People often say to me that ‘this’ or ‘that’ things upset them; that they can’t possibly be happy until someone else changes; or that their problems today stem from something that happened much earlier in life.
All these things may be a little bit true and of course experience contributes to our beliefs and attitudes, but experience doesn’t have to define us nor prod our emotions if we’d rather it didn’t. Attributing our moods, feelings or even our (lack of) of self-esteem to the judgements of others or events outside ourselves is a handy delusion which is useful as a buffer. It protects us for a time and satisfies the common need to blame when things go wrong. But it is no solution to feeling unhappy or upset, and the more we do it the more our feelings seem to control us.
You can change this. The method is quite simple though it requires practice. I’ve also found, that when people are shown how to change a feelings they are often unwilling to do it. They’d rather hang on to the bad feeling, it seems, than take a step towards changing.
How to do it…
As Shakespeare said: “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” (Hamlet, Scene 2). An important first step is to realise that it is thoughts and attitudes that stoke our feelings, not external events. You can learn to change the way you think you can learn to change your feelings and a lot more besides.
Here’s how. Think of an event that bugs you. For example, you let someone out in traffic and they don’t thank you, or you ask someone to do something for you, and they fail to do it. It doesn’t matter what you choose – examples are all around us – it can be anything that triggers a negative response in you; a feeling you don’t like.
Now think of how you explain the event to yourself: “They obviously didn’t thank me because they’re rude”; “Time and again I ask them and they let me down. They just don’t care/respect me/think I’m important.” etc. You see, it is the interpretation of events that causes the upset, not the event itself.
We are all different and we are not all upset by the same things. Each of us fashions our own individual values, beliefs and attitudes, and it is these that colour our interpretation of the things that happen to us. One person will get angry because someone doesn’t thank them, another will forget it and move on. One puts it down to rudeness, another to absent-mindedness or some other explanation that doesn’t upset them. As David Burns says: “The way you feel results entirely from the way you think about (a situation)”.
If something upsets you, step back and generate some alternative explanations. This is where the practice comes in. This is a choice, you don’t have to do it. But once you know it can you really hold others responsible for how you feel?
David Burns, The Feeling Good Handbook.