The 3-Step Emotional Change Technique

Bad moods and unhappy feelings are perfectly natural. Although most people don’t enjoy bad moods, sometimes being grumpy or sad can feel gratifying, at least for a while.

Eventually, most of us tire of our bad moods, and want to change. Short of going back to bed and starting the day over, deliberately changing your mood is hard.

The good news is that changing your mood if and when you want to, is possible. The three-step emotional change trick is a technique. I (John) developed because I was counseling young people, and when they entered my office, they were in such terrible moods that I had come up with something to help me survive. 

Warning: Whatever you do, DO NOT tell others who are in a bad mood to cheer up. Not only does that strategy rarely work, but people also WILL NOT LIKE YOU for giving them that advice.

Here’s the Three-Step Technique:

Step one, Recognize that you’re in a bad mood.

Maybe you’re grumpy, angry, sad, self-absorbed, or nasty; any of those moods (and more) will work. Then, just feel the feeling. Let yourself notice and be in the bad mood. Feel it?

We need to respect our bad moods AND the bad moods of others. But the truth is, sometimes we get stuck. We recognize we’re sad, angry, or just out of sorts. That’s why step one is to feel the feeling. Feelings come around for valid reasons. Hardly ever do they come out of nowhere. And so it's important to acknowledge them.

The big step one questions are:

How can you honor and feel your feelings? What Can you do to respect your own feelings?

Over the years, I’ve heard many answers.

Here are a few:

  • Frowning or crying if you feel sad.

  • Grimacing and making various angry faces into a mirror if you feel angry.

  • Drawing an angry, ugly picture.

  • Punching or kicking a large pillow (no real violence though).

  • Going outside and yelling (or screaming into a pillow).

  • Scribbling on a notepad with a black marker.

  • Writing a nasty note to someone (but not delivering it).

  • Using your words, and talking to someone about what you're feeling.

Once you’ve accepted your bad mood and let yourself feel the feelings, when you feel ready, you can move to the next step.

Step two, is to think a new thought or do something different.

This step is all about intentionally doing or thinking about something that might change or improve your mood. The big question here is: What can you think or do that will put you in a better mood?

Over time, I've discovered that kids and adults have amazing mood-changing strategies:

  • Tell a funny story (for example, while trying to home school me, my dad farted).

  • Tell a joke (What do you call it when 100 rabbits standing in a row all take one step backward? a receding hairline).

  • Tell a better joke (Why did the ant crawl up the elephant’s leg for the second time? It got pissed off the first time).

  • Get some exercise.

  • Smile into a mirror.

  • Watch funny Internet cat videos.

  • Talk to someone you trust.

  • Enthusiastically chew a big wad of gum.

  • Put a chicken on your head.....

Rita with chickens on her head.

I’m sure you get the idea. Nobody knows better than you what might put you in a better mood... so use your own self-knowledge. When you’re ready, deploy a mood-changer, wait a bit, and then... go for step three!

Step three, is to spread the good mood around.

Spreading the good mood is based on the fact that moods are contagious. In fact, although COVID-19 is very contagious, moods might be even more contagious.

Here’s what I say to clients:

I want to tell you another interesting thing about moods. They’re contagious. Do you know what contagious means? It means that you can catch them from being around other people who are in bad moods or good moods. Like when you got here. I noticed your mom was in a pretty bad mood too. It made me wonder, did you catch the bad mood from her or did she catch it from you? Anyway, now you seem to be in a much better mood. And so I was wondering, do you think you can make your mom “catch” your good mood?

How do you share good moods? Remember that saying “Cheer up” is totally off-limits.

Here’s a short list of what I’ve heard from kids and adults.

Some of these ideas may not work with isolation and social distancing, but I’m listing ideas that involve touching things like doorknobs along with things that don't involve touching.

  • Do someone a favor

  • Smile

  • Hold the door for a stranger

  • Offer a random act of kindness

  • Offer a real or virtual hug

  • Listen to someone who wants or needs to talk

  • Tell someone, “I love you” (you can even do this while social distancing)

 smiling dog

Step Four: Teach Someone Else the Three Steps.

Step four might be the best and most important step in the three-step emotional change trick. With kids, when I casually move on to step four, I always get interrupted.

“Wait. You said there were only three steps!”

“Yes. That’s true. But what’s interesting about the three-step emotional change trick is that it has four steps. Emotions are complicated and surprising. And so there are four steps. The last step is for you to teach someone else the three steps.”

Nobody ever complains about the fourth step.

For whatever reason, the complexity of emotions overshadows the need to count accurately.

In fact, as you read this, you may have discovered an additional step. I wouldn't be surprised if it turned out that the three-step emotional change trick has five steps.

If you do have a fifth step, please share it with us by commenting on our video for this module.

Now get out there and spread the good mood around.

A man clicking his heels together in happiness.