Posts tagged “feelings

Epiphany at the Urinal

The single page flyer taped to the wall above the urinal caught my attention with the headline – Can We Choose to Be Happy? Part of a wellness emphasis on campus, flyers like these were not uncommon, and placing one above a urinal certainly would get someone’s undivided focus. I contemplated the message before me. Is it that easy? Can I choose to be happy?

Standing there, the porcelain receptacle and shiny, chrome flushing hardware barely inches away, I had an epiphany. Choosing to be happy, I concluded, is like choosing to have an ulcer, or like choosing to be thin. I can’t choose to immediately be thin. I can just make choices and behave in a way that results in my losing weight. Similarly, I can’t choose to be instantly happy. I can however make choices and behave in a way that results in happiness.

Eating the right kinds of food, in the right amounts, at the right time of day will lead to my losing weight. But what about being happy? What kinds of thinking and behavior will lead to happiness? How about –

+ Choosing to be grateful.
+ Choosing to nurture a forgiving spirit.
+ Choosing to really love people, especially the important people in your life.
+ Choosing integrity, and being the person you want to be.
+ Choosing to include fun in your life? Go to the movie. Go on the bike ride. Meet a friend for tennis.
+ Choosing not to procrastinate. Get the project or assignment done, whether it is organizing the garage or doing your taxes. Whatever your tough task is, it may not be as tough as you think if you just get started. And once completed you will smile as a burden is lifted from your shoulders.

You don’t have to do all of these things to be happy, but you have to choose to embrace some of them. The list isn’t comprehensive, but it still is a pretty good list. The more of these ways of being you choose, the happier you will be.

The flyer above the ‘you know what’ wasn’t asking a bad question, just a question that easily misleads us. We can’t choose to be immediately happy because happiness is a feeling, and human beings cannot directly control feelings. What we can control is what we think and how we act. And yes, what we think and what we do will have an effect on what we feel, so in that way the flyer is on the right track.

Some might say this is a technicality, but this distinction is much more significant than a mere technicality. A person can become focused on and mired in his feeling state and then become driven to affect or change the feeling. This is what drives all self-medicating behaviors. Whether the behavior involves alcohol, drugs – both legal and illegal, food, porn, shopping, gambling, or sex (to name a few), it is about changing brain chemistry in a way that affects how the person feels. Self-medicating does indeed provide a high or moment of release, but it is temporary, and always increasingly so, which leads to the self-medicating habit cycle repeating, again and again, the never ending habit becoming a prison of addiction and private shame. This distinction is vital to understand!

Happiness is an inside job.
Don’t assign anyone else that much power over your life. 

Trying to achieve the feeling of happiness is illusive and confusing. It is as undoable as my choosing to immediately self-clean my arteries of plaque. Feelings and physiology are in the realm of the “not directly controllable.” Feelings are important, mind you, much more so to some than to others, but they come out of and into alignment with my thinking and my actions.

Who knew urinals can be the sites of such epiphanies?

How Emotions Are Made

I love it when research and science confirm Glasser’s beliefs, and Dr. Lisa Feldman Barrett’s book, How Emotions Are Made (2017) does just that in a big way!


Glasser wanted people to understand the concept (and reality) of internal control, that is, that they are not controlled by circumstances outside of them nor are they victims of life’s curve balls, but rather they are the architects of their thinking and their behavior.

Glasser created the concepts of total behavior to give people insights into their choices. Using the graphic of a car, he emphasized that thinking and acting are represented by the two front tires, the two tires that a driver can directly steer and control. Glasser’s point was that similarly people can have direct control over their own thinking and acting. The remaining two parts of a total behavior are feelings and physiology, or our emotions and all the ways that our bodies come into alignment with the other parts of our behavior. He believed that we can have only indirect control over our feelings and our physiology. For him, the key was that our total behaviors throughout the day always come into alignment with each other.

Total Behavior Car

The tires on a car are used to represent the four parts of total behavior.

