One of the most common phrases I hear from clients is this: “well, that’s just how I feel, and I can’t help it.” As a therapist, my first response is to validate the client’s feeling; that really is how the person is feeling, whether it’s rational or not. My second response is to challenge the rationality of the belief that feelings cannot be changed; they can.
Unless a person is suffering from a diagnosable mental illness, most people have the ability to change their feelings. If you don’t know how, we will learn in this article:
But let’s first get a few things out of the way:
Our culture has perpetuated a lot of different myths about feelings. For instance, if you’re a guy reading this article, you’ve probably already had a negative reaction to the word “feelings.” Well congratulations my friend, you’ve just experienced the consequences of one of those myths. You’re unable to identify or manage your feelings in appropriate ways because you’ve fallen for our culture’s lie that feelings aren’t manly; except of course anger. Anger is supposedly a socially acceptable feeling for men; but most of the time, anger also happens to be a destructive and unhealthy feeling that solves very little.
Women, you’ve been told by our culture that men are unfeeling automatons. Here’s a secret: men are just as emotional as women; we’ve just been taught to bury our emotions until they finally burst through in anger. If you’re a woman, culture has also told you that you are the opposite of the unfeeling man. You’re practically a basket case of human emotion, a captive to your feelings.
The truth about emotion is that it is a human characteristic. Both women and men experience feelings. Women are emotional and so are men, but none of us are captive to our feelings and none of us are incapable of changing them.
Part of learning to change our negative feelings will be learning to dispel some of these outdated and mistaken myths. Bottom-line; your beliefs about your feelings matter.
Now that we have that out of the way, let’s look at what it actually takes to change negative feelings:
The most important thing you will need to know is this: our feelings do not exist in isolation. Feelings are only one side of a three sided triangle; the other two sides are your thoughts, and your behaviors. To understand feelings, you must also understand the connection that your feelings have to the other two sides of the triangle; feelings, thoughts and behaviors are all integrated very closely, and if you make changes on any one of the sides, the other two sides will quickly catch up.
So then, let’s look at some important steps:
If you are experiencing negative feelings, they are not wrong: feelings aren’t right or wrong; they are either helpful or unhelpful. The real problem is not that you are having a negative feeling; it may just be that you are feeling, the way you are thinking. If you think negative thoughts, you will experience negative feelings.
Thoughts can sometimes be self fulfilling prophecies; if you think you feel a certain way, you will feel that way. Your feelings are able to catch up to your thoughts very quickly.
What we often need to do is work to identify what kind of thoughts we are focusing on; are they helpful or unhelpful, rational or irrational thoughts? If you are thinking unhelpful thoughts, you can expect to have unhelpful feelings. And if you’re feelings seem irrational, it might be because you are thinking irrational thoughts.
Just as your feelings are intimately connected to your thoughts, they are also intimately connected to your behaviors. What are you doing that is making you feel this way, or more importantly, what are you not doing that could help you feel a different way?
If you are wishing that you felt a different way, you may need to physically do something different that will help you in that goal. Our behaviors can sometimes be a direct result of how we are feeling, but the opposite can also be true. Sometimes, feelings are a direct result of something you are doing, or not doing.
Join a gym or club, volunteer, pick up a hobby, play a sport; find a new behavior that will help your feelings and thoughts catch up to what your body is doing.
This is a difficult one to learn because we want so badly to be able to blame our emotional state on someone or something else; that’s what seems to make us feel better, but it really doesn’t.
Of course people do things that upset or annoy us. People do weird, annoying things all of the time. But after our initial emotional response, we are the only ones who are responsible for how we feel.
You have the power to choose how you will react or feel in any given situation, but it requires taking time to think about and identify your feelings. Once you’ve stopped, thought about and identified your emotional state and determined whether it is helpful or unhelpful, you are responsible for choosing what you will do next. You can stew in negative emotions, or you can get up and do something to help yourself. But that is no one else’s responsibility but your own.
Feelings can be difficult to understand, but they are not impossible to understand. We don’t have to be victims of our emotional states. We don’t have to be captive to negative emotional reactions. You can change the way you feel. But it requires work; it involves doing something different; thinking differently, behaving differently, and taking ownership of your emotional state.
Managing emotions requires energy and a commitment to self reflection that many people just find too taxing. But if you want to shake those negative feelings, and you don’t yet think my advice is right, just commit to try this for seven days; you may think and feel differently a week from now.