Ever been caught in the grip of extreme emotions? I’m going to guess that whatever decision you made next probably wasn’t a good one.
When we’re anxious, angry, or sad, we rarely do the smart thing. And that can seriously mess up our lives. At work, in love, or pretty for much anything we do, we need emotional strength to stay cool and do the right thing.
Now dealing with the ups and downs of feelings isn’t anything new. And nor are some of the best solutions. So let’s look at what some ancient wisdom has to say about dealing with difficult emotions. Studying Buddhist mindfulness or Stoicism can take a heck of a long time, so we’ll prune their insights down to five questions that can help you when emotions hijack your brain.
First up: Worrying. When your mind is filled with anxious concerns and doubts, ask yourself this question:
“Is this useful?”
Face it. Your brain can be a pretty crazy place. All kinds of things bounce around in there. And you’re usually pretty good at culling the wacky thoughts. But then you get worried and your brain starts multiplying negative possibilities like crazy. And you make the mistake of taking them seriously.
Remember: You are not your thoughts. Neuroscientist Alex Korb made an interesting distinction when I spoke to him. If you were to break your arm, you would not tell people, “I am broken.” But when we feel worry we’re quick to say, “I am worried.”
Your brain produces thoughts. That’s its job. But that’s not directly under your control, and just because something is in your head, doesn’t mean it’s “you” and should therefore be taken seriously.
When I spoke to Buddhist mindfulness expert Sharon Salzberg, she said this:
“I think one of the issues that we have is that we don’t necessarily recognize that a thought is just a thought. We have a certain thought, we take it to heart, we build a future on it, we think, ‘This is the only thing I’ll ever feel,’ ‘I’m an angry person and I always will be,’ ‘I’m going to be alone for the rest of my life,’ and that process happens pretty quickly.”
But if you are not your thoughts, who are “you”? You’re the person that decides which thoughts are useful and should be taken seriously. The ancient Stoics believed that you are just your reasoned choices; because that’s the only thing fully under your control. So those worried thoughts aren’t you. The decisions you make regarding them are.
You’re not your brain; you’re the chief executive of your brain. You can’t control everything that goes on in Mind Inc., but you can decide which projects get funded with your attention and action.
So when a worry is nagging at you, step back and ask: “Is this useful?”
When I spoke to Buddhist mindfulness expert Joseph Goldstein, he said:
“This thought which has arisen, is it helpful? Is it serving me or others in some way, or is it not? Is it just playing out, perhaps, old conditions of fear, or judgment or things that are not very helpful for ourselves or others? Mindfulness really helps us both see and discern the difference and then it becomes the foundation then for making wiser choices and why the choices lead to more happiness.”
If the worry is reasonable, do something about it. If it’s irrational or out of your control, recognize that.
Next, ask yourself:
“Does the world owe me this?”
Anger comes from entitlement. You feel you’re entitled to something, reality doesn’t bend to your expectations, and boom — you’re punching things. Or people.
Traffic is bad. You get angry. Let me translate that thought process for you: “Traffic should never cause me problems. The world owes me that.” Sound reasonable? Hardly.
Or someone doesn’t do what they said they’d do. You get angry. Now you might reply, “People should do what they say they’ll do! I have a right to be angry!”
Yes, it would be nice if people always followed through, but is that a reasonable expectation? Of course not. You know people don’t always do what they say. Now, you can definitely call them out on it. You can decide to do something in response. But the anger?
That awful feeling is all yours. You had an unrealistic expectation (“People will always do what they say”) and now you’re shocked — SHOCKED! — that they didn’t.
Famed psychologist Albert Ellis (whose work was inspired by the Stoics) led a war against the words “should” and “must.” Anytime you use those words, you’re probably in for some unhappiness because you’re saying the universe is obligated to bend to your will. Good luck with that.
So the solution to anger is to ask yourself: “Does the world owe me this?”
Yeah, it’s a trick question. Because the world doesn’t owe you anything. And the more you think the world owes you, the angrier you will be. Again, it’s all about reasonable expectations. And that’s why Marcus Aurelius said: “Begin each day by telling yourself: Today I shall be meeting with interference, ingratitude, insolence, disloyalty, ill will and selfishness.”
