By Jeremy Godwin.
Welcome to Let’s Talk About Mental Health, the weekly podcast about improving your mental health and wellbeing by Australian author and speaker Jeremy Godwin. Each episode focuses on one specific topic and is full of practical advice for improving and maintaining your mental health and wellbeing.
This is Episode 28 and this week I’m talking about feelings – I’ve been talking for a while on Let’s Talk About Mental Health about the fact that the only things that you can actually control are your words, your actions and your feelings… so, this week I’m talking about learning how to manage your feelings even when it might seem completely and utterly impossible. Listen to the podcast now in the Spotify player below or continue reading for the article version.
So much of what we experience in this world is based around what we think and what we feel, and when you’re dealing with mental health challenges like anxiety or depression it can be difficult (and even overwhelming) to deal with the sheer weight of everything that goes on in our minds.
You’ve probably heard the expression “feelings aren’t facts” and it’s a common one to discuss in terms of mental health because so much of what goes on inside our heads can seem real, but it’s not – what we think and what we feel can sometimes be completely unrelated to reality, and instead driven by our fears and our insecurities, so we can choose to let go of thoughts and feelings that aren’t good for us.
With time, and effort, we can learn to manage our feelings and improve our mental health and wellbeing – which is what I’m discussing this week. Let’s start with some definitions and specifically…
What are feelings?
Feelings are all the stuff that’s going on just underneath the surface for each of us; our emotions. Only we can perceive what we’re feeling; what the world sees are our behaviours (manifested through our words and actions). What drives our behaviour is our feelings and our intentions – these in turn are often created by our thoughts, and those are driven by our needs and whether those needs are being met or are unmet.
Thoughts are ideas, opinions and beliefs that form in your mind, often subconsciously, and they can either pop into your head out of nowhere or form as the result of paying attention to something. They can be fact-based or they may have absolutely no basis in fact whatsoever. Regardless, thoughts are not facts; they are reactions – reactions that are driven by a whole range of factors such as (like I said before) whether or not our needs are being met.
Feelings are emotions and they can also come out of nowhere, just as much as they can be a response to what we’re thinking or what’s going on around us.
We each have thousands of different thoughts and feelings each day, many of which can seem to just pop into your head out of nowhere, but they’re being driven by a whole bunch of stuff including how you’re feeling at any given time – for example, if you’re feeling negative then it’s often much easier to focus on negative thoughts than it is if you’re in a positive frame of mind (and in that way it demonstrates the whole ‘positivity breeds positivity’ thing I often talk about, because when you’re feeling positive and thinking positively it becomes much easier to find more to be positive about).
Many of our thoughts and feelings are related to our brain trying to make sense of everything going on in the world around us and trying to understand how and where we fit in, combined with our values and beliefs.
You have pretty much zero control over when and how your thoughts and feelings manifest, which might sound like a funny thing to say in a podcast episode about managing your feelings, but hear me out – trying to control your thoughts is like trying to wrestle cats; virtually impossible and you’re probably going to end up covered in scars for your efforts. What is possible, however, is to take control of what you do with your feelings and thoughts.
There’s a quote by American author Dan Millman which I think sums it up perfectly, and it is:
“You don’t have to control your thoughts. You just have to stop letting them control you.”Dan Millman
The great thing is that thoughts and feelings aren’t permanent, and so if you’re struggling with negative emotions then know that they cannot possibly last forever; we have the opportunity to take control of them and so, with enough time and practice, you can develop strategies to push negative feelings aside or at least handle them differently and be more objective about them.
When you allow your thoughts and feelings to control you, you become a slave to them… and that can make it really difficult to make any kind of positive progress, because you’ll be bogged down by what’s going on inside your head – also, letting negative feelings take over can have adverse effects on your life (such as letting fear hold you back from trying something new or when we say or do things out of anger which causes further consequences for us later).
When it comes to feelings, our goal should ideally be to experience them without letting them control us, without getting stuck in them… let’s talk through feelings a bit more and then get into a discussion about how you do that.
Feelings and choice
We all feel different things based on what’s going on internally and also externally, either in the world we directly inhabit (like our home, our family and our workplace) or in the greater world around us (e.g. Our city, our state, our country, and the planet as a whole), and there is just as much to be learned from negative emotions like fear, anger and insecurity as there is for us to learn from more positive emotions like contentment, excitement and joy.
