The default setting for my mood seems to be stuck on ‘irritable’. This tendency towards grumpiness is what I most dislike about myself and has landed me in hot water behind the wheel, tarnished a few romantic moments and cost me at least one friendship. But, recently, when I recognised myself in a deeply unlikeable character in Horrid Henry, which my daughter loves, I knew it was time to change gears emotionally. ‘Moody Margaret’ is not a moniker I want my children, or anyone, to associate with me.
Every moment has a positive intent
The key to making the change from being a perpetually cantankerous person to someone whose mood is more measured is emotional intelligence; a concept originally explained by researchers Peter Salovey and John Mayer, but made famous by Daniel Goleman in his book, Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ (Bloomsbury, £10.99). At its most basic, emotional intelligence is the ability to recognise what we’re really feeling, and why. Being aware of our emotions in this way is the first step to regulating our mood.
‘Emotional intelligence is simply understanding your emotions and applying that insight in practical ways, so that you’re better equipped to use, manage, control and cope with your own emotions, as well as those of people around you,’ says Gill Hasson, career coach and author of Emotional Intelligence: Managing Emotions To Make A Positive Impact On Your Life And Career (John Wiley & Sons, £10.99).
Becoming more attuned to what we’re feeling is a long game – no one can conjure up self-awareness overnight – but Hasson recommends starting by recognising that all emotions have a positive aim.
‘Emotions are the brain’s way of communicating with us, and every emotion is trying to tell us something,’ she says. ‘Sadness is a good example – it can actually slow down the way we move and respond, and there’s good reason for that; its purpose is to help us reflect on events in order to try to accept them and integrate them into our lives.’
Days later, I get an email from a work associate that makes me angry. I snap at people all day, before eventually pausing to wonder what could possibly be the positive intent in this unpleasant feeling.
‘Anger normally signals that we feel out of control of a situation – road rage is a typical example,’ says Hasson. ‘We get angry with the other driver because we can’t control what’s happening.’
I realise my annoyance stems from feeling that I can’t control what someone thinks of me – someone whose opinion could have important repercussions in my career. I take a moment to listen to what my anger is trying to tell me – that it’s OK to be cross, because I think that I’ve been misunderstood.
Having recognised the point of my anger – to activate my self-preservation instinct and ready myself for defence against unfair criticism, I feel able to let it go. I can’t change my colleague’s opinion of me, but I don’t have to let it affect my self-esteem.
Ingredients in the grump recipe
What, I wonder, is my brain trying to tell me on the days when I seem to wake up grouchy? ‘Go to bed earlier’ is the obvious answer, but the truth is more complex, according to Vanessa Moulton, a chartered psychologist and founder of Mindflex Group.
‘Our mood is affected by more than what’s going on in our minds – we’re made up of our thoughts, emotions, behaviour and physical selves, and these are constantly interweaving and interacting, so it’s difficult to distinguish between them,’ she says. ‘Waking up in a bad mood could be to do with anything from how much sleep we’ve had and what we’ve eaten to what’s happening at work and how things are going in our relationships.
‘When we’re in a bad mood, we’re also more likely to interpret our surroundings and the context we are in negatively, and our negative bias – the tendency to focus on the negative in general – is accentuated. From a neuroscience angle, our world view changes and we’re more tunnel-visioned towards negativity when we’re in a bad mood. We become more rigid and less flexible in our thinking, and struggle to tolerate change or deviation from our norm,’ says Moulton.
Keep those mood antennae pricked
That rings true: I think of the times I’ve gone to bed feeling bleak and hopeless about a relationship issue or a work problem, only to wake up feeling differently – and in a better mood – the following day. So, how do we recognise and apply the brakes to a bad mood when it’s brewing in order to avoid responding to events and situations more negatively than necessary? Learning to pay close attention to our feelings is key.
‘We can’t change something we’re not aware of,’ says Moulton, ‘so it’s vital to recognise patterns to see what’s having an impact on our mood. Not eating the right food affects serotonin levels, making us miss out on happy hormones, so we can start by looking at how we’re fuelling ourselves daily and how it alters our mood.’
Talk about a light-bulb moment! I usually eat breakfast after dropping off the kids at school, downing two or three cups of coffee beforehand. Could I improve my mood by eating breakfast? I try it. No grumpiness, and the first half of the day passes peacefully. It’s a simple but effective change I can implement on a regular basis to better my mood in the morning.
‘It’s useful to try assessing the level of our reaction when we get angry or irritable,’ suggests psychotherapist Jess Henley. ‘If it’s way out of proportion to what has happened, it’s highly likely that we’re reacting to something in a certain way because of a trigger related to our past, rather than to the current situation.’
Henley describes a scenario in which a person erupts emotionally when they are running late. If being five minutes late for work won’t actually raise an eyebrow from our boss, yet we react to being delayed by traffic as if we might get fired, it’s possible that not being on time is actually a trigger that makes us react to something historic and possibly unconscious.
Who's the stroppy teenager?
Identifying that we’re responding to something from our past isn’t a cure-all – we might need to do some deeper introspection, possibly with a therapist, to understand what happened to make timekeeping an emotional trigger. But recognising that a past issue is driving our anxiety can help us take a deep breath and break the pattern of overreacting every time we’re running late.
