Hack Your Emotions with Action

Returning from a recent vacation has me feeling flattened out.


There are too many things to do, too many people with whom I haven’t followed up, too many people who haven’t followed up with me. Poor me, I know.


I’ve been productively worthless (in terms of income) for a week, so it seems I’ve decided to stay on the worthless train because it must be whom I’ve become.


Is that how that works?

There’s a thing in me that likes to tell me that if nobody’s paying attention, then my existence doesn’t matter. This makes going on vacation sticky. If the outside world and employers aren’t acknowledging me, how will I determine my value?

During this recent vacation, two things happened:


1. I submitted a financial proposal for a possible new Client A (speaking gigs)

2. I submitted a writing sample for possible new Client B


It’s been a week, and I haven’t heard back from either of them. I felt proud and confident when I finished and sent these things off. Anxious, but proud.

girl standing in front of passing train signify feeling lost



Then the days wore on, and the thinking began. Anticipatory anxiety grew. Had they laughed at my emails? Rolled their eyes and trashed my proposals? Decided, resolutely, that I’m out of touch with reality?

Back at home, I’m trying to go about my business, and I can’t shake the nagging whispers of a past self still present that say, “See? You’re a joke. You should’ve gotten a real job. You’re not made for this self-made stuff.”


Preparing for Entrepreneurship … or something

When I decided to pursue creativity on my own terms, I read books. Tried to stand on the shoulders of giants and all that. 

And indeed, they said this would happen. They all said I would face rejection and failures and risks unanswered. That those were the things that meant I was actually doing the damn thing.


The War of Art, Stephen Pressfield: 

“The more scared we are of a work or calling, the more sure we can be that we have to do it.”

“Are you paralyzed with fear? That’s a good sign. Fear is good. Like self-doubt, fear is an indicator. Fear tells us what we have to do. Remember one rule of thumb: the more scared we are of a work or calling, the more sure we can be that we have to do it.”


The Magic of Thinking Big, David Schwartz: 

“There is no such thing as failure, only feedback.” 

“All confidence is acquired, developed. No one is born with confidence. Those people you know who radiate confidence, who have conquered worry, who are at ease everywhere and all the time, acquired their confidence, every bit of it.”

(p.s. this book is great, but if you aren’t gonna read it, check out these wonderfully in-depth notes over at MikeLaVere.com.)


Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear, Elizabeth Gilbert:

“Dealing with disappointment and frustration comes with the job description of a creative person, as rejection and self-doubt are common. When a person is persistent in spite of the odds, that is when the real work is being done, as persistence is a crucial phase of the creative process.”


So I walk around and say (with my logical brain) that I love failure and it’s a great thing—a requisite thing, in fact—to get me where I want to be. But meanwhile, my emotional self is carefully, quietly ensuring that I maintain distance from situations that require a risk big enough to damage my self esteem.

I play it small.

I keep risks small, failures small, and successes small. And when I take larger risks, like the ones mentioned above (which, let’s be honest, aren’t relatively very large at all), it seems I can’t quite handle the aftermath.

But here’s the thing: I can. I can handle it, because now I know it’s happening. 

When I didn’t know, or when I ignored it (i.e., pretty much all time up to this morning), I gave myself tacit permission to continue the cycle. But now I’m revoking that permission, and attempting to change.

This cycle, though, when did it begin—and how?


Life Prepares You Wrong (sometimes)

I’m the reason I don’t want to have kids. Growing up, I was a surly brat at home, but pretty happy and fun around peers at school—two rather polar personalities. And the surly one was not fun to be around. Not even for me.

I believed, for various reasons, that my family did not see, know, or like me, and that my school friends did. 

This didn’t make me want my family’s acceptance any less.

One thing that would bring temporary relief to my (probably) self-imposed homelife blues, though, was impressing my parents with achievements. A great report card, getting voted president in some club, some important role in an extracurricular. When I went home with such news and saw the smiles on my parents’ faces, I felt like I’d received an honest measure of pride despite my being an overall disappointment.

In other words:

Outside recognition was how I learned to measure who I was on the inside.

When a feeling of innate worthlessness grows up alongside your physical growth, it really gets in there. Like ivy. It gets in there good. 

Delving into all the factors that lead me to believe I was a disappointment when, in fact, I wasn’t is beyond the scope of this post (perhaps beyond the scope of this whole year). But whatever it was, it’s just something I internalized early on. 

Now in my 30s, I’ve spent a fair bit of time rooting this thing out. Finding places within where the worthlessness hides and gently removing the roots.

But receiving praise from other people still feeds my worthlessness monster. It’s still in there looking to confirm itself. Instead of hearing praise as a confirmation of something I already knew, it’s all too easy to revert to the self who reigned for 30+ years and instead see it as a dangling carrot … 


“See, you’re getting there! You did right this time and you normally don’t. Keep trying! Impress them again and you’ll get closer to unconditional love!”


hand holding carrot representing chasing others' approval


Ugh. Unconditional love? How did we get there

It’s like this:

Self-worth comes from the simple (but not easy) notion of loving oneself unconditionally. That is: no conditions. No milestones, titles, or awards necessary. 

It doesn’t come easy, at least not for me. The concept itself feels sticky and strange, the thought bouncing awkwardly in my headspace. And because I’ve spent all this time withholding unconditional love for myself and pretending that I’m not the one who can provide it, I’ve gotten into a well-carved pattern of seeking it from others. 


“Do you think I’m worthy? Do you accept me? Will you give up on me? How can I prevent that!?”


And that just doesn’t work. Why?

