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The Benefits of Feeling Bad

Handling negative emotions

The most anxious time of my life to date was soon after separating from my son’s mom. The marriage had turned out to be very much a mismatch, so I wasn’t unhappy that it was ending–but I was worried about my relationship with my then-2-year-old son. If I wasn’t able to work something out about custody arrangements with his mother or through a court, I might be relegated to the every-other-weekend schedule of parenting, and while that might be a good arrangement for many dads, I emphatically wanted to be more involved.

It all came out well in the end: after a lot of work and discussion, we settled on a workable arrangement for custody, and I never did get bumped to “every other weekend” status. So all that anxiety and unhappiness while the situation was up in the air: what was the use of it? To put it another way, do negative emotions have any value, or are they always trouble?

My friend Oz Drummond pointed me to a recent New York Times Magazine article called “Depression’s Upside“, which examines some of the potentially positive effects of some kinds of depression. The particular advantage the article describes is a neurological process in which a painful event (like a divorce or death of a friend) causes the left ventrolateral prefrontal cortex (VLPFC) to create intense mental focus on a problem, offering an unusually powerful ability to examine and possibly learn from it. This doesn’t necessarily seem to be the case with all depression, and even when it is the case, the person isn’t necessarily better off going through the depression than not. But we can pull a useful lesson out of this research, which is that negative emotions can be extremely useful in focusing attention. Some examples:

Anger: Focuses attention on a potential threat so that we can act against it if we need to.
Fear: Keeps attention on a dangerous situation so that we won’t drop our guard.
Guilt and shame: Brings our attention to actions we regret, with the possible result that we will avoid those actions in future.

… and so on.

In other words, many negative emotions have the specific purpose of making us mindful of something. There are two useful things that come out of this realization: first, when a negative emotion occurs, there may be a lot to gain out of figuring out what it’s trying to tell us. Second, negative emotions can often be addressed simply by paying proper attention to what they’re trying to tell us.

In the Times Magazine article, University of Virginia psychiatrist Andy Thomson talks about this process:

“What you’re trying to do is speed along the rumination process,” Thomson says. “Once you show people the dilemma they need to solve, they almost always start feeling better.” He cites as evidence a recent study that found “expressive writing” — asking depressed subjects to write essays about their feelings–led to significantly shorter depressive episodes. The reason, Thomson suggests is that writing is a form of thinking, which enhances our natural problem-solving abilities.

Image by MissCartier

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Are Creative People More Likely to Procrastinate?

Strategies and goals


A good imagination may not be strictly necessary for procrastination, but it can help.

In his book Getting Things Done, David Allen talks about the nature of procrastination: picturing something in the future and imagining how hard it will be or what can go wrong. He goes on to point out that the more easily a person can imagine problems, the more incentive they have to procrastinate “… because their sensitivity gives them the capability of producing in their minds lurid nightmare scenarios about what might be involved in doing the project and all the negative consequences that might occur if it weren’t done perfectly.”

How do people successfully combat procrastination? They take control and move things forward–that is, they figure out what the next physical action is.

Allen is big on the next physical action, and close examination of the idea helps explain why: figuring out the next action changes the focus from broad dangers to easy, short-term wins. For example, if you’re daunted at the prospect of doing your taxes, you may find yourself distracted by thoughts of a big balance due, mistakes, or audits. Figuring out your next task (“Sort through receipts in receipt box” or “Call tax preparer to make an appointment” or “Download an update to the tax softare”), by contrast, puts things on a much more comfortable level. Almost anyone can sort receipts, make a telephone call, or click a button on a Web site, and doing so moves the tax process forward. Reducing large tasks to a series of next actions–only one of which needs to be figured out at any given time–can create enthusiasm or energy around getting things done instead of wrapping the task in anxiety.

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Why People Are (or Aren’t) Such Jerks Sometimes

States of mind

The other day I was driving through the small city of Montpelier, Vermont when a guy in a parked car didn’t notice me coming up and tried to pull out just as I getting to where he was. I stomped on the brake and hit the horn, which got him to stomp on his break: accident averted. He immediately then waved me by, as though he had been waiting for me to drive around him and I was holding him up.

I thought “What? Don’t wave me by! I’m still making sure you don’t get us in a car wreck: I don’t need traffic direction from you!”

