In a Perfect World
Imagine an exquisitely sensitive machine or instrument. If its job is to assess the strength of the wind, it will pick up the slightest whisper of a breeze. If it is designed to measure the salinity of the ocean, it can sense the minutest trace of saltiness. Based on its internal programming, the device will pick up on things to which you or I, or other, less sensitive instruments, are oblivious.
When an instrument operates this way, we marvel at its sensitivity. But when a person demonstrates a similar sensitivity, one which fluctuates wildly as it reacts to the ever-changing stimuli in the world around it, we give that person a different label. We call her moody.
A moody person does not choose to be that way. She does not choose to register things so sensitively. She does not welcome the reaction that can flip her state of mind from one extreme to the other, like the arm of a compass swinging from north to south and back again. The automatic response that initiates the mood swing is something inborn. She is, simply speaking, a more sensitive instrument that most.
What she can choose to control, with determination and training, is the strength and length of the mood.
How does it work?
She might wake up in a perfectly good mood, only to have a neighbor look at her the wrong way, or her husband speak a little sharply, or a colleague speak disparagingly of her work. It can be anything that registers on her sensitive inner screen. And, for such people, just about everything registers that way.
In her interactions with those around her, she is the instrument that registers the smallest breath of a breeze or the faintest tang of salt. Often, this sensitivity comes along with a rather fragile ego and its accompanying insecurity. Eager for love and approbation, she picks up on any and every sign of its absence from the people around her. Desperate to be thought well of, she is cast into gloom when that doesn’t happen. Conversely, a kind word can transport her with ecstasy.
A wrong word or facial expression can trigger all sorts of negative feelings whose source, again, is her deep-seated insecurity. All she really wants is to know that she is okay and that her world is okay. If something comes along to shake that knowledge, she is cast into despondency. The day which, a moment before, seemed sunny and bright becomes suddenly overcast. She is beset by feelings of anger, envy, resentment or despair which make it impossible for her, in the moment, to remember that she ever felt differently.
When something strikes her in such a way as to arouse a strong emotion, the emotion shakes her out of her equilibrium. Everybody needs a solid core that they can rely on, an inner Rock of Gibraltar that is unbudgeable even when we’re experiencing storms and upheavals. For the moody person, that rock rests on a shaky foundation of shifting sands. No wonder those around her can’t count on her to be the same two days, or two hours, in a row: she can’t count on herself!
The stimuli that instigate her changes of mood do not only come from the people around her. A beautiful sunset can trigger a feeling of elation; a poignant poem or essay can bring her to tears. Her feelings lie close to the surface, ready to bubble up at a moment’s notice. And, once an emotion appears, it can take some time to get rid of.
Her swift-changing moods are like unwanted guests. She does not invite them in, but once they are there, they can be difficult to dislodge… until the next thing comes along to completely alter her state of mind yet again.
It is not easy to deal with moody people. Because their emotional state changes so often, there can be a lack of consistency in how they comport themselves on a day-to-day or even a minute-to-minute basis. While they are struggling in the throes of their feelings, those nearby struggle, too. They struggle to understand their moody companions, and to muster up a compassionate attitude even when they’re feeling exasperated. It can be hard to keep up with the ever-changing progression of moods. You never know where you stand.
I suppose you could say that the moody individual has thin skin. Every passing blow or scratch is amplified because she has so little to cushion her from it. A person with thicker skin may not even register the blow or scratch. She certainly won’t bleed from it. She does not suffer from the kind of sensitivity that assails the thin-skinned person, and may find it difficult to understand it when she encounters it in another.
From the moody one’s perspective, life is even more complex. She longs to connect with the people she loves but is limited by her ever-fluctuating inner life. When my sisters and I were young, we sometimes played a game where we rolled ourselves up in blankets until we were covered from tip to toe. That’s what it’s like when you’re in the grip of a powerful emotional state. You are totally encased in the feeling, which renders you temporarily blind and deaf to everything around you… including the people you love. How can you relate to someone when you can’t even see or hear them?
As we’ve said so often on these pages, the feelings we feel arise from the thoughts we think. Therefore, if we want to give our moods less power over us, it makes sense that we need to think differently about them.
One very useful thought: “This feeling is not my friend.” We all have negative feelings at times. A healthy reaction is to experience a pang of pain, jealousy, anger and so on, and then move on from it to a healthier place. To refuse to let the emotion gets it claws into you for longer than a second or two. To remember that you want to be a positive person. To notice the welcoming hand of envy, gloom, rage or any other negative emotion… and to politely decline the invitation. Because the emotion proffering the invitation is not your friend.
Another thing we can tell ourselves: “I’ll feel differently tomorrow.” Because no matter how powerful your present mood, you will.
I’m not talking about the deep sorrow that comes with bereavement, or the intense joy that accompanies life’s happier milestones. We’re dealing with moods here, which by definition are transitory. However insistent your feeling at this moment, when you wake up in the morning chances are you’ll feel differently. So why not try to make a jump start on tomorrow’s feeling right now?
Last, but certainly not least, it behooves us to remember, when our inner rock is showing cracks, that there is a Rock that never crumbles. One which we can and should rely on to help us weather our personal storms.
When our internal equilibrium is threatened and those sands start to shift beneath us, that’s when we need to remember that we actually have both feet planted on the firmest ground there is: the ground of our unshakeable emunah in our all-powerful Creator.
Empowered by the Rock’s strength and consistency, we are able to view our passing mood as just that. And, when we do, it will drift away like the ephemeral smoke that it is.