Because if you don’t think you’re worthy of unconditional love, you won’t be able to accept it from anybody. Even if someone does love you unconditionally, you won’t ever fully believe—the false knowledge of your inherent un-lovability will always get in the way.

So it just has to start with you.

When you think you’re worthy, you can take it. When you can take it, you stop finding ways to avoid it. 


Re-Preparing for Life

There’s a stoic notion I try to live by, nestled here within these two quotes:

“Objective judgment: now, at this very moment. 

Unselfish action: now, at this very moment. 

Willing acceptance: now, at this very moment. 

For all external events, that is all you need.” 

Marcus Aurelius, dailystoic.com


“Some things are up to us, others are not. Up to us is opinion, pursuit, desire, avoidance—in a word: our own actions. Not up to us are body, property, reputation, power, and, in a word, anything not our actions.”

-Epictetus, The Enchiridion, self-translated


You can see the relation between stoicism and the foundational quote often heard in 12-step recovery programs:


Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,

the courage to change the things I can,

and the wisdom to know the difference.


Think about the order of those words: serenity and courage come before acceptance and action. Not after. Serenity with what is comes before the decision to accept what is, and courage comes before action. 

Deciding what I believe about my self-worth comes before the external events that I’ve until now let decide my value. If I keep living life in a way that I affirm self esteem only after people give me praise and/or money, I will always be running behind the thing I wish to grasp. 

I will always be too late.


Changing Patterns: Action vs. Belief

How do I change, though? How do I believe that I’m worth what I want to be worth and just live that way? 

This is new territory.

In The Magic of Thinking Big, Schwartz says, “Managed motions can change e-motions.” I noted this when I first read it nearly three years ago, but it didn’t stick. It sounded cool, but I wasn’t ready to do anything about it. It’s just so much easier to let emotions dictate actions, because then action comes with a prefabricated excuse.

But emotions aren’t born of some autonomous origin point. You create them, and you condition them.

Something happens before emotion: an action. It happens, you process it lighting-fast, and an emotion is born in response. So it’s the associations, assumptions, and subconscious judgments you make in reaction to a given occurrence that actually give rise to emotions.

To act according to rationale, though, takes willpower. It takes believing in things that your emotions, in the moment, might not want you to believe. It takes reliance on an intelligent dichotomy between emotional reactivity and enlightened decision-making. 

Check out what Lisa Feldman Barrett, a professor of psychology at Northeastern University and researcher at Harvard Medical School and the Massachusetts General Hospital, says:


Your brain is organized in such a way as to [make] anticipatory guesses about what is going to happen next. And this is happening entirely outside of your awareness. You have past experiences, and those experiences become wired into your brain, and then your brain uses those past experiences to make guesses about the immediate future.

So, emotions aren’t happening to you. Your brain makes them as you need them. You are the architect of your own experience. It’s just that most of this is happening outside of your awareness.

Lisa Feldman Barrett, NPR: Invisibilia


A few months ago, I listened to a recovering alcoholic repeat this notion that belief follows action. In his past, the desire to drink was so strong that he simply couldn’t trust his thoughts and emotions—they were always telling him it would be okay to take a sip. Rationally, though, he could recall his destructive past and recognize that his impulses were simply not to be trusted.

So, he used that same rationale to decide that if he couldn’t trust himself, he would find someone else to trust. Swallow his pride, and just let someone else help him with decision-making.

What other choice was there?

We humans are proud and egotistical creatures. Deciding that someone else knows what’s better for you than you takes a hefty serving of humility, but a solid history of getting it not-quite-right. 


a glass with liquid flying out showing struggle of alcoholsim


So, he did this. He followed the actions of other people who’d found healthy sobriety. He managed to keep a cautious detachment from his own thoughts and grin and bear it while performing actions that felt foreign to him—going to therapy, avoiding certain people, instating new behaviors like exercise and community service. 

And eventually, these actions became his own. He learned to ride the bike, and it became natural. 


Emotions Don’t Happen At You

The idea that action creates emotion isn’t woo woo. The science behind it is growing.

If I want to be a person who behaves a certain way, I need to be strong enough to start behaving that way. Belief in that identity will follow. Now, I have only a little proof for myself (which follows), but I’m not sure there’s a better option for me to believe in.

Here’s what I got:

In my significant relationships, I’ve always felt physical resistance to apologizing first if I felt like I was “more” wronged. Even now, I can feel it—a sheet of plywood running through my skin—immobilizing me, holding me back, frozen. 

But my higher self recognizes that this is willfulness and pride, and probably an attempt to avoid shame. So although my whole body resists apologizing, I’ve been trying to force the behavior anyway. 

(eh, on a good day). 

Because I have a checkered history of relationship fails, it makes sense that I should carefully accept others’ advice on this particular issue; I can’t deny that most wise people agree that apologizing is a good thing.

Plus, I reasonably understand that the odds are nearly always that I’m equally to blame in a given spat—either through causing it or reacting immaturely.

My apology experiment is working. As I swallow pride more often, it’s becoming easier. I’m becoming a person who can just swallow pride like it ain’t no thang. And really, I want to be more zen that way. 

As with that, I’m going to try to act like the person who has healthy self-esteem. Esteem based more upon my own estimation than anybody else’s. Fake it ’til I make it.

It sounds crazy to me now, presumptuous, even. But I suspect that it’s just the unhealthy me that thinks I should stand down.

I don’t know if this will work, but it seems like the best option right now. 


What do you think, and what do you do to keep your esteem high?

I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comment section … Oh, and get an email when I post something new.


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