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Updated: Oct 9, 2022

When confronted with someone else’s expression of feeling, we all too often act like a bad detective: we decide we know what’s going on and look for evidence to support it, rather than investigating based on the clues that we find.

Whether communicating in person, by phone, by video call or in writing, the clues we always have are the words people use, and the investigative tools are questions.

If someone tells us they’re in a bad mood after a bad day, it’s likely that we’ll question them about the bad day, but not about the bad mood.

Given that there are, at a conservative estimate, a gazillion different things that could happen to make a day a bad one, it’s only natural that we’ll want to ascertain exactly what’s involved in a particular bad day – so we ask about it.

When it comes to being in a bad mood, though, we all know what that's about, don’t we? I mean, who hasn’t been in a bad mood at some point?!

But do all our bad moods feel the same?

What if the state one person labels as a “bad mood” is a temporary sense of frustration and irritation that can be treated quite successfully with a hearty moan to a friend, a large bowl of ice cream and a good night’s sleep, while the state that someone else labels as a “bad mood” is a weeks’ long feeling of being trapped at the bottom of a deep, dark pit, with only thoughts of suicide for company?

To complicate things further, our sub-conscious minds will decide how we would react to (what we know of) someone else’s situation and this will influence how we behave to that person.

To continue the “bad mood after a bad day” example: if my idea of a bad mood is closer to irritation than depression, and I feel that the stuff in your bad day is all pretty minor, then I’m likely to be sympathetic in a fairly light hearted sort of way and try to jolly you along. That’s great if you see all those elements in the same way. But what if your idea of a “bad mood” is what I would call serious depression and your bad day feels to you like the final straw?

Consider the difference in outcome following on from the questions “Well, that’s a bit rubbish for you, but it’s not the end of the world, is it?” and “How’s the bad mood affecting you?”….

We experience too much to be able to process it all consciously: like icebergs, there is more to our feelings than shows on the surface. And when those feelings are difficult or uncomfortable, our instinctive reaction is to try to resist them or ignore them, not to investigate them. When we’re prompted to dig deeper, our conscious minds may become confused or blank, but our sub-conscious will surprise us. And that’s when our insights happen, and our understanding grows.

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