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Judge Toler Offers Advice from the Bench

Mar 5, 2008 (News & Notes )

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Starting today, Divorce Court's Judge Lynn Toler joins us in biweekly segments focusing on family, family law, criminal justice and mental health.

This week, she explains how to navigate difficult life situations though a concept called "emotional acuity."

My Mother's Rules: A Practical Guide to Becoming an Emotional Genius

by Lynn Toler

The Underlying Principles

1. The Smith and Wesson Test

Most people say that they can't help the way they feel. This is neither good nor true. This is especially true when we talk about changing how we feel. In order to be a good emotional manager, you must decide that you have the ability to choose how you want to feel, and the best way to do that is to take The Smith and Wesson Test. Ask yourself, "If someone put a gun to my head, would I be able to stop screaming at my kids?" If the answer to the question is "yes," then your problem is not so much about ability as it is a matter of motivation.

2. Work Your Emotions Like a Job

Practice. You have to address how you feel through what you do and the way you look at things. You must decide that you will make your emotions follow your actions and not the other way around. Don't wait to change unproductive behavior until you feel like doing something else — you have to do the right thing when it feels all wrong. Keep doing it no matter what. Then slowly but surely what you feel will start to follow what you do.

The Codification of Attitude and Outlook

3. The Bathroom Mirror Mandate

In order to comply with this rule, you must think through all of your major mistakes. Search out their causes, peruse them for patterns, and then figure out what they say about you. Reexamine the things other people say about you, not in order to determine whether they are right, but in an effort to understand how they came to their conclusion. Even if you are not who they say you are, you have to consider this: is what you're doing conveying something other than what you intend? The point of all this soul-searching is for you to gain a heightened state of awareness. Remember, your faults and weaknesses will never hurt anyone else as much as theyll hurt you. But if you know what they are and understand how they work, they will be much less likely to do you harm.

4. The Rule of Inclusion

Most of us are not born on the south side of Chicago. Lots of us got better; some of us got worse. Be that as it may, we all have stuff to deal with. Big, small, or otherwise, everyone has some kind of misfortune. This rule requires us to acknowledge, out loud, that there is nothing so special about any one of us that exempts us from misfortune. My mother's answer to the question "Why me?" is always "Why not you? Why should you get a free pass on all of that pain and suffering the whole world has known since the beginning of time?" Distress is all a part of it. No one has singled you out. And if you can ban the feeling of being unfairly targeted that often accompanies misfortune, you can remove an entire layer of emotional baggage that you really don't need.

5. No Matter What, Keep Coming

Absent willpower, all of the opportunity in the world doesn't mean a thing. In order to keep coming, you must decide that neither your situation nor the people around you can define who you are or determine what you can do. I'm not saying that you can do anything if you try. Sometimes, no matter what you do, there will be some things you can't overcome. But even if effort will not guarantee success, this rule requires you to acknowledge that its absence guarantees failure.

6. Get Amused

There are very few things in life that are not just a little bit funny. If you learn to get some pleasure out of your failings, the whole world will be easier to take. One's sense of humor is invaluable when things aren't going well. It makes tolerable those terrible things you can neither change nor avoid. Getting amused is much more useful than getting frustrated, angry, or mad. The problem is you have to work on the first one, while the last three come naturally.

The Rules Related to Cool

7. Identify the Dog That's Barking

Don't just feel something and keep moving. Stop and give it a name. you cannot be in control of something if you don't know what it is. So at any given time, on any given day, you should be willing to, and in fact make a habit, of asking yourself the following questions: What am I feeling and why? By naming the source of your dismay, you can better isolate it. It will help you realize that it was the kids and the traffic that made you angry, and not what your boss just said. That way you are less likely to cuss out the wrong person in the wrong situation, and add to the troubles you already have.

8. Then Meet Fido at the Door

A shifting mood always announces itself. You just have to learn to listen. If you're really in touch with your feelings, you can hear them howling long before they reach your door.

After a while you'll start noticing shifts in mood without making the effort to do so. You'll see Fido walking up the drive and know just how big he is.

9. Get Your Mind Right

This simply means that once you realize that you are sporting an emotion that is not doing you any good, you must decide to feel differently. The trick is to pick a specific emotion that you believe will serve you better and consciously decide to adopt it.

10. Learn to Act in Opposition to How You Feel:

In order to do this, follow the steps below.

a. Give it Voice

When I say give it voice, I mean exactly that. Don't just think it. Actually open up your mouth and make some noise. Or better yet, put it down on paper. When you say something out loud, or see it in writing, it helps put shape to an unformed idea, and once anything takes on concrete form, it's easier to handle.

b. Always Have a Game Plan

Whenever you are scheduled to encounter one of your triggers, form a game plan to help you through it. There are lots of ways to do this and you can think up some on your own. But the following four are the ones I use. They may give you some ideas.

1. Walk around it. The easiest way to stay out of trouble is to stay away from where it lives. While I recognize that I have the right to go just about anywhere, I also acknowledge that there are certain places a person like me ought not to be.

2. Fight it out. Of course you can't always avoid things. Sometimes you simply have to stand your ground and fight. But in doing so, you must remember that the first battle you must engage in is always with yourself. You have to give voice to any weakness that might be implicated in what you are about to face.

3. Enlist assistance. Find somebody in your life who loves you and is not afraid to give you a little crap. Tell them what it is you need to do and ask them to help you do it. You can't get mad at somebody for doing what you asked them to do, even if in the process of doing it, they manage to get on your nerves.

4. Take it to another level. When faced with something you don't want to do, pretend that it is something other than what it is. It does not have to be reasonable, nor does it need to make sense to any one but you. It is simply a means to an end, a way to get you where you are going.

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