How do you react when you notice a bad mood coming on? Maybe someone agitates you at work, or you get jealous about a friend’s post on Facebook, or you just feel sad for no reason. There are a few different ways that we can respond to our moods. We might try to suppress our feelings with drugs, alcohol, or food. We might curl up on the couch and procrastinate. We might lash out in anger at someone who doesn’t deserve it.
Personally, I tend to try to talk myself out of my moods. It goes something like this:
[Enter bad mood]
“Ugh…anxiety again? Why am I feeling this way? Why can’t I get myself to stop feeling this way? Am I stressed about work? Or do I have too many personal commitments? Maybe I need to take something off my plate. Or maybe I just need to stop being so high-strung.”
[Mood morphs from anxiety to frustration]
“I’m so annoyed with myself. I’m tired of these feelings. I’ve spent years working on my personal development – shouldn’t I be done with these moods by now?”
[Enter logical problem-solving]
“Ok, I can handle this. Maybe I should do some yoga. Or meditate. Or say some positive affirmations. I don’t think I have enough time to do a full yoga practice so maybe I’ll do five minutes of breathing exercises. With affirmations. But which affirmation should I use? How about ‘I am safe.’ Yeah, ‘I am safe’ sounds good.”
[Begin breathing with affirmation]
“Breathe in: I am safe. Breathe out: I am safe. Breathe in: I am safe. Breathe out: I am…how am I ever going to get all this work done? I’m going to have to put something on the back-burner because it’s not humanly possible to finish all of this by next week. Why can’t I just live in a cabin in the woods and write all day like Thoreau? That would be perfect. Then I would never be stressed. Oh crap – I’m not paying attention to my breath. Breathe in: I am safe. Breathe out: I am safe. Breathe in: I am…”
“What? It’s been five minutes already? I didn’t even meditate properly. I think I said my affirmation four times. And I don’t feel any better.”
[Mood morphs into feeling bad about myself]
“Why can’t I just be a normal person who doesn’t get so stressed out about everything? I’m driving everyone around me nuts, including myself. And I can’t even meditate for five minutes. I’m hopeless.”
Does this line of thinking sound familiar?
When we get upset, many of us start by trying to figure out why we’re feeling the way we’re feeling. Then we try to use reason and logic to talk ourselves out of our feelings. We tell ourselves that everything is ok, or we urge ourselves to suck it up, or we might even tell ourselves to shut up. Notice that all of these solutions are verbal. They all involve trying to get the feeling out of the way so that we can move on with life.
I tend to be a very verbal person. I love writing, and I love talking, so my first instinct is to try to talk myself out of my moods. But I’ve noticed that this seldom works. I usually just end up talking myself into a rabbit’s hole that gets me even more upset. The scientist in me figures that there must be some logical reason why I’m feeling how I’m feeling, and if I can just get to the root cause then I can use tried and true methods (like meditation) to fix it.
Over the years, however, I’ve learned that my True Self doesn’t speak to me in words. It speaks to me in feelings. @BethanyButzer (Click to Tweet!)
So the voice that’s trying to talk me out of my feelings is the voice of my false self, or ego. My ego is scared of feelings. My ego wants to barrel through life and accomplish as much as possible so that I can feel good about myself. My True Self, on the other hand, knows that I’m already worthy no matter how I feel or how much I accomplish.
My feelings are my True Self’s way of speaking to me. If I try to get rid of these feelings by letting my ego talk me out of them, then I’m not listening to my True Self.
But wait, you might be wondering, if I feel like crap all the time, does this mean my True Self is inherently crappy?
It means that there are probably some aspects of your life that need to change in order for you to feel better, and your True Self is trying to notify you of these things. It might be that something external needs to change, like you need to get out of a dysfunctional relationship or leave your job. Or it might be that something internal needs to change, like you need to stop being so hard on yourself or practice some self-compassion.
Either way, the solution isn’t to talk ourselves out of our feelings. The solution is to simply allow our feelings to be exactly as they are. This is a practice that’s common in most forms of mindfulness meditation, which focus on helping us bring our attention to the present moment and to simply observe it without judgement. I find this practice extraordinarily difficult – but extremely healing. Here’s what the conversation above might look like from this new perspective:
[Enter bad mood]
“Ah, anxiety, there you are again. Hello.”
[I bring my attention to my breath. Anxiety continues to move through my perception. Instead of engaging in a conversation with my thoughts, I watch them pass by like credits on a movie screen]
Thoughts pass through:
“Why am I feeling this way?”
“Why can’t I get myself to stop feeling this way?”
“Am I stressed about work?”
[Every time thoughts appear, I bring my attention back to my breath without judgement. And feelings continue to pass through]
“Ah, frustration, you’re here too. Ok.”
[I place one hand on my heart and continue to breathe, accepting all thoughts and feelings as they arise in this moment, without judgement]
You’ll notice that this situation looks fairly similar to my original mental conversation – all of the annoying feelings and thoughts are still there – but the experience of these feelings and thoughts is quite different. After five minutes of situation #2, I might not actually feel any better. However, because I’m simply observing my feelings without judging them, I don’t get caught up in the self-bashing that comes along with not feeling better. Instead, I’m just allowing my mood to run its natural course, knowing that eventually it will dissipate and change into something new.
Two sayings are particularly relevant here: “This too shall pass,” and “Change is the only constant.” In other words, all of your feelings and moods are continually morphing and changing – and passing through. The more you try to wrap an iron fist around them or try to logically reason with them, the longer it will take for them to pass. As Gabrielle Bernstein often says, “You have to feel it to heal it.”
This is one of the main practices that I struggle with every single day. Most of my mental conversations look like the first situation that I presented above. However, sometimes I’m able to practice a little self-compassion by simply allowing my moods to be. And I’m getting better and better at listening to what my feelings (aka my True Self) are trying to tell me. And then, every once in awhile, I have the courage to act on these messages – even when my actions make no logical sense (e.g. quitting my corporate job or moving miles away from my friends and family).
So the next time you sense a bad mood coming on, see if you can give yourself permission to feel, instead of trying to fix it. Treat your feelings like they are visitors who have an important message to share. Listen to the message, then act on it. I bet you’ll experience miraculous change as a result.
Bethany Butzer, Ph.D. is an author, speaker, researcher, and yoga teacher who helps people create a life they love. Check out her book, The Antidepressant Antidote, follow her on Facebook and Twitter, and join her whole-self health revolution.
If you’d like tips on how to create a life you love, plus some personal instruction from Bethany, check out her online course, Creating A Life You Love: Find Your Passion, Live Your Purpose and Create Financial Freedom.
March 9, 2014
*Image courtesy of Susana Fernandez.