In the moment – power to choose

Let me start this week’s post with a “Health warning”; it’s not written for those suffering from clinical depression.

There are some effective therapies for clinical depression. If you suffer from persistent, long-term unhappiness, please seek medical advice.

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What are you feeling at this precise moment?

Stop reading, and feel.

Okay.

Are you feeling happy? Sad? Bored (oh, I do hope not!)? Frustrated?

If you have a negative feeling, ask yourself the question, “Do I want to feel like this?”

Don’t misunderstand me. Feeling negative is okay – when there’s something to feel negative about. But we often persist in negative feelings for much longer than we need to, and this can become a bad habit.

What we feel is, to a certain extent, our own choice. We can choose to feel happy rather than dismal. We can choose to feel tranquil rather than worried.

When you recognise that you have a negative feeling, the first thing to do is to relax physically. Take a few deep breaths and let your tense muscles relax on each exhalation. Let your shoulders drop. See how the simple act of relaxing has made you feel better?

Now that you’ve relaxed, ask yourself why you have a negative feeling.

Often there is a specific reason. For example, perhaps somebody has been thoughtless and rude, leaving you feeling angry. Or you had a row at breakfast with a family member, and you’re feeling fed up.

If you can identify the reason for the feeling, ask yourself whether there’s anything you can do about it. Doing something positive helps deal with the negative feeling. Can you forgive the person who was rude, for example? You’ll feel much better if you do. Can you, perhaps, plan a shared treat with the family member with whom you had a row?

Sometimes there’s no obvious reason for a negative feeling. That’s okay. It’s not a problem.

Whether or not you know the cause of the negative feeling, the next thing to do is to accept it. Don’t try to push it away, imagining you’re strong and can overcome it. There is no shame in having negative feelings. It is emphatically not a sign of weakness. Accept it; recognise it; it’s your feeling, and you own it.

But do you want to go on experiencing it? No. And you don’t need to. You’ve recognised and accepted it, and that gives you the power to make a choice. You can choose to feel positive. So you might choose to replace frustration during a difficult day with acceptance that some days are like that – and in any case the evening will be pleasant. Or you might choose to replace anger with forgiveness – and, hey, let’s get on with the day!

Then relax again. A few deep breaths. Drop the shoulders. Let the muscles of your back relax. Let the new, positive feeling have space. And then move on, in a happier state of mind.

Have a good week!

In the moment – the small stuff

I don’t know about you, but I am sometimes guilty of exaggerating the scale of an irritation. Something quite trivial can annoy me disproportionately.

For example, consider a married couple with different views about using the dishwasher…

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Jeremiah, a curmudgeonly so-and-so, would argue that it’s a labour-saving device. If it’s mostly full and you don’t run it, and you then have to hand-wash dishes for the next meal, then that’s a bit silly. And irritating. Grrrr!

Eve, a committed environmentalist, would argue that the dishwasher consumes electricity and water. If you run it and it’s not full then that’s wasteful. And irritating. Grrrr!

Obviously, there are merits to both points of view.

I suppose it would be possible to do a rigorous calculation of waste, and devise some way of assessing lost convenience. I wonder if that would make any difference to either of them, though…

The much more interesting matter is why we find a small thing like this so aggravating.

Perhaps it comes down to habits of thought, and the rules that we make for ourselves.

Jeremiah looks at why they bought the dishwasher, and his expectation is that this nice machine is going to save him time and effort. Not running it because it’s not full goes against his expectations; it breaks his rules.

Eve looks at the impact on the environment and on their budget, and her expectation is that they must use the voracious machine as efficiently as possible. Running it when it’s not full goes against her expectations; it breaks her rules.

Interestingly, the fact that it’s a small issue doesn’t matter; in fact, it may even make things worse. There are so many things in life that we can’t control, aren’t there? Wouldn’t it be nice to feel that we can at least control the small things?

Of course, Jeremiah and Eve work out that they can solve their difficulty by being considerate of the other’s point of view. (Phew! Marriage saved!). Over the years, they resolve many similar differences. (Congratulations on a long and happy marriage!).

