When you have major changes going on in your life, or you’re just frustrated about where you are, it’s easy to get trapped in a cycle of depression, bad moods and frustration. I know, I’ve been there … and when I’m not careful, I still get there more than I want to.
But when I’ve had a particularly hard time, I hit these moments where I’m in a foul mood, or I’m just feeling paralyzed, and I’m just stuck. Sometimes I just stew in that and stay there, but sometimes I actually get intelligent and pull my way out of it.
I’m going to outline the framework that I’ve been using successfully to really get myself resourceful and motivated (and in a better mood) when I’m feeling stuck. Hopefully it will help you, too, and if you do I truly hope you’ll share it with others.
First Up: Using A Framework to Escape From Paralyzing Emotions
When we feel bad, it’s hard to “feel good” again. You can’t just wish yourself better, and when you’re in a stuck place, you don’t generally have the mental energy to pull out. Willpower doesn’t help, and “positive thinking” sure as hell doesn’t help. But falling back on a framework of steps does help, because we humans function well when we have a set of steps to follow.
The reason for this is that steps take the emotion out of our situation and give us direction to simply act. Duck and Cover. Stop, Drop, and Roll. When you know with certainty what to do next, you’re in a much stronger position to take action, even when you’re panicking. (And it doesn’t have to be words, either – just think of Lamaze breathing, which expectant mothers practice well ahead of time so they can slip back into it during the stress of labor.)
You can call these verbal step-by-step tools anchors if you want, because they’re ways to anchor your emotional state to a time where you knew what to do and you felt prepared. So I’m going to lay out a framework that you can use as your own anchor when you need to reset your mood, and while it’s seven steps long, it’s hella effective at getting the job done.
The seven steps form the acronym ACT FAST, and I picked that because I felt that it was a pretty empowering term as it forces you to presuppose you have a workable course of action. So let’s dive in.
A: AGREE With Yourself That You Don’t Want To Be In This Mood Right Now.
This seems hokey, but it’s important for this reason: Once you agree with yourself that this is not the right mood for you, you’re revoking permission to stew in your own juices and keep the “pity party” going. Think about it: When we’re mad, the thing we hate the most is when someone tries to cheer us up, because on some level we want to be mad and stay mad, or be depressed and stay depressed.
And that’s not always a bad thing. Maybe we want to stay sad because on some level we know we need to hang out in this mental state and really look at what’s making us sad, to really connect with it and deal with it instead of pretending it doesn’t exist. Maybe we want to stay mad because we’re not finished processing our emotions and figuring out what our situation means and what we’re going to do about it.
So don’t take this as me saying “man up and stop crying.” What I am saying is that at some point if you want to move forward in a functional way, and not feel paralyzed, you need to agree that this stage of emotion has to be finite, it has to come to an end so you can deal with the solution that the emotion demands of you. When you’re ready to deal with it, you agree with yourself that you’re ready to shift gears.
Let’s say you’ve lost your job and you’re freaking out about what to do. You could tell yourself something like, “Okay, I’m ready to stop being scared of this situation now.” Then you move on to the second step.
C: CLARIFY The Mood or Emotion You Want To Move Towards
Now that you’re ready to change, you need to make sure that you know where you’re headed so you have something you can focus on. It’s not enough to say “I just don’t want to feel this way anymore,” because then you’re still swimming in the Sea of What You Don’t Want. You need to have a focus.
It could be as simple as defining the mood you want to be in with a single word or two. Resourceful. Confident. Infectiously Happy. Stable. Calm. Controlled. Helpful. Pleasant. Civil. Generous. Whatever it is, you need to give it a name.
Then you combine it with the last thought, so you can tell yourself something like “I’m ready to stop feeling scared and start feeling resourceful.”
There’s nothing magical about these words, and again, it’s not positive thinking. This is all about creating something you can say to yourself to pull the emotion out of your mental state and focus on what you can do next and what you can influence.
When you start getting scattered and lose track of where you are, and you’re stressing, you can fall back on your statement: “I’m ready to stop feeling scared and start feeling resourceful.” You’re putting yourself back in control and you’re ready for the next step.
