Sad girl sitting on a staircase
Image by Chloe Lemieux – Pixabay

We’ve all experienced some level of dissatisfaction with the way life is during this ongoing Coronavirus. For some, it has brought on new worries. For others, it has amplified the discontent that was already there.

Whatever the situation, if you’re feeling powerless to change it, remember this:

When you can’t change the situation, you always have the choice to change how you think about it.

Let me explain.

Human Nature

If you have children (or have been around young children for any length of time), you know how incessant the desire to know “why” can be. Children are naturally curious and thirsty to learn. There’s an innate need to understand how things work and to know what they mean. It’s a part of what makes us human. And it’s hardwired into our survival instinct to help us safely and successfully navigate our world.

This meaning-making drive is an automatic response that continues with us throughout our life. We do it unconsciously. And sometimes, it can create problems. There can be more than one reason or meaning for things that happen. (Just ask five people who saw that accident on the road this morning, and you’ll likely get five different versions of the story.) And the one automatic ‘judgment’ you came up with may or may not be true. Whether we’re dealing with other people or events, sometimes we simply “don’t know” the why.

But since not knowing (uncertainty) feels so uncomfortable (unsafe), your brain will keep spinning, searching for an answer, or it will come up with its own “reason why.”

However, suspending judgment can be a healthier, more peaceful option. Here’s an old Taoist story to illustrate.

The Farmer and His Horse

One day the farmer’s only horse runs away. The villagers gather around to give their condolences for him losing his horse. The farmer replies, “Who knows if it’s good or bad?” The villagers are completely perplexed by this. To them, this is clearly a horrible thing that’s happened.

The next day, the horse comes back, bringing 12 wild horses with him. The villagers go back to the farmer to celebrate his good fortune. The farmer responds again, “Who knows if it’s good or bad?”

The next day, the farmer’s son breaks his leg, trying to tame one of the wild horses. The Neighbors are back again, giving their condolences for his son. The farmer repeats: “Who knows if it’s good or bad?”

Then, sure enough, the next day, the army comes through their village looking for able-bodied young men to fight in a war. The farmer’s son is spared because of his broken leg. And the story goes on…. Who knows if it’s good or bad?

What’s the point?

There are three. First off, our automatic judgment tends to be two-dimensional. We think in terms of good-bad, up-down, positive-negative. But rarely are situations black and white. There are lots of “gray” areas in life.

Second. There’s always more than one perspective. I’m sure each of those villagers had their own version of “why” those things were ‘good’ and ‘bad.’ (Have you ever tried to make a decision by group consensus?)

Third. If you’re alive, the ‘story’ of your life is still in progress. Have you ever experienced what seemed like a “bad” thing, but later it turned out to be okay or lead to something even better?

Or maybe you’ve had something happen that seemed “good” at the time, but it ended up with unhappy results?

Life is a continuous story with many phases and transitions. If you’re reading this, there’s more of your ‘story’ to come. And who knows if it will be good or bad?

Because when you’re in the middle of the story, it’s too soon to tell!

Thought-Feeling Loop

Another point to remember is this: whatever thought, reason, or meaning you give to a situation or event will determine the emotion you experience.

Because it’s your thought that creates the emotion: You think a thought, which creates an emotion you feel. Then you have a thought about that emotion, which creates another emotion. Which produces another thought, then another emotional response… And you’re well into a thought-feeling loop – Feeling the way you think. Thinking the way you feel.

Emotional Staircase

If that original thought is negative, your thought-feeling loop will most likely send you down the negative spiraling staircase. And this occurs one thought at a time. You could just as easily have stepped up the emotional staircase into a joyful, even euphoric state of delightful anticipation.

When you’re in a “natural high” good-feeling place, you’re more able to respond to life situations in a creative way. You’re better able to problem-solve and cope with life’s stresses. And best of all, you’re less susceptible to being triggered by people or situations.

In other words, one stress-trigger is not likely to tumble you down into despair. Likewise, when you’re at the bottom of the emotional staircase, one thought will not get you to “joy.” Just as a car can’t go from 0 to 60 in one second, neither can you go from despair to joy in one step.

Better-Feeling Thoughts

If you want to feel better, you’ll need to choose a better-feeling thought, then another better-feeling thought, then another: one step, one thought at a time.

It starts with becoming more aware of your internal thought-feeling loop. Practice checking in with yourself. Notice how you’re feeling. What are (or were) you thinking about? Go at it like a field researcher. Begin to discern the difference between how a negative thought feels, and how a positive thought feels.

Then, the next time you catch yourself sliding down that emotional staircase, stop! Intentionally think something that feels a little better. Then think another thought that feels better. Continue until you’re either feeling neutral, at peace, or something happier about it.

How to Not Get Pushed Down the Emotional Staircase

What if you’re somewhere in the middle of that staircase? You’re feeling pretty good, then someone does or says something that triggers you or pushes your button? Or what if you recall a memory that temps you into a negative thought or feeling?

How do you stay steady and deflect that negative thought pattern?

Throw up some flypaper!

No, really. Imagine holding a piece of sticky flypaper in your hand. And (literally) throw it up into the air. Move your arm as if you were throwing it up. With the arm movement, you can also make a sound with your breath, like loudly blowing it away. (I usually do the arm movement-breath sound with each hand, then both hands together – just for good measure!! πŸ˜‰

After that, immediately think of a positive-feeling thought. Then go on about your day.

Remember, When you can’t change the situation, you always have the choice to change how you think (and feel) about it.

Your brain is hardwired to find meaning, so you might as well intentionally choose one that feels good to you!

What better-feeling thought can you choose right now for that troublesome situation you’re dealing with?

To summarize:

5 Reasons You Don’t (Feel Better)

  1. You feel powerless (because you’ve forgotten that you have a choice)
  2. You believe the ‘reason’ that popped up from your meaning-making, subconscious mind.
  3. You’re allowing the uncomfortableness of ‘not knowing’ get the best of you.
  4. You’ve fallen into 2-dimensional thinking and shut yourself off from other perspectives.
  5. You’re caught in a downward thought-feeling loop and can’t get out.

5 Ways You Can Feel Better

  1. Remember, you always have a choice in how you think about something.
  2. Learn to be okay with “don’t know” and suspend judgment. Because who knows if it’s good or bad.
  3. Don’t jump to (automatic) conclusions. If you’re alive, you’re still in the middle of your’ story.’
  4. Use the thought-feeling loop to your advantage. Choose a better-feeling thought to move up the emotional staircase.
  5. When you get caught by surprise (and your ‘button’ gets pushed), throw up some flypaper to catch that negative thought or feeling before it hits the ground. (Then immediately choose a better-feeling thought!)