To my credit, I didn’t proceed the next logical step to “What a jerk!” Instead I immediately thought, “Come to think of it, he must be waving me by to cover his embarrassment at his driving goof.” In his place, I probably would have tried to communicate “Sorry!” in some way, but it’s not as though I’ve never make a dumb mistake while driving. He and I really weren’t that different; I just didn’t take to the way he dealt with embarrassment.

Why Not Just Call Them Jerks?
We know that people make mistakes sometimes, and at other times people (not you or me personally, obviously) act badly out of negligence or because they’re in bad moods. In such situations, why not call a jerk a jerk? There seem to be two good reasons not to.

First, if we really want to understand people–and therefore get a better idea of how to deal with them, what they might do next, and what’s really going on around us–it doesn’t help to dismiss their actions as just being due to some inborn quality. After all, what baby is born a jerk? Colicky, sure, but a jerk? And we ourselves always do things for a reason–habit, intention, encouragement, desire … so it seems reasonable to assume other people are coming from the same place. When understanding people in general, we’re likely to get much better results by labeling their behavior than by labeling the person. This is the difference between “He’s acting like a jerk” or “He made a bad decision” and “He is a jerk.”

Second, calling someone a jerk (or worse) is a broken idea (a.k.a., cognitive distortion), and broken ideas generally lead to negative emotions we don’t need and to bad choices.

Reasons Someone Might Be Acting Like a Jerk
Here are some of the main reasons someone might be acting like a jerk:

  • Stuck in a schema: Most of us developed at least some patterns of behavior as children that don’t help us as adults: these are called schemas, and they amount to a habit of having a particular kind of broken idea. For example, someone might feel they can’t trust others, or that they’re entitled to special treatment.
  • Fear: It’s easy to make bad choices when we’re afraid. Fear can be expressed as cowardice, avoidance, anger, and other kinds of negative emotions. There’s a certain school of thought that proposes that all negative emotions can be traced back to fear.
  • Shoulds: If a person gets it in their head that someone else should act a particular way, this is a recipe for trouble, since we don’t really control each other or even necessarily understand all of one another’s needs and conditions.
  • Bad habits: Developing a habit works the same way whether the habit is useful or a problem: a person does something consistently a particular way for a period of time until it becomes ingrained. So for instance, becoming friends with a master procrastinator in college and getting in the habit of blowing off studying with this person can create a procrastination habit even in someone not inclined to procrastination.
  • Tunnel vision: There’s a fine line between prioritizing what matters most and using one priority to block out all other priorities. Even the most important priorities, like protecting a child, can create problems if everything else is disregarded.
  • Bad good intentions: Sometimes people act like jerks out of kindness, honestly believing that what’s needed is a little more discipline, or the unvarnished truth, or good kick in the pants. Sometimes–though definitely not always–they’re even right.
  • Mislabeled jerkistry: Sometimes the jerk-like actions are all in our heads. For instance, if when that near-accident occurred the other day I had waited in the middle of the road an extra long time to maximize the other driver’s embarrassment, and if he had waved me on because of that, it would be me being the jerk, even though I might semi-reasonably have been casting him in that role because of his causing the near-accident. Sometimes we make people into something they’re not at all.

The joys of de-jerkifying
The benefit of thinking about the above list is that it immediately benefits mood to re-interpret a jerk-related incident as an understandable human shortcoming. Anger is a trap, and not always one that’s easy to get out of. If someone almost causes an accident, it doesn’t benefit me to be in a lousy mood about it all the way home, and it benefits me even less to get out of the car and start shouting at the poor guy. The ideal thing is to be able to immediate transmute that negative experience into a tiny bit of deeper understanding about other people. Applied vigorously enough, this approach can translate to some extremely gracious behavior, which benefits everyone involved. The would-be jerk might even go away thinking “Wow, what a nice person.”

Which means that the would-be jerk is labeling you, arbitrarily lumping you in with “nice people,” as though you didn’t have other qualities. Man, what a jerk.

Photo by (nz)dave

Note: This post is mainly about situations where someone else’s behavior is contributing to our own bad moods or poor choices. It’s not meant to address situations where someone is being abused and taken advantage of: in those cases, safety and well-being are much more important than finding a more generous perspective.

