Hot-air Baloon

Ch-2: We Can Choose To Be Happy:
Internal and External Routes to Happiness

A key method therapists use to resolve core personal issues

Part 3: A step-by-step guide for novices to professionals

Tom G. Stevens PhD
Psychologist/Professor Emeritus, California State University, Long Beach
Send Feedback/Questions to:
You Can Choose To Be Happy:
Site dedicated to enhancing human happiness, self-development, and success
SITE MAP: All free Self-help resources includes online book, You Can Choose To Be Happy, and SHAQ

Photo of Dr Tom and Sherry Stevens
search index brief sitemap advanced site search
search engine by freefind
Chapter 2, Part 3: From the book, You Can Choose To Be Happy, Tom G. Stevens PhD
Go to Happy Homepage
Go to book contents        Go to chapter contents


Use Self-Exploration to find your inner sources of unhappiness

 Some traditional stress-reduction or positive thinking approaches are limited
 Create your own internal psychologist
 Fear of the inner monster--Most of us fear looking too far inside
 Overview of Self-exploration process

Self-Exploration and Problem-Solving Skills

Choosing to be happy is not as easy as just saying to ourselves, "Be happy" that will magically happen. However, we can choose to be happy by choosing internal and external routes that will increase our probability of being happy. We can learn from others who have been successful leading happy and productive lives, and we can learn from our own experiences.

Simple, direct routes to happiness--are they too naive?  I recently saw a book that consisted of a long list of several thousand things people could do to "make themselves happy." Listening to music, talking with a friend, riding a bike, and filling time with interesting activities increase happiness.

However, reading such a book leaves me with the question, "Why should anyone ever be unhappy?" If all we have to do is fill our time with positive thoughts and activities to be happy, then why is there so much unhappiness in the world?

Unfortunately, life is not so easy for most people. In order to meet basic needs, we must set goals and work hard. Even then we still may not get what we want. It may be that we have no natural liking for the type of work we do. In the real world, most of us must deal with many unpleasant and demanding situations. We must deal with serious losses of money, relationships, or health. We may be bombarded by negative thoughts, conflict, or other unpleasant events. We must also deal with our own inner conflicts such as desire for work versus play, time for family versus earning a living, or independence versus pleasing others. Squeezing a few positive activities into a life full of unhappy times is not an adequate approach for filling our lives with happiness.

Using "stress reduction techniques" such as relaxation training, visualization, physical exercise, and repeating affirmations is another common approach suggested by many books. Using these techniques when we feel negative emotions can help us temporarily feel better. Building these positive activities into our normal daily or weekly schedule can help us feel better in general. I encourage the use of these techniques as a supplement to actually solving the problems that will more permanently help people feel better.

Another approach found in the literature is substituting positive thoughts for negative ones--looking at the glass as half-full instead of half-empty. That approach also has its merits. However, if one's underlying world view tends to predispose them to see the glass as half-empty, then repeating that it is half-full a thousand times will not really get them to see it as half-full. Simple substitution and repetition is not enough.

Most of the clients I see come in with problems that are not solved by stress-reduction techniques or even by substituting simple positive thoughts for negative ones. A client loses a loved one, a client is worried about getting a job, or a client feels her life is out of control. Do I tell them to breath deeply or visualize peaceful scenes to solve these problems? Do I tell them to just think more positively? Of course not! If I did, they would probably feel like I didn't really understand their problem.

My clients may eventually find external routes to happiness. The first client may eventually find a new relationship, the second may find a good job, or the third may get control of her life. However, these solutions take time--possibly months or years. How can they get control of their emotions right now?

The answer is to use internal routes to happiness--to get mental control of the problem. The best way to get mental control is usually to look inside and find the deeper beliefs that are generating their worry. Then, they can find new perspectives that adequately address their deepest concerns--in ways they can honestly believe.

The client who lost a loved one may have to deal with issues of rejection, anger, guilt, self-worth, or how she can be happy living alone. The unemployed client may have to deal with basic career goals, lifestyle expectations, or self-worth. The depressed client may have to deal with her basic world view and view of herself as well as dealing with issues in each important life area that seems out of control. Once these clients solve their underlying issues, then they will not only overcome the current problem, they will have a new inner strength that will help them overcome happiness-threatening problems their entire life.

The first step in the process that solves the underlying problems is almost always self-exploration. It is a process I use with almost every client I see. It is a process that I almost always use on myself when I am upset. It is the only good way I know to get to the real heart of the problem.

Persistent self-exploration and growth can accomplish "miracles." Recall that my Life Skills Questionnaire research found a correlation of .57 between how people cope with their negative reactions and happiness! We also found that making self-development part of one's life style correlated .35 with happiness the past three years. By using this self-exploration/problem-solving approach persistently over time, we can accomplish what sometimes appears to be a miracle. One client who was having severe panic attacks said that it would be a "miracle" if she even finished that first semester I saw her. Not only did she do that, but she has graduated with excellent grades.