To work out whether or not we’re reacting to something from childhood, Henley recommends reflecting on whether our response seems similar to that of a child or a teenager. If it’s not an appropriate adult response, that’s a good indicator that it’s coming from our past and isn’t simply a reaction to present circumstances.
This echoes Moulton’s idea about how much our core beliefs govern our emotional state and determine our responses. ‘We all have a unique blueprint which defines the rules that govern our day-to-day lives – it’s made up of all the unconscious rules we’ve acquired since childhood about how things should be,’ she says.
Exercise your thinking
A core belief is also often the ‘button’ that’s most easily pressed by other people. If we have a core belief around respect and someone at work dismisses our comments in a meeting, it’s likely to hit a nerve and have an impact on our mood. ‘Empowerment comes from being aware of how our beliefs and thoughts affect our responses and that we have the ability to flex our mind and approach things differently.
‘We should ask ourselves if that belief is serving us now; how it’s affecting how we’re feeling and behaving; and where the belief or rule came from. Consider whether it’s someone else’s belief or one that we created years ago, and whether there’s another way to look at the triggering situation that would be more helpful to us. Finally, choose to try a different way of thinking about or approaching such issues.’
It's a feeling, not a narrative
Allowing ourselves to feel our emotions is an important step in regulating our emotional wellbeing. But ‘owning’ our feelings can be counterintuitive because many of us are quick to dismiss or repress them.
‘Emotions are meant to be felt, that’s what they’re there for, but we live in such a “mind-led” society that we’re inclined to scrabble around for an explanation as to why we feel the way we do,’ says Henley. ‘We should resist the urge to attach a story to an emotion. It doesn’t need a story. It just needs to be felt,’ she says. ‘Sometimes it’s healthier to simply say: “I feel horrible about this experience.” And, remember, no feeling lasts forever. It will pass – that’s a guarantee.’
Henley recommends breathing deeply into our body, trying to see if the emotion is located in any specific area. ‘Focus on any physical sensation and try to experience every bit of it. How does it move, where is it and does it change? If any thoughts intrude, imagine packing them into a balloon and watching it float away, then come back and focus on the feeling again. Do that as many times as is necessary.’
Noticing changes in our feelings can also be helpful. With difficult emotions that last for more than a day, such as anger after a breakup, identifying even the smallest shift in the way we feel is key. ‘If the feeling is even a little different, that shows that it can change,’ says Henley. ‘And, if it can change, that indicates clearly that it can eventually get better.’
So what if it's not pretty
We’ve all experienced troubling emotions we think we shouldn’t feel. A flash of resentment towards a partner, irrational anger directed at a child, or jealousy of a close friend. It’s natural to try and suppress those feelings or talk ourselves out of them, but doing so robs us of the chance to learn what the emotion has to teach us,’ says Hasson. ‘Telling ourselves we shouldn’t feel an emotion does nothing to help us deal with it in a healthy way – in fact, it compounds the feeling. We have little control over our emotions and it’s OK to feel whatever we feel. It’s far healthier to simply acknowledge those feelings. It is what we do with the feeling that matters most.’
A few days later, I feel that rush of guilt when an emotion I ‘shouldn’t’ feel bubbles to the surface. It’s the day before a work trip to London, and I’m talking to my three children about the complex web of childcare arrangements I’ve put in place. Suddenly, my five-year-old bursts into tears at the thought of going to swimming lessons without me. I feel something close to fury at the inconvenience of her feelings. It’s quickly followed by shame, because I know I ought to respond to a frightened child with empathy, not anger. How do I accept this difficult emotion? I pause and let the feeling linger in the air. Like a wave, my anger peaks and then, suddenly, it subsides. I stroke my daughter’s head and talk calmly and the intensity of her emotion abates, too.
The next morning, she bounds into my room yelling, ‘I can do this!’ – our mantra for reminding her to believe in herself when faced with something daunting. She swims a full length of the pool for the first time that day, and my trip is a resounding success.
Hasson is right. When we own our difficult emotions, we’re better equipped to find solutions to the issues that spark those feelings. Allowing myself to feel anger made it dissipate – and showed my daughter that she doesn’t have to live at the mercy of difficult emotions either.
Why are you so mean?
If there’s a secret weapon for regulating our moods and handling our emotions in a healthier way, it’s learning to show ourselves compassion, says Moulton. When activated, our self-soothing system calms the fight-orflight system and secretes serotonin and endorphins, making us feel happy, calm and relaxed. Yet many of us find it almost impossible to show ourselves kindness.
‘If you’re not convinced you need self-compassion, spend a day paying attention to how many times you tell yourself off in your head,’ Moulton recommends. ‘Consider what would happen if you spoke to other people that way that many times a day: how would they feel?’
Moulton also suggests noticing when you feel most relaxed and content. ‘Also, think about an individual you consider to be soothing and compassionate – how do they act, and behave, towards themselves?’ They probably don’t miss their lunchtime walk or lambaste themselves over a mistake. ‘It’s about identifying the habits that are most soothing to you,’ she advises.
We can’t all go for a massage every day, but finding accessible ways to be kinder to ourselves is practically guaranteed to send the grumps on their miserable way.