T: TAKE Responsibility For Taking Immediate Action.
Now that you know what you want to move away from and what you want to move towards, it’s time to face reality: It ain’t gonna happen unless you make it happen. You’re going to have to consciously accept responsibility for getting yourself in a better state.
This is a big deal, because it means that you‘re going to have to revoke permission to blame other people so you can do this. Note that I’m not saying that you’re absolving other people of blame – if someone just screwed you over, then they’re still at fault, and you don’t pretend that didn’t happen.
But focusing on that isn’t going to help you get to your desired emotional state. You have to take full responsibility for what thoughts you’re going to focus on and what attitudes you’re going to reinforce, because no one is going to do it. No one is coming to your rescue.
You want out of this emotion? You’re going to have to do it yourself. the good news is you totally can do it yourself, and we’re going to cover that in the next four steps so you can get there.
So now our statement to ourselves gets a little longer – it’s something like, “I’m ready to stop feeling scared and start feeling resourceful, and I’m going to make that happen right now.”
We’re going to move into four questions right now, and you’ll need to memorize them so you can get yourself back on track instantly when you’re backsliding into the emotional state you don’t want to be in.
F: “What Would I Need To FOCUS On To Feel this Way?”
This question is a really empowering one, because it forces you to stop thinking about the things that are draining you and gets you to acknowledge that there are things you can focus on that will give you more mental and emotional energy.
When you ask yourself this question, you’re putting yourself on the spot – you’re saying, “Hey, if I wanted to feel resourceful (for this job loss example), what would I need to focus on?” You’re presupposing the answer is available to you rather than saying “How do I get out of this funk?”, which is an open ended question that invites an “I dunno …” response.
Think about it. If you were feeling resourceful in this job loss situation – imagine that you were for a second – what would you be focusing on in order to feel resourceful? Would you be thinking of all your contacts and references, about renewing old work relationships? Would you be taking stock of all the online job boards, or maybe sites like LinkedIn? Or would you be revisiting your skills and experience and seeing if another career would be more fun?
Ask yourself this question, and write down the answers. You’ll need that written note to look back on when the painful emotion you’re moving away from resurfaces. Have a written library of answers to this question and you can benefit from it when you’re feeling emotionally unable to conjure up answers later.
Sometimes the answer can be external as well. The first part of my career was spent in software testing, and that’s some boring stuff. It’s frustrating to test the same thing 100 times and not feel totally unmotivated. But I’d focus on something external – like the road trip I was going to take with this week’s pay – and that would keep me going.
In one case I was testing training Army courseware for avoiding/disarming landmines, and after the 1,000th retest I was so bored out of my skull I wanted to scream. But I told myself that if I focused on testing it until it was 100% ready, then it would save people’s lives in the field. Someone’s Dad would be coming home because they didn’t trip a landmine or trigger a roadside bomb. That didn’t make the job less boring, but it gave me a sense of purpose and a better emotional state.
So think: What would you have to focus on to move towards the mood you want? There’s always an answer. Find it and write it down.
A: “What Would I Need To ACT On To Feel The Way I Want To?”
Now that you’ve established what you need to focus on, you need to address what kinds of actions you need to take to build up that feeling. If you’re depressed and you want to feel happier, maybe you ask yourself, “How can I help 3 people today?” and you do something simple like send an encouraging email, or meet them for lunch, or just send $25 to a charity of your choice in someone else’s name.
Action is important because it’s extremely difficult to feel your way into a different way of behaving. You know this, or you wouldn’t be stuck in the first place. When you’re feeling scared or mad or depressed, you can’t just manufacture emotion to get yourself going.
But if you do something – if you take action – you can behave yourself into a different way of feeling. And it doesn’t have to be directly related to your own issue if that’s causing you friction. If you hate your life situation and you can’t figure out how to make it better, then focus on helping 5 other people feel better. Be an encourager, and that will help you pull out of that sense of depression. Trust me, it works, because it breaks your pattern of feeling helpless and connects you with other people.
