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If You’re Feeling Despair

Handling negative emotions

If your faith in our country and our people is shaken, if you see this terrible reversal as a catastrophe about which you can do nothing, please remember: now you are needed in a way you would never have been needed if nothing had gone wrong. We need your good efforts, your willingness to work to uphold what is right and what is compassionate. We need your good sense, to point the way when many compasses will be spinning and useless. We need your patience, to wait until this has passed so that we can pick up the pieces and move on, but we also need your stubbornness, your unwillingness to be plowed under by ignorance and hate, your best ideas and strongest convictions, your anxieties made into understanding, your hopelessness made into acceptance.

Thank you for being willing to hold fast onto the things you can protect and to make those small gains that may be possible. I know you may want to crawl under a rock for four years and come back out when this is over. I would love to join you there. But we can’t, because now we have work to do, and it is time to get started.


PS – If you’re having a really bad day and could use some ideas on how to turn it around, here are some suggestions gleaned from psychological research: How to Stop Having a Bad Day.

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The Hidden Nature of Wanting Things

Handling negative emotions


Here’s a realization that stopped me in my tracks recently: sometimes, when I crave something, what I really desire is not the thing itself, but for the need for it to go away.

Maybe that sounds like two versions of the same thing, but when I reflect that there are often a lot of ways to making a need for something go away without getting the thing itself, then the game begins to change.

To take an easy example: if I want a glass of water, what I really probably want more than the sensation of the water going down my throat is the cessation of my thirst.

In that example, of course, drinking the water is probably the best thing I can do, but what if the thing I want to do is to eat something unhealthy or do something I’ll later regret or act in anger because of negative feelings? In these cases, it would be ideal to stop feeling the need for the thing by some means other than getting what I think I want.

The good news is that there are alternatives that will often make a need or craving go away: for example, meditation or a frank discussion with a supportive friend or family member can often settle an angry or frightened mood, focusing attention on something else can often distract us from an unhealthy or unhelpful activity, and there are at least a couple of dozen of ways to get around being hungry.

The problem I run into, myself, is that I often get caught up in wanting the thing and don’t realize that I just want the need for it to stop. When this happens, anything that may make the need diminish seems like self-denial. Although I may be actually accomplishing what will make me most happy (making the craving go away), my internal commentary insists I’m preventing myself from getting what I want, from getting the object of my craving. This makes me think of a healthy redirection as a fight with myself, and instead of gravitating toward the best choice, I struggle.

I don’t think it’s the case that we always just want the cessation of a need, though I guess somebody could make a case for that. For instance, when I want to listen to music, it doesn’t seem to me that I’d usually be just as happy if the desire for hearing music went away. To use this idea, I’ll have to distinguish between times it applies and times it doesn’t.

Whether the insight will actually prove valuable for me or not, I don’t know, but I’d like to think that it will help me from time to time when I’m having trouble deciding between an appealing option and a healthier but less flashy one, to understand what that decision is really about and act accordingly.

Photo by Bart.

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Why People Won’t Apologize

Handling negative emotions


There was an interesting story by Shankar Vedantam on NPR’s All Things Considered this morning about a new study on apologies: “Why Not Apologizing Makes You Feel Better.” Most of us have been given to believe that apologizing makes things better for the apologizer as well as the apologizee, but participants in this study tended to feel better about themselves when they flat out refused to apologize.

From that factoid we might begin to think that apologizing isn’t such a great idea after all–until we start digging a little deeper. Of course, if not apologizing makes a person feel more empowered, then it makes perfect sense that it’s often hard to get people to apologize even in life-or-death situations, like when two ethnic groups can’t make peace because one won’t apologize for what they’ve done to the other.

So feeling better in the short term is all very nice, but in the longer term not apologizing hurts relationships, loses support and understanding, and creates grudges.

That alone might be enough to keep us in the apologizing mindset, but another fact is especially striking: the people who aren’t willing to apologize tend to be the people who are more insecure or who feel more threatened in the first place. So apologizing may make us feel less empowered, but it tends to mean that we already are more empowered.

