January 29, 2007



The three-legged stool is a metaphor for the balance of life. Each of the legs means something different. The first leg stands for our thoughts. Human beings have been blessed with the ability to think. The second leg stands for our feelings. I am grateful for the ability to feel because our feelings create meaning in an otherwise superficial world. The third leg stands for our actions. Our actions are a measure of who we are in relation to the rest of the world. Each of the three legs cannot stand alone. The three legs represent a tripod. To be alive means we think, feel and act almost simultaneously. Someone who is angry has a specific thought prior to feeling that way. This same angry person has a choice re: how to act-out that anger. Temper tantrum? Sulk and withdraw? Channel the anger in to some positive action that benefits somebody? What kinds of thoughts do you have prior to feeling angry? What do you usually do when you feel angry? What can you do instead? How do your thoughts change after acting-out your anger? This is one example of how our thoughts, emotions and actions are interdependent; just like each of the three legs on the three-legged stool. Take away one of the legs and the stool collapses because it is no longer balanced. We all need to think. Everybody has feelings otherwise we would function like a machine. We can all learn to act responsibly. This is our duty because we have freedom. With freedom comes responsibility. Lets explore each of the three legs in more detail: 1)our thoughts, 2)how we feel, 3)what we do.

What do you think? Usually, what we think is a result of what we've been told, what we've read or what we have experienced with our senses. However, a person who has an "active mind", one who is always thinking, has the ability to control their thoughts. We can choose to think in a positive or negative way. Positive thinking takes effort, whereas, negative thinking is one form of mental laziness. The need for problem solving and conflict resolution is best met while maintaining a positive attitude. Positive thinkers can be as realistic and objective about the world and themselves as people who have the habit of complaining or thinking negative. What is your choice?

Our thoughts are powerful. Research shows that "rumination", dwelling on a negative memory over and over again, is one risk factor for depression. There are a number of things we can do to "cancel" out negative thoughts that come our way. Counseling can help. Surrounding ourselves with positive and supportive people is helpful, too.

Our feelings. Feelings are life! Feelings give meaning to life. Feelings are neither good nor bad. They just exist as part of our humanity. Our emotions have an impact on what we think and how we behave. To feel "afraid" may prompt us to avoid or approach a situation/person. How we choose to act when we're afraid depends on how well we are able to cope with that feeling. Most feelings fall under five main categories: MAD, SAD, GLAD, FEAR, CONFUSED. It is an illusion to believe we can control our feelings. We can manage them and we can learn how to cope with them, but we cannot control them like our thoughts and actions. The comfortable feelings are usually the easiest to tolerate and accept. The painful feelings are the most difficult to accept. This is because human beings tend to avoid pain and seek pleasure. The good news is two fold: 1)Adaptively managing our feelings is a skill and can be learned, 2)Feelings are like gas ... they pass. The sadness you might feel today may not be there tomorrow. The happiness you feel during a pleasant experience will eventually go away and be replaced by another feeling. Wouldn't it be boring if we only felt one feeling all of the time? To what could we compare a single feeling if that were all we had?

Our behaviors. This is the stuff other people see. What we do is usually a result of what we're thinking and feeling. A frustrated baseball player who obsesses about a lousy mistake he made during the 5th inning could go back to the dug out and throw a temper tantrum. On the other hand, the same frustrated ball player who makes a lousy play during the 5th inning could go back to the dug out, acknowledge the frustration, and ask for constructive feedback from his teammates so he can learn from his mistake and become an improved player. Another choice is for the frustrated ball player to go back to the dug out to pout, sulk and withdraw (keep to himself). In all three situations a certain amount of energy is exerted. What would be your choice when confronted with feelings of frustration during an athletic competition?

It is difficult to predict how we would respond until placed in that situation, but you may have a general idea of your response if you know yourself pretty well. The first example is a demonstration of someone who is "aggressive." The second scenario describes an "assertive" ball player. The third one shows us a person who is "passive."

Our behaviors occur on a continuum: aggressive, assertive, passive. Most situations in life call for us to act in one of these three fashions. (There are others like "passive-aggressive", but for now we will limit the discussion to the main three.)

Aggressive behavior is not recommended while driving a car. This could create an unsafe situation on the road. There are other times when aggressiveness can work in our favor. For example, I want to aggressively develop this web site so I can help other people and make some money on the side. Participation in sports is another good outlet for aggressive energy.

To be assertive is usually the ideal. This is when we acknowledge our own feelings while at the same time show respect for the feelings of others. If someone were to aggressively say bad things about me that hurt my feelings, I might act and say the following, "I hear you saying a lot of untrue things about me. I don't appreciate it. Please stop." This may or may not halt a critic in his tracks, but at least I did not repress my pain, nor did I aggressively hit the person for acting and talking in a mean way. We cannot control other people. They will say and do what they want. We can control what we think and do, though. Focus on that. Whatever you decide to say or do to others, make sure you can live with that decision.

Being passive works in some situations and not in others. If you are familiar with the true meaning of martial arts training you would know that a student learns how to fight so he does not have to fight. A martial arts student knows first hand that it hurts to get kicked and punched. This lesson is learned while sparring with your opponent at the dojo (gym). An experienced and wise martial arts student learns that he does not want to hurt anybody. Consequently, he will try to avoid fighting other people even if confronted. This could take on the appearance of being passive. In a different situation, I would not want to act passively if I am giving a speech or wanting to make a point. In those instances I would choose to behave assertively.

A three-legged stool needs all of its legs to remain balanced. Taking away one of the legs means the stool becomes unbalanced. There is a connection that creates a balance between our thoughts, feelings and behaviors. The counseling experience explores this connection. Counseling promotes personal responsibility for one's thoughts, feelings and actions. It is a gradual process of rational, emotional and behavioral growth as defined by the client and facilitated by the counselor. Counseling helps people help themselves. "Insight" plus "effort" equals "change." Self-exploration, self-understanding and choosing to change self-defeating behaviors and attitudes is a goal. Counseling can help. There are plenty of competent counselors out there who can help you if you think you need help. The American Counselor Association Website can help with your search. The "Mental Health Resource Directory" is also helpful.

Counseling can help you live your life with all three legs of that metaphorical stool. It is your choice. Good luck.

Written by,
Mark S. Rogers, LPC
Licensed Professional Counselor.

Henry Ford said, "Whether you think you can or you can't, you're right!"

The three-legged stool: Connecting thoughts, feelings and behaviors.

You are the man, Tyson! Thanks for supporting Stooltime Counseling. I appreciate it. Another Licensed Professional Counselor rocking the 3-legged stool!

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