“I Just Can’t Help the Way I Feel!”

With these words Mary* talked through her tears about the affair she was trying to end. Months earlier she had “developed feelings” for a friend at work. The man was an eager listener and Mary enjoyed the positive attention she was receiving. He seemed to really care about her feelings, and the relationship evolved quickly into an emotional affair that was exciting and validating for Mary. Predictably, within a few weeks they began meeting together outside of the workplace and the affair quickly became very physical. Mary’s new-found life came crashing down, however, when her husband confronted her with solid evidence of her behavior and gave her an understandable choice—their marriage or the affair. He preferred to work through the crisis and save their marriage, but he would pursue a divorce (and custody of the children) if she maintained her affair. In the midst of her dilemma Mary was now trying to sort things out and make a life-altering choice. In exploring the extramarital relationship she stated several times, “I just can’t help the way I feel.”

How many times have you heard that statement from individuals caught up in their emotions? Perhaps you’ve wondered what they meant by their words. Do they literally believe that their feelings are beyond their control? Are they trying to justify their feelings? Are they trying to emphasize the intensity of their feelings? Are they seeking permission to continue feeling the way they do? In Mary’s situation the emotions were extremely intense and powerful for her, so much so that she could not imagine life without them. Yet she also felt love for her family and grieved at the prospect of losing her husband and her children. Her words reflected her turmoil: “I’m so mixed up. What do I do with my feelings?”

Mary’s question touches every person simply because we all experience emotions. Many people travel the Highway of Life with uncontrolled emotions, while other individuals work very hard in their efforts to manage their emotions. Our feelings determine our emotional state or our mood. Who wants to journey through life with a depressed mood or an anxious mood or an angry mood? Furthermore, who wants to travel with the individual who maintains those kinds of negative moods? Safe travels mean that we will practice emotional self-control; that is, we will learn how to manage our mood.

However, developing emotional self-control is usually much easier said than done. Emotions and moods can be mysterious and difficult to understand. No doubt you can recall times in which you experienced strong feelings, those intense emotions that swept over you like turbulent waves of the sea that kept you turning and churning within. Like Mary, you may have experienced the tumultuous storm of an extramarital affair, or your experience could have been a significant loss, an unexpected gain, or another crisis event. Perhaps the emotions came as a result of a simple, routine action. Sometimes you might have mixed feelings, that is, two or more simultaneous emotions that seemed to conflict with each other (such as feeling joy and sadness at the same time). Fear, anger, sadness, joy, guilt—these and many similar emotions are a part of the human experience, even though the intensity and range of emotionality may vary from person to person. Some individuals experience a narrow range of emotional intensity or perhaps even a restricted range that generates a flat affect. For other people the emotional experience is like a roller coaster ride with its ups and downs, upsides and downsides, swirls and rolls, as it moves through the fast and slow paces of its scary and thrilling adventure.  The human emotions often seem to defy definition or description. I recall one definition of “love” as “Love is a feeling that you feel when you feel like you going to feel a feeling you never felt before.” The world of music is filled with songs that touch our hearts and trigger our emotions so as to create moods that are intense and powerful. A certain smell can generate an emotional reaction that catches us off guard and surprises us with its intensity. For most of us the emotions are indeed difficult to understand; they are “hard to pin down” and we struggle in our efforts to “get a handle on them.” 

In light of this mystery of emotions the question confronts us:  “How can I manage my mood more effectively?” This important question merits more attention than is possible in this short article. However, I invite you to consider two concepts that are crucial to mood management:  “meanings” and “buttons.”  Included in these concepts are several practical tools that you can use to increase your mood management skills.

                                                                                               Managing My Meanings

The management of mood begins with a clear understanding of what causes specific emotions. Contrary to popular belief our circumstances do not directly cause our emotions. Instead, my emotions are generated by the particular meaning I choose to attach to my circumstances. Therefore, if I want to manage my emotions I must learn to “manage my meanings.”

Let’s explore this concept by looking at an emotion experienced by all humans—sadness. All of us have felt this emotion which, if allowed to intensify and if combined with other emotions, could deepen to the point of clinical depression. How do we manage the emotion of sadness? Let’s start by examining two basic approaches to the way in which sadness can be generated.
The “A-C” Model . . .

