Thursday, 30 September 2010

Choose what you feel

One of the biggest revelations in my life came about in a counselling session I had. It was pointed out to me that we can choose how we react to things. The idea that anyone 'makes' us feel good, bad, angry, content, happy or sad is a false one. The proof of this is simple. At this moment I am making you feel a certain way. Is it working? What emotion was it that I was projecting to you?

Knowing we have a choice helps us understand why others react to things in ways which can often surprise, delight, shock or worry us - they have the same choice, even if they are not aware of it. You cannot and do not have control of what they feel. Young children are good examples of this - they immediately display what they feel as they feel it. So what happens in our development for us to start believing others are responsible for what we should always take ownership for ourselves?

Next time you find someone does something annoying try stopping yourself reacting and say, "I have a choice in what I feel about this", and then weigh up if it's worth all the time and energy to get upset. Sometimes it is, sometimes it isn't but it then becomes a conscious decision you make.

It took me over a month to even entertain the concept of being in charge of my own feelings after that counselling session. Since then I have been practicing for many years, and the more I practice the calmer and happier I've become. My friends will tell you I still get angry, upset, excited, happy etc, but it's helped me to recognise that those are my reactions and that they are not dependent on others. It has also helped me set boundaries and coping strategies such as time-limits and suitable outlets for my negative emotions so they no longer consume my life. Don't think for a second I don't slip up and find myself still saying that that person "made me feel shit today", but more often than not I'm catching myself doing it and then choose to not let them. It's been very liberating for me, and I hope it will be for you.

Last week my cat died. I had a choice - do I dwell on her not being here anymore and feel miserable or celebrate the eighteen years of wonderful company she gave me? I chose the latter. I still feel sad but less so than I would be had I chosen the former. I won't deny that bereavement and other life-changing events are special cases but even then, being conscious of what we are feeling, that we have ownership of those feelings and can choose what we feel can help. It was after all in counselling for bereavement that I first learned I had this choice and it helped me move on; it helped improved the quality of my life by opting to concentrate on the positives more and more.

Next time...
I will write a little about 'Six Hats' by Edward de Bono. I have a feeling I've loaned my copy of the book out again, but will do my best to enlighten you as to why that too has been so helpful.


  1. Bother I just lost what I'd written cos I hadn't signed in as me!

    Love this Mel - the idea that we choose how we react to others is so simple yet so few of us do it. It's taken me a long time to realise that I don't need others to make me happy.

  2. Glad you approve and it's surprising how many of us need to know that and how often we need reminders!

  3. I have to slightly disagree here.
    Counselling (as a profession) can sometimes perpetuate the myth that we all have this nebulous "free will" and can exercise choice over our reactions to things.

    Choice (decision making) involves complex neurocognitive processes that can go wrong on a basic, physical level. Someone with severe mental illness who has significant neurocognitive deficits or executive dysfunction (in particular) may not be able to "choose" how to react to things if the neuro functions involved in "choice" are not working properly.

    Look up schizophrenia and execute dysfuntion/dysexecutive syndrome/executive functions/frontal lobe.

    The idea that we all have free choice over our feelings, thoughts and behaviour is one of the biggest and most pervasive neurological myths going!
    It makes non-impaired people feel better and to better utilise the choice that they *do* have, but it further stigmatises and punishes those whose severe mental illness involves neurological impairment.

    There are so many seemingly small neurocognitive processes that make up our presence of mind, our awareness, our ability to choose and control our own thinking and behaviour and in some mental illness those processes are dysfunctional/broken/altered on a neurological level. It makes life very hard for some people with some types of severe mental illness when this myth of ultimate control or choice is bandied about so freely.

    The ability to even make any decision at all is a function that can be damaged or dysfunctional. Which option is chosen depends on a myriad of factors including the ability to recognise the significance of different details of the situation, ability to hold it all in mind together for long enough to use a well-informed picture to make the decision, judgement, reality-testing... all these things can influence how a decision is reached and if those factors are impaired then a person does not have the same freedom or capacity to "choose" how they feel or how they react to a situation.

    I sometimes feel that the attempts at destigmatising certain types of milder/moderate mental health problems is leading to greater lack of understanding of and stigma towards the very severe end of the spectrum for whom these things are not true.

  4. I don't disagree with you. I can only comment from my personal experience though. However, are we sure we are not conditioned into believing that there are some conditions are in effect incurable? That some conditions are bereft of all capability of choice? Such things have been proved to be wrong before. Maybe this will be too. I simply don't know either way because I am not privvy to the latest research.

    Equally it could be the case that some conditions involve no capacity for choice. Are we to give up trying to rectify that? It is is down to genetics/physiology then in an age when we are making inroads into understanding DNA and functions of the brain, including how neuro transmitters work, I believe there is still hope to find a solution to such conditions.

    Either way not fighting the stigma will not raise awareness on what could be possible, not increase funding to make such things possible and not help humanity/mankind resolve its problems. Mental illness and well-being are connected, they are therefore relevant to every person on this planet.

    I do not pretend to know everything, nor have the answer to everything, nor to be perfect. I am merely writing this blogsite to share what has helped me overcome my battles with mental illness. Luckily for me, it has largely been caused by environment/events not physiology. I can't rule out there may be a genetic element though, can anyone?

    I would welcome a guest article on more severe conditions if they were written in a balanced format which shares thoughts on what could be possible as well as what people fear may not be.

    Perhaps if we can help find cures for milder forms of mental illness it might lead to cures for the more severe forms.

    I am extremely grateful for your comment it highlights a difficulty I hadn't thought of and I think I will include a comment on it in my next article. Are the mentally ill to compete for acceptance and support now?

    I hope readers will likewise feel at ease to share their own thoughts on this subject. I do not have the monopoly on ideas, solutions, answers. I can only share what has helped me and others I have met. Perhaps collectively we might find those elusive solutions.


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