Chapter 3.Self-Knowledge: Mood


How to Manage One’s Moods

Far more than we are inclined to accept and sometimes even realise, we are creatures of mood: that is, our sense of our value as human beings is prone to extraordinary fluctuation. At times, we know how to tolerate ourselves, the future seems benevolent, we can bear who we are in the eyes of others and we can forgive ourselves for the desperate errors of the past.

And then, at other points, the mood dips and we lament most of what we’ve ever done, we see ourselves as natural targets for contempt, we feel undeserving, guilty, weak and headed for retribution and disaster.

But it can be very hard to grasp what causes our moods to shift. A day that started with energy and hope can, by lunchtime, end up mired in self-hatred and tearfulness. A sure sense that we’ve finally turned the corner and are on the way to better things can be replaced at speed by an alternative certainty that we are a cosmic error.

We cannot, it appears, ever prevent our moods from being subject to change, but what is open to us all is to learn how to manage the change more effectively – so that our downturns can be ever so slightly more gentle, our sadness more containable and our inconstancy less shameful in our own eyes.

Here is some of what we might learn to bear in mind around our capricious moods:

Realise our Vulnerability

We should acknowledge how vulnerable our moods are to being perturbed by so-called ‘small things’. We belong to a species of extreme but also fateful sensitivity; we shouldn’t expect to be able to appreciate a Mozart aria or a Rembrandt self-portrait on the one hand and then, on the other, stay unbothered by the downturned corners of the mouth of a lover or the slightly distant gaze of a would-be client. We shouldn’t berate ourselves for how thin our skin is; we should adjust ourselves to the full consequences of our extraordinary openness to experience.

Edit Social Life

Unless we take vigorous measures to edit our social lives, we can too easily find ourselves in the company of people who, though they may call themselves our friends, are – in terms of what they do to our moods – no such thing. Beneath a veneer of kindness, these people are the bearers of latent hostility, deadly competitiveness, self-absorbed hysteria or priggish moralism. To start to be a friend to ourselves means learning to take a scalpel to our address list in order to edit out such dispiriting impostors.

Vulnerable Friendships

The one great solace for a low mood is the right sort of company: people who know how to reassure us that we still belong, that sadness is to be expected and that our errors never put us beyond compassion. These consoling souls will have suffered, they will have hated themselves and they will have learnt how to laugh at the absurdity of being human. Most importantly, when we show them our low mood, they will know how gracefully to take that most essential next step of friendship: accept our flaws and display one or two of their own. 

Honour the Body

Maddeningly, some of why our moods shift is that we inhabit a body. But because it’s so humiliating to have to accept that our ideas about ourselves and our lives might be dependent on bodily factors – how long we slept, how much water we’ve drunk, what viruses we are fighting in the background – the temptation can be to insist that our ideas must solely be the offspring of reason. It would be wiser to interpret that most of what passes through our minds is in some way dependent on particular things going on in our bodies. At points, it isn’t that it’s all over and that we’re the worst person on earth, it’s just that we may need to lie down for an hour or urgently have a glass of orange juice.

Disrespect a mood

Moods are proud, imperious things. They show up and insist that they are telling us total certainties about our identities and our prospects – perhaps that our love lives will never work out or that a professional situation is beyond repair. But we always have an option of calling their bluff, of realising that they are only a passing state of mind arrogantly pretending to be the whole of us – and that we could, with courage, politely ignore them and change the subject. We might recognize but not give way to the mood and put a bit of distance between it and our conscious selves. We might at times even do precisely what a mood commands us not to do: see someone rather than cede to shame, show our face rather than give way to paranoia, go out for a walk rather than fold our limbs into the foetal position.

Historicise our moods

Our sad moods strongly imply that they are about what lies ahead of us,  but very often, they exist chiefly as symptoms of a difficult past: they stem from a projected memory of people around us who once told us with particular authority that we were no good, that we would fail, that we should be ashamed of ourselves and that catastrophe was around the corner. We should learn to historicise such voices and differentiate them from a trustworthy verdict on the present. Our low moods are far more about a past we still need fully to mourn than a future there is any reason to dread.

A small pilot light of Kindness

While we are being rocked by a dark mood, we should strive to keep a little light on, the light of sanity and self-kindness that can tell us, even though the hurricane is insisting otherwise, that we are not appalling, that we have done nothing unforgiveable and that we have a right to be. We can strive to keep ourselves plugged into a small pilot light of kindness until a larger sun is ready to rise once more.

This too shall pass

Not only do difficult moods insist that they are correct, they also seek to convince us that they are permanent. But our sense of self is naturally viscous; we are condemned to rise and fall, flow and ebb. We are, as a reality and as a metaphor, largely made of water. We shouldn’t allow a misplaced ideal of permanence to add to our sorrows. Though we may be unable to shift a mood, we can at least realise that it is only ever such a thing and that, in the inestimable words of the prophets, with the help of a few hours or days, it too shall pass. 

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