To put it another way, apologizing makes us vulnerable, and as Brené Brown points out in the TED talk I mentioned in my last post, we tend to feel like vulnerability makes us weaker–and yet other people often see voluntarily vulnerability as strength.

Not to beat this idea to death, but there are some clear illustrations in what we know about body language. If you’re feeling relaxed and confident, you’re likely to leave the front of your body exposed, physically more vulnerable to harm, by not crossing your arms or holding your hands together. The “crossed arms in front of chest” pose and even the “clasped hands in front of genitals” pose are often used as though they’re “power positions,” yet what they actually communicate–and we tend to pick up on this subconsciously, even if we don’t consciously–is insecurity. If you’re interested, take a look at some of my other articles on body language for more information.

Fun post trivia: in looking for a picture to include with this post, I couldn’t find any clear, Creative Commons-licensed picture of someone apologizing for something. The closest I was able to come was this picture of people doing general apologies to people they didn’t know for no reason having to do with themselves, while wearing paper bags over their heads. (Thanks, Neal Jennings!)

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High Pressure and Losing Streaks

Handling negative emotions

A friend of mine, writer John Murphy, pointed me to this discussion, in which devotees of the computer game Starcraft talk about how they recover after a losing streak. My first thought was that the topic wouldn’t be of much use in terms of looking at how we motivate ourselves in general, because computer games are hardly the same thing as cleaning out the garage or succeeding at our chosen career, right? Fortunately, it didn’t take me long to set myself straight on that count: after all, when we are focused on a goal and are facing obstacles and frustrations, the emotional situation is very similar regardless of whether the obstacles are gaming opponents, inefficient coworkers, or unmarked boxes full of bicycle parts. (See “A Surprising Source of Insight into Self-Motivation: Video Games“)

That’s not to say that I think that all goals are equally praiseworthy. I wouldn’t expect to impress anyone with my skilled movie watching or badminton playing, and while computer games are much like anything else in terms of how motivation works, that doesn’t mean I’d especially recommend that people direct their energies there. Engrossing is not necessarily the same thing as meaningful. With that said, every healthy life has leisure activities, so let’s learn from this one.

A warning: if you do read the discussion I linked to on your own, there may be parts that are completely foreign to you. For instance, in the following passage, I had no idea whatsoever what the author was talking about (although I enjoyed the sense of disorientation that came with that):

When I lost to broods, I checked the rep and knew I needed an observer in his main to see what the hive timing was, when hive was started I threw down a stargate. If I couldnt get an obs in his base, I told myself to start a stargate at the 12 minute mark, and to try to get a third faster.

But enough jargon: to the interesting parts. Many of the suggestions and ideas in the discussion touched on meaningful self-motivation strategies that are supported by research. For example, the gamers in this discussion were very sensitive to losing streaks, as most people tend to be. Streaks can become a burden, or can be used to create more motivation (see “Harnessing a Winning Streak” and “How to Stop Having a Bad Day“).

A couple of things to know about Starcraft (although everything I know about the game I learned from that discussion thread): first, there are different kinds of games, and the highest-pressure option seems to be “Ladder,” which I gather is a highly competitive fight to move up in the rankings. Also, unlike many video games, Starcraft seems to have limited social aspects. A user called Stereo (all participants in the discussion went by user names like this) said

Yea in wc3 if you had a losing streak it didn’t seem to matter at all ’cause I could just go talk to people and jump back into a game and have some laughs …. Here it’s like a ghost town where the only thought is the last game and why you lost.

Some of the insights in the thread (and there were a number of insights from gamers paying attention to their own thoughts and feelings) touched on taking ownership of success, failure, and the emotions that result from those experiences. Qriator said

When I’m losing it’s not because the other guy’s trolling or just way better – it’s because I’m messing up my own build.

