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 | Cathy Altonji | Image By Getty Images/Ponomariova_Maria

Two Steps to Smarter Choices

Around this time each year, we are encouraged by the Church to allow the season of Lent to change us. We are invited to replicate in our own lives in some way the 40 days Jesus spent praying and fasting in the desert. The purpose of Lent is to bring us closer to God in preparation for Easter. But what if, upon hearing that call from the pulpit, your first response is, “Have you seen my life? It’s like a Lent that never ends!”

It has been said (and put on a T-shirt), “Life is hard, and then you die.” As Catholic Christians, we know that amidst the hard stuff, we are in the hands of a merciful God. Still, the negative feelings are there — overwhelmed, angry, lonely, afraid. So, what can we do?

The seemingly bad news is that we don’t actually get to “control” our negative emotions. We sometimes stifle them, push them down, or hold them back, but we don’t get to just say, “Anger, be gone!” It’s true that pushing them down might work in the short term, but emotions are powerful and will eventually find a way to be expressed — maybe by way of an emotional outburst, a migraine, or a stomachache. The good news is that the following two-step process can help you to avoid these, and other, negative effects.

STEP ONE: Acknowledge the emotion that you are feeling.

This basically means naming the emotion; recognizing that it’s valid based on actual or perceived events of your past, present, or imagined future; and telling yourself that while it’s OK to have the emotion, it does not get to tell you what to do.

STEP TWO: Ask yourself what might be useful to tell yourself, say, or do in that moment.

In this step, you are appealing to your logic, which comes from a different part of your brain — the prefrontal cortex — than your emotions do — the midbrain. It is the logical part of our brain that we want running the show. (Please be aware that the negative feeling might continue as you go about your chosen response, but experiencing a feeling is like riding a wave — eventually, it will recede.)

An example of step one would be to think, “I am feeling irritated right now about what my spouse just said to me. This doesn’t make me a bad person. I just have to feel it until it goes away, but I do not have to act on it.” For step two, one could think, “Rather than sitting here thinking up negative responses to give my spouse, I am going to take a short walk as a positive way to help me get past the moment.”

There is a natural disconnect between these two parts of our brain. While this makes it easy to fall into the trap of having our actions driven by our emotions, it also makes it possible for us to use the above process. Again, the alternative is to go straight from a negative emotion to an action or a line of thought, and that never ends well.

So, whether you choose this Lent to deny yourself of something or to develop a positive habit, bear the above in mind. If you use this Lent to practice acknowledging your negative emotions in the moment and intentionally choosing a useful reaction, you’ll be doing a bit of both. May your Lent and Easter season be blessed!

Cathy Altonji is a therapist at Catholic Family Services in Huntsville. She has a master’s degree in social work and is a licensed independent clinical social worker certified in private independent practice.