Updated: Sep 5
If an ambulance with sirens blaring screams passed you, do you ignore it and keep driving, stop stubbornly in the middle of the road, or do you pull over to let the ambulance pass?
If, at night, the power suddenly goes out, do you sit in the darkness, franticly flail about the house knocking over pieces of furniture hoping the lights come on, or do you move sensibly toward your phone, turn on its flashlight, and wait for the power to turn on?
Our emotions are a bit like sirens or lights, and we react by 1) ignoring them, hoping they go away, 2) playing chicken, thinking we’ll “win” or overpower them, or 3) acknowledging their existence and allowing them to move.
SO many people I’ve worked with desperately want to feel anything other than what they’re feeling. It’s common. The emotion is uncomfortable and unfamiliar. They may not know what the emotion is, how to process it, or how to express it. The emotion is asking them to look at the situation and their reactions to them.
For a moment, picture this scenario. You’re at work and have a big project deadline tomorrow. Your colleague stops in to see if you want to go to lunch. You immediately snap, ”You knew I had this deadline tomorrow. Why would you ask me to go to lunch? Can’t you see I am stressed?” Your emotions are anxiousness, because you really want to go to lunch but feel like there’s no time, guilt, because you realized they didn’t deserve that treatment when they were only trying to include you, and anger, because you believe they were being inconsiderate not thinking about your deadline.
We may feel a primary emotion (e.g. anxiousness), a secondary emotion (e.g. guilt) and a tertiary emotion (e.g. anger). So, we feel guilty about being angry for experiencing anxiousness. It becomes this perpetual cycle and pretty soon you don’t really know which came first the anxiousness, the guilt, or the anger. We add fuel to the fire by responding to all the emotions with avoidance, resistance, and angst. We fan the flames by perseverating (repeating) and returning to the emotion over and over again.
We’re taught that some emotions are uncomfortable to feel AND express. Most of us, in our family of origin, have rules about expressing emotions:
“Don’t cry. You’re acting like a baby.”
“Quit pouting. It’s embarrassing.” “Anger is of the devil.”
“You’re always so happy. It’s annoying.”
So much resistance to the emotion gets created and we become toddler-like when emotions come up, plugging our ears, shutting our eyes, and chanting “lalalalalala”. As if by shutting out our senses, we can avoid discomfort, pretend they don’t exist. Thus, our relationship to and with emotions can be complicated for various reasons.
Emotions are wise and a powerful form of communication. They’re trying to tell us something, something important. They’re trying to tell us what we care about, what we believe in, what we need. It’s our job to listen to them and decipher next steps.
Creating a pause can be an effective practice when intense emotions arise. When we label our emotions accurately, we are more able to discern the precise cause of our feelings.
Dr. Daniel Siegel talks about this concept “name it to tame it” which refers to the ability to identify and create words for your internal, emotional experience, so that the experience/emotion itself has less power, less intensity. By “naming it” (i.e. label the emotion), we can “tame it” (i.e. turn down the dial of intensity). Siegel is referring to the term ‘emotional literacy’ and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services describes it as “the ability to identify, understand, and respond to emotions in oneself and others in a healthy manner”.
“Emotions are data, not directives,” says Susan David, PhD and psychologist. She continues, “ultimately, your internal state will color your external world, for good or bad.”
So, instead of yelling at your co-worker, is it possible to pause. Is it possible to notice, ”my body is tense. This is anxiousness" before you respond to them? Is it possible to put some distance between you and your response? In other words, “between stimulus and response lies a space. In that space lie our freedom and power to choose a response. In our response lies our growth and our happiness.” This quote by Viktor Frankl, Austrian neurologist, psychiatrist, philosopher, writer, and Holocaust survivor describes it well.
What if we acknowledged the emotion(s) with acceptance and grace?
What if we validated what we were feeling? Made friends with them, even?
The anxiousness, guilt, and anger would dissipate.
The intensity dial would turn down.
The strong emotions would fade effortlessly.
Sure, this concept sounds great and all, but how do we put it into practice? Great question!
Check back for Part 2 on “How to Navigate Your Emotional Landscape”.