Your Emotional Playlist

If you’ve taken an exercise class at your gym, the instructor most likely played upbeat, high energy music, not only because the tempo and rhythm suited the exercise combinations but also because the music was energizing.  He or she selected music that would inspire you to exert yourself.  A yoga instructor might use New Age music instead, to put you in a peaceful, contemplative state of mind conducive to stretching.

I’m not the first to note that music is pure emotion.  It may give voice to emotions we’re already experiencing, but it can also induce new feelings within us.  No doubt you have favorite songs that reliably stir up certain feelings whenever you hear them.   Many people turn to music for emotional congruence:  if they’re feeling blue because a relationship ended, they may listen to torch songs; if they’re happy, they may want to hear something joyful.  But we can also use music in the exact opposite way — listen to something upbeat in order to cheer ourselves when we’re down.

We can use books and movies in these same ways, especially when it comes to old favorites.  No matter how many times I’ve seen it, I watch It’s a Wonderful Life almost every year at Christmas, and I still get weepy when the people of Bedford Falls file through George and Mary’s front door with cash to save him from the bank examiner.  I like to feel moved and I watch the film in part because I look forward to that experience.  I’ve read The Portrait of a Lady eight or nine times and I’m always devastated by the end.  Part of my goal in rereading the novel is to revisit that pain.

In less obvious ways, we can “play” ourselves emotionally through internal dialogs and by running scenarios, using them as stimulants in just the same ways we might use music, books and movies.  In a matter of minutes, I can work up a feeling of sadness if I dwell in a repetitive way on a good friend who died at the age of 45 with two small children.  By dwelling on the details of my next vacation, imaging what adventures await me, I can stir up a feeling of excitement.  Easiest of all for me is to work up indignation.  I can get myself angry in seconds flat.

Finding Your Own Way:

Put together a playlist of five songs on your iPod, all of them concerned with loss and the unhappy end of love.  Listen to them until you’re sad, then put together another list of five songs that usually lift your spirits.  Recognize how easily you can manipulate yourself to feel particular ways.  Then start to pay attention and see how you already play yourself, and how you’ve been doing it your whole life.  Are you dwelling on that staff meeting where your boss treated you so badly, reviving and fueling the sense of hurt and outrage you felt at the time?  Are you reliving again and again the moment when you found out some deeply upsetting news?  Or maybe it’s that phone call you received, when you learned you’d finally achieved some goal you’d striven for over the years.  For most of us, it’s a process of which we’re not aware, and over which we have no control; only by bringing it more vividly to consciousness can we exercise choice about what feelings we want to induce and indulge.

By Joseph Burgo

Joe is the author and the owner of, one of the leading online mental health resources on the internet. Be sure to connect with him on Google+ and Linkedin.


  1. Excellent post Joseph. Thought provoking and undoubtedly true. Good observation. I’ll make a mental note to visit again and read some other posts. Thx Stu

  2. I saw your twit and came to read this post. When I was young, My mom told me whenever I look out the window frustrated,”Don’t do that. Do listen to some vivid songs you love!”. She knew the songs help control my emotion^^ Thanks for great posting. I like your blog..!

  3. I once listened to “Eye of the Tiger” to get pumped up before a sporting event. It worked and every time I listen to it I just feel like doing something fast.

  4. This is a very helpful way for me to recognize more clearly that I do in fact play myself–accelerate whatever mode I am already in–in some pretty identifiable ways. I beat myself up for not being able to redirect. I hear what you’re saying, but when I feel a certain way, even if it’s despondent, I’m somehow really feel the need to continue feeling it. When I’m want to hear the sad songs, or whatever the vehicle is, I’m determined to. It’s not constructive; I end up feeling worse than before, but more real also, more in touch with myself. I wish I could redirect my feelings, but can’t. Or, I can, but only when I already want to. How does one bridge the gap between more vivid consciousness and exercising (the smarter) choice? And how to find the balance between not indulging in certain feelings, but not ignoring or repressing them either?

    1. Those are the kinds of questions you can’t easily answer in a few sentences. Here are some things that stand out to me from your comments: If you really do feel more in touch with yourself, why do you say it’s not constructive? Also, I don’t think the goal is to redirect your feelings; rather to STOP directing them one way or the other. I have a client who does exactly what you’re describing — takes hold of a feeling and intensifies it until she almost exhausts herself and the feeling. Sometimes it feels to me like a kind of purging; sometimes I think it’s a way of exercising control over the feeling. Instead of letting the feeling run it’s normal course (which can make you feel helpless and OUT of control), you may take charge and determine the feeling’s course through intensification.

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