Happiness in this World

Reflections of a Buddhist physician

How to Grow Up

How self-dialogue can help manage irrational feelings

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How often do you become irrationally angry, and even though you fully recognize you're overreacting, still find yourself unable to stop? Do you find yourself hurt by a careless word or gesture and find yourself acting petulantly in hopes the person who hurt you will recognize the damage they've done without you having to tell them how you feel? How about feeling jealous or insecure and showing off for someone you want to impress or make like you?

It's not that any of these feelings are illegitimate. We're not consciously in control of what we feel—at least, not in the moment we feel it (over time we can change our emotional responses, but that takes work). The problem is that we often find ourselves carried away by emotions we often don't entirely understand and mostly don't want, often leading us to wonder: what can we do to better control ourselves?

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The challenge we have in answering this question lies first with the fact that we're not just one self. We're many selves—selves that are quite commonly at odds with one another. If we're dieting and come upon a tempting piece of chocolate cake, two of our selves immediately rise up to do battle, the self that wants to enjoy eating it and the self that wants to avoid the calories. Which is our "true" self? Does that question even make sense? If not, how do we decide to which self we should be true? That is, to which self will we be happier bowing in the long run? Who is this "we" or "I" even asking such questions, anyway?

If we attempt to envision a hierarchy of selves, valuing one above another, we risk something that at first glance might sound quite strange but which ultimately proves itself a wonderfully legitimate concept: we'll alienate parts of ourselves from other parts as if these parts were entirely separate people. And when that happens, when we scoff at some of our selves and their desires, they react just as if they were separate people: they don't like it, and they let us know it. The self that wants that chocolate cake becomes even more fixated on eating it, refusing to allow our attention to focus on anything else. The self that feels wounded for not having received the praise it thinks it deserves clamors for attention by drawing us toward impulsive acts, the more we dismiss its concerns or ignore them, the more petulant it becomes and the more likely we are to say or do something that risks embarrassment. And the self that becomes enraged that it can't have its way only gets madder when we try to rationalize why we didn't, or even shouldn't, dramatically increasing the likelihood of our acting out in ways that damage people—or even things—around us.

In therapy, patients are often taught this "parts model" as a way to give voice to the various conflicting and often "irrational" desires they feel, to legitimize these desires by embodying them as separate people all living within one body, whose concerns they listen to and work to compromise with.

Sometimes, in fact, we only recognize we have these parts by observing our own behavior carefully. "Why did I get so angry about this?" we may pause to wonder. "Why am I feeling so hurt about that?" What makes these questions easier to ask and often frees us to admit truths to ourselves we find unpleasant or even abhorrent is conceiving of the owners of such truths as separate from our "core" selves. If we can reach that mindset, we may actually be able to deactivate our ego enough to acquire some important information.

And once we have that information—once we know, for example, that we feel inferior to our colleagues, or unworthy of our spouse's love—we can do with ourselves what we would do with a cherished friend about whom we learned something similar: comfort and support them. Care about them. Tell them that what they're feeling is valid.

This kind of self-talk, while not the entire answer to managing our "irrational" selves by any means, can still be extremely powerful and effective. Just as people sometimes only need acknowledgment of their feelings—to be heard—in order to feel satisfied, so too sometimes do parts of ourselves. Of course, often that's not enough. Often, some parts of ourselves are too powerfully stirred up for empathetic listening and validation to placate them. But we can't begin to address their issues until we recognize they exist. At which point then we can bring in professional help (such as therapy or anger management classes, etc.).

So the next time you find yourself acting a way that surprises you or that you wish you weren't, don't criticize yourself for it or dismiss your behavior as a fluke, or even worse settle on the first explanation for it that seems to make sense (as we're cognitively biased to do). Take a cue from children: dialogue with yourself. Approach yourself with a genuine sense of curiosity. If you ask yourself why you're feeling the way you are and give yourself permission to answer, you just might come across the real answer. And then you'll have taken the first step on the journey of genuine self-control.

 

If you enjoyed this post, please feel free to visit Dr. Lickerman's home page, Happiness in this World.

Alex Lickerman, M.D., is a general internist and former Director of Primary Care at the University of Chicago and has been a practicing Buddhist since 1989.

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