Who’s in charge of your life? on not letting mood dictate your behaviour

I wonder how often I attribute my choices to my mood?  “I wasn’t in the mood to do the dishes,” for example.  Or, “I’d exercise more, but I’m just not in the mood.”  When I think this way, it is almost as if my mood is something outside of me, or something that comes over me without my awareness, knowledge, or permission.   And then I give it the power to decide whether I’ll do the dishes or exercise.

Or maybe (MAYBE) I let my mood dictate my behaviors because I don’t want to take responsibility for my choices.  Somehow it would not be as okay to claim the choice to sit on my couch and not do something.

We often feel like we are subject to the whims of our internal lives, as if our moods and emotions rule us.  I don’t think we were constructed that way:  I think that moods and emotions are information for us but they are not masters and we their slaves.  But when we just react our way through our days without even really noticing our inner life, then it may feel like our feelings are running US.

How do we get out of that?  How do we get to take charge of our own lives?

We first have to have awareness of our thoughts, our feelings, and our body sensations.  We need to be able to notice our vitality affects, for example (energy level), and notice sensations of prickling, tightness, openness or lightness, whateer sensations are present.  We need to be attuned to our own selves as well as to the world around us, and that means that sometimes we have to turn down the stimulation and just check inside ourselves.

Atmospheric phenomenon to which we attribute meaning
Atmospheric phenomenon to which we attribute meaning

Pay attention to the shift in your emotion, no matter how small. When you notice yourself getting more upset or distressed, ask yourself, “What am I telling myself right now?” or “What is making me feel upset?”  It is likely a thought which has occurred to you.  But how might you feel if that thought had not occurred to you?

In other words, how would you feel if you didn’t believe that thought?

Ah….maybe I’d feel just fine, thank you very much.

Conversely, the body can give us messages that we interpret to mean something.  The other day, I felt fabulous…had just finished a long walk with a little running, was working a positive inner dialogue about my progress, was able to notice the trees, the air, the birds…all those things that contribute to my personal sense of well-being (your list will be different).  Suddenly I found myself irritated at some minor frustration, very irritated.  Wait!  How did I get from feeling fabulous to feeling irritated?   I checked in on my thoughts, my experiences, and by body sensations and yes, there it was…the tiniest little bit of aching in my groin from running.  The endorphin flow had slowed, I could start to feel the work that my joints had done, it was painful though only slightly….and suddenly I was easily irritated.  And probably underlying that body ache was some automatic thought…”Oh, this again,” or “Ugh, I hurt,” or “I don’t feel so good,” and so irritation happened.

Mood is a number of things but whether we let our moods dictate our lives is a personal choice.  If I only did things when I felt like it, well, I’d have some pretty severe limits on my life!  So I choose to watch my thoughts and remember that thoughts, mood, and feelings are all part of my body, and they all are fluid and shifting…so I might as well live my life and let my mood catch up with me.

2015-06-25 16.59.47

Anticipation of joy? Or joyful anticipation?

PEI

We leave tomorrow for the week-long bioenergetic retreat in Prince Edward Island.  We have spent a year preparing, with more active preparation going on since January, and accelerating toward tomorrow.  The program begins on Friday evening and runs through the following Friday at mid-day, and each year it draws a diverse group that somehow becomes a community during our time together.   And I can imagine that the people who are joining us from all over the world are preparing, packing, and anticipating.

I have been busy with getting ready, looking after details, checking in with the rest of the team, and preparing myself for the work of therapy.  Body psychotherapists use their bodies in their work, so part of my preparation has been to be sure I do my bioenergetic exercises, to be aware of my sleep and nutrition, to work through any internal logjams that may get in my way.

And now, today, I am feeling that lovely anticipatory excitement that comes up when you are heading off for an experience that is new and also likely to be challenging and deepening and supportive and connecting.   The closest comparison I can get is that feeling I had when I was maybe eight years old of expecting Santa to come and bring presents on Christmas Eve.  There was an element of surprise but also the expectation was that things would be pretty good.

I am looking forward to seeing what gifts the next week brings.  Gifts are not always in bright packages:  in fact, the gifts of the retreat often arrive in the form of difficult feelings, ones we prefer to avoid.  I guess maybe the gifts come when people are offered a time and space to be themselves, bring their struggles, challenges, and their joys, express whatever their bodies need to express, and then see what happens.   Part of my anticipation is that I don’t know what will come up;  part of my joy is that I do know that things will happen, people will have opening experiences, and we will become a community.

I wish you all the gifts that freedom of expression can bring.

 

Morning lupins
Morning lupins

logoblu

 

Reason to change

Boy, do human beings ever dislike change!  We don’t like it when we have change thrust upon us.    If something changes without notice, well, then, I am unprepared, maybe taken unawares, feeling out of step or off kilter.    We prefer to call our own shots, to have predictability in our lives.   We don’t even like it much when the weather changes, even though it is eminently clear that the weather means nothing personal.

