When I was seventeen, I found out my high school sweetheart was cheating on me. I confronted him. He snapped his flip-phone into two pieces rather than let me see the proof he’d been sleeping with a mutual friend.
I lunged at his throat. I left bloody scratches with my fingernails.
Minutes earlier, I’d have told you I loved this boy. Now I was going to kill him with my bare hands.
Moodlets: They rule our lives.
A temporary emotion had possessed my being like a demon.
In the video game The Sims, these emotions are called “moodlets.” Moodlets are tiny moods that temporarily change how your avatar (called a sim) interacts with their virtual world.
For example, a sim with a confident moodlet can walk up to another sim and drop a “Bold Pickup Line.” A sim who’s feeling insecure will only see the option to “Feebly Flirt.” An angry sim can imply another sim’s mother is a llama.
When I found out my sweetheart was cheating, I got the enraged moodlet. “Strangle with Bare Hands” appeared as a new option.
We can all agree that we shouldn’t strangle, but that’s the tricky thing about intense moodlets. When you’re under their influence, doing the destructive thing we know we shouldn’t feels like the only way to get back to normal.
That’s why people say and do terrible things — we’re angry or we’re sad, and, unconsciously, we’re trying to feel better.
Manage your moodlets, even though no one taught you how.
We live in a culture where we force every child to learn algebra while no one teaches anyone how to balance their checkbook or their emotions (moodlets.)
I’m moody. Even when not enraged, I have a lot of moodlets at once, like hangry from skipping breakfast, anxious from being an introvert forced to sit in an open office plan five days a week, plus a moodlet I like to call eye-rolly: very prone to rolling my eyes until they cross.
None of these moodlets are helpful at my day job.
In The Sims, there are ideal moodlets for certain jobs. Sims who are scientists perform better at their jobs with the focused moodlet. Composer sims should go to work with an inspired moodlet.
Other than criminal mob boss, there is no job in either The Sims or reality that rewards me for showing up hangry, anxious, and irritable every single day. But I didn’t think I had a choice. I’d been taught that you feel how you feel, and the best you can do is not to murder someone with those feelings.
Then one night while watching my sim shrug off her day of work with a mud bath, I had an epiphany: I should try to manage my moodlets in real life as if I were a sim! (The enthusiasm of this epiphany brought to you by: Marijuana.)
Simulated self-care inspires actual self-care.
The avatars I create in the sims are unrealistically perfect alter egos.
One of them is a leggy alien with a thick ass and a thigh gap who’s also at the top of her career as a singer/songwriter. She’s never once doubted her ability to write a perfect song, and she was always given clear next steps on her linear trajectory to stardom.
In other words, the fact that this sim gets up and does yoga at sunrise every single day of her life is far from the most unrealistic thing about her.
But this high standard of self-care is what I envied about her most. She started every day with the moodlets inspired and energized. I wanted to be that in control of my moodlets.
When a game isn’t telling you how to feel, you have to figure it out on your own.
Right away, I noticed a problem with trying to manage my moodlets like I was a sim. First of all, I wasn’t going to do yoga. (My sim’s god gave her a yoga body; mine didn’t.)
Second, I had no idea which moodlets were helpful. Game designers had spoiled me: they told my sim exactly what moodlets to have for success.
Now I had to answer the question for myself: How would I most like to begin each day?
How about with the happy moodlet? Everybody wants to start the day happy. But then I noticed happiness, while pleasant, is not in itself a helpful moodlet. The best you can say about the happy moodlet is that it sure can’t hurt.
Go deeper to find your ideal moodlets. Answer these three questions.
- What do you want from life next?
- What daily moodlets will help you get there and why?
- What are some activities (you’ll actually do) that will cause those moodlets?
These questions take more than a few minutes to answer. Try out different things for a few weeks at a time to see what works.
For me, after much trial and mostly error, I found something that works. It’s unglamorous but practical for an aspiring creative with a day job: Eat a pre-packaged breakfast I don’t have to cook. Drink a glass of water. Journal through my oh-shit-I-just-woke-up-anxiety. Shower. Write something on the hour-long train ride to work.
