We don’t always feel in control of our circumstances, and that can make it especially hard when our circumstances seem to control our emotions. But the truth is, in many cases, your situation doesn’t have to dictate your feelings—even though it doesn’t always seem that way. Changing how you feel about your circumstances comes down to realizing that, barring trauma, oppression, abuse and neglect; many situations are neutral, and that emotions are often driven by thoughts, not circumstances.
Circumstances are Neutral
First of all, it’s important to remember that circumstances can’t define you or make you feel a certain way. It’s a natural human tendency to give our circumstances greater prominence than they have in reality. But thinking that you’ll be happy when: you make more money, you’re in a different relationship, you move to a bigger house, etc. is misguided. Happiness is a choice, and it’s a choice you can make regardless of the situation you’re in.
Feelings Spring from Thoughts
The second major point to keep in mind is that emotions spring from what you think about a situation, not from the circumstance itself. Since circumstances trigger thoughts, which then trigger emotions, the key to changing how you feel about your circumstances is to focus on what you’re thinking.
Trauma is Another Story
We want to be clear, however, that when it comes to trauma, oppression, abuse and neglect; those are not neutral events. Oppression for instance, by its very nature, is designed to burden the survivor with blame, and that is why the theory behind this post falls short when it comes to traumatic circumstances. It is true that even in the case of trauma, we have some control over our cognitive/thought responses, but it is important not to be dismissive of the circumstances. True healing in this case is best developed in the safety afforded by time and as well as self-acceptance. As historian Howard Zinn wrote, "You can’t be neutral on a moving train.”
But for many everyday experiences, changing our focus and our attention, can provide a dramatic change to how we feel. For example, if you’re feeling frustrated about your home, figure out what you’re thinking about it. Notice where you are placing your attention and practice (1) giving yourself a break about that tendency and (2) try paying attention to the things you appreciate. Maybe you think the neighbors are noisy. Maybe you’re unhappy with your roommates cleaning habits. Whatever it is, find something positive that you can focus on when your thoughts start to drift toward what you don’t like about your home. Focus on the small yard where the kids like to play, the sunny windowsill where you can grow a few plants, or just the fact that you have a roof over your head.
Changing your attention and your thoughts is a process, particularly if you’ve developed a habit of thinking in a certain way. Changing how you feel about your circumstances won’t happen overnight. But as you adjust your thought patterns, you might find that feelings of irritation dissipate and are replaced by more pleasant emotions, and that you really can be content regardless of your circumstances.
For more about changing your internal focus even in trying circumstances, check out Viktor Frankl’s seminal book, Man’s Search for Meaning.