known as ‘the backfire effect’.

Nephew: Emotional beliefs? Do you mean irrational beliefs?

Uncle: I mean emotionalbeliefs. Consider: 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.

Nephew. I’ve heard of that. It’s called ‘imprinting’. The foal learns its mother’s smell, too.

Uncle: If in a cruel experiment you were to place a billboard advertisement for a can of cola in front the foal for the first two days of its life, that foal would develop a strong emotionalattachment to the billboard. It would feelthat the billboard was its mother.

Nephew: You’re a sicko.

Uncle: Think of a horror film. Rationally you know the person being chased is an actor, and the monster, special effects, yet silently you scream ‘Run!’ because you emotionally believe the person is in danger.

Nephew: That’s an irrational belief.

Uncle: No, an irrational belief would be to believe it is real footage of people being killed by a monster. Your fear for the actor is an emotionalbelief, because you believe it not with your intellect, but with your emotions. Do you believe in Santa Claus?

Nephew: Hardly.

Uncle: Yet, you have an emotional belief in him, because you were raised with the belief that he actually existed. Yes, that belief vanished, but the emotionalbelief in him remains. That is why retailers use Santa in their advertisements. Santa sells. And that’s okay, because Santa is a good character to have around. And water divining is unimportant; just a harmless self-delusion.

Nephew: Hey, hey, my uncle Alan was good at it! He found water.

Uncle: That’s not surprising. Three quarters of Australia has underground water. If you dig, there is a good chance you will find it.

Nephew: Oh.

Uncle: Besides, a water diviner would intuitively look in the more likely areas.

Nephew: Unless you’re the idiot in that nursery rhyme.

Uncle: What nursery rhyme?

Nephew: Jack and Jill went up the hill to fetch a pale of water.

Uncle: What about it?

Nephew: Who would dig a well on top of a hill? You’d have to be an idiot.

Uncle: For goodness sake. Yes, alright. There are . . .

Nephew: Though I have to admit, whoever had that dumb idea got it right. There was water in that well. That’s why Jack and Jill headed up there.

Uncle: Yes, but . . .

Nephew: Maybe the person who dug that well was a water diviner.

Uncle: Will you shut up about water divining?!

Nephew: You brought it up! You said . . .

Uncle: Yes, I know what I said, and I deeply regret it. I’m just trying to say that there are lots of different ways to have emotional beliefs, and most are harmless. The trouble occurs when we have disablingemotional beliefs.

Nephew: Like what?

Uncle: Like when we have strong but unrealistic beliefs in how things should be. That can lead to disappointment and anxiety. And, some people grow up feeling 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.

Nephew: Why would that be limiting?

Uncle: 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.

Nephew: So how do we get rid of disabling emotional beliefs?

Uncle: We don’t. 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.

Nephew: But why is that belief comfortable? If someone thinks they’re dumb or ugly, why don’t they jump at the chance to have their mind changed?

Uncle: When we have a thought it connects neurons in our brain, along which a signal is transmitted. Have that thought often enough and you will create a well-worn, comfortable pathway. Soon it becomes so easy to use that pathway that 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.

Nephew: That’s why I reckon no child should be imprinted with a prejudice or religious belief. Each of us should have the freedom to form our own philosophies.

Uncle: You certainly are aware of imprinted beliefs!

Nephew: I just don’t call them emotional beliefs.

Uncle: We can even have two pathways supporting contrary beliefs. That’s called ‘cognitive dissonance’. 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.

Nephew: How badly can we be disabled by an emotional belief?

Uncle: How would a child feel if he were brought up to believe that homosexuality is evil and unnatural, then discovered he was gay? How would an overweight child feel being brought up in a world in which fat is considered bad? How would a child struggling academically feel living in a world that mocks stupidity? Yes, some emotional beliefs can be pretty disabling.

Nephew: Fair enough.

Uncle: We can even acquire a disabling belief by placing our complete trust in someone.

Nephew: Like . . .?

Uncle: 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.

Nephew: Where is the spaceship now?

Uncle: (Sigh)

Nephew: If we can’t get rid of our disabling emotional beliefs, what do we do?

Uncle: We can become aware of them.

Nephew: Is that all? We won’t get rid of disabling beliefs just by being aware of them.