Mindfulness helps with issues like these. Living ‘in the moment’, you practise being aware of your emotions as they happen. You feel, and recognise, the prickle of anger as one of your rules is broken. Because you recognise it, you can deal with it. Jeremiah might find himself thinking “Aha! I’m feeling anger from Eve breaking one of my rules. Hey, you know what? Do I have any right to make rules for her? She’s entitled to her opinion, isn’t she?”

And, even better – it’s not a million miles from there to the position where Jeremiah welcomes Eve’s idiosyncrasies, as being a valuable part of the woman he loves.

‘Amor vincit omnia’ (love conquers all) – when you let it!

In the moment – negative emotions

It’s easiest to open up and be aware of our emotions when we feel secure, and when we think the experience will be a happy one. Often, we have a special place for this. I have several – on Dartmoor, by the River Erme, by the sea, beautiful places where I usually feel happy.

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Despite this, though, there will be times when the emotion is negative. We’ll feel angry with somebody, or upset that something has happened, or let down because we’ve been disappointed. And that’s okay. We don’t feel good every minute of every day, and it would be wrong to expect that.

Mindfulness can be helpful when we recognise and accept a negative emotion as it happens. Note the phrase and accept’. This is a key part of being mindful.

Let me give you an example. Like most people, as I made progress in my career I needed training in new skills. I’ll admit something embarrassing; I’m not very good about being trained! Unless the training was very good, I became critical and argued with the trainer. For years I was probably a bit of a nightmare trainee! Then I started to practise mindfulness.

I needed to recognise and accept when I was becoming angry. That gave me space to ask myself “Why are you getting cross, Penny?”. Usually, the answer was, “Because I don’t think this trainer’s doing a very good job”. To which my mindful self could reply, “So what? They’re doing the best they can. It’s stuff you need to know. Getting cross is a waste of energy and you don’t need to do it.” Little by little I found that recognition of the anger enabled me to let go of it.

That’s a small example. However, if you add up lots of occasions when you’ve appreciated that you’re happy, and lots of occasions when you’ve recognised and dealt with negative emotions, that adds up to a significantly happier life.

One final point. Life has many challenges, both in the physical world and in our mental health. There will definitely be times when you feel a negative emotion and it stays with you. If there is an obvious cause in your circumstances for a negative emotion – bereavement, for example – then mindfulness can help a bit, but of course it’s not a magic bullet. If there is no obvious cause for persistent, frequent or long-lasting negative emotions, then, while mindfulness can help, you would be wise to also seek professional support from a counsellor.

 

In the moment – driving

“How are we today? Are we happy, relaxed, in good shape?” My boss was full of bonhomie at eight o’clock in the morning.

I shrugged. I had a meeting in Coventry at ten o’clock. There was no time to waste in small talk. I drove onto the ring-road, my mind full of my forthcoming meeting. It was going to be tough, explaining to a customer why we were having difficulty meeting his product specification, and persuading him to change it. Even before the meeting I had eighty miles of rush hour traffic to negotiate in a little under two hours.

A silver Ford pulled out in front of me at a roundabout. I swore, and braked harshly. I was too busy checking the other traffic to extend the middle finger of friendship to the idiot, even though he richly deserved it. Still, it wasn’t too long before I was on the motorway.

I’m a careful driver. I don’t break the speed limit. I was in lane two travelling at seventy when this stupid person in a blue Vauxhall wobbled out of lane one right in front of me. He bumbled along at sixty-five. Lane three was full of traffic, so I couldn’t overtake. I just had to sit there grinding my teeth until he completed overtaking the car transporter and pulled back into lane one.

I reached my customer with five minutes to spare, feeling like I’d already done a day’s work.

I felt that other drivers had driven badly, and maybe they had, but did my anger at this do any good? Even if they’d noticed me, would it have changed the way they drive? Of course it wouldn’t.

Driving becomes a lot less fraught when we realise that we aren’t responsible for the way other people drive. It’s not our job to fix their bad habits. There is absolutely no need at all to become angry, because it won’t get us to our destination any quicker, and it might make us less safe.

Mindfulness can help with this. When we practise mindfulness, we aim to become aware of our emotions as they happen. The first step to avoiding anger is to recognise when we are becoming angry. Being aware of the emotion as it happens gives us the space to say, “I don’t need to be angry,” take a deep breath, and relax.

Mindfulness can help us to be more relaxed when driving. Why not give it a try?