Feelings, referred to interchangeably as emotions, are a response to what we have been thinking. While we may not always be aware of our thoughts about something, if we stop and pay attention, we can generally tell what kind of emotional state we are in — at the very least, we can tell whether we feel mostly good or mostly bad.
Feelings are very much like the indicator lights on the dashboard of your car — if you are out of gas, the low-fuel light will turn on. If you are focusing on something unwanted, a negative feeling will show up. Your emotional state indicates what you are giving attention to, even if you are not aware of it. When you are experiencing a negative emotion, ask yourself: What am I thinking about that is making me feel this way?
Feelings Are Our Guidance System
Our feelings serve as a guidance system, signaling whether movement toward or away from something is in the interest of our survival and/or thriving. When what you are anticipating feels like something you don’t want, your internal guidance system is telling you that you should probably avoid that thing. The stronger our feeling about an event is, the more we perceive it to be moving us in one direction or another.
Emotions exist on a continuum. People often make the mistake of thinking they can feel only negative or positive emotion. The truth is there are many feelings in between, including the feeling of being neutral or calm.
Negative ------- Neutral ------- Positive
Depressed -- Angry -- Anxious -- Calm -- Excited -- Happy -- Joyful
Whether or not your emotions are pointing you in the direction of thriving has to do with where you start on the subject. For example, if you are depressed because your boss yells at you, and then you start to feel angry because you realize you shouldn’t have to tolerate this behavior, then the anger will feel like movement toward thriving because it is a step up from depression.
However, if you are feeling happy with your relationship with your boss, and then your boss starts to yell at you and you get angry, that is going to feel like movement away from thriving because you have moved down the emotional continuum from where you started. Paying attention to the changes in your emotions can tell you which direction you are going in based on where you started.
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Choice Calculation: Choosing From Possible Actions
Before we act we have to choose from an array of possible actions what we are going to do. If you experience fear in response to something in your environment, you can make many choices. You can avoid the feared object, you can engage it, you can use denial and pretend it doesn’t exist, you can ask for help with dealing with it. But how do you decide?
The full answer is somewhat complex. We know from the field of neuroeconomics, the study of human decision making, that one of the primary things we do is calculate a cost-benefit analysis for the possible alternatives and then choose the option with the greatest perceived benefit at the most minimal cost. However, since we are making rapid decisions most of the time, our brain can’t possibly calculate all the possible choices, so it takes a shortcut by calculating from what is most active in the brain.
Choosing in Autopilot Mode
When we are choosing in autopilot mode, we base our calculations largely on what is most recently active in our mind. If you don’t like the choices you make, it is easy to look back later and wonder why you didn’t make a different choice, but that is often because the benefits of the other choices weren’t present in your mind at the time you made the choice. It doesn’t mean that you didn’t know about the other options; it just means they weren’t active enough for rapid retrieval.
Think about the process of deciding where to go out to eat. You may have come across a new restaurant you see that looks good, and think That’s a place I’d like to try, but a week later, when a friend puts you on the spot and says, Hey, where do you want to go for dinner?, chances are what comes to mind are the same places you always go. That’s because those places are the most active in your mental space.
Behavior Generally Follows From How We Feel
Behaviors are physical responses we make based on our thoughts and feelings; they include activities, interactions, and postures. Behavior generally follows from how we feel — I feel sad, so I stay home and don’t go to the movies with my friends.
What we often don’t realize is that our behavior has a big effect on how we feel. When you feel sad and choose to stay home from the movie, you may end up feeling alone and isolated, which increases the feeling of being sad.
People who behave as though they are depressed feel depressed. If you feel sad but choose to go to the movie anyway and spend time with your friends, you will probably feel better. Behaviors are separate from our feelings, and we can choose behaviors that are different from how we feel.
How Do The Components Work Together?
The components of environment, beliefs, expectations, preferences, feelings, choice, and behavior make up all your experiences. They interact continually, leading us to anticipate an expected outcome, which often reinforces old patterns. Here is an example:
- Environment: Jane gets invited to a party at the last minute.
