During the course of each day, you’re likely to experience some emotions that are uncomfortable, difficult, distracting or we might even label them as negative or unwanted. These emotions can be brought on by a whole range of triggers – work, relationships, memories, pressure, stress, the weather, our general mindset and so on – humans are complex creatures. These uncomfortable emotions can be distracting and can sometimes lead us to a place of what feels like ‘stuckness’ because we don’t notice or can’t pinpoint what we’re feeling so we just find ourselves getting irritable and tetchy. That then causes a negative response in others which creates a self-fulfilling prophecy (“see, I was right to be feeling a bit rubbish today, looks like everyone’s feeling pretty low”), leading to even more stuckness.
My podcast on managing your mindset in tough times – the path of possibility (which is at season 7, episode 4) talks about getting lost on the ‘path of limitation’, in a negative mindset, which sometimes feels like stuckness that’s difficult to get out of – so check that out for more on that useful mindset model. Today’s podcast builds on the ideas I introduce in that episode by focusing in on uncomfortable emotions and helping you to manage them by noticing them, describing them and then choosing whether, and when, to act on them.
My name’s Dr Paul Brewerton, the strengths guy, I’m a psychologist and a doctor, and I podcast each week (almost all of the time, apart from when I’m on holiday) to give you some tips and hints on getting the best from your work and from your life by looking through a strengths lens. So, let’s get to today’s topic:
The power of discomfort – managing your emotions well
Part of the issue with us misunderstanding what happens to us when we’re feeling an uncomfortable emotion is that this sense of discomfort can lead us to move away from it too fast, to ignore it or, quite often, to suppress it. And there is an increasing amount of evidence that this strategy can build up health problems for the future, ultimately leading to an increased chance of cancer and earlier death, as well as affecting us in the short term by increasing the chances of us having a shorter fuse and maybe misinterpreting and reacting inappropriately to situations that we face. So, recognising and acknowledging your emotions is a really important skill for all of us to develop to avoid bottling them up.
My two-step plan for managing your emotions well is to acknowledge them and then to choose your response. Two steps sounds simple but this is no easy task and for most people, it takes a lot of effort to get good at it, so I have some ideas for you. If you’re interested in a more in-depth treatment, I would recommend scooting over to my friend Steph Tranter’s website (www.stephtranter.com) and following her on LinkedIn as she is an emotional management guru. By comparison, I am merely a curious student.
Acknowledge your emotions
The first step then is to acknowledge the emotion or emotions you are feeling – spend time working through what it is you are feeling and then acknowledge its validity and recognise its temporary nature. This starts with getting good at working out what’s happening – what’s really happening for you emotionally when you find yourself in a bit of an emotional pickle.
Steph, who I just mentioned, has posted recently on emotional labelling and she describes some key uncomfortable emotions as Disgust, Worry/Fear, Guilt, Sadness and Anger. Each of these has a positive value to us at times, in some way protecting us and promoting our well-being, but when any of these emotions become overwhelming or if they are bottled up, they can cause the unintended negative health or behavioural outcomes I mentioned earlier.
Steph says that Disgust for example helps you to ditch, destroy or distance yourself from something or someone you find offensive or contaminating to your well-being. Guilt helps you to take action to make amends so that you can avoid being rejected in the future.
The challenge with acknowledging your emotions is to be prepared to sit with them long enough to figure out what they are, what they really are, at a deep truthful level, so that you can acknowledge them and allow them to be valid, without them becoming too distracting or fixated a focus. For example, I might feel irritated when I ask one of my kids to do a task at home and they flat out refuse, even though they have done that same task many times before; that then leads me to raise my voice or to threaten to remove their technology or whatever.
What I might be feeling there are a mix of emotions – maybe a little anger that they aren’t pulling their weight around the house when it’s me doing 95% of the chores, putting food on the table, giving them what they ask for most of the time, blah blah boring Dad. These emotions might be mixed with some guilt for overreacting in the moment. Plus, at a deeply truthful level even some disgust, pointed at myself, for overreacting at something that on reflection, I would have wanted to deal with better.
All of these emotions are what they are, they’re all valid, they’re all happening right now (although they differ in intensity and half-life, so some will dissipate more quickly than others) and I need to acknowledge all of them if I’m going to deal with them. So, to acknowledge all these emotions, I’m going to first of all identify my anger as like a 2-3 out of 10 – it was quite quick and in the moment and calmed quickly. My guilt is probably also a 2 or 3 out of 10 – I feel responsible for overreacting but any regret I’m feeling goes quickly. And my disgust is probably a 1 or 2 out of 10, so low level and while I recognise it’s there, I’m not going to get stuck on it.
Once I’ve acknowledged and validated these emotions, as well as intensity-spotting them, I can feel them ‘moving on’ quite quickly. It is a good idea if I keep asking myself whether there’s anything else there for me emotionally that could be underlying my reaction and my response to my reaction. Which I do and conclude that I’m satisfied that that’s about it. It may help to talk to someone else about what might be going on for you in some situations, as that can provide a second opinion, a different perspective, useful particularly if you’re feeling emotionally overwhelmed or confused.
Choose your response
Now for step 2, choose your response. Once you’ve identified what is happening for you emotionally, you’re better able to choose whether and how to respond. For example, you can either change your interpretation of a situation, or deal with the underlying issue.
In my example, with my acknowledged anger and guilt and self-disgust (disgust is actually a bit of a big word here, it’s definitely self-criticism though), I am going to choose to bring perspective on what’s just happened and not beat myself up about any of it. So basically, I decide to be kind to myself for feeling the feelings I felt in the moment. No need to overcorrect, just go easy on myself.
Next, I’m going to choose what to do, which is to prepare what I want to say to my son who refused the task – I want to tell him that I got upset probably because I do so much for my children that I felt his reaction lacked respect for that and I reacted emotionally. I want to say that I wished that I hadn’t reacted that way, I would rather just have calmly told him how I felt so that he could better understand, but it happened and that stuff happens, I’m not perfect and I’m sorry for reacting like that. And when I say these things to him, I am going to stay chilled, as well as being brief, because that’s what I want to role model and that’s what I want for myself. Before I go in to talk to him, I’m going to do a quick breathing exercise so that I can let more of the emotion dissipate and be more in control.
Now that was a fairly straightforward and day to day example but the same approach can be applied whatever the situation, even with more extreme circumstances. To restate, the steps are to first inquire what is happening for you emotionally, then acknowledge it. Following that, choose how to respond. If you follow this approach, you’ll avoid suppressing emotions and you’ll be better able to manage your emotions and your response to them.
That’s it for this episode, do check out Steph Tranter’s website for more and see you next time.
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