This point is a key one: our mood, effectiveness, and resilience are affected enormously by whether we assign blame for a failure to someone else or take responsibility for it ourselves. It’s not intuitive, but taking responsibility for a failure can actually be much less stressful than blaming it on another person or outside forces, because it suggests that we have some control over the situation and might be able to handle it better next time. Focusing on others’ actions is demoralizing and stressful because by and large we have no power to make people act as we think they should. RipeBanana (I know, the names are a little strange for a conversation like this, but bear with me) commented in a similar vein:

I used to get really angry when I lost a game, then get a ton more angry if I lost 2-3 (or 9) games in a row. Then one day, and I am completely serious, I told myself I wouldn’t get mad anymore.

As simple as that – and I no longer rage.

It’s interesting how emotions work. We may have little control over our immediate, initial reaction to an experience, but our emotional state from there on is powerfully influenced by our own thoughts. (See “How emotions work” and “All About Broken Ideas and Idea Repair“).

Several participants in the discussion emphasized the importance of going back to figure out what went wrong, and of concentrating not on winning, but on improving. Terminus said

… by analyze I mean going to the point in the replay that made you lose the game, and remembering to not commit that same mistake again.

You have to get into the mindset that games are no big deal. Points aren’t important, ranking isn’t important, what matters is improving …. once you improve, your ranking will naturally rise.

Jazzman takes a similar approach:

… then I watch the replays of my last couple of losses, pinpoint the earliest possible fix I can make, and proceed to go crush 3 or 4 people in a row.

Both of these players have a good chance of doing better through this process–that is, their loss may mean that they’ll actually win more in the future–because they’re pushing themselves to consciously work in a different way. (See “Practice versus Deliberate Practice“)

The last idea I’ll quote from the thread–although far from the last idea that was suggested there–is from piCKles:

There’s actually a little trick that I learned from a quarterback that I’m going to start using. You wear a rubber band around your wrist and every time you get into a new game, you snap the rubber band. This helps create a trigger in your mind … that every time you snap the rubber band you forget about everything that went wrong with any of the previous games, and that this game is fresh start and a new chance to pull off the winning play or game in this instance.

I’ve never tried this, but it makes perfect sense: any simple reminder to clear our minds and shed any lingering anxieties or anger about previous problems is likely to help us do better at the next thing. For instance, if a person has two job interviews in a row and the first one is a disaster, the ability to “snap back” and approach the second job interview fresh is likely to make a big difference for the better.

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Mental Schemas #18: Punitiveness

Handling negative emotions

This is the 18th of 18 mental schema posts from my series on schema therapy, an approach to addressing negative thinking patterns that was devised by Dr. Jeffrey Young. You can find an introduction to schemas and schema therapy, a list of schemas, and links to other schema articles on The Willpower Engine here.

I have often been severe in the course of my life towards others. That is just. I have done well. Now, if I were not severe towards myself, all the justice that I have done would become injustice. Ought I to spare myself more than others? No! What! I should be good for nothing but to chastise others, and not myself! Why, I should be a blackguard!

— Inspector Javert in Victor Hugo’s novel Les Misérables

The Punitiveness schema is a lifelong conviction that people should suffer if they don’t follow the rules. People with this schema feel the responsibility to be angry and to ensure punishment is given out, whether to family members, employees, acquaintances, strangers, or themselves. They tend to feel they have a strong moral sense and that their insistence on punishment is about justice and fairness, and they have a hard time forgiving other people or forgiving themselves. They don’t generally consider reasonable circumstances that could explain what they see as bad behavior, and the idea that people are imperfect and just make mistakes sometimes doesn’t usually enter into their thinking. The standards applied in a Punitiveness schema are usually pretty high, too. Wiggle room is a foreign concept.

It’s sometimes hard for people with Punitiveness schemas to get close to others because of a tendency to get angry easily and to react harshly to errors of any size.

A harsh, critical tone or moral inflexibility can indicate that a person may be saddled with a Punitiveness schema.