I have seen many people accomplish what they or others considered to be "miracles" in their own lives. I have seen shy clients who could barely talk to anyone become confident, outgoing, and assertive. I have seen people with serious alcohol and drug problems beat the habit and go on to new levels of living and continued growth that surpassed their peers. I have seen people terrified about being alone learn to love being alone. I have seen people who worked hard to make "D"s and "F"s in difficult subjects begin making "A"s and "B"s. I have seen people with serious "addictive relationship" patterns learn to find happiness alone and then go on to form happy, mature love relationships.

All of these clients who accomplished "miracles" had something in common. They all had locked within themselves the barriers to success and happiness. Yet they all also had locked within themselves the inner power that could overcome those barriers.


What if--whenever you got upset--you could call your own personal psychologist who understood you and always helped you feel better? What if, in addition, this personal psychologist charged no fees and was always available? You can have a psychologist like that.

One thing that both Freud and Maslow (and most psychologists) agreed about was that self-knowledge is a key to mental health. The process of self-exploration is a prerequisite to maximizing happiness and personal power.

From our point of view, Freud's greatest discovery is that the great cause of much psychological illness is the fear of knowledge of oneself--
of one's emotions, impulses, memories, capacities, potentialities,
of one's destiny.

(Abraham Maslow, Toward a Psychology of Being, 1960, p. 57)

Fear of the inner monster--most of us fear looking too far inside. I used to be afraid to look too far inside. I was afraid of what I now call the inner monster. I didn't know what this inner monster was, but I was afraid that it was something dark and terrible--something I would be very ashamed of. But when I looked inside, I didn't find a monster at all. I just found many interesting parts--a little boy, a baseball player, a scholar, a brother, a psychologist, a lover, a philosopher, and much more.

Many clients have the same sort of fears about looking inside. They are afraid of finding their own personal monster. They may fear that their basic nature is "selfish," "evil," "dirty," "weak," "stupid," "crazy," or "sick." However, after intensively exploring the inner cores of hundreds of clients, I have not found one monster! Not one rotten person!

People don't find monsters--they find outdated or limited beliefs. When we find the causes of our problems, we don't find "sick" inner parts; we find old assumptions, old beliefs, old expectations, old commitments, or old goals that we now see as limited.

We feel excited about finally finding the inner causes of our problems, and we want to change these old parts of ourselves. The result of self-exploration is not horror at what we find, but relief that it is not nearly as bad as we feared--and peace at discovering the truth. That relief gives way to enthusiasm as we open new life paths to explore.

If you fear finding inner monsters, you will feel anxiety whenever you look inside yourself or question some established belief. You can replace that outdated belief in inner monsters with a better metaphor.

"Solving the inner mystery" metaphor. I love to watch good mysteries. Agatha Christie's Hercule Poirot is one of my favorite detectives. Sometimes, I think of psychotherapy as Poirot finding clues to discover "who dunnit."

Instead of thinking of self-exploration as a search for inner monsters, think of it in terms of your favorite discovery metaphor. Think of self-exploration as being the detective in an exciting mystery movie. Or, think of self-exploration as your being a scientist trying to discover a major new insight into human nature. Learn to replace those old fears of looking inward with a sense of adventure, curiosity, and excitement.

"Looking for buried treasure" metaphor. The process of self-exploration is not like looking for an inner monster, it's like looking for buried treasure. You may find inner roadblocks you didn't know about; but you will find at your core that you care about yourself and others. You will find you care about many higher values such as truth and beauty. You will find new sources of interest, competence, inner strength, and motivation. You will find that you have more potential for success and happiness than you ever realized.

If you've been afraid to look inside, because you're afraid of finding an inner monster--
that's really sad.
Because your fear has kept you from finding what's really inside--
a beautiful, loving human being.

Return to beginning


A few years ago, I had a dream longing to be back in graduate school. Once awake, I felt very confused. I couldn't understand why I would long to be back in graduate school; my life seemed so much better now--in almost every way. Why would I have such a strong feeling? It was a mystery to me.

I solved the mystery using my nonjudgmental inner observer. I used the same process I would use with a client--to follow my feelings to the underlying issues. Even though I was dubious of the longing feeling, I accepted that it was a real emotion, and I accepted that it must be connected to some real--but obviously hidden--underlying issue. My inner observer noticed two types of feelings--the longing feeling and a feeling of mild anger. The anger feeling seemed the easiest to identify.

When I focused on the anger, I free associated. The thoughts and self-talk poured from the associations with anger. Part of me said things like "How could I be longing for graduate school when my life is so good now! When I was in graduate school, I was a poverty-stricken student and I know that I was not as happy as I am now!" This part of me felt somewhat threatened that the progress I had made in my life might not have mattered. However, after some exploration, I realized that most of my life was better, and I realized that these areas of progress were not the underlying issue.

Therefore, I decided to explore the longing feeling. Exploring the longing feeling was harder. I tried free association. I focused on the longing feeling to see what thoughts or images spontaneously appeared. What appeared were images of reading, talking with other students, and going to classes. Associated with them were good feelings. I was still confused about why these images appeared. I had been a psychologist for years, what could possibly be so positive about these old grad-school images?

