Build Better Relationships With This Key Skill

Very often the only way to get a quality in reality is to start behaving as if you had it already. That is why children’s games are so important. They are always pretending to be grown-ups—playing soldiers, playing shop. But all the time, they are hardening their muscles and sharpening their wits so that the pretence of being grown-up helps them to grow up in earnest.

Now, the moment you realise ‘Here I am, dressing up as Christ,’ it is extremely likely that you will see at once some way in which at that very moment the pretence could be made less of a pretence and more of a reality. You will find several things going on in your mind which would not be going on there if you were really a son of God. Well, stop them. Or you may realise that, instead of saying your prayers, you ought to be downstairs writing a letter, or helping your wife to wash- up. Well, go and do it.

From C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity

With his typical clarity and insight, C. S. Lewis drew back the curtain on practical ways to build a stronger Christian character. But the principle he outlined applies to many aspects of life, and how to build a happier life more generally.

What he points out in the quote above is that by acting in a certain way, we begin to take on the qualities that are associated with those actions. So i you are fearful, act brave, if you are impatient, act patiently, and so forth. After some time you will begin to feel more brave, or feel more patient. This demands that we exercise self-control over our emotions. Not that we avoid emotions, but that we control our response to emotions.

Some people think this is a matter of ‘fake it till you make it.’ Nonsense. That view of things makes feelings the yardstick by which we measure what is false and what is real. If you feel a certain way, but act in the opposite way, you are said to be ‘faking’ it.

Anxiety and behavior

By this logic if you act with patience, but are feeling impatient, you are faking it. Really?

Why are the feelings of impatience accorded more status than the behavior of acting with patience? In other words, if you act patiently while feeling impatient, is that faking it, or being patient? I would contend that one cannot exercise patience unless there are feelings of impatience.

Let’s look at another example. If you stand up to an unpleasant boss who is a bully, but you feel fearful when doing so, does this mean you are ‘faking’ assertiveness?

If I do not feel kind, but behave with genuine kindness (not seeking anything in return) is this “fake” kindness? Such a conclusion makes no sense.

What I want us to do, before going further, is to recognize that acting one way, while feeling another, is not ‘faking’ anything. It is demonstrating maturity. Self-control.

This is critical to understand. Actions matter more than feelings. Moreover, action (behavior) has the power to mold and change feelings.

The ability of behaviors to alter feelings makes them powerful agents of change. It is not instantaneous, but a process. Think about the following example. Most of us have had the experience of having a quarrel with our spouse just before leaving for some social event. Driving to the event we decide to behave more kindly to one another. After all, do we really want to continue to argue in front of others? Probably not.

So despite the angry feelings that may still linger, on the drive to the event we behave more kindly toward one another. Perhaps some attempt at a pleasant conversation is made even though both of us are not feeling particularly kindly toward the other.

A short time later we arrive and by this time the conflict is largely diffused. Tensions have eased. Quite often feelings of warmth toward your spouse have begun to return.

Why? Because those behaviors of civility and kindness prompted changes in feelings.  

Researchers have known this for a long time. I think previous generations knew it even before the researchers figured it out. Even so, let me give you some examples from research that illustrate how behavior changes emotion.

Anxiety and depression reduced by body posture

A study done at Northwestern University showed that one’s posture impacts mood. When the researchers had people slouch in their chairs while performing a task their mood became more negative. Having people sit up straight in their chairs caused mood to become elevated.  

Something as simple as body posture alters brain chemistry and improves mood.

 Dr. Mark Reinecke, one of the researchers, summed it up this way:

 “It [posture] appears to have direct biological effects on hormone levels, on cortisol levels, testosterone levels and that's the remarkable thing.”

 Psychology Today had an interesting article on this topic wherein they noted that:

“Each time you smile, you throw a little feel-good party in your brain. The act of smiling activates neural messaging that benefits your health and happiness.

For starters, smiling activates the release of neuropeptides that work toward fighting off stress. Neuropeptides are tiny molecules that allow neurons to communicate. They facilitate messaging to the whole body when we are happy, sad, angry, depressed, or excited. The feel-good neurotransmitters — dopamine, endorphins and serotonin — are all released when a smile flashes across your face as well.” 

Feelings are important, but they must not take the preeminent position in your life. Behave in the way you wish to feel, and more often than not you will eventually find your feelings following along like a puppy learning to follow its master’s lead. Not perfectly, not as quickly as you would like, but little by little learning to conform to the path chosen by the master.

Control Anxiety and other feelings to avoid chaos

The response to this advice is often “Hold on. That’s a lot easier said than done.”

If that is your reaction, then I agree.

On the other hand, it is a lot easier to try this approach, and eventually get better at it, than to live life having your feelings control your behavior. That is a recipe for frequent conflict and unhappiness. I’ve seen this too many times to count.

Feelings, when given control of behavior, become tyrants. Feelings may lead you to avoid those things you should do. Those things that would be good for you, and are good for others around you.

Feelings may also lead you to do those things you should not do, which can pretty quickly build a memory chest of regret and grief.

The key to making the most of emotion, of creating a life where emotions enrich your experiences rather than control your experiences, is to learn how best to respond to your feelings. That is, to master your feelings so they do not lead you to behave in ways that are destructive.  

You may be thinking that this means you must repress feelings. Far from it. The key is to be able to control what you do in response to emotions, not that you disregard or repress all emotion. Strengthening your coping skills provides you a means for such mastery.

Life becomes richer, and filled with more opportunities to meaningfully connect with others when you develop the ability (and desire) to control how you respond to strong emotions.

Anxiety and depression are reduced by controlling behavior

A wild horse, for example, becomes an asset when it learns to take the bit and bridle. Only after this occurs can the power and potential of the animal be skillfully directed by the rider on its back.

Coping skills are the bit and bridle for your feelings, allowing you to take control. Next week I will discuss some easy coping skills that anyone can use to gain better control over the influence of emotions. Once these are consistently put to use, life becomes increasingly happier and more fulfilling.

So my challenge is for you to pick one emotion that seems to get the best of you time and again. Spend the next week behaving in a way that is the direct opposite to that which the emotion is pushing you. Do this several times a day and see if you begin to have more control over that troublesome emotion by the end of the week.

Let me know how this works out. It’s tough, especially at first, but I’ve not met anyone who cannot start to gain more control if they persist. And that is definitely a start to a happier life.