But that’s just the start – it’s all well and good to take external actions to get your emotions jump-started, but you also need to get a sense of the actions you need to take relative to your own problems. In the FOCUS step you will probably come up with things you need to not only focus on, but actually do, and you need to make a list of those actions and start running with them.
Sometimes that’s hard to do – the motivation wanes – and that’s when you fall back on the FOCUS step again. It will help you get in a better frame of mind to take action.
Moving on, you’ll also need to ask yourself,
S: “What Would I Need To SURROUND Myself With To Feel The Way I Want To?”
This is an overlooked concept when it comes to mood change. Your surrounding environment plays a huge factor in your mood, and if you don’t consciously take control over it, you’re leaving power “on the table.” When you arrange your environment in ways that empower you, the chances of you keeping the mood you want to be in go through the roof.
Right now I’m writing this while listening to epic soundtrack music – I personally find that isolating my ears via headphones and keeping high-adventure music going keeps me focused and motivated. It’s hard to feel complacent when listening to instrumental tracks like “A Storm Is Coming” and “Rise of the Destroyers” are drowning your ears in epic symphonic goodness.
I know that this kind of music helps me kick ass, but you’ll have your own environmental triggers. Maybe it’s classical music or R&B, or maybe it’s just the silence of an empty room (or noise-cancelling headphones). Maybe it’s a clean desk, or maybe it’s a desk littered with action figures and crazy stuff. Maybe it’s wearing your favorite hat, brewing a certain kind of coffee or lighting some incense.
It doesn’t matter what it is - it just matters that you become aware of it, and you leverage it to help create the emotional state you want. Whether it’s keeping the counters clean, making the bed, soaking in hot bath or cranking up Aerosmith, get a feel for what makes it easier to be in the moods you want to be in. Then make it easy to build that environment when you need it.
T: “What Would I Need To TELL Myself To Feel The Way I Want To?”
This is where it all comes together – the part where the rubber hits the road and you have to fight against the emotions you want to move away from. This is where the previous steps all kind of combine and you create this little script you can say to yourself, a litany of conscious choice, as it were, to recalibrate yourself when you’re struggling.
Maybe it’s something like this for the freaking-out-about-the-job-loss example:
“I’m ready to stop feeling scared and start feeling resourceful, and I’m going to make that happen right now. I’m going to focus on the resources I have, like the 50 past co-workers who can get me leads, the job boards online and the in-demand skills I can show on my resume. I have everything I need to make this crazy time less crazy and I know what to do next.
I’m going to make a plan for getting (or creating) the job I want and set aside 3 hours a day to take serious action. I’m going to neaten up my home office so I can think straight, and make it a relaxing place to work in the meantime.”
If you read this over and over again, what do you think would happen? Would you keep freaking out about your job? Or would you start feeling a little bit better?
Yeah, This Takes Some Work, But What The Hell Else Are You Doing?
Most people, if they’ve read this far, will say, “That’s too much work, Dave.” But seriously, if you’re paralyzed and feeling terrible, you have time on your hands already. You’re just using that time to stew in the emotion instead of making it finite and taking action. I know how it feels, I fight it all the time.
But this is a way out – or at least the beginning of the way out for you. And it’s easier than you think, because once you understand this process, 9 times out of 10 you won’t have to use all of it. You’ll just be sitting there stewing and say to yourself, “What would I have to focus on right now if I wanted to get my ass up and exercising?” or “What would I need to change about my surroundings right now to feel a little bit happier?” and that will be enough to get moving.
The quality of your life revolves around the quality of the questions you ask yourself on a minute-by-minute basis.
If you ask yourself, “Why me?” or “What can I possibly do?” you‘re going to be paralyzed.
If you ask yourself “What can I do next, from where I am, with what I have,” you’re going to put yourself in a position of strength.
Ask better questions. Train yourself to be the sculptor of your moods, rather than being tossed about by urgency and externalities you can’t control.
You can do it. I hope this helps.
My best to you,
PS – I think this article can help a ton of people. Please link to it and spread it on social media sites right now if you agree, even before you leave a comment.