How Emotions Are Made does nothing to argue that point and, if anything, Feldman Barrett goes farther than Glasser in explaining that not only are we the architects of our thinking and behavior, we are also the architect of our emotions. Check out the TED talk that follows for her brief presentation –

The TED talk is good, but I want to share some quotes from the book that reveal why a Choice theorist would especially be interested in her findings.

Emotions are not reactions to the world. You are not a passive receiver of sensory input but an active constructor of your emotions. From sensory input and past experience, your brain constructs meaning and prescribes action.*

Glasser made a case for our behavior coming from within, rather than being controlled by others, and Feldman Barrett believes the same as it relates to emotions. In this next quote, she reminded me of Glasser and the way he would state the terms he really didn’t want to use – terms like mental illness, schizophrenia, and bi-polar, to name a few. Read her quote that follows and you’ll see what I mean.


Lisa Feldman Barrett

Likewise, we do not “recognize” or “detect” emotions in others. These terms imply that an emotion category has a fingerprint that exists in nature, independent of any perceiver, waiting to be found. Any scientific question about “detecting” emotion automatically presumes a certain kind of answer. In the construction mindset, I speak of perceiving an instance of emotion. Perception is a complex mental process that does not imply a neural fingerprint behind the emotion, merely that an instance of emotion occurred somehow. I also avoid verbs like “triggering” emotion, and phrases like “emotional reaction” and emotions “happening to you.” Such wording implies that emotions are objective entities. Even when you feel no sense of agency when experiencing emotion, which is most of the time, you are an active participant in that experience.*

If by introducing you to How Emotions Are Made, and sharing these quotes from the book, I have ignited more questions that answers – good. I encourage you to read the book for yourself. I am convinced Glasser would have added it to his book collection, right there on his office shelf alongside other books like Mad in America (2001), by Robert Whitaker.

We’ll end the post today with this last quote, which summarizes her Glasser-like findings –

After conducting hundreds of experiments in my lab, and reviewing thousands more by other researchers, I’ve come to a profoundly unintuitive conclusion shared by a growing number of scientists. Emotions do not shine forth from the face nor from the maelstrom of your body’s inner core. They don’t issue from a specific part of the brain. No scientific innovation will miraculously reveal a biological fingerprint of any emotion. That’s because our emotions aren’t built in, waiting to be revealed. They are made. By us. We don’t recognize emotions or identify emotions: we construct our own emotional experiences, and our perceptions of others’ emotions, on the spot, as needed, through a complex interplay of systems. Human beings are not at the mercy of mythical emotion circuits buried deep within animalistic parts of our highly evolved brain: we are architects of our own experience.*

Feldman Barrett’s work will help anyone trying to better understand human behavior and motivation, and especially those of us interested in the emotional pieces of what Glasser referred to as total behavior.

* Sorry about not having the page numbers. I purchased the book on my iPad, which doesn’t have the same page numbering as the hard copy.


Human beings are not at the mercy of mythical emotion circuits
buried deep within animalistic parts of our highly evolved brain:
we are architects of our own experience.
Lisa Feldman Barrett





We Want to Feel GOOD, Pt. 4

The Good and the Bad

You’d think that feeling good was good for you, but alas, that isn’t always the case. You’d think that the quality world is, in fact, about quality, however again, that may not be so.

I started drinking in ninth grade. My friends were doing it and it was a way to feel like I was a part of the group. I was a bit shy and quieter than the others, but I came out of my shell after a few drinks. Kind of without realizing it I came to depend on alcohol for feeling normal, at least I viewed it as feeling normal. I was an alcoholic by the time I should have been entering college.    Mark

Every human being wants his/her unique set of personal needs to be met. Choice theory explains that when we discover someone or something that is need-satisfying, we place a specific picture of that person or thing or idea or activity in our quality world. As much as possible we want the real world around us to match these pictures in our head. This description of the quality world may sound acceptable and even appropriate, however there is a catch. The catch is this — the quality world is good at storing the need-satisfying pictures that will ultimately guide our lives, but it is not necessarily a good judge of quality. Put simply, it is an amoral storage center.