Schemas that can go along with Punitiveness
People with this schema in many cases have been treated very badly in childhood, and such people often have an added schema called Mistrust/Abuse, which leads them to assume that people will usually act badly and take advantage when given the chance.

Another schema that can commonly occur along with Punitiveness is Unrelenting Standards, which is a habit of having such difficult requirements for good conduct that they’re virtually impossible to meet.

The Defectiveness schema, too, fits well with Punitiveness. People with Defectiveness schemas have a deep-down conviction that they’re not good enough, that they’re fundamentally flawed, contemptible, and not worthy of love. A sense of Defectiveness can drive people to want to punish themselves, and punishment can reinforce people’s feelings that they are defective.

Where Punitiveness schemas come from
People with Punitiveness schemas often grew up in families where parents were harsh or even abusive when a child made a mistake. Parents or other major figures during a person’s childhood may have been critical and perfectionistic. Children in such families may grow up with a sense of harsh punishment as normal, just the way things are; they can feel that when someone makes a mistake and isn’t punished, it’s a miscarriage of justice and a serious problem. As we grow up, we tend to internalize some of the things our parents say or do to us, and people with this schema learn to have a voice inside them that demands everyone do things the right way or they’ll be sorry.

Overcoming a Punitiveness schema

The Queen turned crimson with fury, and, after glaring at her for a moment like a wild beast, screamed ‘Off with her head! Off—’

‘Nonsense!’ said Alice, very loudly and decidedly, and the Queen was silent.

— from Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

It’s hard to change from thinking that people who do things wrong should be punished to the idea that they should be forgiven or ignored much of the time, but this is exactly what needs to happen to transform a Punitiveness schema. Even more than with most other schemas, it can be very valuable for people with a Punitiveness schema to weigh the pros and cons of their schema-driven actions. In addition to the obvious problems with this schema, like feeling bad a lot of the time and others not wanting a person with this schema around, it’s also the case that punishment is a pretty lousy way to change behavior most of the time, if you’re willing to believe the research.  Punishment tends not to make people reconsider the actions they were punished for as much as it encourages them to find ways to avoid punishment in future, or just generates anger and resentment. Even people who are responsive to punishment are often just acting out their own schemas. For instance, people with a Defectiveness schema won’t usually take punishment as encouragement to become a better person, but instead will take it as proof that they’re horrible and deserve to be punished.

Forgiveness and discussion instead of punishment are especially important in parenting, where excessive punishment tends to create the same schemas in children that we’ve talked about above: Punitiveness, Mistrust/Abuse, Defectiveness, and Unrelenting Standards. Parents may consider it their duty to get angry at their children and punish them, but a little of this goes a long way–sometimes far too long–and much more effective parenting strategies are easy to find in a library or local parents’ group.

People working to shake off a Punitiveness schema can benefit from reflecting on circumstances that contribute to behavior they think is bad, from considering people’s intentions in addition to their actions, and in general by building the ability to empathize and forgive. Punishment isn’t necessarily ruled out, but the idea is to restrict it to, at most, people who have bad intentions as well as bad actions, or people who are severely negligent, whether or not those people should be punished becomes a broader ethical question.

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Mental Schemas #17: Unrelenting Standards

Handling negative emotions

This post is part of a series on schema therapy, an approach to addressing negative thinking patterns that was devised by Dr. Jeffrey Young. You can find an introduction to schemas and schema therapy, a list of schemas, and links to other schema articles on The Willpower Engine here.

How good is “good enough”? For a person with an Unrelenting Standards Schema (also called “Hypercriticalness”), only perfection is acceptable: anything less is a disaster.

Unrelenting standards can be expressed in a variety of ways, but the three most common are

  1. Time and efficiency. Some people with this schema feel that it’s always necessary to do things efficiently, to use all time productively, to never waste time or do things for purposes that aren’t primarily practical.
  2. Perfectionism. A person who expresses the Unrelenting Standards Schema through perfectionism is always anxious that everything go exactly the way it’s supposed to, that there never be any flaws or mistakes.
  3. Rigidity. A third group of people with the Unrelenting Standards Schema have an unyielding set of rules, which might be philosophical, moral, religious, practical, etc. When such people see someone not adhering to these rules, they often get involved whether that makes things worse or not. They also tend to be very hard on themselves in the same way, feeling like they’ve absolutely failed whenever they don’t follow meet their own dictates to the letter.

