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Some Ways to Find Out What’s Really Bothering You

Handling negative emotions

One of the real benefits idea repair has brought me since I started learning about it years ago (under the title of “Rational Emotive-Based Therapy”) is an awareness that my bad moods, when they come, generally can be traced to something. It’s true, sometimes being overtired or not having had a chance to eat (or especially, both) can jostle me over into my least flattering behaviors, but much more often, if I feel bad emotionally, it can be traced to some thought I’m having. For me, it’s usually worrying about something. For instance, I might find myself getting more anxious than really makes any sense over a minor work deadline.

The thing is, when I’m working myself up about something, often I’m signaling myself that there’s a larger, underlying problem. This points to the one limitation I know of about idea repair: idea repair helps a person feel better right away, but sometimes it helps to trace a broken idea to its source before fixing it, because our emotional reactions give us important clues to what will make us happy (or drive us out of our tree with worry or annoyance).

So when I find myself seriously overreacting to a situation, I’ll often try to find out what’s really bothering me first, and once I know that to use idea repair to bring my mood back into balance. Here are some ways to cover that first step: finding out what’s causing the negative emotions, deep down.

Interview
Major issues that bother a person usually don’t lurk too far beneath the surface. One of the quickest and most direct ways to get to those issues is to have someone ask you some very straightforward questions, or even (if you don’t mind talking to yourself a little), asking them yourself.

The kinds of questions to ask are very basic, like “So, what’s bothering you today?” or “What are you most concerned about at the moment?” or “If you could have one thing happen today to make you happier, what would it be?”

Continued questions just follow up on the answers. For instance, if a person being interviewed (or self-interviewing) comes up with the statement “The thing that worries me the most is that I don’t think I’m going to have enough money to send my daughter off to college next year,” then the follow-up question might be something like “What would happen then?” or “Why don’t you think you’ll have enough money?”

Another handy kind of question for these situations is “What else?” This is useful when the real problem still seems to be lurking out of sight. “OK, you’re worried about that deadline at work. What else is bugging you these days?”

An interesting side note for writers: this same strategy works well for character and story development. There’s more detail in my free eBook, The Writing Engine: A Practical Guide to Writing Motivation.

Journaling
It’s true, I recommend journaling for a lot of things: for detecting broken ideasgetting immediate motivation, feedback loops, tackling daunting tasks, and so on. Of course, the reason I recommend it so often is that it’s a very practical technique: writing things down draws thoughts out of our heads that we might not otherwise have pursued, and it helps give these thoughts structure and direction. It also provides a record, should we want to go back in future and remind ourselves of past states of mind.

In effect, journaling works much like interviewing, and can be done question-and-answer style if that format helps. Alternatively, a free flow of thought spurred on by focusing on the negative emotions can get to the same place by a different route.

Talk therapy
If you find that lurking anxieties or frustrations are sabotaging your mood on a regular basis, you may want to consider whether a therapist could help out. Unfortunately, therapy often seems to be thought of as being only for people with serious mental illnesses rather than also for people who are doing fine with their lives but who want to sort out a particular issue or concern or get more clarity. A good therapist can help either type of person.

Cognitive therapy particularly has a high success rate in studies done on it, for a wide variety of conditions and needs. One way to find a certified cognitive therapist is through this link on the Academy of Cognitive Therapy Web site.

Photo by manic*.

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