When I  get home from work after a long day of managing employees and dealing with unhappy customers, I am more than ready for some comfort. Even though I never get home before 6:00 PM, part of my evening ritual includes eating a lot of food that isn’t that good for me. I haven’t even been on this job for a year, yet I am starting to deal with some serious health challenges, not the least of which is a significant weight increase.  Marla

The quality world doesn’t decide what’s good for us. Instead, it identifies the people and things that satisfy one or more of our needs. I have thought about referring to it as the MNM world, which stands for My Needs Met, but the monicker lacks a certain ring. In any case, we put people, things, and behaviors we value, for whatever reason, into our quality world.

I just started high school. My family moved across the country over the summer and everything is new to me. Things still feel unsettled, boxes still to unpack, a community to get to know, and new people to meet. I miss close friends from my old school. My parents seem aware of what I am going through and check in with me every day to see how I am doing. Instead of resenting what some kids would call nosiness, I appreciate my parents interest. I like knowing they’re available if I need them.  Jake

Mark placed alcohol into his quality world. He felt it helped him belong to the group and feel more confident. Instead of really helping him, though, it turned into an addiction that he wrestled with for years. Marla valued food and television in the evening after a day at work. These things didn’t serve her well in the long run, but she very much wanted them every evening when she got home. Jake’s parents are in his quality world, which is great. Apparently, they have stayed connected to Jake without trying to control him. Being there to help without forcing it has led Jake to want their advice. These scenarios are small examples of how Mark, Marla, and Jake are living through their quality worlds.

We decide what pictures go into our quality world. As you can tell, these pictures set the course of our life. It is hard to overstate the significance of these pictures. Fortunately, we can also take pictures out of our quality world. Taking a picture out, especially the picture of someone we love, is not easy, but it can be done. Ultimately, our quality world pictures represent what we want in life.


The phrase – We Want to Feel Good – sounds simple enough, straight-forward, yet it represents a process that is deeper than first meets the eye. We, all of us, every person on the planet is striving to feel good, to feel, as much as possible, like we are in control, even if its only a little bit of control, even if it is merely feeding an addiction. We have a great deal to do with creating an all we want world. In fact, we have very specific pictures of how we want the world around us to look and feel. Speaking of feeling — remember that feelings are the gauge of how we monitor the events in our lives. For some, the feeling mechanism takes on more significance than it deserves, which creates imbalance and unhappiness. We want to feel good, but good doesn’t always mean good. We just want to feel that our needs are being met and sometimes we come up with unhealthy ways to do that.


Encourage a friend or colleague to check out

We Want TO FEEL Good, Pt. 3

Candy Vacuum

Whatever you say about feelings, it won’t do them justice.
Invisible wave
Recurring ripple
Overwhelming tsunami
Like a bulldozer
Like a summer breeze
Like an ax
Like a scalpel
Like sunshine
Pushed and pulled
Propped up and tripped
Luring and deflecting
Sucked in and spit out
Like a surfer can I choose the feeling I will ride?
Or am I the victim of an off-shore emotional earthquake?
Can I control or
Am I a thing with which to be toyed?
Say what you will about feelings.
Let me know when you’ve got it figured out.
I just want to drive my car where I want to drive it.
Bobbi S.

It would be difficult to overstate the power of our feelings. Our emotions can add a great deal of quality to our lives, yet they can also steer us in self-serving, destructive directions and seemingly drain us of self-control. This is because we place a lot of value on feeling good. We constantly monitor how we feel about everything from the temperature of the air around us, to the quality of the food set before us, to the way we are being treated by a colleague or loved one, to the image we see when we look in the mirror. Evaluating our feelings seems endless.

I believe that feeling good is so important that many people will go to almost any length to achieve it, even if it involves using artificial means as a prop. There are healthy ways to feel good. Glasser described how some activities could add creativity and power to our lives in his book, Positive Addiction (1976). When our needs are satisfied in way that adds value to our lives and that doesn’t erode our personal freedom the end result is a healthy feeling of accomplishment and happiness.