First, we could adopt the “A-C” model. This model suggests that some external event (“A”) automatically and directly causes a specific emotion (“C”) within me. In other words, some event occurs and I automatically feel the emotion of sadness. The speed of my emotional reaction seems to support this model. However, this approach means that I’m not in control of my sadness; I’m at the mercy of my environment (really bad news!). It also means that the only way I can change my sadness (or any emotion) is to change the environment, a change which may or may not be possible (more bad news!). Too often other people and circumstances don’t change and I am left stuck in my sadness. I have no alternative then but to continue feeling sad.

If the “A-C” Model is correct, then it would seem to me that everyone who experiences the same “A” (the event) should react with the same “C” (the emotion). But reality demonstrates to us that five people who witness the exact same event will probably experience a wide variety of emotional responses, the opposite of what the "A-C” Model should produce. Thus, the conclusion is clear:  a key piece is missing from the “A-C” approach.
The “A-B-C” Model . . .

The missing piece is the “B” which when added yields the “A-B-C” Model. Think of the “B” as the “Brain” that gives meaning to events. In other words, the raw data gained through our five senses (sight, smell, hearing, touch, taste) goes to our brains. There in the brain the raw data is quickly realized, analyzed, and synthesized, leading to a conclusion—an interpretation of what the event means to us. In other words, after processing the raw data my mind assigns a personal meaning or belief to the event. That personalized “meaning” or interpretation is what actually causes the emotion. For example, if I interpret the data to mean a personal loss, my resulting emotion will be sadness. If my brain assigns a meaning of harm or danger, my resulting emotion will be fear and anxiety. Suppose I interpret the event to represent some type of unfairness. If I choose to believe that someone is treating me unfairly, the resulting emotion is very predictable—anger! Here’s the bottom line. My emotions do not and cannot result directly from the events or circumstances to which I’m exposed. Instead, they are produced by the particular interpretation or specific meaning that my brain assigns to the event. This conclusion certainly fits the general pattern; any exceptions would have to be explored from a different perspective.

Our understanding of the “A-B-C” Model brings both “bad news” and “good news.” What’s the “bad news”? This approach to emotions means that I bear personal responsibility for all of my moods and all behavior that I express in conjunction with the moods.  I can no longer put the blame on you or my circumstances. Ouch! It has been rather nice having a scapegoat for my negative moods, someone or something to blame besides myself. Now that the “blame-game option” is off the table, I must grow up and accept personal responsibility. So what’s the “good news”? Simply, the “good news” is that I do determine my own emotions. Believe it or not, you do not and cannot make me have any particular emotion. If I feel sad it’s because I choose to attach the meaning of personal loss to the specific event. The intensity of sadness is proportionate to the value I’ve placed on the lost object. If I believe that my loss occurred because someone or something was unfair, I’ll probably get angry at the same time I’m feeling sad. If I believe that I will experience an additional loss that could harm me, I will probably add fear and anxiety to my current sadness and anger. Mixed feelings result from multiple meanings assigned to the same event. The “A-B-C” Model confirms that I am the only one who has the power to make me sad or angry or fearful or anxious. I do it to myself. That’s not just good news—it’s GREAT NEWS! This truth means that I am NOT at your mercy or at the mercy of my environment. I do have a choice. The bottom line is clear:  my emotion is my choice! This “A-B-C” Model provides a workable tool that can help us manage our emotions (and our moods) more effectively. We make the choices about the specific meanings we assign to the circumstances or events that occur in our lives. Our choice about “meaning” determines the emotion we will experience as well as the intensity and duration of the emotion. Our challenge, then, is to think things through before forming a conclusion about “what meaning to assign” to an event.

Now let’s raise and explore a vital question: “How can we change an emotion we’re already feeling?” If we quickly assigned a meaning to an event and are experiencing the subsequent emotion, we can change the emotion by changing the meaning. In other words, we add the letters “D” and “E” to our model to create the “A-B-C-D-E” Model. The letter “D” represents a revised “B”; that is, we choose a new meaning to replace the first meaning. That revised meaning (“D”) leads to a different emotion (“E”).
Allow me to illustrate how this model works by presenting it as a five-step process.
Step #1: “A” – The Event. . . 
Imagine that a friend tells a joke, looks at you, and laughs at the punchline, represented by the “A” (the event).
Step #2:  “B” – First Meaning . . .
Your brain receives the raw data (what you see and hear) and interprets his joke as being “unfair” (he’s making fun of you), represented by the “B” (the first meaning)
Step #3:  “C” – The Emotion. . .
As a result of your assigned meaning or your interpretation (“He’s treating me unfairly!”) you start feeling angry, represented by the “C” (the emotion).
Step #4:  “D” – Revised Meaning . . .
As you apply the “A-B-C” Model you ask yourself, “Is there some other way I could interpret his behavior?” You think about it and decide that there are other interpretations, such as “He’s not trying to make fun of me, but he is just trying to be funny.” You check out this possibility by asking your friend, “Are you trying to make fun of me?” He responds, “Of course not! I wasn’t even thinking about you. I just think it’s a very funny story.” You now assign to the original event a new interpretation (“He’s just being funny”), represented by the “D” (the revised meaning). Keep in mind that you do not have to check out your new interpretation with the other person for confirmation. The revised meaning will work the same as long as you believe it to be true. The confirmation serves only to strengthen your belief in the accuracy of the revised meaning.
Step #5:  “E” – New Emotion . . .
As a result of the new “D” you begin laughing at the joke and your emotion begins to shift from anger to joy, represented by the “E” (the new emotion). The initial anger might linger for a bit but should be replaced soon by the new emotion of joy as the emotional system catches up with the brain, or, put differently, the “heart catches up with the head.” 

