Thom always says “Despair is not an option”. Today a caller asked him how she could keep from falling into despair given all the things that are happening. Please allow me to explain the science behind Thom’s advice.
There is a formula for feelings. It governs every waking moment of all our lives. EVENT + THOUGHTS = FEELING. Anything that others say or do, or that happens is technically just an EVENT in this formula. Events can be real or imagined. However, it’s what we think about such real or imagined events that really determine how we feel. Thoughts cause feelings, not events.
We all have a host of cognitive choices at the THOUGHT step in this formula. These are choices we make all the time, often without realizing we are. The reason we’re often unaware of such choices is because we often make them so automatically from prior practice and rehearsal. These choices include:
1) How we LOOK AT what happens
2) What MEANING we attach to what does happen
3) What we REMEMBER about the past
4) What we IMAGINE will happen in the future
5) What we FOCUS on
6) What we COMPARE things to
7) What we EXPECT of ourselves, others and life in the first place
8) How much IMPORTANCE we attach to what does happen
9) What we THINK about at any given moment
Whatever way we make such choices will be understandable given the fact that we are human beings, given what our lives have been like to that point, and given what is happening, or might. However, we always have choices, because there’s always more than one way to make any of those choices. Some ways we make such choices will make us feel better, others will make us feel worse. Some will make it easier to deal with things we don’t like, others will make it harder. But we always have a CHOICE.
If how we feel is really determined by how we THINK, and we have a CHOICE how we want to THINK, then logically, we have a choice how we want to FEEL.
People often take that the wrong way they are first told it. To many it sounds like we’re “blaming the victim’. However, what we’re really trying to do is teach people to stop them from feeling like a victim, and from being at the mercy of their life events.
These CHOICES are ones that we alone can make. No one can make them for us. People often let others do that, especially when we are young. Doing so is part of being human, but with practice we can learn to take control over how we make our cognitive choices. These choices are the source of the power and control we have over our emotional destiny.
Many people wrongly believe that events actually make them feel the way they do, about themselves or anything else. It’s called having an external locus of control. That often causes them to end up feeling worse than they need to, for longer than necessary. More importantly, it causes them to miss many chances to feel better. Looking at things that way gives other people and events in their lives power and control over their emotional destiny that those others don’t really have. It needlessly gives away the power and control that people really do have. Learning to have an internal locus of control involves 1) learning the formula for how feelings really come about 2) learning and reminding ourselves constantly of what our choices are, and 3) learning to use this information to our advantage.
Another part of developing an internal locus is to recognize what we do and don’t have control over, and learning to focus on what we do have control over instead of what we don’t. We don’t and can’t control what others think, feel, say and do. We only control what we do, including how we make those cognitive choices that really determine how we feel from moment to moment. The more we focus on what we don’t and can’t control, the more out of control our lives will feel, and the more despair we’ll probably feel. The more we focus on what we do control, like how we make our cognitive choices, the more in control we’ll feel, and the less despair we’ll feel. We could even always have hope regardless of how bad things might actually get.
Anxiety often plays a role in despair. It’s important to understand how anxiety comes about. Anxiety is a figment of imagination – it’s about things that haven’t happened yet. Things that could happen, but haven’t yet, and often never do. We’ve all made ourselves anxious needlessly about things that never happened. One way to combat such anxiety is to tell yourself, “That might happen, but it hasn’t happened yet. And if it does, I’ll/we’ll deal with it. Just like others do. Just like I/we have in the past.”
There is a formula for anxiety: CATASTROPHIZE + AWFULIZE = ANXIETY. First we imagine something bad happening, and then we tell ourselves it will be awful if it does. If we said “So what, who cares?” or “It won’t be the end of the world” we wouldn’t feel anxiety. Concern perhaps, but not anxiety. So another way to combat anxiety is to brainstorm some effective coping statements to combat the AWFULIZING that really brings about anxiety. For example, “I’ve survived it before, and will again”. A version of that might be “American has survived this kind of thing before, and will again”.
This formula is actually how conservative talkers pump up their listeners. They offer their listeners all kinds of possible, but highly unlikely scenarios, and then frame them in ways that their listeners will perceive as awful. For example, as being an example of communism, or being a loss of basic freedoms. They are so good at it that they get their listeners to plug into their “fight or flight” responses. But it’s all based on figments of imagination, and not reality. Then conservative talkers just keep hammering away at their listeners knowing that shear repetition will turn even a big lie into the truth eventually. And, they know that once they get listeners to attach emotion to what they believe, their beliefs will be highly resistant to change.
To summarize, allow me to give you a visual. Picture one of those old fashioned doctor’s scales that we all hate – the ones where a nurse slide a weight right or left to get a balance. On one end is the position that “Anything we think or feel is understandable”. On the other end is “It’s my choice how I want to look at things, and how I want to feel”. If you do start feeling despair, it helps to slide that weight toward the “understandable” point of view, at least initially. It will do no good to get down on yourself if you do start to feel despair. However, if you want to feel better, and retain the hope needed to fight on, there’s only one way to do that. It’s to slide toward the view that “It’s my choice how I want to look at things, and how I want to feel”. And constantly remind yourself of that.
Rodney Dangerfield used to do a bit that went like this. “I went to my doctor and said ‘Doc, it hurts when I do this’. My doctor said, ‘So stop doing that’”. So if the way you choose to look at things now causes you to feel despair, Rodney’s doctor just gave you the solution. And find a new way to make those choices that you alone can make.