Uncle: We’re not aiming to get rid of them; we’re aiming to undermine their influence upon us. Awareness has a lot going for it! If that zebra foal 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.

Nephew: For example?

Uncle: If someone felt it would be catastrophic to be disliked by others, but realised that may only be an emotional belief, then that person might find it easier to behave in a less needy and less sycophantic way. And feel more confident about themselves.

Nephew: Okay.

Uncle: Or, let’s say you like someone but think you’re not worthy of their company.

Nephew: Happens all the time.

Uncle: Although that belief feels right and true to you, 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, you’re not worthy!’ you would approach the person anyway.

Nephew: I see.

Uncle: The point is: 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.

Nephew: Let’s say I like someone, but my emotional belief says I am not worthy of asking her out. You’re suggesting I should ignore that warning and ask her out anyway. But there is a very good chance the belief was right, and I’ll be rejected.

Uncle: True. But it was the right decision to ask her out.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 ask. And at the very least, by asking, we are not letting our emotional beliefs direct our life.

Nephew: Even if they’re often right?

Uncle: Yes, even if they are often right. By being aware of them and choosing to ignore them, we begin to trust ourselves and the direction we are taking in life. That’s gold.

Nephew: So, I should ask out a super model? Is that what you’re saying?

Uncle: Do you know her?

Nephew: No.

Uncle: Then no. I’m not suggesting you abandon commonsense, for goodness sake.

Nephew: Oh.

Uncle: But if you knew her, and liked her for the person she is, then yes.

Nephew: Oh.

Uncle: I’m just saying, the next time you feel hopeless or stupid, or poor, or defective, or better than someone else, remind yourself that it’s just an emotional belief, even though it feels right. Then make the right decision, even if it feels wrong.

Nephew: Speaking of models, you could be a male model.

Uncle: What?

Nephew: It says in my dictionary: ‘model: small imitation of the real thing’.

Uncle: Clear off!

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 would change your mind? What evidence would you require?
Q2. If someone challenges that belief, do you try to prove the person wrong?
Q3. Do you become more irritated the more your belief is challenged?
Q4. When someone questions your point of view do you tend to go off on a tangent? Do you avoid the question? Answer a different question?
Q5. Do you search for information to support your view, and ignore information that contradicts it?
Q6. Does your intuition tell you that you are right? Do you ‘just know’ that it’s true?

Step 3. If your answer to the first question was ‘nothing could change your mind’, there’s a good chance it’s an emotional belief. That doesn’t mean your belief is wrong, but at least you now know it’s an emotional belief.
  How did you go in the other questions? If you do immediately look for evidence to prove why the other person is wrong, or if you do become irritated, or avoid the question, 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 4. If it is an emotional belief, is it undermining you? Is it making you look like a goose? Is it preventing you from maturing? Is it wasting your time and 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 familiar emotional belief kicking in.’

2. Make a 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.

Question: 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 our 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 that 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 them.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.

Nephew: I have a friend who keeps telling me what I ought to do. I find her behaviour irritating.

Uncle: Your friend assumes she knows what is best for you because she bases her opinion on what she values in life, not on what you value. What do you think of the following statement: ‘I should study if I want to pass the test.’

Nephew: Commonsense.

Uncle: Yes. The word should is appropriate. However, we also grow up adopting beliefs based not on common sense, but on values. Those beliefs can be unrealistic and unhelpful. When we express our values we need to be careful with the words should, ought, or must.

Nephew: I have no idea what you are talking about.

Uncle: 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.

Nephew: An example might help.

Uncle: Julie dates men with firm beliefs about how men should behave: ‘Men should pay for the first date. Men shouldn’t 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.

Nephew: I think I’ve met her.

Uncle: 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.

Nephew: I see.

‘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’.

Uncle: 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.’

Nephew: I think I’ve met Bob too.

Uncle: 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 expectsother people to act according to his values and expectations, he has a problem.

Nephew: Sounds like it.

Uncle: 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.

Nephew: Are you suggesting we stop using those words, should, ought and must?

Uncle: In most situations, yes. 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 is violated.

Nephew: Where does this leave Bob?

Uncle: Bob has a choice. He can stick with his shoulds and oughts and musts, or he can rephrase his statements as suggestions or preferences.

Nephew: Go on.