I decided to try some mental experiments. I consciously generated images and observed my emotions. I focused on scenes from my grad-school days and scenes from my current professional life. I compared my emotional reactions in the old scenes to my emotional reactions in the present ones. For example, I compared how I spent a typical day as a graduate student to how I spent a typical day at work as a psychologist. As I imagined different parts of my day, I observed my emotional reactions. I noticed that the parts of being a student that felt so good were the parts concerned with learning new ideas. I loved to read about them, write about them, and discuss them with other students.

"Ah hah"--what a difference between my student days and my current days! I used to feel excited about learning new ideas and discussing them with others. Instead, I had become so involved in the process of counseling, teaching, writing, and program development (based upon ideas I already knew), that I had little time for learning new ideas. Some part of my brain that loves to learn new ideas was bored and had begun to generate dreams about graduate school--a time when it was happy.

My dream finally made sense. I had identified the underlying issue. My underlying value of learning and developing new ideas was being deprived. Once I identified the underlying issue, I began self-exploration of my subpart that was responsible for these feelings. I continued to let myself free associate and imagine situations where I had been happy learning and thinking about new ideas. I got more in touch with many memories where the common theme intuitively seemed the same.

That common theme was learning new ideas, organizing them in my mind, and writing or talking about them. I labeled this part of me my "inner scholar." This part of me had been active most of my life; I had always been curious and loved to learn about almost any new idea that seemed interesting.

So this one dream--with its strong associated feelings--had led me to get in touch with a part of myself that I had let drift into the background. But how had this happened? Why had this important part of me become so neglected?

I started looking for causes of the problem. My first tendency was to blame the problem on my job. After all, the administration wanted direct service to students and seemed to care little about professional development or writing. However, I realized that I needed to take responsibility for my scholarly activity myself, and do what was necessary to increase it.

The next stage was deciding on what route to happiness I would take. My new internal route to happiness was to start challenging my assumptions that had kept me from scholarly activity. I questioned the assumption that I couldn't find some scholarly activity that administrators would support. I also questioned my assumption that I needed their support--after all I could do it on my own time. I realized that my inner scholar was so important that I would give it more of my time and money resources and cut back in other life areas.

My new external route to happiness was to develop a plan to begin studying cognitive science and artificial intelligence. I decided to reduce my outside work, and consequently lower my income. However, overall I was a happier person--so the decision was a good one. To my surprise, I even received support from the administration. Since that time, I have nurtured my inner scholar. It enriches my life, my happiness, and my productivity. This book is partly a result of that continued effort.

So, the self-exploration process that started with that one dream rekindled a part of me that has had a major impact on my life since. This self-exploration also released a powerful, natural motivation to spend the many hours required to pursue my scholarly goals. The payoff has been bountiful--for my own happiness and for the benefit of others.

PRACTICE: Explore a complex problem. Think of a problem. You can start with an emotion you feel too often--such as anger, anxiety, or depression. Or, you can start with a problem in some area of your life--such as people, career, financial, or health. Or, you can start with a habit you want to change. Apply each of the following six steps of the self-exploration process to better understand the internal causes of the problem; or, wait until you have read the seven steps once. Then apply them to your problem.

Return to beginning


Learn the STEPS to Finding Underlying, Internal Causes

My graduate school dream example illustrated the self-exploration method. The self-exploration method includes some of the most essential skills involved in therapy and self-development. In future chapters I will frequently refer back to this self-exploration process. If you learn it well and use it regularly, your rewards will be great!

For novices and experts.(1) How much training or experience have you had exploring your inner being? Learning to do self-exploration well requires a great deal of skill and experience. If you are new at this, it may appear as if I am providing too much detail. In your case, it is better to focus on the major steps and the bigger ideas and skim the detail for now. After you have practiced self-exploration for a while, reread this section and concentrate on the details.

If you are an advanced self-explorer, some information may appear too basic. Instead, focus on fine-tuning your skills. Reaching an expert level of self-exploration is essential for maximizing your happiness, and reaching that level takes experience. You will not be able to read this chapter once and find--overnight--that you can solve all your problems. You will need to use it like you use a pair of glasses. Every time you need to deal with a more complex problem or emotion, you need to put on your new self-exploration glasses and look inside.

Self-exploration is only the first step. Once you explore old parts of yourself that need changing, you will need specific methods for fixing those problems. You will need new ways of dealing with those underlying issues. In other chapters we will focus on many of the underlying issues that you might discover--issues like having a negative world view, having low self-esteem, being too externally controlled, having dysfunctional expectations and beliefs, having poor coping skills, or being too nonassertive. [If you are an "expert self-explorer," you may want to skim the rest of this chapter and proceed to chapter 3. You can return to this section later.]

Return to beginning

Step 1: WARM UP YOUR INNER OBSERVER--Get in the right frame of mind

Before you begin looking at a problem, it is important to get the right mental set. If you feel any anxiety about looking inside or questioning some cherished belief, remember your discovery metaphor. You are not afraid of the truth. You are Hercule Poirot, a psychologist, or a seeker of buried treasure. The truth will eventually give you peace and set you free!