How Unrelenting Standards come out in daily life
To someone who has this schema, their own rules may not seem extreme at all–they may feel like a normal standard. It’s only when such a person’s expectations are compared to other people’s that the differences begin to show themselves.

A lot of people try to do things really well. What’s the difference between that and having an Unrelenting Standards Schema? One of the key signs is that an Unrelenting Standards schema causes harm in a person’s life. For instance, a normal event like a picnic or a presentation becomes a terrible ordeal because it would feel like a catastrophe if any little thing went wrong. People with this schema may have a hard time enjoying successes. After all, if perfection is the normal way things are meant to be, how is it in any way impressive or special when something is done really well?

Unrelenting Standards often come out in as all-or-nothing propositions. To a person with this schema, a partial success is a failure, and “pretty good” is bad.

People with Unrelenting Standards schemas may find themselves hit hard when they fail to live up to their own impossible requirements. The flip side of perfectionism is avoiding responsibilities altogether and procrastinating, because it’s so difficult to face past and possible future mistakes. When such a person finally jars loose from their procrastination, their schema may affect them far more than usual as their excruciating awareness of how badly they’ve recently been failing to meet their own expectations makes them lash themselves into expecting even more from themselves.

Overcoming an Unrelenting Standards schema
Changing an Unrelenting Standards schema isn’t easy, because it means changing ideas that may have been deeply held for a long, long time. Also, a person with this schema will often have a habit of expecting too much of their own efforts, so that a long, effortful struggle against a habit is hard to tolerate. Fortunately, there are strategies such a person can use to transform standards, expectations, and responses to success and failure.

  • Make risks feel less scary. The risks of failure are often mild compared to our fears of them. Using idea repair to bring things back into proportion and to become OK with making mistakes sometimes takes a lot of the anxiety and discomfort out of trying to get something done.
  • Get a hobby. This may sound like trivial advice, but for people who can’t let go of the feeling that every second has to be productive and efficient or something terrible will happen, getting used to spending time in a non-productive way can be powerful and freeing. My favorite account of this kind of benefit so far is from this blogger, for whom taking up knitting helped drive a sea change in her happiness and self-acceptance.
  • Make friends with imperfection. Another approach a person with this schema can take is to consciously choose to sometimes do things imperfectly (something the blogger I just mentioned did with her knitting). Being able to do something less than perfectly but still experience the benefits it brings helps put expectations in perspective. For example, it would be terrific if the U.S. Congress could get together on legislation that made the absolute biggest possible impact on the economy, job creation, and deficit reduction, but most of us voters would be pretty thrilled if they would just make some kinds of modest gains in each area, even if it wasn’t done in the ideal way.
  • Do a cost-benefit analysis. This very pragmatic approach tends to expose an unintuitive truth: perfection is inefficient. For instance, consider a situation in which you could get 90% of the juice out of an orange in 2 minutes or 100% of the juice in 5 minutes. A single orange yields about 2 ounces of juice, so that last 10% would be 3 minutes of effort for .2 ounces of juice. If you get paid twenty-five dollars per hour at your job, one eight-ounce glass of perfection juice would cost you $50 in labor under these circumstances. Is the last 10% of the juice worth fifty bucks? Probably not.This same kind of analysis holds true in many situations, personal and professional. When we analyze what perfection costs us compared to pretty good performance, often “pretty good” wins hands down.

    That’s not to say there’s no place in the world for perfection. Sometimes it’s worth spending 4 years painting a ceiling. It’s just that usually it really isn’t.

Are you a perfectionist, a recovering Time Nazi, or is someone in your life driven to never accept anything that is flawed in any way? Talk about it in comments!

