The Three-Step Emotional Change Technique


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Newsflash: I’m asking for a favor. UMOnline (of the University of Montana) is partnering with Rita and me to produce the free Happy Habits for Hard Times video series. Yesterday’s episode was “The Three-Step Emotional Change Technique” (described below). In appreciation for their technical and motivational support, I want to push some traffic to UMOnline. Here’s their link to the video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ji_q-T_SwZE and here’s a link to the series:  https://coehs.umt.edu/happy_habits_series_2020/default.php. Please click, like, subscribe, and share. Our main goal is to help people cope effectively during these immensely difficult times.

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When I first started doing counseling and psychotherapy, I planned to do health psychology or behavioral medicine with people suffering from medical problems. I envisioned working with patients with high blood pressure, asthma, pain, and other physical ailments—all of which can be treated through psychological methods.

But life has a funny way of delivering a karate chop to our best laid plans. Instead of medical referrals, a parade of young people arrived in my office in blisteringly bad moods. They told me I was ugly, that I should fuck-off, and that there was no way in hell they would ever talk to me; sometimes they even threatened to destroy my office or physically attack me.

I also got one referral for a guy in his mid-50s who wanted to work on his high blood pressure. Turns out, the blood pressure treatment process was numbingly boring. To my surprise, I much preferred being pelted with insults by the nasty kids.

Early in the process I realized, these weren’t nasty kids, but instead, these were kids in nasty moods because of their difficult life circumstances. None of their insults or anger or sadness were about me, and so I modified Harold Mosak’s (1985) pushbutton technique, turning it into a simple, three-step emotional change technique to help my young clients deal with their bad moods. Using my creative naming skills, I called it the “Three-step emotional change trick.” I ended up liking the technique so well that I did it in my office, with myself, with parents, during professional workshops, and with classrooms full of 4th and 5th graders. Mostly it worked. Sometimes it didn’t. Here’s how it goes.

Introduction

Before teaching the three steps, I introduced the idea that bad moods were normal and offered a taste of emotional education. I asked, “Have you ever been in a bad mood?” Obviously, all the kids nodded, flipped me off, or said things like, “No duh.” My response was something like, “Yeah, me too.”

Then I’d ask, “Have you ever had somebody come up to you and tell you to cheer up?” All the kids said, “Yes!” and then followed up with how stupid they thought it was when someone told them to cheer up. I would agree and commiserate with them on how ridiculous it was for anyone to ever think that saying “Cheer up” would do anything but piss the person off even more.

At some point, I’d say, “I’ll never tell you to cheer up. Don’t worry about that. If you’re in a bad mood, I figure you’ve got a good reason to be in a bad mood, and so I’ll just respect your mood and let it be.”

Then I’d swoop in with my sales pitch. “But hey. Have you ever been in a bad mood and get stuck there and have it last longer than you wanted it to?”

Nearly always there was a head nod; I’d join in and admit to the same. “Damn those bad moods. Sometimes they last and last and hang around way longer than they need to.”

“If it’s okay with you,” I’d say, “I’d like to teach you this thing I call the three-step emotional change trick. It’s a way for you to change your mood, but only when you want to change your mood, and not when somebody tells you to cheer up. This trick is a way for you to be the captain of your own emotional ship.”

Maybe my memory is warped, but I can’t remember any young person ever refusing to let me teach them the three-steps. I think most people find their moods challenging, and so if you’re selling a technique or trick to give them more control, pretty much everyone wants to learn it. That’s why I’m sharing it with you now.

Step one is to feel the feeling. Feelings come around for a reason. Hardly ever do they come out of nowhere. We need to notice them, feel them, and contemplate their meaning. The big questions here are: How can you honor and feel your feelings? What can you do to respect your own feelings and listen to the underlying message? Over the years, I’ve heard many answers. Here are a few. But you can generate your own list.

  • Frowning or crying if you feel sad
  • Grimacing and making various angry faces into a mirror if you feel angry
  • Drawing an angry, ugly picture
  • Punching or kicking a large pillow (no real violence though)
  • Going outside and yelling (or screaming into a pillow)
  • Scribbling on a note pad with a black marker
  • Writing a nasty note to someone (but not delivering it)
  • Using your words, and talking to someone about what you’re feeling

Step two is to think a new thought or do something different. This step is all about intentionally doing or thinking something that might change or improve you mood. The big question here is: What can you think or do that will put you in a better mood?

I discovered that kids and adults have amazing mood-changing strategies. Here’s a sampling:

  • Tell a funny story (for example, yesterday in math, my friend Todd farted)
  • Tell a joke (What do you call it when 100 rabbits standing in a row all take one step backwards? A receding hareline).
  • Tell a better joke (Why did the ant crawl up the elephant’s leg for the second time? It got pissed off the first time.)
  • Get some exercise
  • Smile into a mirror
  • Watch funny internet cat videos
  • Talk to someone you trust
  • Put a cat (or a chicken or a duck) on your head
  • Chew a big wad of gum

I’m sure you get the idea. Nobody knows better than you what might put you in a good mood . . . so, when you’re ready, you should use your own self-knowledge to move into a better mood.

Step three is to spread the good mood. Spreading the good mood is based on the fact that moods are contagious. In fact, although COVID-19 is very contagious, moods might be even more contagious. I’d say things like this to my young clients:

“I want to tell you another interesting thing about moods. They’re contagious. Do you know what contagious means? It means you can catch them from being around other people who are in bad moods or good moods. Like when you got here. I noticed your mom was in a bad mood too. It made me wonder, did you catch the bad mood from her or did she catch it from you? Anyway, now you seem to be in a much better mood. And so I was wondering, do you think you can make your mom “catch” your good mood?”

How do you share good moods? Keep in mind that saying “Cheer up” is off-limits. Here’s a short list of what I’ve heard from kids and adults.

  • Do someone a favor
  • Smile
  • Hold the door for a stranger
  • Offer a random act of kindness
  • Offer a real or virtual hug
  • Listen to someone who wants or needs to talk
  • Tell someone, “I love you” (you can even do this while social distancing)

Step four might be the best and most important step in the three-step emotional change trick. With kids, when I move on to step four, they always interrupt:

“Wait. You said there were only three steps!”

“Yes. That’s true. That’s what I said. What’s interesting about the three-step emotional change trick is that it has four steps. It has for steps because emotions are complicated and surprising. And so there are four steps. This last step is for you to teach someone else the three steps.”

The other surprising thing about the three-step emotional change trick is that nobody ever complains that it has four steps. For whatever reason, the complexity of emotions seems to overshadow the need to count accurately. In fact, as you read this, you may have discovered an additional step. I wouldn’t be surprised if it turned out that the three-step emotional change trick actually has five steps. If you’ve got a fifth step, please share!

 

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