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Mental Schemas #2: Mistrust

Handling negative emotions

This is the second in a series of articles that draw on the field of schema therapy, an approach to addressing negative thinking patterns that was devised by Dr. Jeffrey Young. There’s more information about schemas and schema therapy on a new page on The Willpower Engine here.

The Mistrust Schema
People with the Mistrust Schema expect bad treatment from others. They tend to think or say that they always get the worst of things, that other people want to do them harm, or that it’s not safe to trust others. Having a Mistrust Schema means feeling deep down, on a gut level, regardless of logic, that other people cannot be trusted, that the only safety is in keeping others at a distance.

Mistrust Schemas can be complicated or maintained in part by a person who avoids close connections with others out of fear of being hurt. This kind of avoidance encourages others to shun or disregard the person with the Mistrust Schema and makes it especially difficult to have any relationship that could prove the mistrust unfounded.

A person with a Mistrust Schema may also tend to jump to conclusions about others’ intentions and motivations, leading to unfounded accusations or preemptive counter-strikes–both of which, needless to say, tend to make others less well-disposed toward the person struggling with mistrust.

The Mistrust Schema generally is built early in life in response to abuse, whether emotional, physical, or sexual, by a person in authority or by anyone who is deeply trusted. A child who is mistreated will often naturally adopt a strategy of assuming the worst of other people in order not to be put in a vulnerable position again if it can be helped. While this behavior may help with the original untrustworthy person, it gets carried over to everyone else as life goes on, creating an emotional barrier that encourages isolation and fear.

Overcoming a Mistrust Schema
Relieving and eventually overcoming a Mistrust Schema requires an act of faith: consciously deciding to trust a person from time to time. A Mistrust Schema expresses itself in part as the broken idea known as fortune telling, in which a person makes assumptions about how the future will be (in this case, assuming that others will treat them badly), or in the related broken idea called mind reading, in which a person assumes things about how someone else is thinking (in this case, assuming that they are planning something unkind). For a person to come to grips with this schema means first noticing how it is affecting their life, behavior, and especially thinking: perceiving that this basic assumption that others will be hurtful is causing thoughts to run a certain way, then consciously rerouting those thoughts.

For example, a person with a mistrust schema may see a family member’s number coming up on caller ID before answering the phone and assume that the family member is calling to say unkind things. If the phone is answered with a hostile tone and the person with the mistrust schema is unkind or suspicious in the conversation, this encourages exactly the kind of behavior the person is predicting.

To cause the phone call to go another way, it’s necessary to stop and change the thought “That’s my sister. She’s calling to harangue me again.” to something like “That’s my sister. She may be calling to say something unkind, something nice, or just to pass on news. If I act kindly toward her over the phone, though, she may possibly talk kindly back.”

Small instances in which a person can demonstrate that mistrust is ill-founded can add up to greater confidence over time that can be used in situations that require more trust.

I’ll also mention that a good cognitive therapist can often be very helpful when a person is facing a major or ongoing problem like an especially bad mistrust schema. Even without the help of a therapist, though, it’s possible to take a stronger role in shaping our own mental landscapes when we’re aware of and deal directly with our own broken thoughts.

Photo by  j / f / photos

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Mental Schemas #1: Abandonment

States of mind

This is the first in a series of articles that draw on the field of schema therapy, a fairly new approach to addressing patterns of negative thinking that was devised by Dr. Jeffrey Young. There’s more information about schemas and schema therapy on a new page on The Willpower Engine here.

The Abandonment Schema
A person with the Abandonment Schema feels that people can’t be relied on to be around when you need them or to help. Such a person may feel on a gut level that important people in their lives, like significant others, are going to leave, drop them for someone better, or die, or that others in their lives aren’t dependable and won’t be there when they’re needed the most.

While this is not always the case, often an abandonment schema starts in childhood, when an important figure in a child’s life–usually a parent–leaves, whether literally or figuratively. For example, a parent might have run off, gotten divorced and moved away, left the child or child(ren) with a relative, sent the child(ren) away at a young age, or be physically present but undependable or unavailable, as with an alcoholic, workaholic, or exceptionally unemotional or uncommunicative parent.

A person with an abandonment schema might react by avoiding close relationships, being clingy, or repeatedly accusing people close to them of being–or even just intending to be–unavailable, unreliable, or unwilling to help. Other people with this schema may find ways to drive normally reliable people off, thereby forcing them to fulfill the schema’s predictions.

