Feel Better Now: Don’t Be an Emotional Prisoner:

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The First Step in a Better Life Experience

This ‘first step’ is a tough one. But necessary if you, or I, or your new kitten is to have a better life experience. And, at the moment, I could use a little modification in my life experience. I am sitting atop a stool in a bar in the DFW airport. Four hours after I was supposed to have arrived where I’m going which doesn’t matter because I am miserable and, most important:

  • There’s nothing I can do about my misery, and

  • None of it is my fault. None of it.

Now if you believe me (I believe me) then you are already familiar with the most difficult step in making life better, or even less worse. It’s such a tough step that I’ve seen interns go through two or more years of Bowen Theory and still not ‘get it.’ And did I mention I, who’s had two decades of Bowen Theory training, am absolutely miserable and convinced I have no choice but to stay miserable? The guy next to me with what has to be cough that rattles the glasses on the bar and he isn’t covering his mouth which is probably because the bar ran out of napkins about the same time we stopped drinking because it’s not safe to leave your stool for bodily functions.

Back to this ‘mysterious step.’  This step– that is so obvious that your kindergarten teacher taught the same lesson–this obvious step– that is left untaken more or less continuously by all of us in spite of the efforts of that nice teacher, Dr. Phil, and well, your parents probably even took a few shots at convincing you to take this step when life and other people disappointed you. And that first step is . . .

Drum roll, please . . . woman with megaphone

Take all the attention and energy you have dedicated to figuring out what other people and the world in general are doing wrong to cause your unpleasant emotions—take it all back. Make a plan. Learn something about how emotions really work. Learn about your anxiety and how it makes you crazy. Learn about how your anxiety limits you every single day. Look in the imaginary mirror and admit you are tired of letting your emotions kick you around.

Now, I’m a trained psychologist, so none of that paragraph of haughty suggestions applies to me. Now if I can just the over-tipped waiter to pay attention to his job and bring me some ice, and if I can get Mr. Cough to stop bumping my laptop and if American Airlines can get their act together, well, then maybe I’ll be less miserable. But no, none of them are about to cooperate because who am I to them? Just one more annoying customer. I think they enjoy seeing us suffer like this. In fact, I know they do.

We are unable to experience real change because we are stuck in the belief that our emotions are controlled by what other people do or think or what we ‘think’ they are doing or thinking. In other words, distress is caused by the actions of others. Thus, the way out of distress is to change how others are behaving and thinking. Right?

There are hundreds if not thousands of excellent books on how to switch from an other-focused to a self-focused approach to managing emotions (remember how we lined up to buy ‘The Secret’–same deal), and yet I find myself and clients still slogging around in the familiar swamp of focusing on and trying to change others because we are either ‘stuck’ for what else to do, or, we the process is so ingrained our brain, we don’t recognize that we’re stuck.

Other-focus ‘feels’ automatic and natural. Thus, instead of a lecture only reminding you and me how stuck we are, here are some behaviors you might recognize that give away that you are other-focused instead of self-focused:

Our energy is directed toward manipulating the behavior or thinking of another person or a group. Our goal is to elicit desired responses. “Lexus is a statement, not a car.” “I’m going on the horse feed diet tomorrow.” “She’s dating a doctor.” “She may have a better house, dear, but we have a better ‘address’.”

Our attention is on figuring out who’s to blame. Don’t look at me. I’m the one who said from the beginning this was a mistake.” “I was fine until you make that remark.” “Three times I told you I wanted to watch the game.” “If you would have been on time the evening would have been great instead of this absolute disaster.”

Our attention is on what another person (or group) is doing or thinking. “I know what’s going on. He’s trying to get out of here without talking to me.” “My boss is always coming up with ways to make me look like the bad guy.” “She thinks I’m an idiot because I spend so much time playing with my dogs.”

Our attention is on preventing responses that are threatening or perceived as threatening. “No, I don’t mind.” “I don’t feel anxious around anyone, nothing ever gets on my nerves.” “Let me do that for you. This broken leg doesn’t slow me down much.”

