Every now and again it’s good to go through and organise your emotional closet. Otherwise, you end up with old, unused stuff, from a bygone era, rattling around in there, taking up precious space from issues that need your undivided attention now.
If you’re stuck in an unhealthy thought pattern, you can end up taking actions that only make your problem worse or keeps you stuck in the same type of situations, basically spinning your wheels without getting anywhere.
When you are anxious or stressed, you’re more likely to self-medicate; with alcohol, with medicines, with drugs, with food or other unhealthy habits. The problem with this is that they will all make you feel like crap once their numbing effect wears off.
Getting down and dirty with your icky-sticky feelings can be icky and sticky, but the enormous mental and emotional capacity that you free up, as a result, is more than worth the trouble.
List your problems or worries
To start organising your emotional closet, you first need to take inventory. Begin by listing what problems and worries you have.
Writing them down might sound counterintuitive, like you’re giving them more power by allowing them to become tangible, but you can’t know how many or what kind of ducks you’ve got unless you get them in a row first.
Cataloguing what problems and worries you really have, will allow you to focus on solving the right problems – rather than spending your time in solving problems that aren’t really that important.
Suss out the core emotion that is upsetting you
As you’re listing your problems and worries, attach the feelings they’re triggering in you.
You can begin sentences with “I feel angry that…” or “I’m feeling stressed about…” or you can simply jot down what feelings arise when you think about a certain problem or worry.
Employ the “So, what?” process
In order to get through your emotional jumble, you need to keep asking “So, what does this mean?” until you hit a personal revelation.
Once you’ve reached that you can begin to unravel where this feeling is stemming from and scrutinise how much of it is based in fact.
When you’re aware of the reasons behind your actions (and have a better understanding of your emotions) you can change your behaviour patterns.
You can stop stress, worry and frustration from taking over and convincing you to behave in a way that you don’t want to.
Watch out for cognitive distortions
The feelings that you uncover through this process can seem brutal. But you need to remain sceptical about your emotions and ask yourself if they’re really true.
Look, I know you think that you feeling upset or angry or anxious matters. That it’s important. Maybe you even feel like because you feel upset that you are important.
But honey, no.
Feelings are just these things that happen, they come and they go. Your emotions are simply biological markers to tell you whether you’re doing the satisfying thing.
Acting on your feelings is easy, almost too easy sometimes. You feel it and you do it. Like, scratching an itch. No further thought required and you’re rewarded with a sense of relief and that feeling stops bugging you – but then that satisfaction is gone just as quickly as it arose. And what are you left with?
Why you need to observe feelings but be critical of them is because your goal is to take action that is good and right. Knowing what is good or right isn’t always clear and it usually requires some thought and introspection.
Doing the right thing can often mean having to fight through your lower impulses, but when you do manage to do the good thing, the positive effects of it last much longer. Doing the right thing builds your self-esteem and adds meaning to your life.
Catch your brain in the cognitive lie
Your brain is a marvellous problem solver and when it lacks information about something, particularly new things it hasn’t experienced before, it will quickly dive into your library of past experiences and extrapolate from the information it has available to it.
Just like it can read words correctly even when they’re all scrambled up:
Tehse wrods may look lkie nosnesne, but yuo can raed tehm, cna’t yuo?
Researchers believe that part of the reason why you can read a text like above is that your brain uses context to make predictions about what’s going to happen next.
Research has revealed that when we hear a sound that leads us to expect another sound, the brain reacts as if we’re already hearing that second sound.
Our brains are continuously anticipating what we will see, hear or feel next. As your brain deciphers each jumbled word in the example above, it’s predicting which words would logically come next to form coherent sentences.
Or in Joey’s case, what French should sound like (but actually doesn’t).
So, when you’re feeling negative about something, you could be experiencing a cognitive distortion. In a nutshell; your brain is telling you a lie based on old thought patterns.
For example, you’re nervous about going to a party and to ease your anxiety you might drink too much to self-medicate.
But is your feeling about this party based on past experience? The last time you went to a party it was a disaster: you didn’t know anyone and when people wanted to have a conversation you kept putting your foot in your mouth and felt like an idiot.
You walked away from that party with a massive vulnerability hangover and swore you’d never set foot at a party again.
But when you were invited again, you couldn’t say no. You could very well be on your way to a chain reaction of anxiety-filled parties, guiding you to think that you need to be tipsy “to let your hair down” and that nobody is interested in you sober.
Maybe, what you need instead, is to recognise that as an introvert you’re easily overwhelmed by large groups of people and that you’re much more comfortable interacting with others one-on-one or in small groups.
You can then make it a point to only attend parties where you know more people and stick to chatting with one or a few people at a time – excusing yourself to freshen your drink or pop to the bathroom when things get overwhelming.