Image by fisserman

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Mental Schemas #16: Negativity

Handling negative emotions

This post is part of a series on schema therapy, an approach to addressing negative thinking patterns that was devised by Dr. Jeffrey Young. You can find an introduction to schemas and schema therapy, a list of schemas, and links to other schema articles on The Willpower Engine here.

The negativity schema is an ongoing, oppressive feeling that everything sucks, or that life is very likely to suck soon, or that life has always sucked and is not likely to change. To put it another way, a person with this schema tends to exaggerate or dwell on negatives and minimize or ignore positives, leading to a feeling that everything is in a pattern of going badly.  Not surprisingly, such a person tends to spend a lot of time worrying, complaining, not knowing what to do, or guarding against impending disaster.

In terms of broken ideas (see “All About Broken Ideas and Idea Repair,”) negativity can shows up as disqualifying the positive (“he just said he liked it because he didn’t want to get into an argument”), mental filter (“nobody ever helps when my workload gets out of hand!”), magnification/minimization (“that spilled cup of coffee has ruined my day”), or other kinds of destructive thinking.

People with this schema may try to avoid feelings and experiences, for instance by hiding away at home alone and watching TV for hours every night; or they may surrender to the schema, constantly complaining and expecting the worst; or they might try to overcompensate, for instance by trying to control everyone around them to prevent bad things from happening or by pretending nothing bad ever happens and that everything’s always fine–or the schema might come out in a combination of these ways.

Where negativity schemas come from
How does a person get saddled with the idea that life is terrible, or that terrible things are always just around the corner? Often this attitude is passed on by a parent who has the same problems, one who worried constantly or made a point of always highlighting the darkest and worst aspects of life. Alternatively, people with this schema may have had a childhood in which they were always discouraged and their accomplishments or good fortune were never recognized or considered important. Or a person may have experienced much more than normal tragedy and sadness while growing up such that it began to feel like pain and suffering are the main patterns of existence.

Overcoming a negativity schema
Getting past a negativity schema isn’t easy: after all, there will always be new tragedies and bad outcomes to point to. Coming to a different point of view requires effort over time to recognize negative thinking patterns and change them. One important change that nurtures a more positive outlook is putting time and attention into recognizing and feeling gratitude for good things that happen, large and small. Another is catching ourselves in the act of amplifying negative feelings and experiences when we use self-talk like “I know this is going to go badly” or “This is awful! What a disaster!” and stating things more rationally.

Of course some things will go wrong: part of undoing a negativity schema is being OK with this, understanding that tragedy is a part of life and that it never means that everything good in life is gone.

In terms of action, a person can fight a negativity schema by spending time with people who have a more positive outlook (and letting them bring the mood up rather than bringing their mood down!), holding back from complaints and dire predictions, and participating in activities in which it’s easy to see the good, like volunteering or playing with children without trying to direct the way play goes.

In some cases we can make great strides against negativity on our own, but when any mental pattern feels too big to handle alone, a good cognitive therapist can be enormously helpful.

Photo by Christopher JL

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Mental Schemas #15: Emotional Inhibition

Handling negative emotions

This post is part of a series on schema therapy, an approach to addressing negative thinking patterns that was devised by Dr. Jeffrey Young. You can find an introduction to schemas and schema therapy, a list of schemas, and links to other schema articles on The Willpower Engine here.

A person with an Emotional Inhibition schema holds back emotions in situations where it would be healthier to express them–feelings like anger, joy, affection, and vulnerability get stifled. This schema is based on trying to act rationally and impersonally at all times, regardless of what’s going on inside. Someone with this schema may feel embarrassed or ashamed to feel or express certain emotions or may fear disapproval or losing control. If you find it difficult to tell people how you feel or see yourself coming across as wooden, you may find learning about this schema useful.

