If you want something to grow, it’s generally a good idea to feed it. Don’t want more? Then don’t feed it. That reasoning seems to hold true for the waistline; what if we apply it to emotions?
Noreen looks back on her teenage years as having been full of difficulty and injustice. The people that she believes should have cared for her instead put her down while favouring others. She felt both ignored and tormented. Life was hard.
Noreen’s fortunes changed as she grew up. She developed relationships with people who truly care for her. Through those relationships and her own persistence, Noreen now has a good life by many standards.
Yet, Noreen can’t seem to enjoy this good life. Rather than feeling happy, she’s angry, sliding into old resentments. She ruminates on her mistreatment, going over and over incidents when others were favoured over her. The injustice eats at her. It seems so wrong.
It may well have been wrong. However, the people who had wronged her are long gone.
Noreen recognizes that she feels worse, not better, when she dwells on her hurt. She knows it’s not helpful. But she can’t seem to stop thinking about it.
According to Glasser’s Choice Theory, an effective way to take control of unhelpful emotions is by taking action.
Here’s an approach that Noreen could try. Picture your choices of emotions on a menu. But instead of food categories such as beverages, appetizers, and entrees, there are emotion categories.
On one side of the menu, you can choose from anger, resentment, loneliness, fear, sadness. The other side offers peace, companionship, love, freedom, purpose, resilience, happiness.
Each menu items connects with actions—the actions that feed that emotion. If you want to evoke anger, for example, you could watch a video of something that you perceive as unjust. You could read anger-arousing news stories, or recall incidents where someone was treated badly.
There are plenty of ways to encourage anger if we choose to do so. Is that the emotion we want to feed?
What if I want something from the other side of the menu, such as joy? What activities support joy? Inspiring stories, uplifting music, and memories of joyful examples of human behaviour. There are also videos (possibly involving cats).
Our individual “menus” offer plenty of choices of action, but they don’t come prewritten for us. It’s not necessarily obvious what behaviours will trigger which emotions. How do you figure it out? Experiment. See what happens. Take note of what you learn.
For example, what emotion comes from walking on the beach? Listening to different types of music? Reading certain books?
Consider even mundane actions. What emotions do you experience after cleaning the bathroom, doing your homework, stacking the woodpile? Positive? Negative? Neutral?
Noreen knows that by choosing to go over and over her past hurts, those hurt feelings become more intense. What if she chose to feed something different, such as resilience?
Actions she could choose would include connecting with people who care for her and know her as a valued friend and a successful, capable adult.
Noreen could dig out her old cards of congratulations. Those thoughts and memories could remind her that while she’s had difficulties, she’s succeeded in spite of them.
If you don’t want to contribute to making an emotion stronger, then it helps to avoid activities that feed it. Try starving it instead. Make a choice from the other side of the menu.
It can take effort to determine what actions will change your emotions. However, when you do figure it out, you may also experience the freedom that comes with having more control over your life!
Do you think this could be a helpful way to deal with emotions?