People seek help from counselors when they feel bad. No one has ever come into a session with me to complain about their thinking. They come in to say, “I’m really depressed.” “I’m sad and I can’t seem to get over it.” “I am so anxious that I can’t concentrate.” “I get so angry I feel like hitting my children.” That kind of statement.
So, intuitively, we know that bad feelings are a sign that we need help. But we believe the bad feelings are coming from the events, people and circumstances in our life. The expectation people usually start with is that a mentor or counselor will help them to “deal with” their feelings.
They don’t anticipate actually feeling that much better, just coping much better with how bad they feel. They’re usually looking for techniques or strategies, eager to tell me about all the things they’ve already tried that haven’t worked over time. Yoga. Meditation. Art therapy. Long walks. Medication. Massage.
Here’s the thing. If you make a recipe that doesn’t taste good, it’s not going to taste any better if you eat it by candlelight, or eat slowly, or serve bread with it, or use better cutlery, or put flowers on the table. You cooked it. You don’t like it. Smart money says you toss it aside take the recipe out of your recipe file, and stop making it.
Our feelings are the experiences we cook up with the thoughts we bring to mind. If we don’t like them, getting over them is no more of a big deal than scraping a plate into the garbage, avoiding that recipe, and moving on. If you keep cooking up the same combination of stuff, you’ll keep getting the same unpleasant results. We don’t do that with food. Why do it we do it with ourselves?
For me, it was simply not knowing where my feelings were actually coming from. Until someone pointed it out to me, I never noticed that the same people, events and circumstances did not always produce the same feelings, that I often felt completely differently about things at different times. I had just accepted the prevailing view I grew up with that we were always reacting to life, that life could and would make us feel bad or good.
It was a revelation to me that my thinking had anything to do with it. I rejected the whole idea at first. What? I was making myself miserable? I would never do that on purpose! How dare anyone suggest that? But it very quickly dawned on me that if I had the power to make myself miserable, I had the power to make myself anything. Maybe that was actually good news; I could change even if people, events and circumstances around me did not change. Wow!
The only thing in life we really do have any control over is ourselves. We can’t force other people to change; we can’t prevent life events; we can’t pick the historical or demographic circumstances into which we’re born. But we come fully equipped to make the most of our lives, whatever they are. Again, Wow!
We’ve learned to go over and over our same old thinking, trying to understand ourselves, or figure out why we think this or that, or resolve our past traumas by re-living them, hoping they’ll look different to us. As we do this, we feel worse and worse. In my experience of working with people, though, the hardest part of my work is to get them to stop talking about all the negative thoughts they have. “No, but let me explain. You have to see how awful …”
Stop! I’ll stipulate that it’s awful, and I will win the bet every time that if you continue to bring it to mind, you’ll continue to feel awful. I will suggest that as soon as your mind calms and turns elsewhere, you’ll feel different.
This is very clear to me because I stumbled into the Principles that describe how we create our experience of life, the Principles that show us that experience doesn’t create us. We use the energy of life to generate thoughts, constantly. Our mental activity begins when we come into this world and ends when we leave. We constantly create thoughts, which, when they form in our minds, sets a whole bio-psycho-spiritual chain of events in motion, affecting our chemistry, and thus our feeling state. Bad feelings are not our enemies; they are our navigation system. As soon as our feeling state starts to drop, we can be 100% certain that our thinking is not healthy, wise or functional. Whatever we’re bringing to mind, it’s taking us in a direction we don’t want to go. So bad feelings are not something to cope with; they are something to appreciate and use as a guide to slow our minds down. We can just let our thinking pass without paying a lot of attention to the details, until our minds quiet and better feelings return. They always will. And it happens very quickly because thoughts unexamined pass quickly. We are naturally self-righting, but we also have the free will to keep ourselves off balance. As soon as we let go of trying to figure out, organize or control our thoughts, our innate resiliency brings us right back into balance.
Better feelings, good feelings tell us to trust the thoughts we’re having. Once we are operating from a clear head and a quiet mind, the very “problems” that looked so horrible come into perspective. The past takes its place as the past. Present troubles seem more like situations than insoluble problems, and we start coming up with solutions, rather than frustration and upset.
It’s great to know that we are set up to enjoy life. Yes, we can disrupt that by using our power to think against ourselves. Enjoyment and optimism return quickly when we navigate by our feelings, and recognize when to leave our thinking alone.