Uncle: 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 frustrated and disheartened, because people aren’t acting in accordance with his values.

Nephew: Option B?

Uncle: Option B: ‘Gosh, it would be nice if people cleaned up after themselves.’

Nephew: That’s it?

Uncle: That preference will reduce the intensity of his dismay, because he isn’t demanding that other people behave in the way he expects. He understands 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 frustrated, Bob will merely feel disappointed.

Nephew: Good on him.

Uncle: Someone speaks to Bob rudely. He has two options on how to respond. Option A: ‘You must speak to me more respectfully.’ Option B: ‘Speak to me respectfully.’

Nephew: What’s the difference?

Uncle: B is the better option because Option A is not true. There is no must. So, instead of demanding the other person to be respectful, and leaving himself open to having his demands ignored, Bob is focusing on directly telling the person his preference. In other words, instead of expecting people to speak to him respectfully, he lets them know that is his preference.

Nephew: If he said ‘please’?

Uncle: Then he would increase his chance of having his preference complied with.

Nephew: The other guy might still refuse to comply with Bob’s request.

Uncle: 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.

Nephew: Alright.

Uncle: Bob is giving his spendthrift adult son advice.

Nephew: Not Bob again? Gosh, he’s a worry.

Uncle: Option A: ‘You ought to save money for things important.’ Option B: ‘I suggest you save your money for things important.’

Nephew: Option B?

Uncle: Option B is a big improvement. By making it a suggestion Bob forces 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.

Nephew: All that from a little change in a sentence?

Uncle: 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.

Nephew: Brilliant.

Uncle: Not only that, if we don’t believe that people should behave the way we expect, we will probably waste less time and energy trying to change them. That’s always good for a relationship.

Nephew: I understand what you are saying, but that preference idea sounds weak. I’d much rather tell someone they must stop treating me badly than telling them I’d prefer it.

Uncle: Ditch both words. Simply say, ‘Stop treating me badly.’ It’s not an expectation, it’s a preference framed as a direction.

Nephew: My sister Susan expects her grotty housemate to help keep their place tidy. If she dumped her should and make it just a preference, she would end up living in a grotty, cluttered household. She wouldn’t want that.

Uncle: 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 values, 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.

Nephew: That doesn’t mean her problem will get solved.

Uncle: But she will feel better about the situation. Besides, she will have a better chance of solving the problem calm and clearheaded than being 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.

Nephew: I’ll suggest it to her.

Uncle: I’m suggesting you 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.

Nephew: I’ll give it a go. Maybe. I’ll probably forget.

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

Nephew: I guess I should leave now if I want to catch the train home.

Uncle. Yes.

Nephew: . . . Should?

Uncle: In that context the use of the word should is fine, because your statement is a fact, not a value. Besides, you don’t have to follow my advice.

Nephew: Good point. Why start now.

Uncle: I’ll drive you to the station to make sure you catch that train.

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.

Uncle: The last time we spoke I said we should . . . 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.

Nephew. That’s correct. You did say that. You also said a woman invented it.

Uncle: Karen Horney in 1939.

Nephew: What about it?

Uncle: Well, we can also drop the shoulds about ourselves.

Nephew: I saw that coming, believe it or not.

Uncle: Well, I don’t believe it. 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.’

Nephew: I can see a problem with the last sentence. I can’t see why you should be liked by people.

Uncle: What?

Nephew: You’re not conjugating the substantive verbs?

Uncle: No! Look, if Harold believes he should be liked, but isn’t liked, then he is going to feel hurt, confused, and resentful, isn’t he?

Nephew: It serves him right. I don’t like him either.

Uncle: For goodness sake, stop these silly jokes! My point is: we can become disheartened when our expectations are not met.

Nephew: Should I take you seriously, or would you prefer it?

Uncle: That’s a good distinction. It appears my time with you isn’t completely wasted.

Nephew: Not completely, no.

Uncle: Look, I’ve had enough of your cheek.

Nephew: Plenty more to come.

Uncle: (Sigh) When we have shoulds and oughts about ourselves we can replace them with aims or preferences or coulds.  Instead of saying, ‘I should always be polite’, what might you say?

Nephew: ‘I aim to be polite.’

Uncle: Yes. That’s more realistic, and you are not setting yourself up for failure.

Nephew: ‘I could be polite.’