Where emotional inhibition comes from
People with Emotional Inhibition schemas often grow up in families where expressing emotions is frowned upon, mocked, or punished. Often the whole family–sometimes supported by the culture the family comes from–adopts a similar pattern of keeping emotions hidden at all times. In this kind of environment, hiding emotions becomes an act of self-protection. As the child grows, the habit can be very hard to break, so that someone raised this way can grow up continuing to be unable to express emotion even in situations where it’s perfectly safe and entirely constructive to do so.

Overcoming an Emotional Inhibition schema
As with any schema or personal limitation, the first step is to be able to see the problem as a problem. A person who is used to holding back emotions may not appreciate on a gut level the value of expressing them appropriately. It can help to think through the consequences of this kind of expression. For example, what is likely to happen if you tell a friend that you’re angry that they didn’t show up to an event you’d agreed to go to together–will the friend stop associating with you, or will careful expression of these feelings help clear the air? What are the consequences of telling a family member “I love you”? Is it likely to cause trouble if you laugh out loud in a busy restaurant?

In at least one way, overcoming an Emotional Inhibition schema is more difficult than overcoming other schemas: because Emotional Inhibition encourages handling everything rationally, trying to rationally assess one’s own thoughts about feeling inhibited can drag a person deeper into the Emotional Inhibition mindset rather than showing the way out. A person who falls into this snare can benefit from emotional experiences.

Using experiences to overcome emotional inhibition
Any experience that gives a person practice in constructively expressing emotions can help break down a habit of emotional inhibition. By definition these experiences tend to be uncomfortable–after all, people who do this are pushing back against deeply ingrained habits–but realizing this in advance and recognizing the discomfort as a sign of doing the right thing can be helpful.

Some examples of experiences that help with expressing emotions include group therapy, where a highly supportive environment can make it easier and more comfortable to talk about feelings; role-playing; confrontational sports like wrestling and martial arts (Olympic-style Taekwondo has a great sparring component); and dancing or dance lessons.

Spending more time with people who are comfortable expressing their emotions and using them as role models and guides can also make a positive difference.

As with any personal concern, if a schema or other personal issues feel too large or unyielding to handle alone, working with a qualified cognitive therapist can be a way to break through. You might be interested in finding a therapist qualified to work in schema therapy or some other kind of cognitive therapist.

Photo by Mags_cat

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Getting Past Our Own Uncomfortable Silences

Handling negative emotions

Unfortunately, these days I do a lot of driving. I say “unfortunately” for two reasons: the environmental impact (although I drive an extremely eco-friendly car, as cars go) and because the driving means more time spent away from my family.

Driven to think
But there are benefits from my drives, and one of the biggest is the chance to sit and think, alone and uninterrupted. I’ve come up with any number of writing ideas–books, stories, articles, blog posts, forum topics, and so on–plus solutions to mundane life problems, ways to attack complicated tasks, insights into my personal relationships, and so on. Perhaps most beneficially of all, I often use time alone in the car to think through my own mental and emotional state, as a way to reflect, clarify, understand, and transform.

This kind of thinking doesn’t have to happen in a car, of course: I can talk with friends, family members, or mentors; write in journals or word processing files; reflect while out walking; or take other steps (see “How Feedback Loops Maintain Self-Motivation“). But I have to admit that being alone in a car has been better than any other method I’ve yet found for getting through the uncomfortable business of really looking at my thoughts, my problems, my baggage, and my bad habits.

The uncomfortable silence
I’m used to getting started thinking about my life. Sometimes it comes automatically, as when something’s been bothering me and my wandering mind seizes on it and begins to tease out the contributing factors. Other times I have to dig in intentionally, either to try to address a particular problem or to find out why I’m feeling the way I am at that moment.

The hard part is the uncomfortable silence. You may be familiar with it: it’s when you’ve had the first glimmers of self-reflection but haven’t yet really dug in, so you’re tempted to turn on the radio, listen to an audiobook, call someone on a cell phone, or do anything else to stop the quiet. My thoughts at these times are usually along the lines of “I’m too tired to deal with that right now,” “I wonder what’s happening in the news?” and “I should probably finish up with that audiobook so I can bring it back to the library.” There are clues that I’m about to think about something that isn’t ego-gratifying or fun, and my gut instinct is to avoid delving.