Let your inner observer watch inner events neutrally--just recording data. Hercule Poirot must look at the facts dispassionately as a scientist would--both are searching for the raw, uncolored truth. You cannot understand and solve the problem unless you can observe the raw data from your senses and emotions as clearly as possible--with a minimum of interference from thoughts that want to filter it, interpret it, and judge it. You must suspend these higher interpretive thought processes until you get all the facts. If you start drawing conclusions prematurely, you may bias your perception to fit your preconceived views.

Self-exploration involves developing a subpart of you that becomes a neutral, nonjudgmental observer. It can observe the most positive or negative thoughts, feelings, actions, or events dispassionately. To get in the right frame of mind pretend that you are a neutral observer sent from another planet to unobtrusively study the people of earth. Or pretend that you are watching a movie and know that what is happening is not real. This inner neutral observer can learn to observe events as if none of the events will affect it at all.

Neutral observing may sound easy, but it is one of the most difficult aspects of the self-exploration process. How often have you simply observed your own sensations, thoughts, and feelings for even five minutes without interpreting them, getting strong emotional reactions, or jumping to conclusions? People attempting to learn meditation may take weeks before they can focus inward peacefully for five minutes.

Notice the difference between different sensations, thoughts, emotions, and actions. Everything in your consciousness is either a sensation, a thought, or an emotion. Thoughts consist of images, words, and their relationships. Even external events are not directly accessible to your consciousness--only your sensations from those events are. Your inner observer must know that sensations are distinct from external world events. Your inner observer must know that your sensations and perceptions can be strongly affected by your preconceptions and biases.

Let your nonjudgmental inner observer use neutral, nonjudgmental language as it talks. Some part of you (not your inner observer) might be judging someone--calling them "stupid" or "bad." During the first part of the self-exploration stage, don't let your inner observer change that judgmental part or change the language it is using. It will only observe the language and its effects on your other thoughts, emotions, and actions.

Your inner observer may notice that condemning someone increases negative thoughts, increases anger, and increases aggressive actions. The reaction of your neutral observer is not to condemn, it is, "That's interesting--perhaps there is a causal relationship between my judgments, my anger, and my aggressive responses."

As your inner observer talks about what it is observing, it is important that it use descriptive, nonjudgmental language. If it falls into a judgmental mode, then it will lose its power to be an accurate observer.

Let your nonjudgmental inner-observer avoid zingers and melodramatic descriptions. Zingers are key words that incite emotional reactions. They can disrupt thinking from a "just getting the facts" mode to an "I need to react" mode. At times when you are observing yourself, you will undoubtedly be tempted to think thoughts like, "That was stupid, why did I do that?" But beware of such temptations. Innuendos, digs, subtle put-downs, and defensive comments all stir up parts of us that are anything but neutral--so avoid observational zingers of any type!

Melodramatic language incites emotional reactions. If you want an emotional reaction from someone (including yourself), then you may be tempted to exaggerate or overdramatize a situation. The problem is if you exaggerate the situation, then it also gives you a message that the problem is larger than it really is. It may also give a message that you view yourself as too weak to meet the challenge. This kind of dishonest communication is the opposite of what your inner observer is striving for.

Let your inner observer "rise above" emotions and not get caught up in them. Recall a time when you got really upset and got totally lost in the emotion and experience. In that experience, you had tunnel-vision. You lost all perspective that anything else exists. You probably felt as if the emotion was totally outside of your control. In this case your neutral observer was not engaged.

In contrast to this experience--try to think of a time when your neutral observer was engaged. Haven't you ever experienced one part of yourself dispassionately observing another part as the second part gets upset? Perhaps the experience felt a little strange, sort of like an "out of body" experience. But it is this dual processing state that you must achieve with your inner observer to accurately observe what is causing your emotional reactions. To achieve this dual processing state take turns focusing on your inner observer and letting the upset part act naturally until it's finished with the episode.

PRACTICE: Right now try closing your eyes and with your "inner eye" try observing all of your bodily sensations, your emotions, and your thoughts. Try just observing them without controlling them or judging them. Especially pay attention to sequences and patterns of internal events. As you feel emotions, notice them and label them; but during the self-exploration stage do not attempt to change them. Observe any correlation between your emotions and thoughts.

Return to beginning


Look for Sequences and Patterns. Think about times when the problem occurs. Look for sequences of events. When did the problem start? What was the order and timing of events?

Look for patterns of events. What else was happening about then that might be related? List situations when the problem occurs and situations when it does not. Think of as many situations as you can and be as specific as you can in recalling all of the events.

Nonjudgmental observe each situation in depth. Listed below are some additional questions I use when gathering the "raw data" for helping clients find the causes of their problems. Use these yourself during self-exploration. For more complex problems explore the entire history of the problem--even dating back to childhood.

When did the problem begin and what conditions immediately preceded that beginning?

