“Every day may not be good, but there’s something good in every day.”
The reality is you don’t have to act on everything you feel. Still, emotional responses happen so quickly that it becomes challenging to put space between feeling and doing.
It may seem like the answer is to stop responding to life emotionally, but that’s just not realistic. Paul Ekman, one of the foremost researchers on emotion, suggests it’s near impossible to bypass an emotional response because of the way our brains are set up.
Perhaps the best goal is to identify negative feelings quickly and improve your state of mind instead of responding to feelings with more feelings. Odds are, if you choose the latter, you’ll do something you’ll regret later.
1. Get to the root.
If you’ve ever snapped at someone who didn’t say or do anything to offend you, you’re familiar with this common dilemma: you feel something but you’re not entirely sure why. So you start looking for explanations. The kids are too loud. Or the TV’s too small. Or the car’s too dirty.
Maybe you’re afraid of acknowledging someone hurt you because you prefer to avoid confrontation. Or maybe you’re disappointed in yourself but admitting it is too painful. Whatever the case, it’s time to get honest. Lashing out won’t address the problems that are creating your feelings.
2. Be real.
There’s no point in pretending you’re full of sunshine when internally you feel like crying or screaming. You’re entitled to feel the full range of emotions and express what’s on your mind when you need to. Don’t worry about bringing other people down; you’ll only do that if you dwell in negativity.
If someone asks what’s wrong, be honest: “I’ve had a rough day, I don’t feel so great, but I’m sure I’ll feel better when I…”
3. Complete the “I’ll feel better when I …” sentence.
Everyone has something that’s guaranteed to put a smile on their face. Playing with your dog. Watching re-runs of Friends. Jump roping to bad eighties music. It’s helpful to have this Ace in your pocket to pull out when you need a smile.
I know yoga always enhances my mood. I also know when I feel bad I’m less motivated to go to yoga. It helps to remind myself it will be worth it in the end if I push through my discomfort, because yoga always helps, at least a little.
4. Take responsibility.
Sometimes when you’re down, it might feel like you have to stay there. But the truth is we can influence how we feel by choosing what we do. Sitting around sulking causes prolonged sadness. Doing something proactive will help you start to feel better.
When you realize you’re the only thing standing between you and a smile, you get motivated to take action. That’s the thing about feelings: you can’t sit around waiting for them to change. You have to do something to change them.
5. Think it out.
The best way to change how you feel is to change how you think about what’s bothering you. Instead of dwelling on what went wrong, identify what you learned and what you can do with that knowledge to make your next moments better.
Instead of dwelling on everything that’s out of your hands, focus on things you can actually control: how honest you are about your feelings, whether you take responsibility or blame other people, whether you cling to pain or let go. You can’t avoid feelings, but you don’t have to exacerbate them with negative thoughts.
6. Change the story in your head.
Sometimes when you’re in a bad mood, it’s tempting to cling to a story that justifies it, and then retell it over and over like a picture book you’ve heard a million times. And then he said this…And then I did this…And then I messed up…
Visualize yourself closing a book and taking a new one off the shelf. Then start telling yourself a different story—one where you’re not a victim, one where you’re not powerless, one where you’re accepting what happened and moving on so you don’t lose anymore time to that other book.
7. Want to understand.
Even if something happened to create your bad mood, you’re responsible for maintaining it, and it’s easy to do that if you refuse to see the other side of situations. If you want to believe your best friend meant to hurt you, or the world is against you, or your boss didn’t promote you because she’s out to get you.
Instead of fueling your anger for your friend, feel compassion for the pain she must be in; she’d never hurt you on purpose. Instead of thinking the world is against you, put your day in perspective; everyone has bad days. Instead of imaging your boss is out to get you, realize she had a tough choice to make, and you’ll have more opportunities to advance down the line.
8. Uplift yourself.
Diffuse your negative feelings by generating positive ones. Watch something funny and silly on YouTube. Or watch something inspirational that reminds you people are good—life is good. I recommend Validation. Every time I see it I feel good about myself and want to pay that forward.
9. Use the silly voice technique.
According to Russ Harris, author of The Happiness Trap, swapping the voice in your head with a cartoon voice will help take back power from the troubling thought.
When you start thinking about the interview that went downhill, do it as Bugs Bunny. When you rehash the fight you had with your boyfriend, do it as one of those high-pitched mice from Cinderalla. Sound ridiculous? It is. That’s the point.
You’ve tried everything but your mind is still being stubborn. Now it’s a battle of wills: the part of you that wants to let go against the part of you that doesn’t.
Repeat this to yourself: “I still feel bad. I accept it. I know I won’t always feel bad, and it will change as soon as I’m ready.” Simply affirming that you won’t always feel bad—that you’re not destined to feel angry, sad, or frustrated forever—and that you are in control of your feelings might motivate you to let them go.