You could also set yourself a time-limit and decide that after 45 minutes of socialising at a noisy, crowded party you’re going to make your excuses and head home for some tea and a good book.
Don’t let your cognitive distortions make you do things you don’t want to do
Recognising a cognitive distortion or negative behaviour pattern is essential if you want to address it.
Once you’ve seen it for what it is, it becomes easier to begin replacing it. Changing it won’t necessarily be as easy as getting rid of an old sweater, but the mindfulness you gain through that process will change your life for the better.
Once you learn what your triggers are you can intervene before you choose your old habits on autopilot.
Write down the thought, belief or behaviour that you want to change and work backwards from it to figure out what causes it.
You need to be objective and look at the evidence to countermand a false belief. If you think you hate going to parties, ask yourself why this is and see if there was a time when you did enjoy attending a party.
Sticking with our example from before, you might start out with the belief that you hate socialising with other people and should just stop doing it.
As you go through the process, you might discover that you actually enjoy spending time with others, so long as it’s in a smaller setting and with delightful conversation. You can then change your behaviour and accept dinner invitations but decline going clubbing.
Some common thought patterns that negatively affect how we approach situations
“It’s all or nothing!”
All-or-nothing thinking is when we have decided that there is no middle ground and anything short of perfect is a failure. Things are seldom this black and white and you can ease up on the expectations you place on yourself and others.
“It’s always like that.”
Overgeneralisation is when we think that because something bad happened once, it will always happen that same way. Keep reminding yourself that things may be different this time around and critically examine your own part in it. After all, doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different outcome is the definition of madness.
“There’s nothing good about this.”
Mental filtering is when you systematically filter out all the positive and just focus on the negative. If you feel yourself falling for this trap, try to find just one thing that you’re feeling positive about. Maybe that one will lead to one more.
“This isn’t going to work out anyway.”
Jumping to conclusions is when you assume how someone feels or thinks, or assume negative outcomes about future events. Remember that you should never ASSUME because it makes an ASS out of U and ME.
“I stubbed my toe, I’m going to die now!”
Magnification or minimisation is when you respectively turn a minor mistake into something monumental in your head or discount your positive qualities. Be critical of your emotions and employ the “So, what?” process until you hit something personally significant.
“I look fat in this dress and that’s all anyone is going to see.”
Emotional reasoning is when you assume that your negative emotion about something must be the truth of the situation. Especially when the situation involves other people, don’t let your own point of view hold you back from understanding how other people see it – otherwise you will never connect with them.
“Who did this?!”
Assigning blame – either to yourself for things you had no control over or others for things they didn’t have any control over. There are always circumstances and pieces of information that you don’t know about, but that critically affect the outcome of any situation.
Don’t rest on your laurels and just let it go, take charge of your own behaviour and look back at events objectively and without looking to assign blame to get a decent idea of what happened and why.
A blame-oriented environment breeds a blaming mentality wherein many behaviours are viewed as justifying criticism and punishment. Blamers also often avoid necessary self-examination to determine their own responsibility in a problem or wrongdoing.
Journaling can help you break through a mental barrier
An old writers’ exercise to clear your head of clutter is to sit down with a blank page and just write whatever thoughts pop into your head for 10 minutes. Unfiltered and unedited.
You’d be surprised at the stuff you can uncover about yourself and your emotional process.
At the very least, you’ll feel a ton lighter just for having unloaded all of that clutter from your head.
Making journaling a part of your routine will help you stay motivated. Take just 10 minutes of journaling each day and work it into your schedule.
If you’re a morning person, you can start your morning with it. If you’re an evening person, you can do it before sleeping – it will even help you sleep better!
If you have busy days filled with meetings, take a break in the middle of the day or even after each meeting, to collect your thoughts and recentre yourself for the next meeting. You will lose nothing by going into your next meeting with a clear head.
If you’re working through a specific issue you can write down the situation the day before and revisit it the next day when you’re journaling.
Questions to ask yourself
- What happened?
- What was the trigger or event?
- What emotion did I feel?
- What were my exact thoughts?
- How did I react?
- Could I, my thoughts, or my behaviours have been different? Weighing the facts of the situation with a calmer mindset, can I determine what exactly was unhealthy for me?
- How can I create new thoughts or behaviours for the future?
Organising your feelings isn’t a tool for invalidating your emotions. It’s a way to be more mindful of why you feel the way you feel and it will alert you to any potential roadblocks.
Remember, not all feelings need a big rework. You have many unique emotions that are big and bold but do not cause any problems with yourself or others.
When you find emotions like joy, calm and confidence hanging around in your mind, allow them to root and take hold until they become your habits.
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