 Compare situations it does and doesn't occur in. How are the situations it occurs in similar to each other? How are these situations different from situations where it does not occur? What if you discover that a person is normally not depressed with other people, but is often depressed alone? You might suspect that the cause of the depression has something to do with loneliness, lack of being able to "entertain" his or herself, or some other condition associated with being alone.

 What events regularly precede the target thoughts or actions?  This will help identify what some of the immediate causes are to the actions or thoughts which we are trying to understand. People often overlook the most obvious causes. Important antecedent causes of the problem thought or action can include the place, the time-of-day, a negative comment, a loss, or a situation you've never faced before are all examples of events that might precede a problem.

 Check the environment--any temptations or distractions? Often students complain because they can't concentrate on their studies. Yet often in their study environment, the TV is playing, people are constantly interrupting them, or they have chores to do. Most students cannot concentrate in this environment because of all the distracting stimuli. In this case, finding a new study place or making agreements and being firm about people leaving them alone when they have a "Do not disturb--I'm studying" sign hanging on their door can really help. Understanding which external stimuli and events are affecting your feelings is an important step to finding possible solutions.

 What events regularly follow the target thoughts or actions? The reason that consequent events are so important is that they may be reinforcing the target thoughts or actions. When children throw temper tantrums, some parents give the child what the child wants. It seems to work beautifully; the child stops crying immediately. Both parent and child are now happy. However, why is it that this child turns into a terrible brat who is always throwing temper tantrums? And why is it that the parents keep giving in to these tantrums?

The answer is that both parent and child are being reinforced regularly for their behaviors and reinforcement tends to increase the strength of habits. The child is being reinforced for the tantrum by the parent; the parent gives the child what the child wants. Similarly, the parent is being reinforced for giving in by the child--the child immediately stops crying and thus gives the parents what they want.

How do the parents break this cycle? First they must completely stop reinforcing the tantrums. In order to speed the process they can also use some sort of punishment following the tantrums (to decrease the strength of the habit). Even though there might be a temporary increase in crying--that is a signal to the parents that the child does not like the intended punishment. Punishments are not supposed to be liked. If they are liked, then they are reinforcements--not punishments.

Return to beginning


Our emotions are like the warning lights or gauges in our cars. Our car gauges tell us what is right or wrong with important inner parts of our car such as the oil pressure, the generating system, or the engine temperature. If the oil light comes on and we don't stop immediately, we can burn up the engine in our car.

In a similar way our emotions tell us about aspects of our lives that are important to us. Some important inner value, expectation, goal, or belief may be threatened and we might not be aware of it at a conscious level. However, some inner part of us is aware of the problem and it speaks to us though our emotions. Therefore, to locate the cause of the problem, we need to follow our emotions.

Emotions are the CLUES we follow to find the solution to the mystery.

(1)  Identify the types and intensity of emotions involved. Many people have difficulty identifying emotions. You may experience an emotion like anxiety as bodily sensations--tightening of your chest, pain in your stomach, rapid breathing and heart rate, and excess perspiration. You can also observe which sensations, thoughts, or actions precede or follow an emotion. From these careful observations, you can find the emotion's causes.

Don't confuse emotions with sensations, intuition, or thoughts. People often confuse other internal events with emotions. They use the word "feel" to mean many things besides emotions. For example, there is the old joke about the woman in her tenth marriage getting out of bed and saying, "What a beautiful day, I feel like a new man today!"

Many people confuse thoughts, intuition, or "hunches" with emotions. "I feel like something bad is going to happen" is an intuitive prediction--not an emotion. Does the person mean that he feels sad because he thinks something bad is about to happen? This distinction may seem picky to some, but it can make a major difference. Anger, anxiety, and depression have different causes and different solutions.



   After many years of research, experts in the field still have not agreed on any one classification system. However, it is generally agreed that anger, anxiety, and depression are basic negative emotions--and they are the most widely studied emotions.

   Many laymen confuse the emotions of depression or anxiety with diagnostic categories of clinical depression or clinical anxiety disorders. The clinical syndromes are marked by extensive, prolonged, intense periods of the particular emotion. Often people have had recurring  problems with unusually high amounts of the emotion for many years. But, depression and anxiety are normal emotions that almost everyone feels at least small amounts of every day. Even people feeling intense emotions for awhile are not necessarily clinically anxious or depressed.

   I classify all unpleasant or negative emotions as either some form of anxiety,  depression, or anger. (See harmonious functioning chapter for more explanation.)  Anxiety includes subcategories of fear, guilt, stress, confusion, nervousness. Anger includes resentment, irritation, frustration,  and rage. Depression includes boredom, loneliness, apathy, (some) tiredness, sadness, and grief.

   There is even less agreement about a classification system for positive emotions. But I use the word happiness to refer to what I believe is the most basic positive emotion. I think that it is inseparably intertwined with its variations of love, caring, liking, joy, peace, excitement, and ecstasy.

   The positive and negative emotions are related, but are like opposite ends of a spectrum. It is impossible to feel anger, anxiety, or depression and joy at the same instant. They each have their turn, depending on what our state of mind is at any one instant in time.