Not a pleasant way to start the day — that I grant you. But he was on to something. Expecting everything to go your way, let alone insisting on it, is a prescription for anger.
I know what some people are thinking: Feeling you’re entitled to nothing in life seems unfair and sad. But don’t forget that you take for granted what you are owed. Not being entitled makes every good thing in life a prize. You either achieved it or you were lucky, and those lead to feelings of pride or gratitude. When you’re entitled, you don’t appreciate anything, and you’re frequently disappointed. Not a good combo.
Maybe you’re not worried or angry. Maybe you’re just overwhelmed by sadness about something. Well, I have a question for you…
“Must I have this to live a happy life?”
Plenty of people have a lot less than you and live a very happy life. If happiness was all about money, then every single person in the developing world would be miserable. People who have lost a loved one, who have become handicapped or, heaven forbid, who have had a bad hair day are all capable of living happy lives.
What do you truly need to live a happy life? As Aurelius said: “Very little is needed to make a happy life; it is all within yourself, in your way of thinking.” So next time you don’t get something you want and it makes you sad, ask yourself, “Must I have this to live a happy life?”
Now, when you’re consumed by negative emotions, it can be very hard to make good decisions. Which means more bad stuff happens, which means more bad feelings. So how do you make smart choices when you feel awful? Just ask…
“Is this who I want to be?”
News flash: There is no singular, concrete “you.” Neuroscientists have poked around at plenty of grey matter, and there’s no spot in there that contains a stable “you.” And Buddhists were saying this over a thousand years ago.
Neuroscientist and Buddhism practitioner John Yates explains:
“We often believe we should be in control, the masters of our own minds. But that belief only creates problems for your practice. It will lead you to try to willfully force the mind into submission. When that inevitably fails, you will tend to get discouraged and blame yourself. This can turn into a habit unless you realize there is no “self” in charge of the mind and, therefore, nobody to blame.”
Tons of things affect your decisions every day. Context, friends and moods all affect what you do and who you are. This is a good thing, because it means you can change.
But it presents a challenge, because it means you need to decide which person you will be today. And this isn’t something you want to get wrong. What is the No. 1 regret people have on their deathbeds? I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.
So who should you decide to be? We can turn to modern science for this answer: Be you on your best day. So when making tough choices, think about whether what you plan to do is aligned with the “you” you’re most proud of.
Merely thinking about your best possible self makes you happier. The Best Possible Self exercise may be most beneficial for raising and maintaining a positive mood. And don’t worry about seeming inauthentic, either. When you act like your best self, you end up showing people what you’re really like, according to the research behind this exercise.
Alright, this has all been very focused inside your head. How can you be emotionally strong when someone you’re dealing with is being emotionally weak or difficult? Ask yourself…
“Have I ever felt that way?”
Whatever they are going through, you’ve probably felt something similar. So be compassionate.
Both Buddhism and Stoicism believe in doing your best to reduce the suffering of others. Buddhism has the four divine abodes: loving kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy and equanimity. And on the Stoic side, good ol’ Aurelius said: “Be tolerant with others and strict with yourself.”
Compassion sounds nice, but does it really produce results? Absolutely. And research shows you get bigger benefits if you do it when you are least likely to want to — during an argument.
Okay, we’ve learned a lot. Let’s round it up and learn the most important part of being emotionally strong…
Here are the five questions from ancient wisdom that will make you emotionally strong:
1. “Is it useful?” Most worrying isn’t. Make a decision to do something or to let it go.
2. “Does the world owe me this?” No. Don’t be entitled. Have realistic expectations and you won’t get angry.
3. “Must I have this to live a happy life?” Probably not. It takes little to make a happy life and there are many ways to get those things.
4. “Is this who I want to be?” Act the way you do when you’re at your best.
5. “Have I ever felt that way?” Respond to others’ problems with compassion and you’ll both have fewer problems.
Eric Barker is the author of the new book “Barking Up the Wrong Tree: The Surprising Science Behind Why Everything You Know About Success Is (Mostly) Wrong.” This piece is adapted from his blog and republished with his permission.