Overcoming an abandonment schema
Tackling an abandonment schema means coming to terms with two conflicting facts: that unless a person’s behavior encourages it, loved ones don’t generally abandon people who are important to them; and that despite this fact, sometimes people will not be there when we want or need them, but that this is not necessarily the end of the world. This addresses the two basic broken ideas about the abandonment schema: that important people will leave (fortune telling) and that when that happens, it will be awful (magnification, specifically the type called “catastrophizing”).

Greater awareness of our own thoughts (mindfulness or metacognition) tends to create opportunities to challenge the kinds of negative thinking that schemas inspire. Challenging those negative thoughts removes barriers to motivation and supports greater serenity and drive.

Photo by Skylinephoto


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.

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.

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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What Really Messed-Up Thinking Looks Like

Handling negative emotions


The following are not my actual thoughts, I’m happy to say. However, they do demonstrate the different kinds of broken ideas. Each of them could be repaired.

So I know this post is going to suck1, but … wait, you must already be thinking I’m a complete idiot if I say my post is going to suck2. No, no, I shouldn’t be telling myself I know what you’re thinking3! And I shouldn’t say “shouldn’t!” Oh man, I did it again, I’m such a dork4! No, hold on, I can’t call myself a dork in my own post, that’s awful, that ruins the entire post. 5 It ruins the entire site6! And if this site sucks, my entire life sucks7! And this post is making me sick, which means it must suck8. Writing like this ruins all of my posts9. People may tell me they like my posts sometimes, but that’s just because they pity me10. If I didn’t suck, people would always leave comments11. I think I’ll go eat dirt12.


1 Fortune telling
2 Mind reading
3 Should statement
4 Labeling
5 All-or-nothing thinking
6 Magnification/minimization
7 Overgeneralization
8 Emotional reasoning
9 Mental filtering
10 Disqualifying the positive
11 Personalization
12 Actually, this isn’t a broken idea, because there’s nothing unrealistic about deciding to eat dirt if you really want to. However, I think personally I’ll pass.

Photo by Freekz0r

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Tools for Taking on a Task You Dread

Handling negative emotions


Let’s say there’s something you really should do, but you dread doing it. Maybe it’s huge, difficult, inconvenient, dirty, unpleasant, draining, or even physically painful. Maybe you dread it because it’s a potential source of bad news (seeing the doctor, doing the bills, estimating revenues for the coming year). Maybe you started doing it, but you stopped, and now it’s been so long that you’re not even sure how you would begin. Or maybe it just has a bad association. Regardless, here’s something you’d really rather avoid but that you know you would be better off doing, preferably soon.

The problem is that dread is anything but motivating. If you could somehow dredge up some enthusiasm for doing the dreadful thing, that might get you somewhere, but dread tends to hold you back. Dreaded tasks often get ignored, avoided, delayed, bumped down the priority list by less important but more pleasant tasks, and so on. It’s certainly possible to take on a task while still dreading it, but transforming dread into something positive will nearly always make accomplishing the thing much more likely. So how can we do that?

Begin by Working on Motivation
The first thing to do is to separate the task of motivating yourself to do the task from the dreaded task itself. Motivating yourself is relatively easy and pleasant compared to cleaning out a filthy refrigerator or completing sixty pages of tax paperwork, and if you complete the job of motivating yourself, then actually doing the task becomes much easier.

In motivating ourselves to tackle a  dreaded task, it’s important to begin to understand what about the task we dread, which means reflecting on our feelings and answering basic questions like “What is it I think will happen when I start doing this task?” and “What about this task is the biggest obstacle for me?”

With a bit of awareness about where the dread comes from, often idea repair and surrendering ourselves to the idea of taking on the task will clear away a lot of the dread. Sometimes talking with a sympathetic friend, family member, mentor, or therapist can help, as can writing about the issue in a journal.

Creating Enthusiasm Even for the Worst Tasks
And when the task is no longer as awful as it has sounded to us in the past, because we understand our feelings about it, have addressed broken thoughts, and have committed ourselves to taking care of business, we can turn to (as weird as this may sound) … enthusiasm. Even a task that seems terrible, if it’s related to something important to us, can have its attractions. One of the most appealing things about a really daunting task can be the vision of just getting it done: if the task is something that’s been put off for a long time, it’s probably a source of annoyance or anxiety, and doing it provides relief.