Uncle: Yes, That works too. How about the sentence, ‘I should always do things well.’

Nephew: ‘I aim to do things well.’

Uncle: Good! That’s a more sensible, realistic approach. Not everything needs to be done well. And you have avoided the exaggeration of ‘always’. Plus, if the job isn’t done well you will find it easier to accept the result. Less resentment, less anxiety.

Nephew: Wow.

Uncle: Sarcasm noted. How about, ‘I should lose weight.’

Nephew: I didn’t want to say anything, but now that you’ve brought it up . . .

Uncle: Modify the sentence!

Nephew: ‘I aim to lose weight.’

Uncle: Yes. It’s a better sentence. More empowering.

Nephew: But what if the speaker of the sentence has no real intention of actually trying to lose the weight?

Uncle: Fair point. They 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. How about the sentence, ’I must not stand out.’

Nephew: ‘I would prefer to not stand out.’

Uncle: Very good! 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. How about the sentence, ‘I shouldn’t feel this way.’

Nephew: ’I am feeling this way’?

Uncle: Yes, a much better option! The speaker is accepting the feeling. Good work!

Nephew: This is pretty simple stuff you know.

Uncle: That’s true. It is simple. The hard part is remembering to omit the shoulds, oughts and musts from our speech in day-to-day life. But when we get into the habit of avoiding those words we become more relaxed and easygoing. As a result, we reduce our capacity to become anxious and add to our core happiness.

Nephew: We’ll see. Now, about that weight you want to lose . . .

Uncle: Clear off!

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 mustsyou have adopted about yourself.

Exercise 3
In life, keep an eye out for your shoulds, oughts and musts. Retract your statement and rephrase it.
  If you find yourself becoming exasperated, frustrated, angry, resentful, jealous or despairing, that’s a strong signal that you have an imperative in your thought. Look for the should and question it.
– If you feel resentful when no one expresses interest in your project, look for your should.
– If you feel overwhelmed by the work you must do, look for your should.
– If you find yourself despairing when someone isn’t as loving as you would like, 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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What makes you angry?

Uncle: What makes you angry?

Nephew: . . . Traffic jams.

Uncle: Wrong answer.

Nephew: Here we go.

Uncle: Traffic jams don’t make you angry. You become angry in traffic jams.

Nephew: Yep. Fair enough. If you want to split hairs.

Uncle: You can nod your head and say you knew that already, but I bet you often say things like, ‘That makes me angry’ instead of saying, ‘I feel angry with that.’ And ‘That makes me happy’ instead of ‘I feel happy with that.’ Our language gives us away. It indicates that most of us do believe on some level that what happens in the outside world creates our emotions.

Nephew: It’s just semantics. You knew what I meant.

Uncle: I knew what you meant, but there is a big difference between ‘Traffic jams make me angry,’ and ‘I become angry in traffic jams.’ The first statement says the traffic jam makes me angry and the second says I do. Big difference. You undermine yourself when you get it wrong, so it’s not semantics.

Nephew: It’s a harmless figure of speech.

Uncle: It’s not harmless. If you want to grow, that has to change. That figure of speech reinforces your belief that incidents in your life make you happy, or unhappy, or whatever. The truth is: the outside world does notcreate our emotions. We do. And we should say so when we speak. When I asked you what makes you angry, the only correct answer you could have given me was, ‘I do.’  What makes you jealous? ‘I do’.  What I makes you fearful? ‘I do.’ You create all your emotions, and for your life to run more smoothly you need to fully accept that. And, to fully accept that, you need to change the words you use.

‘If we are careless with our words we will be careless with our thoughts.’
Andrew Toth.

Nephew: What’s the big deal? Even if I make myself angry, who cares? I’m still angry. Or are you suggesting I shouldn’t get angry, or feel fearful, or feel jealous?

Uncle: No, I’m not saying that. You might have a good reason to feel those emotions, but you do need to be aware that you create them.

Nephew: Why? Why is that important?

Uncle: If we go through life believing that the outside world makes us angry, or jealous, or joyful, or whatever, we disempower ourselves. We become like a pinball in a pinball machine, reacting to whatever stimulus we happen to encounter: ‘Oh, that makes me angry!’ ‘What you said hurt my feelings!’ Can you see how disempowering those statements are?

