Do you think that the way you think can change the way you feel? Many people believe that their bad moods result from factors beyond their control. They ask, “How can I possibly be happy? My project is on the rocks. The client is never satisfied.” Or they say, “I’m not particularly successful, and that’s how it is.” Some people attribute their blue moods to their hormones. Others believe that their sour outlook results from some childhood event. Some people argue that it’s realistic to feel bad because they’re ill or have recently experienced a big disappointment. Others attribute their bad moods to the state of the world – the shaky economy, the bad weather, taxes, traffic. Misery, they argue, is inevitable.
Of course there’s some truth in all of these ideas. Our feelings undoubtedly are influenced by external events, by our body chemistry, and by conflicts from the past. However, these theories are based on the notion that our feelings are beyond our control. If you say, “I just can’t help the way I feel,” you will only make yourself a victim of your misery – and you’ll be fooling yourself, because you can change the way you feel.
If you want to feel better, you need to realize that your thoughts and attitudes – not external events – create your feelings. I was introduced to the principle when I read the book by Dr. David Burns, Feeling Good – The New Mood Therapy. He has a clinically proven drug-free treatment for depression.
To illustrate the important relationship between your thoughts and your moods, consider the many ways you might react to a compliment. Suppose I told you, “I think you’re a great person, someone I look up to.” How would you feel? Some people would feel pleased and happy. Some would feel embarrassed, and some would react with annoyance. These different reactions are because of the different ways you might think about the compliment. If you feel uncomfortable, you’re probably thinking, “Ah, she is just saying that to make me feel good. She’s just trying to be nice to me, but she doesn’t really mean it.” If you feel annoyed, you might be thinking, “She’s flattering me. She must be trying to get something from me. Why is she being fake?” If you feel good about the compliment, you’re likely to be thinking, “Gee, she likes me. That’s cool!” In each case the external event – the compliment – is the same. The way you feel results entirely from the way you think about it. That’s what Dr. Burns means when he says that your thoughts create your moods.
You can learn to change the way you think, the way you behave, and the way you feel. You may have noticed that when you feel depressed or anxious you are thinking about yourself and your life in a pessimistic, self-critical way. You may feel anxious and inferior at a social gathering because you tell yourself, “I don’t have anything witty or interesting to say.” These negative thinking patterns actually cause you to feel depressed and anxious. When you think about your problems in a more positive and realistic way, you will experience greater self-esteem and productivity.
I don’t believe that you should try to be happy all the time, or in total control of your feelings. You can’t always be completely rational and objective. Certainly I’m not! I have my share of moments of self-doubt and periods of frustration. These experiences give us the opportunity to examine how our thoughts create our feelings. Then we can decide to shift our thoughts to be more positive and effective. When life gets hard, wouldn’t we all like to feel better?