Dreaded tasks can sometimes be genuinely enjoyable (for instance, a trip to do something difficult could still be a fun trip); they may bring out a sense of pride at being the kind of person who can face these kinds of problems; and they can sometimes remove uncertainty about the future. More motivating even than these can be connecting with the really basic things you’re accomplishing with the task, for instance making your surroundings more welcoming, healing a damaged relationship, or working through a major financial issue. If it’s something you don’t feel like doing, what are your reasons for doing it in the first place? They’re probably significant ones.

Things to Watch Out for
If the task is large, it doesn’t have to be done all at once: doing a few simple things to get started can take a lot of the menace out of the thing you’re trying to accomplish and begin to establish momentum. If you don’t take care of it all at once, though, consider doing it in several sessions close together, for instance once per day until it’s finished, so as to keep that momentum going.

Regardless of how you approach it, there will probably come a point where you have to dive in. Whether you do this by distracting yourself or by finding courage, be prepared to have to pass this point when you start, and probably to pass it again from time to time as you continue. And when you’re done, you can take a good look back so that you’ll remember that you were courageous enough to get it done.

Photo by hapticflapjack

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How emotions work

States of mind


From Charles Darwin’s The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals

How exactly do emotions work? From a scientific point of view the answers to this question are still in the works, but research over the last couple of decades has given us a much clearer sense of how they emerge. In her 2005 book Deeper Than Reason: Emotion and its Role in Literature, Music, and Art, Jenefer Robinson digs deep into various theories of emotions and into the neurological and psychological findings that can help us figure this question out and offers a model for understanding the important pieces. Her basic model, added to research and analysis from other sources, is what drives this post. There’s a lot of research still to be done, though, so consider the information here to be more of a glimpse at the best insights we currently have about emotion instead of something complete and set in stone. Even taking it tentatively, though, Robinson’s model gives us some seriously useful information.

The gut reaction
Emotions start (Robinson argues) with a gut reaction to something: a face, a sound, an idea, a conclusion, or even some change within our bodies. She calls these reactions “non-cognitive appraisals,” whereas I think for our purposes here, “gut reaction” works just as well, but it’s helpful to realize from that term that these reactions themselves aren’t anything we think through: they happen in hardly any time at all, automatically. That doesn’t mean the whole process of having an emotion is automatic, though, as we’ll see.

The high road and the low road
There are two paths our brain can take to get us to a gut reaction, the high road and the low road. The high road is about what you’d expect: we see or hear (or taste or feel or smell or think or remember) something, we figure out what it means to us, and then we react emotionally. For instance, while driving toward our house we might see blue lights up ahead, realize that they are probably coming  from a police car, and begin to feel worried that something bad has happened.


The low road is a bit more surprising (unless you’ve read my post How to overcome specific fears and anxieties or another source with some of the same information): it still starts with some kind of sensory information, like a sight or sound, but in this case the amygdalae (a primitive part of the brain that we have on both the left and right side) flag it as something that has been associated with a powerful emotion or traumatic event in the past and sets off our gut emotional reaction before we even recognize what the thing is. For instance, if a person has been in an explosion caused by natural gas, the person may experience terror when smelling gas even before realizing that it’s a smell, or what the smell might be. Our brains seem to have evolved this trick of firing up emergency systems first and asking question later in order to help get us away from life-threatening situations as quickly as possible.

Even though the gut reaction is immediate and automatic, it can come down the high road as the result of thinking. For instance, I might spend hours going over my small business’s accounts before having the sudden realization that my accountant is stealing from me. As soon as I’ve had that realization, I’m likely to have a gut reaction (for instance of anger at the accountant, or fear of what will happen to my business, or happiness that I have found the reason for the cash flow problems, or even a combination) that’s automatic in the sense of reacting immediately to a thought that has been a long time coming.