(2) Follow the strongest emotions to the underlying issues (versus avoiding them). It feels bad to focus on unpleasant emotions, and most people have learned to avoid negative emotions--not actively pursue them. (2)

The self-exploration process is the opposite of avoidance behavior. It causes us to look down the barrel at our most feared emotions and underlying issues so that we can solve the underlying problems--not just cover them up with temporary patches.

Pretend you are playing the old children's game in which you are blindfolded and your goal is to find a hidden object. If you get farther from the object the other kids shout, "You're getting colder." If you are getting closer, they shout, "You're getting hotter."

The COLDER the emotion, 
the FURTHER from the underlying cause of the emotion,
the HOTTER the emotion, the CLOSER to the source of the fire.
If you can stand the heat, you can control the fire.

Return to beginning


What thoughts or mental images pop into your mind as you focus on the target emotions? These pop-up associations are not just chance events. They are often very important. The mistake most laymen make is that they do not realize that these associated thoughts are not just coincidences--they are conditioned associations and causally connected to the emotions and the problem. Therefore, following these associations can often lead to other associations that are the underlying causes of the target problem.

(1) Focus on words, images, or ideas that create the strongest emotional responses. As you think about the target situations, your emotions will vary both in type and in strength. As they vary, notice the exact image, thought, or sensation that was associated with the strongest emotions--especially the target emotion. If depression is the target emotion and if you suddenly feel a small increase in depression, then what internal event just preceded the onset of that small increase? Answering that question may provide a valuable clue to an underlying cause.

(2) Identify thoughts that regularly precede the target emotion. Even if a particular internal event precedes a target emotion only once, it may be important. However, when you notice that a particular type of internal event regularly precedes the target emotion, then you are really getting hot. Examples of common causes of some negative emotions follow.

Anxiety: Anxiety is caused by uncertainty about important values and goals. Examples: Uncertainty about being liked, about getting a job, about people's opinions, about finances, about deadlines, or about your expectations being met.

Anger: Anger usually results from not accepting some loss or potential loss. The higher the stakes, the more the anger is directed at the perceived cause of the problem. A person may generate anger for power to overcome the perceived barrier. Examples: Not accepting an interruption or negative event, thinking someone wants to hurt you or is being unfair to you, or being injured and wanting to "get even."

Depression: While both anxiety and anger are states of high arousal, depression is generally a state of low arousal characterized by goalessness, loss, and lack of challenge. The person may have "given up" or be experiencing a lack of values satisfaction or reward. Examples:  Loss of a loved one or job, a perceived or anticipated failure experience, not having anything interesting to do, or being alone. Depression may even come after successfully meeting goals, when suddenly goals are lacking.

Chapter 8 will focus on overcoming anxiety, anger, and depression.

(3) Conduct inner experiments with your emotions--what makes them go UP and DOWN? Test different words, images, and ideas to see if they will evoke even stronger emotions. You can learn what causes your emotions to vary by consciously varying your thoughts and watching the corresponding changes in your emotions. Consciously focus on beautiful music or a beautiful ocean scene and observe your emotions. Then consciously focus on scenes of serious illness, famine, or death. Compare your emotional reactions. Also, notice how rapidly they can change as you alter your focus.

While clients are feeling very depressed in therapy and are focusing on how helpless they feel, I often ask them to think of a time when they were depressed and were able to get themselves out of the depression. They suddenly appear more alert, active, and energetic. They immediately begin to feel better.

Then I ask them to compare how they felt when they were talking about how helpless they felt versus how they felt when they were talking about how they could cope with their depression. They realize that when they focus on what they cannot do and focus on what is out of their control, they feel worse. But as soon as they focus on constructive problem-solving and focus on what they can control, they feel better. From this simple mental experiment, they discover one cause and one treatment of their depression.

(4) Use free association techniques--follow thoughts, memories, and images. One powerful way to dig up underlying issues is by using free association techniques. Let your inner observer just watch the chain of connections between different mental events.

I explored my dream about graduate school using free association--to get to the underlying cause of my "longing" feelings. I am not normally someone who spends much time exploring dreams. However, that one had strong feelings associated with it and I felt confused. I kept free-associating and got in touch with many old memories. I then focused on the feelings associated with these old memories.

Memories of talking with other students, reading, listening to certain professors, and writing were popping into my mind. I began to see that the common theme was that I was thinking about interesting new ideas.

(5) Search your memory for similar situations where you do feel the target emotion. A client couldn't understand why she got so angry at her significant other for being late. I asked her to think of other situations when she got angry at him. She was angry about his nagging her to "hurry up" whenever they went out, about his always getting his way about what activities they did together, and about several other situations.

What did all of these situations have in common (besides her angry reaction)? She felt controlled. She thought that he always wanted her to be on his schedule and do whatever he wanted. The underlying issue was control--she was angry because she was allowing him to control her time and activities.

