The secret to feeling how you want to
This week our office switched to a new Electronic Health Record platform (cue tragic music). To anyone who has been through this you know just how hideous it can be. It’s like spending a year practicing for your driver’s license test only to get to the test and find out the care is stick shift and the steering wheel is on the wrong side… then they tell you to drive 300 miles through multiple cities and you need to get there in the next 5 hours.
Let’s just say I’m glad the first week with this new system is over. I made it the 300 miles but it took twice the time, concentration, and energy.
What it didn’t take was tears and suffering. It didn’t take away control of my mood, and no,
I haven’t been trained by Yoda.
What it took was deciding how I wanted to feel, AHEAD OF TIME.
This is really too good not to share. It’s the secret to having the day you want to have, or the life you want to have for that matter. It’s not magic, or just “positive thinking.” It’s a skill, one that takes practice, one that grows the more you do it. It’s like stretching before a long run. It doesn’t take long but if you learn the right stretches and do them every time, it can save you tons of pain.
Now I know a common misconception is that you can't DECIDE how you feel, you “just feel the way you feel.”
Don’t believe this lie, it gives away all your power.
It’s not “just how you feel”, it’s really just how you think. We often confuse the two because sometimes the thoughts aren't even conscious. Maybe it’s a thought we have had for so long it is just a default.
Have you ever said, “I’m just in a bad mood?” or “I’m just having a bad day?” It’s the trap of the “I’m just” sentences. This should be the flashing warning that you need to take a few minutes and figure out what thoughts are spinning around in that head of yours. Nine times out of ten it is an underlying thought that things should be different than they actually are. Worse yet is when we decide ahead of time that we're going to feel bad (ie: “this week is going to awful with switching our whole computer system.)
WHY WOULD I CHOOSE TO THINK THAT?
We might not even realize what we are thinking or what detrimental effects it is having. Let me give you an example.
How many times have you heard someone say “I can’t lose weight because I can’t exercise.” Sounds logical and reasonable. Maybe you even agree with this. Here’s the problem. Weight loss being dependent on exercise is not science. Weight loss is achieved by a caloric deficit. (Save the micro/macro nutrient discussion for another day- this is just an example.) Calories in have to be less than calories out. It’s just math. Sure, increasing your calories out by exercising may help you lose weight. The endorphins from working out may help you deal with emotional eating. But weight loss is NOT DEPENDENT on exercise. Plenty of people lose weight without ever changing their activity level.
So why does this even matter? If you tell yourself you can’t lose weight because you can’t exercise, and you believe this to be true, then you stop even looking for other options/plans/solutions. It changes the way you act because you choose the role of the powerless.
The last thing I want to feel is powerless (some may say I want to be in control all the time.)
The good news is feeling in control is based on what I am thinking and I CAN choose this. So how do we do this? How do we choose our mood the way we choose our food?
Step 1: Identify how do you feel.
This one is usually pretty easy and of course isn’t always negative. It’s a good exercise to stop and acknowledge what those feelings are in the moment. Pick a one word answer; worried, frustrated, happy, accomplished, unsure, irritated, calm, overwhelmed, generous, bored.
Step 2: What thoughts are making you feel this way?
This is where the “I just” sentences can trip you up. If you find that happening, another way to find the thought is to ask yourself “Why am I feeling like this?” and then give yourself all the reasons. Hint: These reasons are going to feel like circumstances or facts outside of your control, not thoughts.
Let’s go back to the example of the new computer charting system
Thoughts: (Why do I feel this way?)
The system isn’t going to work right and it’s annoying to figure it all out
I won’t be able to give good patient care when I am struggling with a new system all week
Who in their right mind starts a new system in the midst of a pandemic?
Everyone is going to be stressed out and complaining.
I am going to be totally exhausted and working extra hours.
Now for any of you who have been through this particular situation, I know you are probably nodding your head in agreement. Sounds about right. If you haven’t been through it, choose your own stressful, aggravating situation. I’m sure you can think of one without too much trouble.
Here’s the problem/good news. None of those thoughts help me and all of them are optional (stay with me, I know you are now doubting my sanity- don’t click away yet).
Step 3: Evaluate the thoughts.
This one’s easy. Do you want to think these things or not? If you are confused, go back to the feeling that you have. Do you want to feel this way? If not, then that is your answer to the thoughts as well.
Step 4: Choose a better feeling (just humor me)
If you could pick any feeling what would it be? As I sat in my living room on Sunday, thinking about the EHR launch scheduled for Monday morning, I asked myself this very question. I wanted to feel calm, productive and kind, not stressed out, irritable, and out of control. Honestly, I didn’t think my jedi skills were up to trying to feel excited or happy but calm, productive, and kind seemed doable.
Step 5: Try on some new thoughts.
So now that you know how you want to feel, try on some thoughts that might create those feelings. Some may fit and some may not. See if there is another angle you can take/believe.
-I can do great work in any situation.
-I can plan my week and my meals to minimize other obligations and get enough rest.
-I have switched systems before. The truth is, this is a better system.
-It’s totally understandable that people will be frustrated, I can show up with compassion for them (and for myself).
-It’s not a big deal if the system doesn’t work 100% right, right away. We can figure it out.
-After this week, we will never have the first week again :)
Step 6: Remind yourself of these thoughts during the day.
Some people choose light sabers as their weapon of choice, I use post-its and sharpies. Yes, I wrote some of these thoughts on a post-it and put it on my computer. I said them out loud to my coworkers. “It’s totally fine, we can figure it out.” Planting that seed of a new thought for someone else is a gift and a kindness, for them and for me.
Is it always easy to choose and practice new thoughts? No.
Is being miserable during a stressful situation easy? No
If it’s going to be hard either way, why not pick the one that feels better?
Either way it's going to be work.
You may be skeptical, I know I was at first. If this works so great, why not just skip the first two steps and pick a nice feeling and go from there?
Believe me- if a short cut works, I take it. This one doesn’t work. If you don’t start with what thoughts you are already having, you won’t be able to process them and let them go. They will stay in the back of your mind, trying to push the more intentional thoughts away. It’s like a kid in the back seat, kicking the driver’s seat while you try and take a pleasant road trip. You can try and think the drive is great and focus on the scenery but until you deal with the beast kicking your seat it’s a lot harder to believe. The underlying (previously unconscious) thoughts sit there, poking holes of doubt in your new thoughts, making it harder to craft your day into one you want to have.
Admittedly when I first started doing this, it was all done in retrospect at the end of a terrible day, or after a disagreement with someone. I couldn’t figure it out in the moment and I would try and change my thoughts after the fact. This works too if you want to feel better about something afterwards, but if you only ever do it after you still end up suffering during the day. Doing it ahead of time will change your life.
I became a nurse to decrease suffering in the world which may sound cheesy but it’s true. Initially I thought this was achieved through managing physical pain and educating patients for self care. Of course this is part of it, but I have learned that we can have pain without suffering. Pain and hardship is a fact of life. Suffering comes from the meaning we attach to it, the stories and thoughts that surround the hardship.
New challenges will always present themselves but I don’t have to suffer through them. I can face them with grace and control (which feels way better). Taking 10 minutes to do this exercise BEFORE facing something hard has gotten me through physical challenges, relationship challenges and work challenges.
We don’t have to suffer.
In the words of Viktor Frankl, neurologist,psychiatrist and holocaust survivor,
“Our greatest freedom is the freedom to choose our attitude.”
Choose wisely. It’s totally up to you.
If this is helpful, I would love to hear from you. If you are struggling to make this work in your life, please reach out, I would love to chat!