Ever notice yourself packing the same lunch or going to the same eatery day after day? As humans, we gravitate toward habits as a way to preserve our time and energy. Some people’s habits are strict while others are more fluid, but just like packing the same lunch, we can all become habitual in our choices.
Interestingly, we all can become habitual in our emotions, too. That’s fine if our emotions are serving us well, but have you ever met someone who was angry first thing in the morning? It makes you wonder if they woke up angry, and chances are they did. The good news is that just as we have the option to change our lunch menu, we can change what’s on our emotional menu, too. To explore the concept, let’s first talk about emotions.
Simply put, emotions are what we internally feel. In one day, you can experience a range of emotions, but most of us tend to stick to the basics of happy, sad, afraid, and angry—a pretty elementary emotional menu. That’s because for most of us, emotions were not formally taught in grade school, so information about emotions was learned as a child from observation and experience. Most children mimic what is observed, so if a parent has emotional habits that include frequent sadness, their child will observe sadness daily. Sadness is normalized as a menu option for the child, and that child may become an adult who frequently selects sadness from their emotional menu. Just like a good recipe, some of our emotional menu options have been passed down from generation to generation.
This reminds me of a recent coaching session I had, where my client was trying to convince me that she has always been a certain way, and therefore, change was not an option. From a place of curiosity, I asked, “Were you born that way?” Of course, her response was no. At that moment, her perspective shifted and change became possible.
After years of conditioning in the same habits, some habits become so ingrained they feel natural and unchangeable. And telling yourself a habit is unchangeable makes it true because you have convinced yourself it is true. But if you tell yourself there is a way to change, then that can become true, even if you are unclear on how change can happen.
Before trying to change your emotional menu, I suggest observing what your current menu offers. Over the next five to seven days, try to write down every emotion you feel. If you need help, feel free to use an emotion wheel to expand your list of emotions. As you notice your basic emotions, try to go deeper to uncover what the emotions are about. For example, you might feel a basic emotion—happy—in the morning. But going one step further, happy can mean proud, loving, or even inspired.
Once you have a list of emotions captured, that will give you a good sense for what’s on your own emotional menu. Now let’s start to analyze your menu with some questions to consider:
Now let’s decide what to do with the insight you have acquired. You might feel reassured by this exercise and more confident that your emotional menu is serving you. Or you might sense an emotional growth opportunity. If it’s the latter, acknowledge that change is a process that can and will take time. If you have emotional support available to you through a coach or therapist, this might be a good time to connect with that resource. If you want to try to make some changes on your own, let’s take the first few steps together as an example.
Let’s say you are looking to shift your habitual emotion from feeling discouraged first thing in the morning to feeling hopeful. So let’s find ways to transition yourself out of your old habit. Think of practices and actions you can add to your morning routine that cultivate an environment ripe for hopefulness. Some examples might be:
Emotions are part of the human experience, and to feel a range of emotions is healthy and normal. Every day is not guaranteed to feel positive, yet there are always emotional growth opportunities available. In short, your emotional menu is customizable: If you don’t like what is being served, you have the power to change the menu.
Shavon Terrell-Camper is an ICF certified coach in the Modern Health network and a licensed social worker. Her mission is to assist clients in moving beyond suffering and burnout by guiding them to create actionable ways to leverage their reality.