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Positive New Experiences Can Reshape Our Emotional Life

As we practice responding differently, we condition psychological muscle.

Engin Akyurt/Unsplash
Source: Engin Akyurt/Unsplash

Emotional experience is a fundamental component of health and wellness. Our emotions (physical states) and our feelings (mental associations with emotion) are constantly at work for us. Yet emotions and feelings are often misunderstood. In moments of stress, they may be taken to be our total reality rather than gauges of the state of the world around us and of our own state of functioning.

When taken as our total reality, our experience of emotion can be paralyzing. When realized as tools, they have the power to reshape our experience of life itself, including, perhaps counterintuitively, our experience of emotion and feeling.

One of my graduate professors, Dr. Bill Collins—known to students as, simply, Bill—told us a story about when he was a student at Notre Dame, recalling encountering a friend after a football game. His friend was a member of the Fighting Irish and was angry about how things were going, including the game. His friend, Bill shared, “had a stranglehold on a young student and was evidently intent on beating the you-know-what out of something.” Bill was at a loss for what to do and quite reflexively began crying. All of a sudden, his friend—the football player—took him in and nurtured him, and at that moment, quite unexpectedly, Bill saw change happen in both parties.

Such encounters remind us that people are not the sum of their impulsive thoughts, emotions, feelings, and behaviors and that caring, vulnerable relationships are powerful change agents. Bill taught me that “pathology” is a dangerous and untenable categorization of a person’s experience. He contrasted “providing treatment to people” with “puzzling through a process with someone.”

Engin Akyurt/Unsplash
Source: Engin Akyurt/Unsplash

Especially when we’re going through difficult times, we may hear repeating, only partially accurate, unhelpful messages in our own heads. We must invoke higher values, weightier truths, and unseen hope to go to battle with the tyrannies of momentary affliction. We are not merely our emotions or our feelings, and we’re certainly not our circumstances. We have far more control over how we behave and the choices we make than over our emotions, feelings, or even our thoughts. Though we have limited control over our emotions and feelings, we can remain open to new experiences. Experience shapes emotion, and new experience can reshape emotion.

We often try to affect change in our emotions by not feeling our emotions or by changing our thoughts or behavior. But the best way to change one emotion is with a new emotion, one experience with a new experience. In other words, do something different, or even, do something differently. As we practice responding differently to emotion, we condition psychological muscle. Experience begets experience, and in the process, we may even demystify problems, rendering them less powerful over us. In so doing, we become more flexible and resilient.

Our emotions channel important feedback. We get to choose, to a significant extent, what we do with that feedback. My professor Bill told me of another friend whose father would never let him finish anything without taking over. His friend would, for instance, begin to use a screwdriver just as his father had asked, and before he could finish, his father would grab it from him and say, “Oh, just give me that.” His friend wrestled for years with emotions of resentment and shame. Those kinds of experiences leave long-lasting impressions on a person‘s sense of self-worth and competency. As therapists, Bill reflected, “we are to help others unpack and re-purpose their conclusions about who they are.”

Engin Akyurt/Unsplash
Source: Engin Akyurt/Unsplash

Our emotions, thoughts, and actions are mutually reinforcing. It is easy to become stuck, so to speak, in counterproductive thinking patterns, well-worn emotional ruts, and self-defeating habits. But that dynamic of mutual reinforcement can also be part of the solution. When any change is affected, there is a rippling effect. And a paradigm-shifting global crisis is actually a decent opportunity to make some constructive changes in our lives, to shape new experiences—from gardening to having meaningful conversations with distant friends or family, cooking a new recipe or gathering the family for a game together, starting a new journal or cleaning up old drawers or better yet, old habits.

If you're feeling stuck, consider connecting with a therapist who will puzzle through a process with you. As you may have already heard, therapists everywhere are now offering teletherapy.

To find a therapist near you, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.