- Belief: Jane believes that last-minute invitations are not sincere and that the person who invited her doesn’t really want her there.
- Future expectation: Because of her belief, Jane expects that, if she goes, she will have a bad time.
- Preference: Jane decides this is not something she wants.
- Feeling: Jane starts to feel sad about the situation.
- Choice: Jane has several options. She imagines that if she goes it will be unpleasant, and that staying home would allow her to avoid an unpleasant situation. She stops there and doesn’t consider other options.
- Behavior: Jane decides to stay home.
As you can see from this example, the beliefs we hold in the present influence what we anticipate about the future. Jane believed the invitation wasn’t sincere, and as a result, she expected to have a bad time. The process of anticipation led her to generate an emotional response about the event that was consistent with her expectation, long before the event ever occurred.
If she went to the party anticipating that she would not have a good time, Jane would likely show up in a bad mood and choose a consistent behavior, such as sitting in the corner and not talking to anyone, and then go home thinking, I knew I would have a bad time. She would conclude that her original belief had been correct, and now it would be stronger than ever, even though her behavior was what created the negative experience.
Interrupting the Process of Reinforcement with Awareness
We can interrupt this process of reinforcement by becoming aware of our beliefs and the expectations we have of future experiences. Once we have awareness, we can generate new ways to look at the future that bring us closer to what we want.
For example, if Jane had recognized that her negative anticipation was causing her to feel bad, she could have consciously chosen to anticipate something more positive, such as having a good time at the party, whether or not she was invited at the last minute, and then focused on generating ideas for how she could enjoy herself there.
Because the components of our experience are interconnected, changing any one of them will influence the others. If Jane had a different belief — such as, Last-minute invitations are a great opportunity to do something fun and unexpected — all the subsequent components in the interaction would have changed. Jane likely would have anticipated a positive experience, which was something she wanted, and her behavior also would have changed, because she would have gone to the party expecting to have a good time and would have been friendly with other party-goers. Jane had no reason to change her existing belief, which she felt she had good evidence for, based on her past experiences.
On the other hand, Jane could still maintain her belief about last-minute invitations but recognize that expecting to have a bad time wasn’t going to get her what she wanted, and instead consciously change her expectation to something more positive: Last-minute invitations might be insincere, but if I go to the party, I will still have the opportunity to meet lots of new people and I can have a good time anyway.
Changing what she was anticipating, even without changing her present belief, most likely would have changed Jane’s behavior and the resulting emotion in turn, and she would have opened herself up to the possibility of creating a better experience.
We Have The Ability To Observe and Modify Our Behavior
While we are not always in control of what happens in our environment or of what other people think and do, we do have the ability to observe and modify our behavior, shift our attention, and change our thinking, particularly our thinking about the future — which can profoundly change what we experience. If you catch yourself anticipating something unwanted, stop and ask yourself:
Is there something I want more that I could choose to expect instead?
Taking charge of your future starts with being aware of what you are thinking in response to events in your life. Once you are aware of your thought process, you will be able to decide whether you want to maintain negative expectations that are not helping you get what you want, or to act in alignment with a more preferable outcome.
©2014 by Jennice Vilhauer. All Rights Reserved.
Reprinted with permission of New World Library, Novato, CA.
www.newworldlibrary.com or 800-972-6657 ext. 52.
Think Forward to Thrive: How to Use the Mind's Power of Anticipation to Transcend Your Past and Transform Your Life
by Jennice Vilhauer, PhD.
Watch the Think Forward to Thrive Book Trailer
About the Author
Jennice S. Vilhauer is an award winning psychologist at Emory University and the developer of Future Directed Therapy. She has helped thousands of people overcome their depression and reengage their vitality for life by teaching them how to harness the mind's power of anticipation to overcome negative past experiences and develop the skills necessary to create a better future. She is currently the Director of the Outpatient Psychotherapy Program at Emory Healthcare, and has worked at numerous prestigious institutions around the country including Columbia University, UCLA, and Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. Visit her website at www.futuredirectedtherapy.com
Watch an interview with Jennice Vilhauer: CBS news - Future Directed Therapy (FDT)