You have probably used this five-step process of reinterpretation many times in your past about a variety of events, and you discovered that, when you did, your emotional reaction changed to harmonize with the revised interpretation. Essentially, by following this model you changed your emotion. The usage of the “A-B-C” (or the expanded “A-B-C-D-E”) Model can equip us to become more effective at mood management.
                                                                                 Managing My Buttons

No doubt you’ve heard and perhaps even used the statement “He really pushed my button!” By that comment we usually mean that we have an excessive emotional reaction in response to the other person’s words or behavior. The statement is basically equivalent to the idea “He made me feel really angry,” or “He made me feel very guilty,” or “He made me feel” some other intense emotion. Obviously, in thinking this way we’re using the “A-C” Model that states that the external event automatically and directly causes the emotion.

Let’s consider the implications of the notion that “you pushed my anger button.” First, if you are the one who makes me angry, then my anger is really your choice, not mine. Essentially, I’m just a robot waiting for you to choose to push my anger button and I respond with anger. I’m a marionette and you’re the one pulling my strings, and I react with anger, just as you want. I have no control; I’m literally at the mercy of my environment. Indeed, I am a helpless victim who is pushed around with buttons and yanked around with strings. This reality reminds me of the Roy Orbison song “In Dreams” in which the singer laments, “I can’t help it, I can’t help it if I cry; I remember that you said goodbye.” One “goodbye”—and the button is pushed! Now we’re back to the commonplace complaint, “I just can’t help the way I feel.”

Secondly, the idea that “you make me angry” leads to the conclusion that my anger is actually your responsibility, not mine. So don’t blame me for any behavioral reaction toward you. You caused it so you should bear the consequences, whatever they are. Let’s go with that conclusion for a moment. I can just hear the Judge saying, “Oh, Dr. Baker, so Mr. Jones said such-and-such and made you mad. Well, if he’s the one who made you angry, I can’t blame you for assaulting him in response. You’re really the victim here.  Mr. Jones, I hold you accountable for causing the problem. Please stand as I pronounce judgment on you.” Honestly, I rather like that part of the deal. If you push my anger button and make me mad, then I should not be held responsible for my angry reaction. But I don’t think you would release me so easily from my responsibility. Certainly, the judge would not let me off the hook. Maybe there’s something faulty about the “you make me angry” logic. The faultiness lies in the fact that the “button pushing” explanation of emotional reaction is an insufficient and inaccurate approach.

If the “A-B-C” Model is correct (and it is), then other people or circumstances CANNOT push my emotional buttons. Oh, the buttons can get pushed all right, but I am the only one who can push my buttons. If I become skilled at managing my mood, I must learn how to manage my buttons, and that skill requires work in my personal belief system.

Allow me to share my concept of emotional buttons, using anger to illustrate the idea. I like to imagine that I wear around my neck a 10” by 12” cardboard folder. I think of this folder as my “Life Folder.”  On the front of the folder are several buttons. There’s an Anger button, a Guilt button, an Anxiety button, and a button for Depression, plus buttons for other emotions. Inside the folder are all of the beliefs I maintain regarding everything in my life, including how I expect other people to treat me as well as my specific beliefs about anger. For example, let’s open the “Life Folder” and read Belief #66 which states, “I believe that every person who enters my house should totally respect my property and should never damage anything. Any intentional or accidental mistreatment of my stuff means that he does not respect me at all and that he should be reprimanded severely and told to leave my house immediately.” This belief, however healthy or unhealthy, will determine when and where I push my anger button. If you’re predicting a lot of button-pushing every time I entertain company, you’d be correct in your prediction. My personal belief about anger sets me up for frequent button-pushing. 