Emotion is a process, not an unchanging state
But if we have that gut reaction, that doesn’t mean that we’re stuck in the corresponding emotion: instead, it seems to make the most sense to think about the emotion being a process that develops in several different ways at once, started by that gut reaction but subject to all kinds of changes. An emotion develops through:

  • Body chemistry:An emotion will spur a physiological reaction through chemicals like dopamine (associated with pleasure), adrenaline (associated with fear and anger), seratonin (associated with serenity), oxytocin (associated with feelings of love), cortisol (associated with stress), and so on. These chemicals have a lot to do with the physical feelings emotions create, like butterflies in the stomach or a thrill of delight, and they also tend to sustain whatever emotion we’re having.
  • Thinking (cognition): Once we start having an emotion, we tend to think about it and monitor our surroundings. For instance, we might see flashing blue lights and initially feel anxiety, thinking they’re from police cars, then round a corner and discover that they’re lights from a party a neighbor is having on their lawn.
  • Body language: It won’t be news to you that happiness can make you smile and depression can make you slump, but it’s more surprising to realize that smiling can make you happy and slumping can make you more depressed. Fascinatingly, our own expressions, posture, and maybe even tone of voice can stimulate the same body chemistry that the corresponding emotion would create. Smiling can make us feel happier, and sitting up straight can help us feel more alert and positive.
  • Being ready for action: Certain emotions tend to prime our bodies to be ready in certain ways: to focus our attention in a certain way or to be ready to move quickly. An example of this is flinching away at a sudden loud noise: our body is ready to act before we can even come up with a plan of how to act.

Different emotions at the same time?
These pieces of the emotional puzzle all go forward when we’re experiencing an emotion, and while they can work at the same time and in similar directions, they can also be out of synch or in conflict with each other. When that happens, they begin to influence each other, so that they tend to converge over time. For instance, if I am thinking something about something that makes me happy and my body is putting out oxytocin, but I decide to frown and turn my attention to things that upset me, the oxytocin will be cut off and replaced with other chemicals, my brain will conjure up memories of things that upset me, and my body will more and more begin to reflect the bad mood I’m creating.

It can be especially confusing to experience emotions that are out of synch. In the blue lights example, once I realize that it’s a party and not a crime scene, I may immediately feel intellectually better about the situation but still be feeling anxiety beneath that, because our thinking can change directions more quickly than our body chemistry. Fortunately, if we keep our thinking in the channel of the new emotion, our body chemistry will soon catch up.

Simple words for complex feelings
To make sense of emotions, we have a wide variety of labels for different ones, especially in English: terror, awe, euphoria, ennui, indignation, fury, and so on. When trying to reflect on how we’re feeling now or how we felt a while back, we tend to try to characterize our emotions to fit these available labels (although we also have emotion-charged memories that may give us more detail), and therefore tend to talk about emotions in a simpler way than we experience them. For instance, in the blue lights example, we might say “I was worried when I saw blue lights, but when I saw it was just a party, I was relieved.” This doesn’t capture that temporary conflict of thinking and body chemistry, nor the subtle details–perhaps the initial worry was mixed with indignation that a crime was happening in our neighborhood or guilt at something we ourselves had done; maybe the relief that the blue lights meant just a party was mixed at different times with irritation at the likely amount of noise, excitement that we might be invited to the party, and/or surprise that the neighbors thought blue lights were decorative. To put it another way, our emotions are not simple, exclusive states, but instead an evolving process that can include parallel and conflicting pieces that are hard to easily summarize in words. Fortunately, we have poets, artists, musicians, and others to help us communicate about emotions without resorting to simple summaries.

How idea repair can help drive emotion
A last note: in posts on idea repair, I’ve talked about thinking causing emotions. In light of this article, that idea may seem oversimplified, but to put things in perspective, idea repair is the process of thinking and directing attention that begins immediately after we have that initial gut reaction. Idea repair can’t directly affect the gut reaction (although over time it might train habits that will change initial reactions), but modifying our thinking is probably the most powerful single thing we can do to turn an emotion in a positive direction once an emotional process begins.

Police lights photo by Sven Cipido.


Where to Find Motivation After Losing a Job

Handling negative emotions


After losing a job, motivation can be a little hard to come by. A lost job usually serves up a double whammy: a massive blow to self-respect in being fired, forced to resign, or laid off, and a goodly serving of uncertainty about where the next job is going to come from. The combination of sadness about the past and anxiety about the future can be pernicious, because just when you get one side of the problem under control, the other can sneak up and wallop you.

I was forwarded this useful article from the New York Times Web site today, and it has some good points to make: “Accentuating the Positive After a Layoff“. While reading it, however, I realized there are some basic elements of motivation that apply to job loss: here those are.