When we see the need for change in our own lives, we often resist it.   Even if we want the change, seek it, work toward it, sometimes we get in our own way.   Obstacles arise, apparently by themselves.   Inertia settles into the body.  We may actively sabotage our own efforts to change our behaviour.   Then we give up, saying, “It’s too hard.   I’ve been okay like this so far;  I don’t know why I think I want to change anything anyway.”   Then we settle for living less than our full lives, sighing with resignation.  “I can’t change.   Things just won’t go the way I want them to. There is no hope…”

I respectfully disagree!   Change is possible.  In fact, change is inevitable.   We work incredibly hard to try to keep things, including ourselves, from changing.  But change is going to happen.   We can prepare for it, try to focus it in a particular direction, and let life change us.   The key is letting it happen rather than trying to force it, or force ourselves.

People come into the office wanting something to change.  Sometimes they want circumstances to change, but mostly they know that the change has to come from within.  Sometimes people want harsh measures, and they are particularly punitive with themselves.   “I have to lose twenty pounds and so I am not going to eat anything good for the next two months…”   Sometimes they want me to be punitive with them;  it may be the only kind of relationship they know.  How different it is to allow change rather than to force it!   How different to set an intention rather than create a goal and rigid steps to achieve it!

Change is happening to you, right now.   It is happening to me, it is happening in all of our lives.  What one tiny step can you take right now to move that change in the direction you prefer?  Maybe you can step outside for a walk, or maybe just a deep breath to change your relationship to your work.  Maybe you can email a friend, to change your social connections.  Maybe you can pick up a bit of litter.  Maybe you can send a positive thought to someone you fear, to change how you relate.

If not you, then who?

If not now, then when?

Chicken, egg or something else?

Where do our feelings come from?  And why do we have them?  Lots of time, we might wish we didn’t…feeling deeply sad or rageful or terrified are not comfortable ways to be in our bodies.  We might wish those feelings away.  So why were we made or evolved to have them, anyway?

Okay, those are a couple of Big Questions.   If you have been reading here, you know I have a fondness for the way that Antonio Damasio explains the whole “feelings” thing.  He gets right down to the molecular level and talks about how the body works continuously to keep us alive, to maintain blood chemistry that is compatible with life, to keep our behaviour within limits that will keep us alive, and to activate systems to make dramatic changes when necessary for our survival.
But are our emotions necessary for our survival?  He says probably yes. We apparently cannot even make the simplest decision without our capacity for feelings.   Emotions are a movement in the body-mind (not his term) that result from an accumulation of smaller movements of energy and information, many of which have to do with keeping the body alive.  Emotion is an “image” in the body-mind (he uses that term broadly, to mean any thought, idea, picture, or felt sense) and when we become aware, in our consciousness, of that emotion, then it becomes a feeling.  Everyone doesn’t use this same set of definitions but it is useful to separate emotion and feeling when we are trying to figure out what’s going on with us personally.

Dan Stern talks about categorical emotions but he means feelings.  These are the usual:  happy, sad, angry, afraid, disgusted.  He also talks about “vitality affects” which refers more to the overall energy level you may be experiencing.   You may be low in vitality early in the day, but your overall feeling may pick up somewhat.  We experience these overall “feelings” much more consistently than we have categorical emotions.  Both vitality affects and emotions (feelings) are important, but we tend to ignore the everyday vitality stuff unless it is markedly out of our usual realm.

The point of all of this talk is this:  we have emotions/feelings and we have overall vitality affects, which some people will refer to as ‘mood.’   We have these experiences because they are related to keeping our bodies alive.  But, because we are human beings, we actually make a whole lot more use of our emotions than just staying alive.  Emotions, including both categorical emotion and vitality affects, give our lives colour.  They help us to make decisions, to approach or avoid situations or people, to engage in particular behaviour or react when certain stimuli are present.  We also influence our emotions consciously.   We choose a lot of our activities for the effect we expect them to have on our emotional experience.  For example, we go to movies to be excited, to feel good, to get scared, or to enjoy being with a friend while sharing this emotional experience.  We watch TV because we are ‘bored’ or because we need to be distracted from our thoughts.  We call a friend when we need contact to feel different than we do.  We call our mothers because we need to stop feeling guilty.   Many of our behaviours are motivated by a desire to change our feeling state.

The interesting thing is this:  we THINK that we are in control of our emotional lives, and in fact, we do influence our feelings a lot.  But the connections between what we think, do and feel is part of a hierarchy in the nervous system.  This part, the conscious and modifiable part, is higher on the phylogenetic scale than the part of the system that is just about sustaining life.   That’s probably obvious….feeling happy isn’t a requirement of life, but an adequate oxygen-CO2 balance in the blood is.   So even though we think we are making all kinds of changes to our ‘feeling’ life, the essential and essentially unknowable substrate is how our body is keeping us alive.

So why did I start out talking about chickens and eggs?  This post has taken on a life of its own…I was originally going to compare Al Lowen’s assertion that all thoughts have their beginning as a feeling or sensation in the body to the cognitive behavioural tenet that our feelings are the product of our thoughts.   I guess I still have that post to write…another day.