How many hundreds of times have the words “I can’t help how I feel!” come out of your mouth? You probably started saying it as a child, and then grew to believe it as an adult.
But what if I told you that this isn’t true? What if I told you that you can help how you feel and you can feel better—because your feelings are not facts.
Most of your emotional reactions in life, how you feel about certain situations, are actually dictated by what you think.
Your mind leads and your heart follows. Sounds counter-intuitive, right?
Consider this example. You’re standing in line at Starbucks and the person in front of you is taking forever. You start to get agitated, even angry and stressed out, because you have places to be and it should not take this long to pay for a cappuccino.
Your heart beats faster, your mind races, and you think, “What is this idiot doing? How dare he screw up my schedule. I’m going to be late because of him!”
And then you notice his cane.
Turns out that the guy taking so long to pay is legally blind and has been struggling to find his wallet. In a flash, your irritation subsides and you feel terrible for having had such uncharitable thoughts!
The thing to note about this scenario is how your emotional reactions, your feelings, were triggered by your perception of reality, your thoughts.
Nothing in the reality of the situation itself ever changed – a man bought a cup of coffee. And yet you experienced a tremendous rollercoaster ride of emotion, from anger to guilt, all based on how your mind told you to experience that reality.
But the bottom line is that your feelings are not facts, and you can change how you feel by changing what you think.
The next time your mind jumps to a conclusion that makes you feel stressed out, angry, insecure or afraid, take a deep breath and calm your body down.
You do not want to try working with your thoughts when you’re in emotion mind—they’re too hot to handle and you won’t make mindful wise mind choices until you cool down. If you need more help calming down you can try this guided relaxation exercise.
Once your body is calmer, ask yourself this one important question that can change your emotional experience:
“Is the way I’m thinking about this situation absolutely true or is there another way to look at this?”
In the Starbucks example, if you had asked yourself that question you might have come up with some alternate ways of looking at the situation, even without knowing all the facts:
“I’m operating under the assumption that this should be faster but the reality is that customer service taking longer than I’d like is often the rule, not the exception.”
“This guy’s slowness is aggravating me right now, but I’ve probably been the slow person ordering before and that probably aggravated other people.”
“I’m taking this too personally, as if this guy is actually trying to make me late when he’s just trying to get his coffee too.”
“The reality is that the 60-90 seconds longer it will take me to get my coffee is not nearly as bad as I’m making it out to be.”
You might find it hard to come up with alternate ways of thinking about the situation when you first start using this tool, but the more you do it the easier it becomes.
When we’re in emotion mind we all tend to fall into some common patterns of negative thinking. If you watch out for them you can use them as short cuts to find the flaws in your “story.” Here’s a cheat sheet: check out this list of distorted thought patterns to see if you’re guilty of any of these.
Although you can’t stop a thought from popping into your head, it’s important to remember that you have the ability to control your own mind.
You can decide whether a thought takes root, gets weeded out or gets bonsai-ed into a more desirable, lasting shape (or story). So give these tips a try and let me know about a “story” you discovered you were able to change in the comment section below.
A version of this post first appeared on Psychology Today.
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