If You’re Beating Yourself Up, Here’s How to Stop
It’s hard to be kind to yourself after losing a job. You may blame yourself, for good reasons or silly reasons, or be unable to let go of anger, or feel hopeless about the future. These kinds of feelings almost always are the result of broken ideas, things we tell ourselves that sound true but are actually bunk. Some common ones follow, along with some good ways to repair them. For a much more in-depth treatment of broken ideas (under their more proper psychological name of “cognitive distortions”), read Albert Ellis and Robert A. Harper’s A Guide to Rational Living or David Burns’ Feeling Good.

I should have _____
“Should” is almost always a red flag word. Looking back at the past, it helps to know how we would handle a similar situation in the future, but since there is no way at all ever to change what we’ve done in time gone by, it can be a lot more constructive to say “I did ____. If the situation came up again, I would do ____. I’m going to accept that I made a bad choice. What can I do in the future to help turn things around?”

I’m such a ____
Labeling means taking one or more incidents in the past and concluding that they add up to an unchangeable tendency to fail. Yet our brains are amazingly adaptable; we can change virtually anything we want about our behavior or even our skills. A bad choice or a failure is nothing more than a specific bad choice or failure. It doesn’t decree how we will act in future.

My boss/coworkers/clients/etc. should have _____
“Should” again, and again it points to something we can’t change. We can influence others, but we generally can’t force them to act a particular way. It can help in these situations to remind ourselves that we have no control over other people, only control over how we respond to them. We can then turn our attention to the areas of our lives where we actually do have some control.

I’m not going to find a job/decent job/job around here/job in my field
This one is called “fortune telling.” We can’t predict the future, and there’s no point in pretending we can. It can help in these situations to map out all of the possibilities we’re hoping to avoid and say to ourselves “OK, that might happen, even if I don’t want it to. If so, what’s going to be the best thing for me to do?”

This is awful!
Watching a child die is awful. Being imprisoned in  a tiny cell in a Southeast Asian country for eight years is awful. But having to sell your beloved late-model car and move to a second-floor walkup in a town you don’t like is merely unpleasant. If you look at your future and see things you don’t like, remind yourself that they’re just things you don’t like, and that your job is just to make good decisions. Very few things we don’t like will last through our entire lives. Generally they’re just something to be gotten through as well as can be managed until they’re gone.

Make goals, not wishes
It’s tempting in these situations to make goals like “I will get a new job right here in the city within three months, for at least as much as I used to make.” The problem is that something like that is not a goal, because it’s not under your direct control. It’s more of a wish: it depends on other people doing things, and we’ve already established that other people are (inconveniently) not under our control. Goals are motivating and worth pursuing, as long as they’re entirely under your control. A real goal might be something like “I will apply for at least 15 jobs a week,” or “I will study a new job skill for at least two hours a day until I have a new job,” or “Every morning, I will come up with one new thing I haven’t tried yet to help me in my job search.” As mentioned in the S.M.A.R.T. post, good goals are specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time-bound. The “attainable” part needs to include being under your direct control.

There is an up side
Any change, even a very messy one, has the potential for positive side effects, sometimes substantial ones. For instance, many people who have lost their ability to walk, see, or hear through an accident literally refer to their experience as the best thing that has ever happened to them. As strange as it may sound, it can make sense, because a major life problem is a wake-up call: it slaps us in the face and forces us to look around. What do we really have going for us, when it comes right down to it–what skills, what passions, what resources? What do we truly want to do with our lives? Is making a living enough, or do we want something more? If so, what is that thing? Are the choices we’ve been making really making us happy? It’s possible to be happy without a lot of things, including sight, hearing, and the ability to walk. A happy life with less is better than an unhappy life with more.

And almost any change also has little benefits, things that you’re probably more than happy to leave behind–a cramped office or an over-controlling manager or a long commute. Don’t hesitate to take pleasure in the improvements in your situation, even if they’re small compared to the problems that have arisen.

You don’t have to be happy about losing a job (though it’s possible, and it can help). And you don’t have to pretend that everything is going to come out the way you want it to just because you wish it (which doesn’t help). But taking a calm look at what has happened and where you are now can at worst help you put to rest anxieties you don’t really need, and at best help you see opportunities you hadn’t previously imagined.

Photo by Rhett Sutphin; it may or may not actually depict a lost job

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