People who are controlled by their emotions typically have something in common: they tend to only do what feels most comfortable. In other words, their emotions are organized into “feels good” and “feels bad,” not “feels good” or “does good.”
Processing trauma doesn’t feel good but it does good. Procrastinating feels good but it doesn’t do good. The same logic applies to so many things: eating a healthy lunch, heading into the gym for a work out, calling your mother. If you let feelings control your actions, you will never progress in life. You will wonder why you keep circling the same patterns, habits and unhealthy relationships.
This is because you haven’t learned how to organize, or process, how you feel in relation to what you should do and how you need to think.
By organizing your emotions, you are placing them in a context. You are figuring out where they come from, whether or not they serve you, and what they are trying to tell you. You can be conscious of your feelings, but just noticing them isn’t going to help you navigate your life. To do that, you have to be able to recognize them, and then place them, and then oftentimes, use them to your advantage.
Here is how you can begin:
- Make a bullet point list of your feelings. If you need to, wake up in the morning and write a list of notes to yourself that describe the various feelings and thoughts that you’re having. It’s okay if some are contradictory. Your list can look like this: “I feel really exhausted and drained today, and I don’t feel like going to work.” Then: “I feel excited about completing that big project, and for my weekend trip coming up. I want to have my work done before then.”
- Structure your day to honor your different needs. Instead of just trying to push through the project, if you know you’re feeling burnt out, maybe commit to working on it for a few hours and then heading out early to take some time for yourself. People usually live by an unrealistic “all or nothing” mentality. If they feel burnt out, they need a vacation. If they feel inspired, they need to power through the next 12 hours without a break. Neither is a sustainable solution.
- Make a “to worry about” list. In a notebook or somewhere privately on your personal computer, make an ongoing list of things that you need to worry about. Jot down anything and everything that comes up in your day that’s bothering you. Make a special note if it’s something that keeps cropping up in your mind. Designate a time to sit down and review the list. When you do, you’ll realize most of it was nonsense. However, there will be a few points on there that require your attention. Instead of ruminating, make an action plan to address or resolve what’s bothering you. In the end, you’ll gain confidence both by addressing what’s weighing on you, and realizing how unimportant and irrelevant most of your worries are.
By writing down your feelings and identifying where they come from, whether they serve you, and what you can do about them, you are effectively teaching yourself what’s often referred to as “the wisdom to know the difference” between what you can control and what you cannot. However, all of this can only be so effective unless you also get clear on what your long-term goals are.
Identifying long-term goals is an essential part of organizing your emotions, because without understanding what it is you want in the long-term, you aren’t going to know what’s worth suffering for. You aren’t going to be able to identify what’s an uncomfortable feeling that does good versus an uncomfortable feeling that just doesn’t feel good. When people wonder whether or not they are succeeding in life, they tend to reach for other people’s measurements to grade themselves. By comparison, they deduce whether or not they are doing well, which essentially leaves your success being determined by other people’s. Needless to say, this doesn’t bring fulfillment. Instead, really get clear on what you want for your life. The goals should be social, financial, professional and personal.
If you are acting in accordance with your immediate desires, you will be happy until you realize you’re unfulfilled. If you are acting in accordance with your long-term goals, you may be less comfortable, but it will be worth it. Life is a game of identifying what is worth suffering for.
After your feelings are organized, a lot of the real change in your life will happen because you are integrating feeling with action. You are using your feelings to create change in your life, or on the other hand, you are using important, worthy goals to help you persevere through things that are uncomfortable. In that process, you learn that discomfort is not the enemy.
Organizing your feelings is similar to what patients learn in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), though most people don’t actually seek out that kind of treatment until their symptoms are at the point of being unmanageable or extreme enough to warrant help. That’s a shame, because a lot of the principles can help people before they get to that point. Here’s the basis of it:
- Identify the problems in your life. The first step is to recognize what’s wrong, and what’s bothering you so deeply. Without this, no progress can be made.
- Become aware of the thoughts, emotions and beliefs that surround these problems. Patients then learn how their thoughts and feelings surrounding the problems are either creating the problems through false associations or assumptions, or at the very least, preventing them from taking constructive action on them.
- Identify incorrect thinking. Negative thoughts are very often not reflective of reality. They are false or exagerrated ideas about what’s happening, inflated by your emotions.
- Correct the incorrect thinking patterns. By creating new patterns and lines of thinking, you can change your life by first shifting how you see and interpret it.
This is, of course, a very simplified version of what happens in CBT, but the point is that it ultimately assists you in organizing your feelings, identifying their sources, and either correcting or using those impulses to your advantage. People who thrive in life are not controlled by their feelings, but nor do they suppress or ignore them. Our emotions are a signaling system designed to communicate to us what we really need and want. We are no better for not being able to listen to them, but at the same time, we’ll be just as stuck if we let them control everything without analysis or intervention.