The Workings of Our Minds Series: Emotions

               Many sessions with clients are spent, either directly or indirectly, exploring the dynamics of the workings of the mind.  One of the foundational understandings in this area is that there are 3 inter-related domains of our being: behaviors, thoughts, and emotions.  This post will briefly dive into the third of these aspects: our emotions.

               One powerful realization is that while we do not have direct control over our emotions, we do have a significant degree of control over our thoughts and behavior.  And, as these 3 domains are inter-related, exercising this control over our thoughts and behaviors results in a degree of indirect control over our emotions.  The implications of this understanding are profound, especially if we find ourselves struggling with issues like depression or anxiety.  It points out that we cannot snap our fingers and make a decision to feel better, but there are things we can do (either behaviorally or thought oriented) that can move us in the direction of feeling better.

               The other aspect of our emotions that bears some attention is that our emotional landscape is nuanced and multifaceted.  Therefore, we will not always have easily understood reactions and/or feelings to the events in our lives.  To respect this reality, it is often more productive to use language that emphasizes “both/and” rather than “either/or” dynamics.  When contradictory emotions arise, it can be a confusing and disorienting experience.  But if we keep in mind the “both/and” principle, it can allow us to more easily acknowledge and navigate our nuanced reactions.

               There is a wonderful analogy that captures this: thinking of our emotions like the weather.  This analogy yields 3 powerful realizations:

  1. Multifaceted – as previously discussed, we can experience several emotions in different combinations, much as the weather can combine in an infinite number of combinations.  Think of the combinations of variables of: temperature (hot/warm/cool/cold), atmosphere (sunny/cloudy/gloomy), wind conditions (still/breeze/wind), precipitation (clear/drizzle/rain/storm).  So it is with our different emotions.
  2. We cannot control the weather, but we can prepare for it and react to it appropriately.  If it is rainy, we can grab an umbrella.  If it is cold, we can grab a jacket.  So it is with our emotions.  If you are sad, you can engage with things that will be uplifting.  If you are angry, you can employ things that can help you calm down and look at things from a different perspective.
  3. It won’t last forever.  I live in Arizona and the summers are long and hot.  When it is the middle of summer and it feels like it will never end, I remind myself of the beautiful weather that we have in the winter.  While it doesn’t make it any cooler outside, it does help to persevere.  Knowing that it will not be like this forever can make it more tolerable.  And so it is with our emotions and moods.  Knowing that a depressed mood will not persist forever can make it possible to better tolerate these lows.

Keeping these dynamics of our emotions in mind can aid us in weathering the storms that difficult emotions represent.


The Workings of Our Minds Series: Contemplation, Predictions, and Fantasies

               This will be the first post in a series that explore the many different aspects of the workings of our minds.     

               Please allow me a moment to state the obvious: our minds are complex.  In my counseling practice, most of my day is spent helping people understand these complexities.  To understand the inner workings of our minds allows us to know how to best harness the power and strength that the mind offers.  I would like to focus on one aspect of our mind’s working in this post, and that is the concept of mental rehearsal.

               This concept is relatively straightforward; anytime that we are anticipating events or thinking about the future and possible outcomes, we are engaged in mental rehearsal.  Sometimes this is a purposeful act such as when we are weighing our options on how to handle a situation.  Other times it takes on the more mindless (or not purposeful) form of daydreaming or getting lost in mental fantasies.

               We often regard this latter category as benign and harmless, but it is important that we realize that our mind uses this as rehearsal for performance.  If you find that your mindless fantasies often drift to worst case scenarios and bad outcomes (such as: “I imagine that I won’t be able to reach the goal that I have in mind” or “I can picture how badly it will go when I try to talk to my coworker”), we are inadvertently preparing to make that outcome a reality.   We would be much better served to rehearse success and scenarios with a positive outcome.  Our minds can be a very powerful tool in deciding whether we approach a fearful situation or not and whether or not we successfully navigate the situation.  Our minds can keep us stuck in fear, powerlessness, and anxiety or it can help us to overcome these emotions.

               Now, that doesn’t mean that we need to take optimism to an unrealistic level to where we picture complete smooth sailing with no struggles or barriers to success.  In fact, it can be helpful to try to anticipate some of these hardships, but to focus on our strength and resiliency to cope with and overcome them.

               The main idea here is to remain mindful of the fact that our mind uses our contemplations and fantasies as rehearsal, and we are likely to perform in ways that are influenced by how we have rehearsed.

               Another way that I have heard this framed is using the analogy of going to a gun range.  One of the very first things they tell you in such a setting is to always keep your gun pointed down range.  It is an easy mistake to make to turn around and point the gun somewhere other than down range.  This presents a potentially dangerous situation where you could accidently fire the weapon and hit an unintended target.  If we think of our minds as the gun in this analogy, we want to ensure that we keep it pointed towards the intended target and not let it drift onto unintended targets.

               Our minds operate to help us execute and pursue our goals in ways that are both conscious and subconscious (meaning operating outside of our direct awareness).  Therefore, if we allow our minds to fixate on fantasies or predictions of negative outcomes, we may inadvertently activate the power of our subconscious mind to bring about those outcomes.

               Remaining mindful of which targets we are aiming our minds at can help us harness the full power of our minds to work towards desired outcomes and achieve our goals.