Managing Emotions….Not Flooding
April is Deepening Our Emotional Intelligence month in these posts. The April newsletter highlighted research discoveries relevant to managing even the most upsetting of emotions – anger, fear, shame, grief – so that your emotions can guide your responses to challenging life events or difficult people. You don’t have to be flooded or shut down by what you’re feeling in the moment. You can manage huge waves of feelings and still act resiliently.
Last week’s post, Becoming Fluent with Emotions, offered a tool for skillfully experiencing and expressing emotions, the beginning of our emotional literacy. This week you learn a tool to manage your feelings the very instant they are grabbing your attention.
1. The instant you recognize a disturbance in the force field that is the signal of emotional distress or upset, place your hand on your heart and say the first mindful self-compassion phrase to yourself: “May I be kind to myself in this moment.” This quick action interrupts the automaticity of patterns your brain has already learned in response to “uh, oh!” and activates the release of oxytocin, the hormone of safety and trust.
2. Take a few deep, relaxing breaths. Empathize with your experience. Say to yourself, “This is upsetting,” or “This is hard! “This is scary!” or “This is painful,” or “Ouch! This hurts” to acknowledge and care about yourself as someone experiencing distress, perhaps beginning to flood.
3. Pay attention to your emotional experiences as they arise, exactly as they are in the moment. Gently begin to label them: “This is fear.” “This is my shame about being a scared ninny.” “This is my anger.” “This is my shame about going ballistic (again!)” “This is my envy.” “This is my shame about still being vulnerable to envy after all these years.”
4. Allow any feelings to be there, just as they are, held in your kind, compassionate awareness.
5. Evoke a sense of shared humanity to help hold these feelings. “I’m a human being. These feelings are perfectly normal human feelings. I’m not the only person on the planet who has ever felt this way. Probably millions of other people are feeling this way, too, right now. I’m not alone in having these feelings. I don’t have to feel alone because I am having these feelings. I’m a work in progress, and I’m doing the best I can.”
6. See if you can locate a place in your body where you feel the feelings most strongly, whether you can name them or not. In your jaw? In your chest? In your belly? Focus your attention kindly, tenderly on that spot.
7. Say the mindful self-compassion phrases to this particular spot. “May I be kind to you in this moment. May I accept you exactly as you are in this moment. May I give you (and myself!) all the compassion we need.
8. Spend as much time as you need being gently present and aware of the feelings, offering compassion to yourself for feeling these feelings, until they soften and dissolve. Focus on accepting yourself in this moment exactly as you are.
Of course we learn to manage difficult negative feelings before they hijack us because we want to feel better, and because we don’t want to do something useless or harmful. We also practice these skills so that our brain functions better, with less contraction and more openness, with less reactivity and more receptivity. That openness and receptivity leads directly to resilience and the possibility of wise action.
There will be many tools offered in the forthcoming Resilience for dealing with all of our most derailing emotions. Stay tuned.