Nephew: I guess.

Uncle: But as I have said to you before, when we fully realise that we create our distress we also realise that we are the solution to it. We start to draw upon our resources, and focus on what needs to change – in us, or in the situation. Or, we might decide the situation isn’t worth getting upset about. Either way, we start to handle that traffic jam, because we know the traffic jam isn’t causing our distress, we are.

Nephew: But if there were no traffic jam I wouldn’t get angry.

Uncle: Yes, of course. That doesn’t change the fact it’s your thoughts about the traffic jam that create the anger. Thoughts create chemicals in your brain to make you feel angry. A different set of thoughts would create different emotions. It’s your thoughts about the traffic jam that make you angry; not the traffic jam itself.

Nephew: So we need to change our thoughts?

Uncle: No, that’s way too difficult . Simply be aware that you create your emotions. That’s all. It’s the awareness which is important, because when you have that awareness – when you fully understand that you are responsible for how you feel – you will realise just how much power you have. And you gain the inner authority we have talked about. And, automatically, you begin to deal with the situation.

Nephew: What power would I have in a traffic jam?

Uncle: Knowing that you are creating your distress, you might ask yourself questions like, ‘I feel angry. Why do I get angry in heavy traffic? What buttons are being pressed? Why do I get angry in traffic jams when my friend doesn’t? What can I do to become less angry?’ See how empowering those questions are? But if you blame the traffic jam for making you angry you become a wus, feeling powerless and upset, and every time there is a traffic jam you will continue to get angry. Nothing will change.

Nephew: I know someone learning Spanish. At every red traffic light she learns a new word.

Uncle: There you go!

Nephew: Olé!

Uncle: We develop coping skills as we mature, but if we blame incidents for our distress, those coping skills atrophy, and we succumb. If we believe the outside world is causing our distress, we are at its mercy. That’s a pretty lame position to put ourselves in.

Nephew: So, what are you suggesting?

Uncle: Fully accept that you create your emotions. We all need to. And the best way to do that is to change our language.

Nephew: To what? Spanish?

Uncle: Get in the habit of saying, ‘I feel angry with that,’ instead of ‘That makes me angry’. ‘I feel hurt with what Jack said,’ instead of ‘Jack hurt my feelings’. Can you see the difference?

Nephew: Sort of. But if Jack says something nasty and I feel hurt, why isn’t Jack to blame for how I feel?

Uncle: Yes, Jack created the incident and should be held accountable, and you created the hurt.  It’s easy to blame Jack-the-jerk because you feel miserable, but blame him only for what he did, not for how you feel.

Nephew: I dunno . . .

Uncle: And don’t blame yourself for the misery you feel, either. Although you create your distress that does not mean you are to blame for your distress. Blaming yourself for being hurt, or angry, or jealous, is a cop out. All self-blame is a cop-out. There is a big difference between self-blame and taking responsibility. When you are in the habit of taking responsibility, you develop that feeling that whatever happens – that whatever Jack-the-jerk does – you will handle it.

Nephew: I guess so.

Uncle: See the difference? The phrase, ‘Jack hurt my feelings’ is weak and disempowering: Jack says something and ‘makes you feel hurt.’ Jack can play you like a puppet! But if instead you knew that you felt hurt with what Jack said, you then realise that the power rests with you. You can then focus on dealing with the hurt, and look for ways to prevent yourself from becoming hurt again.

Nephew: Like what?

Uncle: You can start asking questions like, ‘Why did I feel hurt after Jack said that? Which of my insecurities has been breached? Which of my shoulds has been violated? Why is Jack trying to hurt my feelings? How will I express my hurt?’

Nephew: Can I punch his lights out?

Uncle: The next time Jack is a jerk you will have a better chance of coping. Jack might even give up trying to hurt your feelings because he will have lost his power over you. Or more accurately, you have regained your power. By realising that you create the hurt, you have empowered yourself.

Nephew: Can you stop using the word ‘empowering’? It’s irritating. . . . No, wait. I become irritated.

Uncle: Well done! Good work! Now let’s say you become anxious when you encounter a spider.

Nephew: A rock spider?

Uncle: A huntsman spider. You can either blame the spider for making you anxious, and keep fearing spiders every time you encounter one; or, you can acknowledge the fact that you are creating that fear.