When it comes to feelings, our society seems to be intent on categorising them as either ‘good’ and ‘bad’ (and let’s be honest here, most of that is tied into marketing and sales of some sort, because we’re often being sold something and told it will stop ‘bad’ feelings or increase ‘good’ feelings), however there isn’t really a ‘good’ or a ‘bad’ feeling; they’re just a reaction to what’s going on internally and externally.
When we label things as good or bad we are putting a judgement on them, and therefore on ourselves… I often say in this podcast that you need to feel what you need to feel and that’s true in pretty much every situation you’ll find yourself in; so, instead of judging, the challenge is to work out why we’re feeling what we’re feeling and then to identify the appropriate way to act on those feelings.
There’s a great quote by Mister Rogers (American television personality) that sums it up;
“There’s no ‘should’ or ‘should not’ when it comes to having feelings. They’re part of who we are and their origins are beyond our control. When we can believe that, we may find it easier to make constructive choices about what to do with those feelings.”Mister Rogers
Let me just repeat that last bit, “make constructive choices about what to do with those feelings” – because I think that’s what all of this comes down to; choosing to respond constructively to our feelings. You’ll never be able to stop specific feelings arising (like fear or anger or sadness), but it’s what you do with those feelings that matters, because that determines what happens next.
Also, I think a lot of the time we’re socially conditioned to have this never-ending focus on the ‘pursuit of happiness’ – but you don’t have to be happy all the time in order to have your feelings under control or even to have a great life; in fact, I don’t believe it is possible for any of us to be happy 100% of the time, because there’s always so much going on in our lives that’s way outside of our control so it’s an impossible goal to chase (I’ve talked before about the idea of pursuing greater satisfaction with your life rather than this goal we’re constantly sold of being ‘happy’ – satisfaction with who you are, what you have and what you contribute to the world is much more likely to make you feel positive than any pursuit of happiness, which is often fleeting… this is a topic I’ll discuss in an episode of LTAMH at some point over the next few months).
Feeling is what makes us human; it’s proof of life. Feelings can be messy and complicated, and they can pull us in all different directions and make it hard to know which way is up, but the challenge is to observe our feelings without letting them control us
Let me quote from a great article in Inc. called How to Control Your Emotions so Your Emotions Don’t Control you (link in transcript: https://www.inc.com/amy-morin/how-to-control-your-emotions-so-your-emotions-dont-control-you.html);
“Managing your emotions isn’t the same as suppressing them. Ignoring your sadness or pretending you don’t feel pain won’t make those emotions go away. In fact, unaddressed emotional wounds are likely to get worse over time. And there’s a good chance suppressing your feelings will cause you to turn to unhealthy coping skills… It’s important to acknowledge your feelings while also recognizing that your emotions don’t have to control you. If you wake up on the wrong side of the bed, you can take control of your mood and turn your day around. If you are angry, you can choose to calm yourself down.”Amy Morin, Inc.com
Managing your emotions isn’t about suppressing them; it’s about objectively addressing them and integrating them into your life; enabling your logical, rational side and your emotional side to work together in harmony so you’re more authentically ‘you’ in everything you do.
The challenge for all of us is to be aware of how our feelings are manifesting in terms of our words and actions, and to know the difference between constructive vs destructive feelings so we can minimise any destructive patterns of behaviour.
Managing your feelings means being able to modulate them. Why does that matter? Because if you can modify your feelings to suit the situation then you have a greater chance of achieving positive outcomes. Think about being in argument with someone – if you allow anger to take over you will likely end up in a screaming match, whereas if you can pause and refocus to instead focus on wanting to find solutions, then you will be more likely to engage with the other person in a calm and rational manner which can lead to more positive outcomes. And think about feeling scared of giving something a try – if you let the feeling of fear take over then you’re unlikely to take any action, whereas if you work through your fear so that you can understand where it’s coming from and then harness it, you’re better equipped to give it a go and then see what happens from there. The choice, as with everything, is always yours.
So how do you control your feelings? Let’s get into the ‘how-to’ part of this week’s topic.
Managing your feelings
Let’s start with a four-step model called PATH which I originally sourced from an article called ‘Ways to Manage Emotions’ by Mental Health America (source: https://www.mhanational.org/helpful-vs-harmful-ways-manage-emotions). The article includes an acronym PATH that I’ve used here, but I’ve changed it slightly and expanded on the steps a bit further, so now PATH stands for Pause, Acknowledge, Think, and How. Let me explain:
[PAUSE] Pause – First, instead of immediately reacting to your feelings, pause and reflect. You might find it useful to count to 10 (or 20, or 100, depending on how strongly you’re feeling). What this does is give your initial instinctive reaction some time to simmer down, so that your logical and rational mind can kick in (which can take a few seconds, especially when we’re in a confronting situation – our fight/flight/freeze response often takes over in the first few seconds).
