Monday, April 18, 2011

Transforming Our Feelings

If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself but to your own estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment. –Marcus Aurelius

As we continue our discussion this month on Step 4, Feeling Our Feelings, let’s try to put together some of the concepts we have talked about so far. First, we recognized the importance of identifying and acknowledging our feelings (Nice to Meet You, Mad/Sad/Glad Game). Then we looked at the power we have to choose which feelings to feed (Which Wolf are You going to Feed?), and we identified ways we feed feelings, especially feelings that only serve to cause us suffering because they close our hearts and separate us from other people (Feeding the Wolf).

Our feelings are based on our thoughts and beliefs. Consider how the same event can trigger different feelings in different people. (Think about most any election, for example.) Unlike feelings, we can choose our beliefs. If we can change our thoughts or beliefs, we can change our feelings. The Dalai Lama uses this method of cognitive intervention to replace anxiety-generating thoughts with well-reasoned positive thoughts. I like it because it honors our feelings rather than denying them or repressing them.

Cognitive intervention (which also goes by other names like cognitive behavior therapy or reactive emotive behavior therapy), basically takes us through several steps based on some version of the following questions.

1. Triggering event – What happened that caused an emotional reaction?

2. Feelings – What feelings am I experiencing? How intense are they?

3. Beliefs – What went through my mind? What beliefs do I have about this event?

4. Evaluating beliefs – Do I know for a fact that these beliefs are true? Am I playing head games (amplifying, guessing, identifying, forecasting, blaming, justifying)?

5. Alternative beliefs – Is it possible that other or opposite beliefs are true? Is there another way of seeing this?

6. Feelings – What am I feeling now that I’ve considered other beliefs?

Here’s how it works.

1. Let’s say you are walking down the street and you pass someone you know. You smile and nod, but the person doesn’t acknowledge you. This is the triggering event.

2. You might feel hurt or annoyed or confused.

3. Look underneath the feelings to the thoughts or beliefs. You might think that the person is upset with you, or that the person is a snob. You might think you have done something wrong, although you can’t think what it might be. Or that you are not good enough in some way. Underneath each feeling that you identify, you will find some thought or belief.

4. Ask yourself if you know for sure that these beliefs are true. Go through each belief. Do you know for a fact that the person is upset with you? Or that you are not worthy of a greeting?

5. Consider other possibilities. Is it possible that the sun was in the person’s eyes? Perhaps the person was deep in thought and not aware of the surrounding people. Is it possible that you did nothing wrong to cause this person to ignore you? Perhaps the person was having a really bad day and just not feeling friendly.

6. These thoughts generate very different feelings, even compassion. The event didn’t change, but your feelings are different now because you questioned the underlying beliefs. You have transformed your feelings from ones that increase your suffering and separation into feelings that open your heart and soothe your distress.

I have used this technique in many circumstances. Sometimes, if a distressing feeling is particularly intense and recurring, I have to use it several times with the same event! Give it a try and let me know if it works for you.

Emotions don’t reveal the quality of your life; they reveal the quality of your thinking at any particular moment. –The 4:8 Principle, the Secret to a Joy-Filled Life, by Tommy Newberry

Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things. –Philippians 4:8


  1. Galen,

    This is such a terrific walk through of how to transform feelings. It might seem a little complicated at first, but with practice it gets easier in time. Not that I have mastered my emotions fully, but I'm more spacious and patience than I used to be.

    I love how you are giving us the tips and tricks so we can stop being enslaved by our emotions and find more happiness in life.

  2. Sandra--Yes, it is a little complicated, and this is a simplified version! But once you get the hang of it, is can be done quickly and almost instinctively. Thanks for your comment.

  3. Galen, I still analyze my feelings at times, other times I just feel them, acknowledge they're happening and let them go if they're negative. It's practice and plenty of it and I still have work to do but I have this funny feeling that for as long as I shall live that I will be a work on progress. The moment I think that I have it all figured out is the time when I have to do the hardest work and delve deeper, generally it's my ego feeling all superior but it gets tamed pretty darn quick.

    Yup, always a work in progress. I love your posts, they are like a refresher course for me and for this I thank you!

  4. Hey Galen, I like that you're putting things down in a step-by-step fashion in addressing with our negative emotions. A lot of times we are unable to see or feel clearly. Having the steps laid out simply and easily is very helpful. Our perspective starts to change when we are able to bust our myths or misreading of the situation.

  5. Inspiring as always my dear...

  6. I like how you listed out the steps in this explanation - I have just finished a book about how a woman took her pained, hurt response to losing all her money through blame and then to realizing she was totally responsible and she could still be her happy self in this moment - the process taking her about 3 days because of all the work she had completed over the years and self study.

    It always sounds so easy to make these changes, but it takes practice, practice and then even more practice - and in our "jello-pudding" world view, who truly wants to do the work?

  7. darlin--A work in progress. Me, too! Thanks for your comment.

    Evelyn--When we are emotionally churned up, steps can help. Thanks for your comment.


    Patricia--Taking responsibility is so crucial. Thanks for emphasizing this point.

  8. Going through these reminders helped me once again, Galen. I often try these techniques, I also often forget to use them...I guess practice will help me 'own' them within my being more.

    I remember at college, I had to walk through the common room to get to my dorm room. After a number of months, a friend said she used to think I was super confident and a little stuck up as I walked through with my head held high and eyes straight ahead, not really acknowledging anyone in the room. I could not believe that is how many had perceived me...I walked through that way because I was so unbelievably shy and couldn't get the courage up to say anything to anyone!!!!
    Goes to show how we can make mistakes in how we perceive someone.

  9. JackSamMum--Thank you for sharing a great example of how beliefs that may not be true generate feelings that separate us from others.


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