What we do and how we think determine how we feel.

Just as your car runs more smoothly and requires less energy to go faster and farther when the wheels are in perfect alignment, you perform better when your thoughts, feelings, emotions, goals, and values are in balance. —Brian Tracy

Once upon a time, I got so mad at my husband that I threw a coffee mug into the sink and broke it. Not my proudest moment, but, TBH, I was secretly proud of restraining myself from actually throwing the mug at him. It was very early in our marriage and over twenty years ago and I still cringe when I think about it. At that time I didn’t understand that anger was a choice. I thought Jim made me mad. While there are times when Jim does make it very hard not to be mad at him, ultimately how I feel and how I behave is my choice. However, we don’t have direct control over our emotions. We cannot twinkle our nose like Jeannie in I Dream of Jeannie and *poof* we instantly feel better. We just don’t work that way. But, we do have the power to indirectly change how we feel through changing what we are doing. And I cannot think of a better time to focus our efforts on the things that are within our control than during a global pandemic.

This is a portion of Chapter 11 of Through the Lens of Serendipity and it helped me to reread it today, so I thought I’d share it with you:

Learning William Glasser’s Choice Theory was an incredible blessing in my life, for both personal and professional reasons. It was life-changing to recognize that my behavior (and everyone else’s) is motivated by my desire to meet one or more of my basic needs. Dr. Glasser identified our five basic needs as power, freedom, belonging, fun, and survival. If one of our need tanks is running low, we will pull from our playbook of behaviors to find a behavior we have used before to meet that need. We know what drives our behavior, and we know we want to feel in effective control of our lives. But how do we do that when we are feeling frustrated, stressed out, overwhelmed, or furious? We cannot just snap our fingers and feel better. Sometimes we feel so badly that we can’t think rationally.

We do not have direct control over our feelings. We do, however, have direct control over what we do physically. Right now, at this very moment, I am writing. I snuck off to my friend’s cottage for a few hours of writing, and I feel a bit of pressure to make good use of this time away from my family. If I start to get anxious or stuck, I have some choices. I could stare at the computer screen. I could go grab a snack. I could take a walk out by the water. I could check my email.

I could move on to another section of the book. I could reread what I have already written. Now that I think of it, I have lots of choices. Which one of those choices might help me change how I am feeling? Probably any of them other than the “stare at the screen” choice.

Dr. Glasser described our behavior with a car analogy. There are four wheels on a car, and they represent the four components of total behavior. The front wheels represent acting and thinking. The back wheels represent our emotional feelings and physiology. It is a frontwheel drive car, which means that our acting and thinking pull our emotions and our physiology along. In other words, what we do and how we think determine how we feel both emotionally and physically.

Behavior Car

When I am feeling anxious about my writing and I want to feel better and in more effective control, I can change what I am physically doing or how I am thinking. It is easiest to change our actions; sometimes it feels impossible to stop the thoughts that are going through our head.

Staring at the screen when I am anxious or at a loss for words is equivalent to taking no action at all, which will not help me feel better. Rereading what I’ve already written or going for a walk would be much better choices, because as soon as I change what I am doing, typically my thoughts change. By steering my acting and thinking in a different direction, my emotions and physiology follow along. The idea that our emotions and physiology are greatly influenced by our thoughts and behavior is in line with New York Times bestselling author Gretchen Rubin’s “one-minute rule.”

It’s very simple: I must do any task that can be finished in one minute. Hang up my coat, read a letter and toss it, fill in a form, answer an email, note down a citation, pick up my phone  messages, file a paper, put a dish in the dishwasher, replenish the diaper supply by the changing table, put the magazines away…and so on. Because the tasks are so quick, it isn’t too hard to make myself follow the rule—but it has big results. Keeping all those small, nagging tasks under control makes me more serene, less overwhelmed.

Let’s consider that idea in light of Dr. Glasser’s behavior car. If you quickly accomplish that task you were thinking of, you are changing what you are doing and thinking from feeling overwhelmed by the number of things you have to do that day to feeling like you already got a start on your lengthy list of tasks. By changing to what you are doing and what you are thinking, you can help yourself feel better and even release that knot in your stomach or the headache that was developing. (Global pandemic sidenote: making my bed in the morning has been one of those one-minute tasks that helps me feel very accomplished as I begin the day. Probably too accomplished…maybe I need to set my bar higher.)

When struggling students visit my office, they may need a few minutes to settle down. Many can do this on their own, but when a student is having a hard time regulating their emotions or they have experienced some sort of trauma in their lives, the emotional part of their brain (the limbic system or downstairs brain) may be driving their car. Getting them to do something—almost anything—is very helpful. They might want to write their feelings down, draw a picture, or work on a puzzle. If I start demanding things of them when their emotions are running on high, they likely will get even more elevated. Students cannot learn or work through problems when they are elevated emotionally. This is not just true for children; it is true for adults as well. As we know from Glasser’s behavior car, we have the most direct control over our behavior. If we can guide students to do an activity that will help them think differently, they will begin to feel differently. Even five minutes of a calming activity can help a student (or really anyone) gain better control of their emotions and get ready for the next step.

How does understanding Dr. Glasser’s behavior car help us HANDLE each other with care? Understanding the behavior car and how to begin to change how we feel helps us be open to hope, helps us feel safe, helps us refrain from judgement, helps us think differently, helps us listen, and supports trusting relationships. When I am feeling wound up tighter than a ball of yarn, I know that going for a walk or listening to music or a podcast for a bit before I begin to process my feelings will be a great help. When I get to a calmer state, I’m better able to “peel the onion” of my emotions and get to the root of my bad feelings. The key to getting to this point of readiness for processing is the walk and the distraction. Here’s a recent example: Someone said something hurtful to me about my lack of domestic skills. Tears instantly sprung to my eyes. I quickly got up from my chair and walked away. At first, I thought I might even have to get in my car and leave because I felt so hurt. I was totally stuck in my downstairs brain. But when I started walking, it took no more than fifty steps for me to calm my emotions, access my upstairs brain, and think more clearly. When I went back, I worked through the problem in a much more effective way than I would have before the walk.

I often wish for a “note to self ” sticky note that I could constantly have with me to remind myself to not do anything until I am in control of my emotions. I can chalk up so many of the mistakes I have made to acting on emotions rather than making clear, intentional decisions.

note-to-self slap bracelet

There we go, exactly what I have been looking for! I will be ordering a few of those bracelets for myself and a few to give as gifts.

Serendipitous Lessons

  • We have the most direct control over what we are physically doing.
  • When we change what we are doing, we change what we are thinking.
  • When we change our thinking, we often change how we are feeling, both emotionally and physically.
  • Glasser’s behavior car analogy helps us HANDLE each other with care because we know that in order to help someone feel better, they often need to change what they are doing first.
  • A walk can clear the mind and solve so many problems.
  • The Note-to-Self Slap Bracelet will sting less than the pain we feel after pressing “send” on a nasty email.

What is something you do that almost instantly helps you feel better? What connections did you make to Dr. Glasser’s behavior car? Share your thoughts in the comments below or on Twitter using #SerendipityEDU. We are better together (even six feet apart)!

TTLS cover w spine.pdf

Did you LOVE this portion of Chapter 11 of Through the Lens of Serendipity: Helping Others Discover the Best in Themselves (Even if Life Has Shown Them Its Worst)? There is more where that came from! Check out this FREE PREVIEW

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