Unfortunately, there are also unhealthy ways to feel good. This can happen when we settle for a feeling of fleeting pleasure, rather than working for longer-lasting happiness. Achieving the moment of pleasure can also give us a temporary feeling of being in control. The many different ways we self-medicate are all testament to this pursuit of a feeling of pleasure. The illegal drug “industry” and to an extent, the legal drug industry are a huge part of this pursuit, however there are hundreds of other ways we self-medicate, too. Food, sex, gambling, shopping, and escaping into books and movies can each be part of this pursuit.

Something in choice theory that helps us understand the role of feelings in our lives is the concept of total behavior. Total behavior is based on several key beliefs –
1. Human beings are constantly behaving.
2. All behavior is purposeful.
3. All behavior is a total behavior.

Total behavior describes how each of our behaviors—whether making coffee in the morning, driving in morning rush hour, relaxing with a good book, arguing with an irate customer, or vigorously exercising at the local club—is made up of four parts. The total behavior is the result of a mixture of four distinct parts—one part representing our thinking, one part representing our acting, one part representing our feelings, and one part representing our physiology. The metaphor of a car is often used to graphically describe how total behavior works. Each of the tires represents one of the four behavior parts. Our thinking and our acting are represented by the front two tires, because in the same way we have direct control over the front two tires when we drive, we also have direct control over the thinking and acting parts of our behavior. Our feeling and our physiology are represented by the two back tires, because in the same way we don’t have direct control over the direction of the back tires, neither do we have direct control over our feelings or physiology.

To begin to understand how total behavior describes behavior, let’s take one of the behaviors mentioned above—making coffee in the morning—and attempt to define each of its parts.
Thinking – I’m thinking about the process; do I have the right amount of water and coffee? I may be thinking about the coming day, too.
Acting     – I’m actually making the coffee, installing the paper filter, turning the maker on.
Feeling    – The house is still quiet, yet I may be feeling tense due to everything that faces me that day.
Physiology – My eyes are still waking up, heart rate is starting to pick up a bit, breathing normal.
These four parts make up the behavior of making coffee in the morning.

The total behavior of riding my bike up the hill to Angwin would be much different (approx. 6 miles with an elevation gain of close to 1,700 feet):
Thinking – I think about the route, the road in front of me, especially going down the hill at 40 mph. Going up the hill I am often thinking about ideas, like what to write in this blog.
Acting – I am pedaling and steering and keeping my balance.
Feeling – Sometimes exhilarating; occasionally discouraged, but it is hard to stay discouraged while riding a bike up a hill. I often feel satisfied (even as others pass me) as I ride.
Physiology – pupils dilated at just the right amount; heart working fairly hard; breathing increased; sweat glands usually active; digestion facilitated, etc.
These four parts make up the behavior of riding a bike up a hill.

Total Behavior Car

This way of looking at our feelings helps us to understand their roles in our lives. They are an important part of our behavior, even though we don’t have direct control over them. For some of us, the feeling tire can become extremely oversized. (Picture the total behavior graphic with a feeling tire ten times bigger than the other three tires.) A car with one huge back tire would find it difficult to operate. In the same way, when our feelings get too big we can find it difficult to operate, too.

When feelings threaten to hijack us through their size and intensity, it helps to keep two things in mind –

1. Feelings are only feelings. They are our emotional response to our perception of reality. They do not have control over us, unless we give them that power. They give us feedback as we experience life, but they are just one part of our behavior.

2. We don’t have direct control over our feelings, but we do have indirect control over them through the front tire behaviors of our thinking and our acting. For instance, I admitted that a life circumstance may have me feeling a little discouraged as I start my bike ride, but that it is hard to stay discouraged as I zoom down the hill or struggle back up it. By deciding (thinking) to ride (acting), I ultimately affect my feelings and my physiology.

Just remember what a sixth grader learning about total behavior said –

“When your feelings get too big it’s like the driver of a car, while it’s like, going, letting go of the steering wheel and climbing into the back seat. That’s not too smart.”

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