Saturday, April 16, 2011

Lesson #10: You Are 100% Responsible For How You Feel

Most of us have been taught that if we are feeling bad, sad, or just generally irritable, that it has to be someone or something else's fault.  We have all been conditioned to blame others including a family member, a spouse, congress, or the weather for our mood.  This belief has been reinforced in politics, entertainment, pop music, and even by psychotherapists who ask, "How did that make you feel?" The truth is no one makes any of us suffer.   Ask yourself if you have said any of these past week:

_________________ makes me upset
_________________ hurt my feelings
_________________ is stressing me out!

Now take a look at what is inherent in these words: Blame and power are assigned to people and institutions outside of yourself.  If I allow a family member's behavior to determine how I feel then I'm going to be pretty stressed out.  You may not have had any control over the circumstances, but the feelings and the meaning you assign to each event are completely in your control, and are your responsibility if you want to empower yourself and enjoy living. This is not the same thing as saying it is acceptable for someone to aggressively and intentionally harm another person.  I am simply saying that we get to determine our emotional destiny and how we react to harm if we step up to the task.

When I was younger, I did believe it was other people's fault if I felt bad.  I blamed my brother, teachers, students, the President, bad soap writers, right-wing homophobes, partners, bosses, coworkers, and even friends if I wasn't happy.  Traditional models of psychotherapy I learned about in school supported this notion that one must search for blame when coping with depression and disturbance.

In my early 30s I came to realize that this was a stale and powerless stance.  I read Victor Frankl's Man's Search For Meaning, which described how a concentration camp survivor could take responsibility for finding meaning even in the most painful of circumstances.  I studied how Tina Turner and Nelson Mandela survived extremely abusive and oppressive circumstances only to recognize how true liberation takes place in the mind first, situation second.  In recent years I learned about the work of Eva Kor, who also is a concentration camp survivor, and speaks out on the power of forgiveness.  If they can be responsible for their emotional health, then maybe I'm responsible when I get annoyed with someone at the gym.

So what does taking responsibility for my feelings look like?  It means:
 - I remind myself constantly of Dr. Albert Ellis's fundamental principle:  People are not upset by other people's behavior, they are upset by what they tell themselves about other people's behavior. 
 - I make a list when I first wake-up of at least five things I am grateful for. 
 - I stop using language and conversation to blame others for how I am feeling.
 - I protect myself from being verbally abused in my daily life.
 - I do not engage in social media with individuals who are trying to harm me.
 - In any given situation I decide how I want to feel before I go into the situation, and then stick to it! 
 - I do not expose myself to the media's bullying and fear mongering in the forms of Fox News, CNN, The Today Show, or any other source whose intention is to scare and upset me.
 - I continue to read books and blogs written by people who have survived adversity and have something to teach me about surviving in this world.
 - I journal write every day to take a stock of my thoughts, my feelings, and see where I need to do some work (and there is always work to be done inside my head). 

Staying sane an insane world is a 24/7 job.  No one is responsible for my health except for me.  I am not perfectly consistent with any of the tips above.  But knowing that I am responsible for my wellness offers options and opportunities for  how I want to feel about turning forty.  I have decided I want to use this turning of numbers to feel strong, healthy, and proud.   Either way, I get to choose, and so do you. 

Damon L. Jacobs is a Licensed Marriage Family Therapist seeing individuals and couples in New York City. He specializes in issues related to addiction, ageism, bullying, caretaking fatigue, grief and loss, gay/lesbian issues, stress management, depression, as well as couples in non-traditional arrangements. He is the author of "Absolutely Should-less: The Secret to Living the Stress-Free Life You Deserve." To have him speak with your group, or to schedule a counseling visit, call 347-227-7707, or email at

**If you are in the New York City area, please come by for Damon's "Fabulous at Forty" workshop on Monday, April 25th, at 8pm, at 208 W. 13th Street, Room 410**

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