The first example I gave of this taming process was a rather simple one of learning to control the temper that flares up when I am stuck in traffic. Looking at my chart of emotions, we see that I was able to change my response to a negative situation - being stuck in traffic - by simply changing my belief from "I need to do something about that" to "I can't do anything about it." That was a straightforward situation, but I want to go a step deeper to give another example of how to manage your emotions using this philosophical approach. Let's take a look at the holiday angst and worries that plague so many of us these days.
It's mid-December and the days are getting shorter and shorter as we descend into the deepest depths of winter. Our bodies want to sleep more and pack on some pounds to insulate us from the cold. But modern life doesn't accept that. We've lost touch with the rhythms of nature and instead we soldier on with the same working hours and the same expectations of looking great in our skinny jeans. This alone is enough to put us out of sorts and in a grumpy mood, but another challenge is lying in wait on the calendar. Christmas is coming and there are a thousand little errands that need to get done before it gets here. Just when our bodies want to rest more, we decide to pile on more work for ourselves. We start to feel a bit frazzled. Then the questions creep in. Will I get all my shopping done? What should I buy for my friend or loved one? What if they don't like it? Who are we going to see over the holidays? What if the weather's bad? What if my house is a mess? What if the cat pulls the tree down? What if it catches fire? No, wait, that almost never happens. But I do need to cook some special food for everyone. I haven't made a ham since last year. How does that work again? Maybe I should do something different. But oh, what recipe should I use? What if that doesn't work? What if everyone hates it? On and on the questions come and we feel jittery and nervous and unable to sleep. We are plagued by holiday worries, angst, and anxiety. What has happened? Let's look at my chart of emotions and see if that helps us figure it out.
Several approaches arise from this way of looking at our emotions. In some cases, the worries motivate us properly and we respond to the problem with the decision, "I need to do something about that." With steady determination, we make lists of tasks, plans to do them, or assignments to others until our questions and worries subside. Of course, not everyone's life is that simple to take care of. Sometimes the tasks outnumber the ability to handle them, and we need to reconcile ourselves to the fact that, "I can't do anything about it." Depending on the level of importance you place on the tasks that go undone, this will result in feelings of apathy, disappointment, sadness, grief, etc. Those feelings can also be managed through an examination of your values, but let's leave that for another time.
Suppose further, that you have made your list of tasks, done as many as you can, resigned yourself to accepting those that can't be completed, and yet still, your questions remain. Your worries and angst have not left you. As I said, the future is unknown, there will always be questions about it, but you do not have to dwell on that. You can learn to accept this uncertainty in life and spend your energy focusing on other things in order to feel other emotions. Look at the bottom five rows on the chart above. All of them are positive emotional responses that vary depending on whether you turn your attention to various items in the past, present, or the future. Instead of fixating on the uncertainty inherent in the future, you could focus on:
- the past, thinking about how, "I have (just) acted well." Remember the good things you are doing or have done throughout the year. Remember the fun you had, the time you helped someone, the difficult hobby you got better at. The more you focus on these, the more you will be filled with a sense of satisfaction, pride, or happiness;
- the past, but thinking about how, "I like what I have (just) seen." Remember the great things you have seen others do. Remember the present your mother sent you, the time your child cooperated with another classmate, the spouse who said just what you needed to hear, the co-worker who made your job easier, the community fair that raised money for local people who need it. Spend time contemplating these, immerse yourself in the memory by remembering how all five senses recalled the situation, make it come alive, and the body responds with gratitude, affection, wonder, and love;
- the present, thinking, "I have an opportunity" in front of me. If it's a healthy opportunity for the body (I'll leave that to your private imagination) you'll be filled with desire and passion;
- the present, but realizing the opportunity is one for your mind - a new project to complete, a new skill to master, a new fact to learn, a new habit to cultivate - you'll respond with emotions of interest, zest, and excitement; and finally
- the future, thinking about something specific that makes you realize, "My future looks good." Consider that one gift you know your friend will love, the way the house will smell once the Christmas tree is up, the laughs you know you will share with a co-worker at her holiday party. There are some things you know you can expect and look forward to - these will fill you with a sense of hope, boldness, and even fearlessness. Try it now.
Questions about the future will always be there if you want to ask them. They can properly motivate us to prepare ourselves with prudent actions. But if you find that they are leading to neurotic destructive fears...then it is time to know thyself. Understand where these emotions are coming from, feel the tug of the elephant and rein it in by deciding what you would rather focus on. When you learn to do that, the holidays can be a great time for end of year contemplation and celebration. Enjoy it. Bask in the warm emotions of the accomplishments of the past year, the opportunities for fun in the next few weeks, and the confidence that next year, at least some of it will be better. Happy holidays. It's not just a cliche, it can be the truth for you and your emotions.