It’s a far cry from yoga during sunrise, and it’s achievable. Most days, I start with all the right moodlets: Energized. Hydrated. Tranquil. Fulfilled.
Your unhelpful moodlets will still be problem children.
Back to the beginning of this story when I had no chill and almost strangled someone: Infidelity sucks, but it’s not a capital offense. We can all agree murder is an overreaction (except those of us in prison for murder — sorry I couldn’t write this article sooner.)
In the case of the cheating boyfriend, no amount of breakfast and journaling would have helped. The wrathful moodlet was too big, and it had brought friends for backup — Abandoned and Feels Ugly clung to the angry moodlet on either side.
Blame your ancestors.
In The Sims, the designers decided ahead of time what destructive interactions go with which moodlets. Angry sims can “Taunt” or imply another sim’s mother is a llama. Sad sims can “Cry Under Blankets.” Someone in charge of this game decided that’s how it should be.
In real life, your DNA and upbringing decide for you.
Your genes predispose you to certain reactions when you have a particular moodlet. Some people are genetically more violent than others. When they get the angry moodlet, they may have more severe reactions, like “Stab,” or “Strangle,” available to them than someone who is genetically a pacifist.
I’ve never seen my genetic code. I don’t know if I’m violent on paper. But one of my earliest memories is Mom holding a butcher knife in front of Dad. She’s angry — he’s cheated on her. It might’ve happened twenty years ago or not at all, but she’s still mad about it. She tells him if he takes another step, she’ll show him his guts.
That’s what you do to a man who’s wronged you — you threaten him into loving you again. Or so I thought. It may seem obvious now, but it took me years to see the similarities between what I saw my mother do and the time I choked a boy.
You can’t dissolve your moodlets.
In The Sims, dissolving moodlets is easy. You drink a potion called “Potion of Emotional Stability.” Voila! Your sim feels great.
You might’ve noticed how in real life we don’t have those (unless you count your antidepressant). Instead, we have to gut it out. We have no choice but to feel our destructive moodlets fully as soon as we notice them, and without acting on them.
Trust that over time, their effect will lessen.
This is a bit like breaking in a new pair of boots — at first, your body is uncomfortable with having to face the moodlet and will hate you. After a while though, it’ll be over and you’ll have new shoes, AKA, healthy coping mechanisms for your destructive moodlets.
You can reprogram your moodlets.
In the meantime, to prevent going to jail or alienating your loved ones, you can reprogram your moodlets. For example, when I get angry now, much to my fiance’s relief, the interactions, “Strangle,” and “Threaten with Kitchen Utensil” are no longer available.
Instead, I have options like, “Ask for a Timeout,” or “Express Anger like Reasonable Adult.” I programmed these interactions by practicing mindfulness and reading about other people’s problems.
Talking to a therapist also helped, but it’s not for everyone. If you hate people, books are a great substitute. The Language of Emotions is one of the most helpful books I’ve ever read. Reading it will give you a deeper understanding of your moodlets and why they exist.
Podcasts are another excellent resource — they talk and you don’t have to. The Healing Feeling Shitshow by Rachel Kaplan is a great one. She’s a licensed therapist with a show about “emotional potty training,” which is basically managing your moodlets but with potty humor.
Go play more. It’s good for you.
The other day, I joked that a friend who likes the bar scene should grow up.
“Don’t you play a children’s video game in your spare time?” they fired back. “Isn’t The Sims 4 just you playing virtual dolls?”
It’s true. I’m a huge child and I play all the time.
Playing helps. Playing activates all kinds of helpful moodlets at once, like, Focused, Inspired, and Energized. Personally, I believe this trifecta of moodlets is what some people call the highly sought after state of flow.
Sometimes I feel guilty when I spend a whole evening playing The Sims. Then I remember all the creating I’m doing. I get to play the ultimate creator in this virtual world. I’d never give up that much creativity for more productivity.