But I’ve done this kind of thinking enough to recognize those moments, and the discomfort itself these days stands out to me like a blinking red light: “Oh,” I think. “Looks like I’ve got a bite!” Then, most of the time, I sit and wait for it to really come out. There are times when I give in to the urge to go to the radio or to listen to my current Kindle book or to call someone, which is fine in its way, even if not ideal, but when I steer clear of those distractions, I’m usually rewarded.

Why it’s worth pushing through the uncomfortable part
My reward for outlasting the uncomfortable period is that I often get to whatever’s making me uncomfortable in the first place and have a chance to first recognize it, then do something about it. For instance, I might realize that I’ve been acting in a way that I don’t like, or that I need to put more time and effort into something neglected.

What’s especially great about this is that digging into something that’s causing me pain and making me uncomfortable tends to make the pain and discomfort go away. I start feeling I’m on top of the problem and get to experience some optimism that things will be better with it in future.

But if habits were easy to change and thought patterns were easy to fix, our bad habits and patterns of negative thinking wouldn’t occur in the first place. The discomfort around difficult issues is one of the reasons those issues can continue doing us harm: it prevents us from digging in by scaring us off. If we get in the habit of pushing through that discomfort, then we have much more power over our own emotions and hang-ups.

Comfortable silences
Of course, there are times when reflection pays off without any discomfort. One especially useful form of this is spending time thinking about goals paying off: in effect, we can live in a future in which something wonderful has happened, simultaneously getting joy out of the future event and increasing motivation for working toward that future.

For more on that subject, see “Motivation through visualization: the power of daydreams.”

Photo by John ‘K’

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Cures for Sadness, Part I: Ideas and People

Handling negative emotions

Stuck in sadness
In his classic book Emotional Intelligence, Dr. Daniel Goleman describes one of the most common responses to sadness: rumination. Something happens; we get sad; and then that sadness encourages us to sit and think the situation over, reliving it or elaborating on it or beating ourselves up. These kinds of rumination tend to keep the sadness going.

Being sad can actually be a helpful in some circumstances, as described in “The Benefits of Feeling Bad.” For instance, if I’m sad because I’ve done something unkind to a friend so that the friend is now upset with me, ruminating may help me understand where I went wrong and how I can handle things differently next time. It can also help me formulate an apology and convince my friend that I’m truly sorry.

In many situations, though, being stuck in sadness is simply painful. When this is the case, according to the research Goleman cites and much other research that has come out since he wrote the book, we have several options for finding our way out of sadness.

Thinking our way out
One of the most powerful means of getting out of any kind of negative emotion, a mainstay of cognitive therapies, is using idea repair (officially known as “cognitive restructuring”): see “All About Broken Ideas and Idea Repair.” With this approach we eavesdrop on our own thoughts, find out what it is we’re doing to make ourselves sadder, and change our thinking to relieve that pressure.

Socialization vs. sadness
Another method–one you’ve probably used on yourself or on a friend–is social time. According to research, says Goleman, sad or depressed people who spend time with people they enjoy very often experience a big boost in mood. The barrier here is that a sad or depressed person often avoids the company of others, and activities don’t sound as appealing when a person’s mood is low. This makes friends who are willing to drag you out to have fun when you’re down very valuable.

Without going into great detail, a few of the reasons social time improves mood are:

  • Moods tend to be contagious, so a single sad person in a group of happy people has a good chance of being influenced by the mood of the others.
  • A person who is out in a group is likely to make a greater effort not to act depressed, and acting out a mood is a good way of encouraging that mood. For instance, the act of smiling tends to make people happier even if the smile is completely fake.
  • In a group, broken ideas are more likely to be challenged and functional ideas more likely to be offered as replacements.

In further articles in this series, I’ll talk about other techniques for trumping sadness.

Photo by Beni Ishaque Luthor

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