[ACKNOWLEDGE] Acknowledge what you’re feeling – Rather than just going with the initial feeling, take a moment to identify what it is that you’re actually feeling. For example, are you angry at someone or feeling hurt by their words or actions? Identify what you’re feeling and label it objectively (don’t focus on right or wrong, or try to assign blame – just observe the feeling and label it)
[THINK] Think about why – Once you’re clear on what you’re feeling, think about why you’re feeling that way. Are you actually angry or is the anger a symptom of feeling that you’re not being heard? Often our feelings are driven by deeper emotions, which are tied to whether or not our needs are being met, so the challenge is to consider what’s going on in terms of our needs to understand why you might be feeling what you’re feeling.
[HOW] How will you respond? – Once you understand the reasons why you’re feeling whatever you’re feeling, think about how you want to respond. Whether it’s something going on inside you or it’s external, then how you respond will shape what happens next. If you were arguing with someone and were feeling angry then reacting by shouting will potentially lead to an argument escalating, whereas if you pause, reflect and consider why you’re really feeling angry then you’ll be better equipped to respond in a calm and rational manner (or, at the very least, remove yourself from the situation until you’re able to be calm and rational).
The overarching message here is that just reacting to your feelings means they will control you, whereas taking the time to process whatever you’re feeling so you can understand it will enable you to respond more thoughtfully – and that will likely lead to better outcomes that are less bogged down by pure emotion.
Keep in mind that you can only control your own words and actions (and feelings); you cannot control another person. No amount of huffing or puffing or blowing down of houses will ever make another person act the way you want them to – so, when you’re dealing with other people, focus on being calm and rational (and always remember that old saying, “you attract more flies with honey than with vinegar” – in other words, you’re more likely to end up with a positive outcome by being nice than you would if you are unpleasant).
And then beyond that advice for using the PATH approach to managing your emotions in the moment, there are lots of things you can do to be proactive about managing your feelings (because, as always, prevention is better than cure – so rather than waiting until you’re in a challenging situation, you can do things every day that make it easier to manage your feelings if and when you’re dealing with difficult times). Some of those are:
Talking about your feelings – this is why therapy and counselling are so useful, because they allow you the time and space to work through your feelings in a supportive and non-judgemental environment – and the more you talk about things, the easier it is to figure out what’s really going on inside you so you can deal with the root cause rather than just the symptom (yep, possibility my favourite analogy in the whole wide world!), Speaking of talking, talking about your feelings isn’t a sign of weakness – in fact, it’s a sign of bravery, because it’s a huge part of taking charge of your wellbeing and your overall health. If you keep things bottled up and don’t deal with them, they may escalate and before you know it you’re up the creek without a paddle – so talk about what’s going on and get support where you need it.
Have daily practices that help you to get in touch with your feelings – I’ve talked many, many times in this podcast about the value of daily gratitude practice (where you spend a few minutes quietly reflecting on 5-10 things you’re grateful for) and I do this every morning without fail as a way to start my day off proactively looking for the good, plus I encourage you to have a few minutes of nightly reflection time where you gently reflect on the two or three things from your day that you’re grateful for plus you might like to objectively reflect on one or two things that maybe didn’t go so well and consider the lessons you can learn from them (i.e. What you might do differently next time for a different outcome)… the important part here is not to dwell on negativity or blame (because what’s done is done) but to learn what you need to learn then let it go. Have a listen to the Reflection episode of LTAMH (Episode 12) for advice on this or if you find yourself over-thinking things then check out Episode 4 for advice on dealing with the dreaded over-thinking.
Another daily practice that is really worthwhile is journalling – you don’t need to keep a detailed diary (unless that’s what feels right to you) but just jotting down a few notes about the day can help you to process them and get them out of your head; often, once they’re on paper they take on a different life and a different feeling than when they’re just stuck in your head. I’m one of those people who need to get things out in order to let go of them, so this can be a useful tool. There’s a short article by the University of Rochester called ‘Journaling for Mental Health’ which I’ll include the link to in the transcript if you’re interested (link: https://www.urmc.rochester.edu/encyclopedia/content.aspx?ContentID=4552&ContentTypeID=1)
Mindfulness is a practice I talk about a lot in LTAMH and it doesn’t have to be some kind of elaborate and time-consuming practice; mindfulness, to me, simply means taking the time to slow down and be more aware of our surroundings as well as what’s going on inside us. My favourite way to practice mindfulness is to sit outside and watch the clouds for a few minutes or on a clear night I like to stare up at the sky and enjoy the view of the stars… ‘mindfulness’ really is just about greater awareness of yourself and the world around you, and it’s something you can do anywhere and for any length of time. The more you practice it, the easier it becomes over time to mindfully be aware of your feelings as they’re emerging and I find that, for me, it helps me to be able to label what I’m feeling which pushes me into that PATH approach of pause/acknowledge/think/how.