Our time and energy, before and after actual contact, are spent ruminating on real or perceived threatening behavior and thoughts. “I wonder what that comment meant?” “I bet I’ll be the fattest person at the reunion.”

We over-estimate the degree to which the behavior of others is connected to our behavior. “I know she’s not coming because of what I said last week.” “Face it, she doesn’t like me. It’s obvious.” “I have to be careful around Aunt Lou. Last year I chose Aunt Mary’s pie and Aunt Lou still isn’t over it.” “I was never around. His failure is obviously my fault.” “His failure had nothing to do with my lack of availability.”

We tend to over-monitor other people or groups for evidence of threatening behavior such as disapproval or decreased closeness. “He drives straight into the garage without even a wave. Why do I get on his nerves that much?” “Did you see that?” “He ended the message, ‘with love’ but he mentioned the new woman in his office three times.”

We assume we know a great deal about the thoughts and feelings of another person or group of persons without evidence. “All three of Trump’s wives despised him down deep.” “Hillary doesn’t really care about regular people.” “My husband doesn’t really want to go to the bird sanctuary with me. He hopes it will rain.”  “Trump doesn’t really care about regular people.”

We tend to misjudge how much or how little other people are thinking about us. We misjudge our importance—both over and under. “My family won’t miss me at Thanksgiving.” “If I don’t show up for Thanksgiving, my absence will ruin the holiday for everyone.”

We under or over respond to communications. (Remember distance is the flip side of the ‘clinging’ coin—both are efforts to manage anxiety.) “It’s been six . . .almost seven, minutes since I texted her. I’m going to forget the whole thing.” “Oh, I know she said she’d like to make plans, but my phone hasn’t been charged for days, so later.”

We over or under commit to activities out of our need to elicit or prevent a particular response from the person making the request. “Sure, I’ll head up the committee, again. It probably won’t take as much of my time as it did before, because this time I’m sure I’ll get cooperation and help from everyone.” “I promised myself and my dog that I’d stay in and rest tonight, but if you really need a fourth to play cards, I’ll . . .”

We take too much responsibility for the care of the relationship or too little responsibility for the care of the relationship. “I know what I did wrong. I shouldn’t have asked her about college.” “I don’t know my family that well. It’s like we have nothing in common. It’s easier to be with my friends.” “I don’t communicate, that’s just the way I am.”

We get caught up in fairness. “I’m the one who always has to say she’s sorry.” “When is it my turn to talk? Why haven’t you asked me what I think?”

When the other doesn’t behave as expected, and we think the worst. “He didn’t return my call. I knew I’d screw up the relationship. I always do.” “Well, great. Thanks for your opinion. Now my day is ruined.” “She’s twenty minutes late. She’s dead in a ditch for sure.” “If he loved me, he wouldn’t be late.”

When your plans for the future are based on how others will respond. “I’d like to travel on my own, but I don’t think my husband would like it.” “Maybe I’ll stop by later, I’ll check on my wife’s mood.” “I don’t want to go, but I can’t take that disappointed look from everyone.”

This is not to say that the actions of others do not influence who we are and the struggles we face. Of course, they do. When someone parks their bicycle on your foot, it hurts. In the real world we say it hurts, please move your foot. Our focus problems rarely have to do with a bicycle parked on our foot, but a bicycle passing the window on the sidewalk in front of our house.

The switch to self-focus from other-focus has to do with making a shift in the degree to which attention is bound up in the behavior of others. With self-focus there is an increased capacity to attend to one’s own thinking and behavior. My plan is to follow up with MysteryShrink Short and Real Life examples.

That’s my plan unless this Mexican coffee kicks in and I realize that when I told my husband I was going near the border to find a Talavera tile to replace the broken little blue bird on the table . . . that, in fact, “near” the border applies to either side of the Rio Grande and a trek across the bridge wouldn’t exactly be a lie . . .



I'm a psychologist who goes to way too many movies, for the same reason I chose this profession. I love stories. I use movies and novels working with people in my office and during speaking engagements. "You should write some of this down," I kept being told. So, this is it, folks.

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