A Gratitude Adjustment

This is a note about feelings, specifically how to get rid of ones you don’t want. Thinking about feelings reminds me of being a teen. Probably because adolescence is a sea of emotions, right? There are these moments of turbulence so intense you forget there ever was serenity. With jellyfish-like encounters of beauty and pain. With hyperbolic highs you can surf with glee until you wipeout unexpectedly and end up in a messy lump on the shore with barely enough cognizance to dread the next wave. With storms that shake you to your soul and disorient you to the point that you can’t control your embarrassing outbursts (or embarrassing extended metaphors).

As a teen, I was always feeling raw and gooey and gross. Like sea urchin sushi (I couldn’t resist, but seriously, no more ocean metaphors. I promise. Sort of.)

“You need an attitude adjustment.” That was my mom’s catchphrase when I was growing up. Whenever I heard “attitude adjustment,” my inner voice would rave like a demon, spouting all kinds of profanities that I would never dare voice aloud. “Attitude adjustment” implied that my perspective was wrong, my feelings were wrong. At least, that’s what I thought back then. When I knew everything (obviously). And felt everything keenly.

Now that I’m an adult and know significantly less about everything (obviously), I’ve finally learned the value of adjusting my attitude (thanks, Mommy!). It’s useful for all sorts of things–keeping a job, keeping a spouse, keeping your sanity.

In my opinion, unless you’re trying to foist it onto to someone else, your perspective  is neither right nor wrong. Or, in the much more succinct and immortal wisdom of The Dude, “That’s just, like, your opinion, man.” It is what it is–like perspective in a drawing. Depending on where you place yourself, you can create any number of pictures with what’s before you. Each position will be limited, only able to capture part of the image, just one version of the truth. But each version is valid–even the version that zeroes in on one tiny leaf of one tree in a massive forest. In my opinion, emotions are never wrong. They’re just vantage points for looking at life.

Well, not “just.” Emotions are also a lot of other things. Take, for instance, the perspectives of 2 therapists:

My partner–a psychologist–used to say feelings are weather. You can’t control feelings. They just have to pass in their own time. A past therapist of mine–an enthusiastic Asian-American woman with a thick accent and a gift for metaphors–once told me feelings were like wild horses, and thoughts and emotions were like reins. I suspect that’s the most succinct and poetic a definition of cognitive behavioral therapy one could find.

Though I’m a big fan of the metaphor (English majors, represent!), I’ve got problems with both of these. I’m far too impatient to wait on the weather. And I happen to think wild horses are beautiful and fierce and should run free through the country and the desert and a schoolgirl’s notebook.

For me, feelings are a lot more like food. Anger is mayonnaise–a little goes a long way. Most of the time, I want nothing to do with it. Incandescent happiness is a truffle–rare, rich, nourishing, and worth everything you did to get it. Gratitude is a leafy green. If you try to force it down, it will taste bitter and you’ll resent it.

By this token, changing your feelings would be as easy as picking up a sandwich at the co-op. If you were suffering from depression, you’d just go on a diet. And obviously, diets always work. And making the right food choices is always simple, convenient, cheap, and fun.

My point is, navigating that sea of emotions is not about control. If you try to make it bend to your will, it will take you under. The only way to know when to sail is to watch for the signs. Well, now I’m back to the weather metaphor. Damn, some images are hard to escape. Let me try to dig myself out:

I’ll acknowledge that the weather metaphor is useful. It’s a reminder to observe. Obviously, if you go out in the rain without an umbrella or a raincoat, you’re going to get wet. But the weather metaphor breaks down when you start talking about how to change your feelings. To change the weather, you’d need an awful lot of magic, a meaningful one-on-one with god, or a few decades of industrial waste. But to change your feelings, you just need your mind. And a little space for observation.

So here are some practical guidelines for changing a feeling (warning: this is where I get all bossy and use lots of 2nd person to tell you exactly what to do…as if I haven’t already been doing this):

1. When you notice you’re feeling something that you don’t want to be feeling, seize that observational impulse. Hey, you noticed something! Last time I checked, noticing is not a feeling. So when you’re noticing, you’re not fully caught up in the feeling.

2. See if you can stretch out that noticing moment.

3. Can you stretch it long enough to create a space big enough for you and your emotion? A space big enough that you can step to the side of what you feel and say, “Hi, blind rage. I see you there, all worked up and foaming at the mouth.”

4. If you’ve made this much space, you can squeeze in another question: Do I want to feel this way?

5. Sometimes the answer is yes. Accept it and revel in the moment. Sometimes you want McDonald’s fries, and no amount of kale is going to satisfy that craving. The only way to get over it is to have some. You have permission. Enjoy!

6. When the answer is no, consider a gratitude adjustment. Find something to appreciate–even if it’s just appreciating your awesome dialogical brain for being able to have this weird conversation about your feelings.

7. Savor the flavor. When you really taste it, you realize that, more often than not, the greens taste better than the fries. They leave you feeling awake instead of groggy, with a pleasant grassy taste in your mouth instead of a salt-sore tongue that all of a sudden desperately needs a coke.


Some thoughts on gratitude from other writers, thinkers, and buttheads:


Gratitude bestows reverence, allowing us to encounter everyday epiphanies, those transcendent moments of awe that change forever how we experience life and the world. -John Milton

Gratitude is the sign of noble souls. -Aesop

The essence of all beautiful art, all great art, is gratitude. -Friedrich Nietzsche

Gratitude is a sickness suffered by dogs. -Joseph Stalin