When feeling distressed or upset, we sometimes let our emotions and feelings determine our behaviour. In other words, we let our feelings (anger, sadness, guilt, despair, anxiety, etc.) dictate or determine our behaviour (the things we do, the actions we take). For example “I feel so stressed that I need to overeat” or “I’m so angry I’m going to yell.”
When feelings determine behaviour, you are living your life by your emotion. You are ‘emotion-centered.’
Rather than let feelings determine behaviour, try becoming more ‘action-centered.’ In other words, focus on what you need to do in a situation despite any temporary feeling(s) you may have.
About action-centered living
Action-centered living means that you acknowledge your feelings and learn from them (e.g. “why am I feeling this way?”, “what does my emotion tell me about my situation and what I need to do?”). Once you know why you are feeling a certain way, you then decide upon the best action to take in that situation—what would help resolve the feeling or contribute in a positive way to the situation.
For example, if you are angry, don’t yell (emotion-centered). Instead, take a breath, relax for a moment, and then calmly try to resolve the situation (action-centered).
Or, if you are anxious, don’t avoid the situation (emotion-centered). Instead, think about why you are feeling anxious (e.g. “I am worried that I will not do a good job”) and take steps to prepare yourself or do whatever is most helpful in that situation.
Or, if your mood is low, don’t withdraw from life. Instead, say to yourself “I don’t feel like doing anything right now, but, despite that, I’m going to go outside and walk for 15 minutes”).
Step 1. Identify the ‘emotion-centered’ situation
Using a notepad or computer, identify and write down a situation in which your feelings determine your actions/ Describe a situation that occurred in the past week where you felt a strong emotion (a situation where you felt stressed and reacted a certain way because of those feelings).
Consider: Who was involved? What did you do? What were the circumstances?
Example 1: “Last week, I was so angry at my husband after he stayed out late drinking with his friends that I yelled at him.”
Example 2: “I heard someone criticize my work and it made me very unhappy. I stopped what I was doing and just sat there for the rest of the afternoon without actually doing anything.”
Step 2. Describe your feelings in that situation
The next step is to describe your feelings in that situation. What were you feeling? What were you thinking? What did you fear might happen? What were you experiencing? Use the space below.
Example 1: “I was feeling very angry. I felt as if I was being neglected because my husband didn’t phone me let me know he would be out with his friends. I felt as if I came second in his life.”
Example 2: “I was feeling worthless. I felt as if the work I was doing was of poor quality and that I might as well stop doing it altogether.”
Step 3. Describe what you would do differently if you did not feel the same way
The next step is to describe the action you would have taken if you were in that same situation but not feeling the same way. Imagine what you would do if you were completely calm and free of any negative or unwanted feelings.
Example 1: “If I wasn’t feeling neglected, and angry, I wouldn’t have yelled at him when he got home. Instead, I would have told him that I would like him to call first. I might also have talked about how I really want to feel like I come first in his life and that sometimes it doesn’t seem that way.”
Example 2: “If I wasn’t feeling worthless, I would have continued doing my work the way I usually do…I certainly wouldn’t have sat there wasting time and feeling sorry for myself.”
Use your notepad or computer and describe what you would have done differently in that same situation if you were not experiencing the unwanted or uncomfortable feeling(s).
Step 4. Learn from feelings
What can you learn from your feelings? What does your feeling or experience in that situation say about you? What is the message that your feeling(s) were (or are) giving you? What does this say about you?
About your situation? About what you need to do differently?
Example 1: “I’m learning that I need a lot of reassurance and that I’m not really angry at him. I’m also learning that he really does love me but he doesn’t always know how I feel. Maybe I can work on my need for reassurance and maybe, together, we can work out something that will help us communicate better.”
Example 2: “I’m learning that I need to be less sensitive to what other people think and instead trust my own judgement. I’m learning that I take one person’s opinion and allow that to ruin my mood. I can think of other people who like me for who I am.”
Think about the questions and record your answer and thoughts.
Step 5. Take constructive action
Now that you have identified how you could have behaved differently and now that you have decided what you can learn from your feeling(s) in that situation, ask yourself: “How can I act differently if that same situation arises again?”
Example 1: “If this happens again, I’m going to ask myself whether or not I’m really angry at him because I need reassurance, or because he is being truly inconsiderate. And I’m not going to yell at him about drinking with his friends because that’s not really the issue. I’m also going to ask him to let me know if he’s going to be staying out late, so I can plan my time, too, and we can both have a good time.”
Example 2: “If this happens again, I’m going to ask myself if I’m exaggerating one person’s opinion and whether or not that opinion is worth getting upset about. And I’m going to remind myself that I do good work.”
Step 6. Identify any obstacles
What might interfere with acting differently in that situation if it arises again, or if you feel that same way again (e.g. motivation, forgetfulness, unsure how to behave differently)? Describe your potential obstacles and how you will deal with them if they arise.
For example: “My biggest obstacle is that my feelings will overcome me. If I feel that this is happening, I will take a few deep breaths to clear my mind and decide what I should be doing.”
Step 7. Track your progress
Successful change requires that you track your progress so that you know when you are being successful at changing your thinking. How will you keep track of your progress? Write the details of what you can do.
For example: keep a journal or daily diary, write down your accomplishments every time they happen (e.g. whenever you do something constructive and helpful in a situation rather than act upon your temporary feeling), post a “calendar of success” on your refrigerator, etc.
Step 8. Reward yourself
Finally, a good action plan includes a reward to celebrate your success. How will you reward your progress? How often will you reward yourself?
For example: “The next time I do something positive and constructive, rather than act on the whim of how I feel, I will buy myself a fun magazine to read” or “at the end of each week I’ll reward myself by attending a movie with a friend.”
For more information about mood and related issues, the following resources may be helpful.
- Mood Disorders Society of Canada. https://mdsc.ca/about-us/
- Anxiety Disorders Association of America. www.adaa.org
- The Canadian Network for Mood and Anxiety. www.canmat.org
- Obsessive Compulsive Association. www.ocfoundation.org
- The Anxiety Network. www.anxietynetwork.com