Nephew: That second option.

Uncle: Yes. Not, ‘Spiders scare me’ but, ‘I become frightened when I see spiders.’

Nephew: Tell me again, how does that help?

Uncle: By accepting that you are creating the fear, and not the spider, you will be more likely to take steps to become less anxious with spiders in the future, and increase your confidence with them.

Nephew: Okay.

Uncle: Which approach is the more empowering? Which view will decrease your anxiety? Which view will prevent you from growing?

Nephew: Yeah okay. But there are stressful occupations. Doesn’t that mean we are stressed by outside forces?

Uncle: Yes, those occupations have stress triggers, but it’s the person who becomes stressed. There are people in those occupations who remain unstressed. If you accept that you are creating the stress you will look for ways to feel less stressed. But if you assume it’s the job making you stressed, nothing will change.

Nephew: Let’s say I have something important stolen and I feel unhappy about the theft. What am I supposed to do? Blame myself for the distress I feel?

Uncle: Blame the thief for the theft, but not for how you feel. The thief can’t force you to think or feel anything. If you blame the thief for making you feel unhappy, it might be a while before you get over the incident. That’s because you have no control over the thief, or the theft, and that power imbalance will remain. And certainly don’t blame yourself for how you feel. That’s a cop-out. Just tell yourself, ‘I’m creating my distress.’ That’s all you have to do.

Nephew: That’s it?

Uncle: If you make that observation each time you feel distress, over time your life will change.

Nephew: In what way?

Uncle: When you fully accept that the source of your anger is you, and not the other guy, you will feel more in control of your life. You will feel more confident and more self-assured. In that calmer state of mind you might even find a solution to your problem.

Nephew: To the theft?

Uncle: To your distress.

Nephew: Hang on! So, if I’m being tortured I just have to remember, ‘the torture isn’t creating my misery, I am.’ Is that what you’re suggesting?

Uncle: No one could have that resolve, but that’s the idea. In day-to-day life it’s an easy habit to acquire.

Nephew: That’s awful! A girl gets raped and you’re saying it’s not the rapist who makes her upset, but her thoughts about it?! That’s shocking! Do we let the rapist go free? Because according to you, his actions didn’t make her feel upset!

Uncle: But . . .

Nephew: Should we be telling victims they are making themselves upset? Of course not! Many victims can’t stop blaming themselves! Your advice will only reinforce their self-blame. If someone believes they are creating their own misery it could set them back even further. Your philosophy sucks!

Uncle: Initially yes, we can blame the thief or rapist for the misery we feel. We can feel the outrage, and the resentment. That’s an important part of healing. However, when we are ready we need to stop blaming the perpetrator for the pain we feel, and acknowledge that we are creating the pain.

Nephew: That’s not fair!

Uncle: The perpetrator created the incident, and we can always blame them for that, but it is an inescapable fact that we create the pain. We create all our emotions. It’s not an opinion; it’s not a philosophy; it’s fact. All I’m suggesting you do is at some stage acknowledge that fact.

Nephew: Now you’re saying ‘at some stage’.

Uncle: If I were attacked, blaming my attackers for my distress would be a far healthier response than employing my philosophy, I agree. But do I maintain my anger for the rest of my life?

Nephew: . . . Maybe not.

Uncle: I would have to at some point let the blame and anger go. When that moment does come, when I am finally ready to make that choice, that’s the time to acknowledge to myself that I am creating my pain.

Nephew: What you are saying is rubbish. When my cat was run over I was pretty upset. Are you saying Chugga’s death didn’t upset me?

Uncle: I’m saying you were upset. You became upset when Chugga died.

Nephew: His death didn’t upset me?

Uncle: That’s right. His death didn’t upset you. You became upset with his death.

Nephew: Whatever way you put it, I felt upset.

Uncle: To be expected. The aim isn’t to eradicate unwanted emotions, it’s to help us deal with them. If you fully understand that your distress is in your hands you will learn to experience the pain without being broken by it. You will know that you will at some point come to terms with your grief, because you are the source of it. That knowledge gives you that inner authority I’ve talked about. It leads to resilience.

Nephew: Even though I might be terribly upset?’

Uncle: There will be tears, but you will experience the pain without the panic, without the yawning abyss.