(6) Compare them to situations where you don't feel the target emotion. Ask yourself why you feel the target emotion in the first set of situations and don't in the second set. What are the key differences in the sets of situations? These differences may help you understand the deeper causes of your emotions.

In the above example, my client did not feel angry in situations when her significant other listened to her or did what she requested. She also did not feel angry if she told him what she wanted--even if he did not ask. That puzzled her at first. After all, he was not being any nicer. She realized that the underlying issue was not as much his behavior as it was her believing she had adequate control in mutual decisions. She had adequate control either if he asked what she wanted or if she asserted herself.

(7) Keep asking yourself, "What am I MOST afraid of?" Another version of that question is, "What is the WORST thing that can happen?" These questions can help you unlock mysteries that may have haunted you for years.

Our underlying fears drive much of our anxiety, depression, and anger. Discovering, facing, and overcoming our worst fears will solve most problems! I have seen many clients with underlying fears that have been the root of their unhappiness for years. When they finally face these fears, their lives are often transformed--at least in that one area. It is sad that they had been living at less than their potential for so many years--when confronting these fears could have set them free. Is this happening to you in some important life area now?

In the short-run, facing your greatest fears may take time and be painful; however, in the long-run, avoiding them, covering them up, rationalizing them, or blaming others produces far more pain.

Return to beginning


As you use the preceding steps, you will begin to uncover the underlying issues and subparts that are causing problems. When you discover an underlying issue, a little light comes on in your head. Your emotions , such as relief or joy, tell you that you have made an important insight.

What are underlying causes like? At this point you still may not know what you are looking for. You may not know what I mean when I say search for underlying issues or for underlying parts of yourself.

Underlying causes include important values, beliefs, and belief systems. These mental systems are the source of our personality, motivation, and daily habits--they remain partially hidden or "unconscious." They produce the thoughts and emotions you have been exploring up to this point. By following the river of thoughts and emotions upstream, you can find their source--the underlying mental structures.

Characteristics of these deeper structures. These mental, cognitive systems will be discussed in more depth in later chapters. However, for now, remember that you can tell when you have found them by looking for issues, beliefs, conflicts, expectations, assumptions, values, goals, plans, etc. that have some of the following characteristics.

  •  More general and abstract. Example: Who is in control in overall [more general] versus who gets their way right now [more specific].
  •  Apply to a wide range of situations. Example: The person is usually late, not late just this one time.
  •  Related to major life themes, life roles, or life areas. Examples: "Living the good life," "Being an honest and ethical person," or related to career, family, health.
  •  Related to major commitments or decisions. Examples: Marriage, family, owning a house, an organization, or a career.
  •  Important to your identity--your self-image or self-esteem.

As you use the methods in step 4 to make connections between emotions and underlying thoughts, go one step further--keep looking at the big picture. What are the more global, bigger issues or parts of yourself that are attached to these specific thoughts that keep popping up? Some of the following questions can help.

  •  What do the causal, surface thoughts have in common?
  •  In what way are thoughts preceding the problem alike?
  •  How are they different from thoughts that seem to reduce the problem? Notice the content of the thoughts and the underlying issues.

One client came in for serious episodes of depression. She said that her biggest problem was loneliness. She made a lot of statements like those that follow. What common themes do these statements have?

"I'm always doing favors for my friends; but when I ask them for a favor, they always have some excuse." "I study harder than almost anyone I know, but I only make average grades." "I did everything I could to please my boyfriend; but in the end he said I was too needy."

One theme was a theme of rejection, or more broadly a theme of failure--"I try so hard, but in the end I fail." Since this theme occurred across most of her life areas, it is no wonder that she often felt severely depressed. Changing her expectations and getting more control of her life--one area at a time and in general--were strategies that helped her overcome her depression.

(2) Ask yourself, "WHY?" or 'WHAT AM I ASSUMING?" These probing questions are often a direct pipeline to underlying assumptions and beliefs. When I ask, "Why?" I don't mean that you should give an explanation following the rules of logic. I mean it in the same sense that you would ask a five-year-old child, "Why did you hit your brother?" You want to learn about the child's underlying reasoning and motives. Maybe the child says that his brother took his toy, and therefore he hit him. He assumes that hitting is a proper response to the taking of toys. These underlying assumptions are often the problem.

(3) What common THEMES recur across different situations? A client was feeling very unhappy about her relationship with her fiancé, but she could not figure out why. She said she had begun to notice an increased feeling of "distance." I suggested that she might really mean "mild anger" by the word distance, and she agreed. I asked her to think of some situations where she felt the most distance.

First, she described several situations where she had stated her opinion and he had responded by either disagreeing, making fun of it, or acting as if it were unimportant. In turn she usually felt hurt or inadequate. Inside, she questioned her own intelligence and judgment. This was an important issue in itself, but it was not the end.

She also felt distance in other situations where he seemed to outtalk her to get his way. When they disagreed about something really important to him, he tended to become domineering and pay little attention to what she wanted. His domination and her nonassertiveness were the themes that seemed common to all of the situations where she felt distance. He seemed to give much higher priority to his own beliefs and wants than he did to hers. Frequently, she gave a higher priority to his beliefs and wants as well!