Look after your mental, physical and spiritual health – I say this a lot and that’s because everything is connected; when I talk about spirituality, I’m not referring to religion (but if that’s what feels right to you then great) but rather I’m talking about having some sort of sense of there being more than just you. Spirituality is highly personal but at its core it is about being more than just an individual; whether that’s feeling a sense of connectedness with the Universe or being a Jedi connected with the Force, looking beyond just your own wants and needs will hopefully help you to make life decisions that aren’t purely focused on yourself.
Choose your mindset – focus on solutions rather than problems. When you look for problems, you’ll find them – so why not choose to look for solutions instead? I’ve known many people in my life (as I’m sure you have) who will happily complain about anything and everything, but when you ask them what ideas they’ve had for rectifying their problems they look at you like you’ve got three heads… misery is a choice, because if we choose to get caught up in all the things that are wrong then that’s all we will see. I totally respect that we all go through challenging times and situations, especially when we’re dealing with mental health issues (and I know about living with depression and anxiety first-hand), but you can still choose to look for solutions and to be optimistic about the potential for things to improve (which feels way better than just throwing your hands up and admitting defeat). You might find that really difficult to do, especially if you’re struggling, which is why my next suggestion is…
Get support – I covered it before with the ‘talking about your feelings’ thing but let me say (as I do most episodes) that you never have to go through anything alone. You can talk to a counsellor or therapist, you can chat with your doctor, you can get support from an understanding and non-judgemental friend or family member, you can join a support group… there are so many different support options available to you and the main thing is that you are never alone, so get support (because many hands make light work)
Summary and close-out
Because when it comes to feelings, what it all boils down to is this: Your thoughts and feelings aren’t real; they’re simply manifestations of how you perceive yourself and the world around you. If we ever find ourselves feeling destructive emotions or thinking negative thoughts, we have the opportunity to change our reality by changing how we feel. It can be a real challenge to do that, especially when we’re struggling with issues like anxiety or depression, but it’s entirely possible to choose our mindset and to choose what we do with our thoughts and feelings. If you let your emotions control you then they will control you; however if you choose to mindfully observe them and seek to understand what they’re really trying to tell you about your needs, then with time and effort you’ll be able to let go of the negative and focus on the positive – and where focus goes, energy flows. Everything in life is a choice, so make the choice to respond to your feelings constructively in order to create a better reality for yourself.
To finish up, let me take a moment to share a quote about this week’s topic that I’d like to encourage you to reflect on and consider what it means to you. This week’s quote is by the Roman emperor and philosopher, Marcus Aurelius, and it is:
“Everything we hear is an opinion, not a fact. Everything we see is a perspective, not the truth.”Marcus Aurelius
That’s it for this week’s episode. Next week I’ll be talking about habits – I’ll be discussing the role of habits in good mental health and wellbeing, and how you can change your habits over time.
I hope you’ll join me for that episode, which will be released on Monday morning in Australia & New Zealand, Sunday evening in the UK & Ireland, and Sunday afternoon in the US & Canada. You can find past episodes and additional content at the website which is letstalkaboutmentalhealth.com.au.
You can find Let’s Talk About Mental Health on Instagram, Facebook and Pinterest – I’ve recently changed the account name to better reflect the focus on mental health and make it easier for new people to identify what LTAMH is all about, so the new username is now @ltamentalhealth on all social media platforms (Instagram, Facebook and Pinterest).
Thank you very much for joining me today – look after yourself and make a conscious effort to share positivity and kindness in the world, because you get back what you put out. Take care and talk to you next time.
PS: If you enjoyed this week’s episode/post, please share it with someone you know because word of mouth is a great way to help other people find Let’s Talk About Mental Health (and I’d really appreciate it if you could take a moment to leave a five-star review on your preferred podcast platform). Thanks!
Let’s Talk About Mental Health.
Because the more we talk about it, the easier it gets.
Let’s Talk About Mental Health. © 2020 Jeremy Godwin.