Effective anger management means that I would refrain from pushing my anger button and having an excessive anger response. How can I prevent the button-pushing? I could focus my work on the outside of my Life Folder. In other words, I try to reduce the outward symptoms of the anger by counting to ten, taking a deep breath, using a time-out, or applying similar techniques. While these techniques may help to some degree I stay stuck in my anger pattern because I am maintaining the underlying belief about how people “should” behave when in my house. The belief tends to feed my anger more strongly than I’m able to release the anger through these superficial techniques. Until that underlying belief is modified I will continue to push my anger button. So, I need to focus my attention inside my Life Folder and examine carefully my personal beliefs that are related to perceived unfairness and that contain the “should” statements. After identifying the culprit beliefs I revise them into beliefs that are healthy, that is, they are true, realistic, and believable.

As an illustration of this revision process I might change the original belief in the following manner.
“I now choose to believe that I prefer (not demand) that my visitors show reasonable respect for my property. However, I understand that accidents will occur and that property may be damaged. I choose to value relationships over physical stuff. If I conclude that a visitor is mistreating my property, I will assertively request that he change his behavior and I could insist that he leave my property. I could exercise my right not to invite him to my house again. However, I will not push my anger button and respond with excessive anger.”

This revision may not be a perfect solution, but it is a healthier belief in that it is less rigid and more flexible. Once written the new belief will need to be entered into my Life Folder so it can replace the old belief. As I rehearse and review the new belief on a daily basis and as I try to practice it, I will start believing the revised belief more and more until it becomes integrated in my mental “operating system.” This revision of personal beliefs is a key ingredient in the process of managing my anger button.

If you want to manage your mood, that is, refrain from all button-pushing, you’ll need to examine your unhealthy personal beliefs that generate the excessive emotions. You’ll want to revise those negative beliefs into new beliefs that are true, realistic, and believable. Once revised, you’ll need to integrate the new beliefs into your thinking system. As you do, your button-pushing should decrease and you’ll develop an increasing level of control over your emotions. 
Concluding thoughts . . .

The question “What do I do with my feelings?” is not a simple one to answer. The human emotions can be complex and confusing, and the emotional moods we experience can have a huge impact upon our level of personal health and happiness as well as our human relationships. In this article we’ve explored two ways to manage our moods by learning how to manage our cognitive meanings and how to manage our emotional buttons. Mood management involves the ability to assign appropriate meanings to the events around us and the practice of maintaining a healthy belief system.

If you’re having continuing difficulty in managing your mood, particularly when severe depression, anxiety, or mood swings are present, you would do well to consult a mental health professional for assistance. The use of medication could be an important resource for you as you learn how to apply specific Cognitive Behavioral Therapy** techniques to your personal situation. You do not have to allow your moods to go unmanaged and uncontrolled, nor do you have to suffer unnecessarily from negative moods. Find and use the resources that are available to you so that your personal travels along the Highway of Life will be safe and satisfying to you. Additionally, when you’ve learned to manage your moods effectively your personal relationships will be much healthier and happier. Indeed, effective mood management is a worthwhile goal for all of us to pursue.

I wish you well in your efforts to practice good mood management. And, as always, I wish you the very best in all of your relationship journeys.
*Mary is not an actual person but is a composite representative of all humans who struggle with emotional stress.

**The approaches taken by this author to understand human emotions and moods are heavily rooted in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). Many books and articles written by CBT specialists are available to you if you’d like to expand your knowledge of this area of study. Two authors would be of particular interest to you.
               Beck, Aaron T. (1979). Cognitive Therapy and the Emotional Disorders. New York:  Penguin Books.
               Burns, David D. (1980).  Feeling Good:  The New Mood Therapy. New York:  William Morrow and Company.
               Burns, David D. (1989).  The Feeling Good Handbook. New York: Penguin Books.   

Resources: Dr. Baker has written several related articles that are published on this website, two of which are listed below. To examine these articles please click on the titles.
                “Thoughts:  Managing My Mind”
                 "Exiting the Worry Highway"


​Additional Resources:  Dr. Baker has also written articles about worry, anxiety management, and depression. To see a list of these articles and related resources, please consult the Mental Health category in the Resources section or you can click on the link below.
                 Mental Health Resource


​VIDEO:  To view a video of Dr. Baker's television interview on "Emotions: Managing My Mood," please click on the image to the right or just click here.

​(To listen to an audio version of this blog entry, click the Play button below.)



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