Once we identified the problem, we could focus on the parts of her and him that led to his domineering behavior and her nonassertive behavior. For example, she had a part of her that almost always played the role of a "nice, obedient girl" who would always try to please other people and make them happy--even at great cost to her own happiness. She believed that she needed to play this role to be accepted by her parents and friends. Her inner observer explored her "nice, obedient girl" beliefs. Once she understood how these beliefs allowed her to be manipulated, she chose new, more assertive beliefs.

When she found herself falling back into the obedience role, she reminded herself that she could be both nice and assertive. "I love my partner and want to support his happiness; but I am the one responsible for my own happiness, and I love myself enough to take good care of myself. That is more important than being obedient and worrying about what others think all the time."

Return to beginning


Clarifying boundaries of control and responsibility is a primary stage of solving emotional issues. Often clarifying these boundary, control, or responsibility issues will immediately solve the problem and we will suddenly feel much better.

We may start by focusing on external causes and problems. We may start trying to solve a problem with the assumption that the source of the problem is external. By external I mean roughly outside of the skin. My low-assertive client had started with the assumption that the source of her unhappiness was a problem with her relationship or fiance.' In fact important external aspects of the problem may need to be solved, but they are never the entire problem. The link between those external events and our emotions lies inside.

We can only change our own thoughts and behavior. The rest of the world is less in our control, but our choices about that world are important and will affect it. My client could not change her boyfriend (at least not directly), she could only change herself and how she deals with him.

We may assume that others are causing our negative feelings and deny responsibility. At one stage of solving the problem, my client with the dominating fiancé' was focusing on what he had done to contribute to the problem--she was ignoring her contribution. Often when people reach this stage of externalizing the problem or blaming it all on others, their friends will agree with them to "support" them. Her friends had made statements like, "Yeah, aren't men bastards," "He's not good enough for you," "You poor thing, you tried so hard." These statements aren't helpful. They just keep the problem externalized. They assigns all of the cause, control, and responsibility to the other person(s).

My client's friends wanted to help, but they were giving my client a strong message that she was weak and had no control. If her fiance' was totally responsible, then the implication is that she was helpless--and must be a weak person. He didn't hypnotize her or cast a spell over her. In fact, she had many assertive options that she could have made to his dominating behavior.

She had unwittingly allowed herself to be manipulated in the past. Knowing that she had allowed herself to be manipulated motivated her to learn new assertiveness skills.

We are only responsible for what we can control--our own thoughts, actions, and feelings. If some outside event beyond my control is causing me to feel upset, then I am helpless. But I reject this assumption that any outside forces directly control my emotions. My mind directly controls my emotions--not outside forces.

I know that no matter how bad the external situation is, I can have enough control over my emotions to feel happy most of the time. If Victor Frankl can get control in a concentration camp, then we can potentially get control in our most difficult situations.

Using the same reasoning, I cannot control another person's thoughts, actions, or feelings. Therefore, I am not responsible for their thoughts, actions, or feelings. My client was not responsible for changing her fiancé's domineering behavior. She was only responsible for herself and choosing how to deal with her unhappiness with this situation.

PRACTICE: Explore a complex problem. If you did not apply the six self-exploration steps to solving a problem as you read this section, go back to the last "PRACTICE," think of a problem, and apply the seven self-exploration steps to understanding its inner causes. Then read the following.

Return to beginning

Go to next section of Chapter 2

1. This self-exploration process is similar to the process I use in therapy. It is based upon methods first described by Carl Rogers (1951), Robert Carkhuff (1961), and George Kelly (1955).

2. Note: Avoiding emotions can lead to serious problems.  Psychologists call behaviors we use to avoid negative emotions avoidance behaviors. Avoidance behaviors receive strong, immediate reinforcement by helping us avoid negative emotions--such as anxiety. Most psychologists believe that many addictions and other dysfunctional behaviors are avoidance behaviors--they become powerful habits because they help us avoid negative emotions. I agree. People eat, drink, take drugs, become obsessive, get "addicted" to relationships, and learn many other dysfunctional habits in order to avoid unpleasant emotions (and to therefore avoid dealing with major underlying issues).


The BOOK (free download): Go to Contents of Dr. Stevens'  book,  You Can Choose To Be Happy: "Rise Above" Anxiety, Anger, and Depression.

FREE SELF-HELP materials available on this web site (click here to see list)  

  How to ORDER You Can Choose To Be Happy  

Success and Happiness Attributes Questionnaire (SHAQ)  to assess self on many factors  including HQ-Happiness Quotient 

Email feedback to Dr. Stevens I welcome your comments about my web site or any of its contents.           

Self-Help and other resources on this website (and site map)

Web site created and maintained by: Tom G. Stevens PhD Psychologist-Faculty Emeritus,
California State University, Long Beach Counseling and Psychological Services.
URL of this web site:

Return to Dr. Stevens' Home Page

Copyright 2021 Tom G. Stevens PhD