(one of the most practical tools I have ever found for changing how I feel)
A lifetime ago, Laura and I visited New York City. We had been assured that we would “come back from New York with stories” since it’s such a freaky weird place, so we were up for whatever. Even all these years later, I remember the distinct feeling of fear that I experienced twice while we were there. In one case, we were walking back to our hotel one night, surrounded by a multitude of other pedestrians, when we turned onto a cross street. Moments later I realized we were totally alone, on a completely deserted street, at night, in New York City. There was nothing threatening that I could see, but I suddenly felt unsafe, and I began looking all around and walking faster, hoping Laura would be able to keep up. Thankfully we survived.
On that same trip we were enjoying dinner in a small restaurant when the ground began to growl. Seriously, this weird rumbling sound began coming out of a grate in the sidewalk just outside the window. We discussed it for while, and then we noticed smoke coming up as well. The rest is kind of a blur, with us going out the back door to avoid the flaming grate, the fire department breaking open a gate in the alley to deliver us, and me finding the owner in the street to pay for dinner (no tip, as the entertainment was terrible), all running together in my mind except for a single moment. We were all standing up to leave when noticed a thin wisp of smoke, not outside in the street, but right there in the room with us, and for just a moment, for one of a handful of times in my life I felt something: panic. In that moment I understood why people in scary situations sometimes quit thinking and just start running, in some cases right toward the source of the danger. And thankfully, once again, Laura was able to keep up.
Feelings are strange, powerful things, and they can help propel us to amazing achievements. A lot of what I write here is about how to think your way to happiness, but of course unhappiness is generally more feeling than thought, and things turn murky when we try to figure out how rational thoughts can reshape sometimes irrational feelings. Sometimes those vague, uneasy feelings are really important: if you are inside a restaurant that is on fire and you just sit there eating your soup and calmly analyzing the smoke in the air, you are unlikely to pass on your unproductive behavior to any offspring.
Without going into too much brain science, that vague sense of unease and that pressing sense of panic happen in a very simple dumb part of your animal brain called the amygdala. This is the part that screams “Run now and ask questions later!!!” and it’s there for situations just like the one in that New York restaurant where there is no benefit in thinking about it, and huge potential benefit for exiting immediately. Remember Tom Cruise trying to get Jack Nicholson to admit that he issued illegal orders in A Few Good Men? He pulled it off by getting Nicholson’s amygdala to ‘hijack’ the thinking part of his brain; even as Nicholson’s mouth was yelling “You’re [absolutely positively] right I did!!!!!” the thinking part of his brain was thinking “This is a really bad idea.” If you have never stood there watching yourself say something you know you will soon regret, you have my congratulations.
So imagine that you have a rotten meeting with a coworker, or you get some lousy feedback, or the doctor leaves an ominous message saying, “We need to talk,” or you aren’t sure even what you are worried about, but whatever it is is making you sick to your stomach…..how do you get past that sense of dread? In short, you need the thinking part of your brain to seize control back from the feeling part, and amazingly, there is a simple way to do that. This process requires five things:
- A pen, pencil, crayon piece of charcoal or other writing utensil.
- A piece of paper, block of wood, palm of your hand, or other writable surface.
- A medium sized gradunza.
- Two cups of sugar.
- Thirty seconds of time.
Here’s what you do.
- In one to three words, define what you are feeling. In the New York street example I was feeling fear or unsafety. In the restaurant it was panic. After a lousy meeting it could be unappreciated, or after lousy feedback it might be hurt, and with the doctor’s message it would probably be dread. Also if your doctor does this a lot you may want to consider another doctor.
- Write down the words on the piece of paper.
- Feel better.
Yes I know that sounds crazy, but neuroscience can now explain why this approach, which goes all the way back to the seventeenth century, works. In short, the process of ‘affect labeling,’ or naming your feelings, shuffles those feelings from the emotional part of your brain into the analytical part. In a sense, the mere act of telling yourself, “Oh, I’m feeling dread” reduces the intensity of the dread you feel, and you spend more energy thinking about the dread (which is not really uncomfortable) and less energy feeling it (which is). You can actually do this exercise without the paper and pen in many cases, and you don’t really need the gradunza or the sugar at all, but I didn’t want it to seem too simple or you might not take it seriously. Hopefully you didn’t borrow the sugar from the neighbor or something; if you did I suppose you can store it in the gradunza.
Here’s the one catch to this whole process: you have to be a bit self-aware, or what some people call mindful. Before you spiral too far into whatever you are feeling, you have to be able to call time out and recognize and own that feeling (which by the way, is probably something you have felt and dealt with before). So a decent way to approach this is to start building a habit of asking yourself this question: “What are you feeling right now?” If you are somewhat emotionally stunted like me, you may need to spend a little time looking at a list of emotion words like this one (which includes some gems like disillusioned and inflamed and sulky) in order to expand your vocabulary.
The last tip for dealing with lousy feelings comes back to one of our three pillars of happiness, context, and involves viewing your feelings from a broader perspective:
- Admit that the situation is painful (see above). Some of us struggle to admit, even to ourselves, that we are hurting. This is an important first step.
- Put this in context; the pain you are feeling is not unique to you, but is part of the human experience. There are no new stresses, no new discomforts, just the same old ones people have been experiencing since day one. Someone else has experienced this, so don’t isolate yourself in your pain.
- Do something that makes you feel concretely better. You have things in your life that make you feel measurably better, so this is time to own your feelings and medicate yourself through behavior, rather than through medication.
Tonight at dinner one of our hosts in Africa was describing how she uses this same technique to help her four year-old calm down. When the little one is totally out-of-her-mind upset over something, the mom asks her simple questions like, “Where is something blue?” or “What are two things you hear right now?” These basic questions help the toddler switch over from feelings she can’t manage or even understand to simple things she can think about. The mom said the results are often almost instantaneous.
I am a huge fan of tips like this, and my own tests over the last several weeks produced glowing results; I hope it fits well in your happiness toolkit. I expect I will be using this technique in a few weeks when we encounter our first hippo…..(back story here).
Getting your feelings out on paper may be new to you, but there is one guy who has gotten pretty famous for addressing his feelings using words, often on Twitter. I wonder what all he is feeling these days….
Read more about this personal therapy technique here.
Follow the African journey with Mark & Laura at: MarkAndLauraPhillips.com