Many of us don’t act until we feel like taking action. This might work well in some areas of our lives, such as getting our hair cut. But if we wait for the right feeling before being kind to others, starting an exercise program, or practising more patience, we may never take the critical first step. We are at the mercy of our feelings. In other words, although we may feel motivated today, our motivation may wane tomorrow (or in two hours) by which time we may feel like being selfish, being lazy, or snapping at our loved ones. Easily done. However, with a deeper commitment to that which matters to us, we are more likely to stay on track.
Once we see this difference between motivation and a commitment to our values, we can decide to let our values run the show and not be pushed around by unhelpful thoughts and feelings. But what to do with those negative, unhelpful thoughts and uncomfortable feelings when they show up?
One thing we can do is practise “even though”. The feelings are allowed to be there, so let them be. Practising “even though” helps us develop empathy for ourselves, and others. We acknowledge our difficult feelings and thoughts, without letting them dictate the terms.
For example, I have sometimes silently asked myself: “Even though I am feeling tired and cranky, what sort of person do I want to be towards my husband’s friends (my family, my friends)?” My answer (after a deep breath) is usually something like “polite, patient and kind”. My answer guides the intention, which guides the behaviour. Notice, my irritable feelings do not guide how I act next. And by acting in line with my values, I usually make myself feel less irritable! When I don’t do this, I often feel worse than before.
My 9-year-old daughter did a good job today of “even though”. She was irate that her 3-year-old sister (who earlier had dismantled her Lego house!) accidentally upset her 500-piece puzzle. Her frustration levels skyrocketed and my 9-year-old was starting to cry and scream, tempted to give up and sulk.
I sat with her and said: “Even though you are feeling really frustrated and angry right now, you can focus on rebuilding the puzzle. It is possible to feel mad and to keep going with it”. A few more words acknowledging that even though it was hard, she did not have to lash out at her sister, that she could choose to refocus even though she felt angry, and she took a few deep breaths and got on with it.
This might sound like a trivial example, but this practice can be, and has been, applied to the most challenging situations. We have all heard of people who managed to lead meaningful lives in the face of sudden disability or chronic illness, even though it is never easy.
A question I sometimes ask my clients is: “What sort of person do you want to be under trying circumstances?” People say things like loving, reasonable, open-minded, disciplined, tolerant, forgiving, and poised. I ask them if they might be able to demonstrate those qualities even though they feel sad, frustrated, annoyed or fearful. They all agree it might be possible. Some try it and report that it is indeed doable.
I also have asked: “What might you do if you had no more fear?” Clients say things like “meet new people”, “look for a new job”, or “be honest with my partner”. I ask them if they might be able to do these things even though they feel scared? For some, this is the first time they have even considered taking their difficult feelings along for the ride!
Living our commitment to our values means we are no longer at the mercy of our thoughts and feelings, or our motivation, which also ebbs and flows. Living in alignment with our deeper values is liberating and calming. And getting started is easy. In a nutshell:
- Acknowledge how you are feeling in the moment.
- Connect with the deeper values you wish to live out.
- Act according to these values, even though you feel…. (or don’t feel….)
- Take your unhelpful thoughts and feelings along for the ride!
Follow this process by talking it through with your counsellor, writing it down in your personal journal, or working through it silently in your mind. Then notice how good it feels to be guided by something other than your unhelpful mental state.