Nephew: So it’s not about getting rid of the unwanted emotions? I only have to be aware that I create them? And the best way to do that is to change my language?

Uncle: Correct. That’s why I’m suggesting that from now on say, ‘I feel upset with what Jack did’ instead of saying ‘Jack made me upset’. It will be awkward at first, but when you develop the habit you will benefit.

Nephew: I don’t even know a Jack. But when I meet one I’ll punch his lights out.

Uncle: That’s the spirit!

Exercise 1. 
Both sentences express what we mean, but only one says the truth. Which one?
‘That stresses me out’   or    ‘I feel stressed.’
‘I become angry with what my spouse says.’    or    ‘My spouse makes me angry.’
’Seeing cruelty upsets me.’   or    ‘I become upset when I see cruelty.’
‘That gets up my nose.’     or      ‘I don’t like that.’
‘I became irritated by his antics.’  or     ‘I became irritated with his antics.’
‘The accident ruined my life.’  or  ‘I feel that my life is ruined.’
‘Her jokes make me laugh.’   or    ‘I find her jokes funny.’
‘I feel annoyed by that.’    or    ‘I feel annoyed with that.’
‘I feel hurt with what you said.’  or   ‘I am hurt by what you said.’
‘I am puzzled by your decision.’   or   ‘I am puzzled with your decision.’
‘Her mocking led him to cry.’   or    ‘He cried after she mocked him.’
‘It pleased His Majesty.’  or   ‘His Majesty was pleased with it.’
‘He was crushed by the decision.’   or   ‘He felt crushed when he heard the decision.’
‘You offended me with your comment.’  or    ‘I’m offended by your comment.’  or  ‘I found your comment offensive.’

Yes, the incorrect sentences above are well used and well accepted in society, and we know what the speaker means. Nevertheless, when we use them they reinforce our belief that outside forces create our emotions. Consider not using those old, misleading sentences. Or if you use one and notice it, rephrase it. Your friends will barely notice the difference.

Exercise 2.
From the previous exercise did you notice the difference a few words can make? For example:
‘I am pleased withit.’  versus  ‘I am pleased byit.’

  How would you rephrase the following sentences?
‘You make me feel worthless.’

‘You make me so annoyed.’

‘Winning the lottery would make me happy.’

‘I was hurt by what you said.’

‘It makes him mad when she does that.’

‘He does that to make her feel jealous.’

‘It irritates him.’

‘She makes him feel special.’

‘Philosophy interests him.’

‘He was unnerved by the question.’

When we are in the habit of accurately phrasing our sentences, and automatically say things like, ‘I feel angry with what she did’ instead of ‘She makes me angry’, then we come to fully accept that we create our emotions. Then, instead of blaming ourselves for those emotions, or being tossed about by them, we develop the resources for responding to them. We increase our capacity to ‘handle whatever happens in life’, and increase our resilience. That adds to our feeling of being safe, and therefore, to our core happiness.

Exercise 3.
You have correctly chosen to say, ‘I get the willies when I see a blowfly’ instead of ‘Blowflies give me the willies.’ What questions might you then ask yourself?

If you need a hint, here are three examples:
1. Instead of saying, ‘Jill makes me nervous,’ try instead ‘I become nervous when Jill is around.’ That places the focus on you so that you can ask yourself: ‘What is it about Jill that prompts me to make myself nervous? What is it about me that is sensitive? What can I do to alleviate my nervousness in future?’

2. Instead of ‘He made me angry’, try ‘I became angry with what he did’. Then you can ask questions such as: ‘Was I justified in becoming angry? Or was I too touchy? How can I deal with my anger so that it disturbs me less? How can I use my anger to make a positive change?’

3. Instead of ‘That stresses me out’ try ‘I become stressed when that happens.’  You can ask yourself questions like: ‘Should I in future avoid a situation like this? Do other people get this stressed, or is it just me? If so, why is it just me? Is my stress justified? What can I do to relieve this stress? Or prevent it?’

When a person truly accepts that the ‘ball is in their court’ the person draws upon their resources to deal with the emotions they are feeling. But someone who believes that the world has to change before they can feel okay again will continue to feel powerless. Because most of the time the world won’t change.

  Knowing ‘the ball is in your court’ empowers you. The more power you feel, the less anxious you become and the more resilient you are.

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