I am easily affected by others’ words and this makes me very moody.  Even a negative comment about something I posted on Facebook can put me in a bad mood for days. On the other hand, I’m really happy if I am praised. I don’t like being so much at the mercy of other’s comments, and so what can I do to be more stable. 

Moody, Thimphu 

Well, we are not robots, and so all of us are emotionally affected by the world around us. And, in reality, this is not problem unless the emotions are extreme and damage our relationship with others. 

You say that you are affected by others words. However, it is not simply other’s words that influence our moods, but rather the craving for and rejecting of certain feelings. Now if you analyze these feelings, you will discover that they are trigged by what are known in Buddhism as the ‘eight worldly dharmas’: pleasure and pain, gain and loss, praise and blame and fame and disgrace.    

Let’s examine praise and blame as an example. Everyone likes to be praised, right? We feel happy when our name is mentioned in connection with something good, and we proudly hang certificates of appreciation on our office wall. So, what is wrong with that? Well, nothing, as long as we don’t rely on this kind of praise for our happiness. If we do, then we will be depressed when the opposite situation occurs and we are criticized.        

In reality, people are very fickle, and a person who is praising us this week could be our worst enemy the next, and so relying on other’s words for our happiness is like leaning on an unstable chair for security. It doesn’t work.    

In the same way that we would not lean on an unstable chair for stability, we should also avoid depending on other’s words for our sense of wellbeing. This does not mean that we do not listen to others’ advice – in fact we should be receptive to others comments. It is just that we do not depend on them for our happiness.   

So, how should we respond to praise and blame and the other eight worldly dharmas? Should we become like an emotionless rock? Should we totally block out the world around us? No, this is neither practical nor desirable. Instead, we should just be aware how these pairs of opposites hook us.  

In practical terms, this means that the next time you receive a high number of thumbs up for photograph on Facebook or when your colleagues praise your work, be aware of your response. If you modestly accept the approvals and move on with your life, then fine. On the other hand, if you discover that you are overjoyed and crave more praise, then be careful. This is a sign that you will be very disturbed by criticism or any kind of disapproval. 

Furthermore, desiring approval causes us to lose a sense of equanimity. Imagine, for example, if you work in the public sector and your job is to take care of the poor. Now, if you crave praise and fame, you will tend to only help high profile cases that catch the public attention. As a result, people who may genuinely need assistance but who are not in the public eye will be ignored and not receive the help they require. On the other hand, if you are not pulled by praise, fame, and gain, your decision on who receives assistance will be based purely on their needs, not your desires. In addition, if you are afraid of blame etc, you may refuse help to cases that are controversial, even if the needs are genuine. 

So, can you see how attachment to the positive aspects of the ‘eight worldly dharmas’ and aversion to the negative aspects not only causes us to suffer moods swings, but also affects our ability to genuinely empathize and work with others?    

So, to recap, when you next feel overjoyed, note what triggered this emotional response. If you discover that it was praise, gain, fame, or pleasure – and I’m sure that it will be at least one of these – then be aware that you are on a dangerous path. In reality, the ‘eight worldly dharmas’ come as pairs, and so if you want praise, its shadow, blame, will automatically tag along. 

Therefore, just try to accept whatever situation you encounter as part of your life. If a pleasant situation arises, enjoy it but be aware that it will not last. Likewise, if you encounter a difficult situation, recognize it as part of your life, face it directly, and know that it too will pass.  If you can see all situations as equally part of your life, then you will be less prone to mood swings. I’m not saying this is easy to accomplish, but through awareness of your reactions, you can slowly decrease craving for praise, gain, pleasure, fame and lessen your aversion towards their opposites. In turn, this will make you more mentally stable and less at the mercy of other’s words. I wish you well.       

Shenphen Zangpo was born in Swansea, UK, but spent more than 28 years practicing and studying Buddhism in Taiwan and Japan. Currently, he works with the youth and substance abusers in Bhutan, teaching meditation and organizing drug outreach programmes.