Cleaning Your Emotional Closet

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We all have our concerns. Dire or trivial these issues weigh us down. They take up space. We may not reflect on them every day but they certainly cross our minds and when they do we may feel negative emotions: depression, frustration, remorse, regret, shame or embarrassment. It is healthy to express strong emotions when something goes wrong in your life and should be encouraged. It is part of the healing process. But what if those emotions are damaging?

If someone were to experience a loss of a relationship or loss of job, we would likely expect this person to feel sadness. Such an emotion would be appropriate for these circumstances. However, what if this person’s feelings deteriorated into depression that caused him to isolate and turn away from the people who would love and support him? What if this depression crippled her motivation to pursue a new job? Would these emotions be rational?

According to the rational emotive behavior therapy (REBT) framework, a rational belief is preferential (i.e., nonabsolute) in nature and is expressed in the form of a desire, wish, want or like. “I wish the circumstances concerning my job were different.” These beliefs are considered rational because they are flexible (we accept that we don’t always get what we want) and they don’t impede us in the attainment of our goals. “Losing my job was bad, but not terrible. I don’t like it, but I can deal with it and find another job.”

On the other hand, irrational beliefs are expressed in the rigid form of musts, shoulds, oughts, and so on. “The life I live must absolutely be the way I want it to be and if it isn’t I’ll be miserable, poor me.” “I must be successful and approved of by others and if I’m not, then I can’t be happy.” Irrational beliefs tend to lead to inappropriate negative emotions such as anxiety, depression, shame and anger. They are inappropriate for three reasons: (1) they cause the individual to experience a great deal of pain and discomfort; (2) they can motivate someone to engage in self-defeating behavior; (3) they can impede someone from carrying out behaviors necessary to reach their goals. Our goal for happier living would therefore be realized by minimizing our irrational thoughts.

Awareness is the first step toward cleaning out your emotional closet. The more you are aware of your torment-creating irrational thoughts, feelings and behaviors, the more successful you will be at getting rid of them. Recognizing the appropriateness of these emotions may be much harder.

The next step involves actively disputing your irrational beliefs. When you are irrational you oppose reason and refuse to accept things for the way they truly are. Where is the proof that I am unattractive to others because I lost my job? Where is the evidence that the loss of my job indicates I am incompetent and unlikely to ever experience success again?

The third step is based on the REBT theory that we have the ability to change our thoughts and feelings by acting against them. Thoughts, feelings and behaviors are believed to interact and affect each other. Crazy ideas lead to frantic feelings and strange acts. Frenzied feelings bring on foolish notions and behaviors. Rash actions cause bizarre convictions and delirious emotions. The fear of a pool might only be overcome if you actively decide to test the waters. Forcing yourself to keep doing what you are afraid of has the potential of ridding you of your irrational fears.

This spring inventory your thoughts, feelings and behaviors. Make an effort to challenge yourself when you’re being irrational. Focus on behaviors that are consistent with your goals and live happier.

Jeremy Skow maintains a private practice in Manhasset at 516-322-9133. For speaking engagements or media inquiries, reach Skow in his office, email jskow@lmhcny.com. or visit www.mentalhealthcounselingny.com.

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