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How to handle emotions

A few things to know about your feelings that might shed some light on what to do with them.

Here’s a question. Are our emotions completely involuntary, beyond our conscious control… or do we have some say in what we feel?

The answer is… both. It’s nuanced. But with a little unpacking we can understand when and how we can shift how we feel.

Let’s begin by distinguishing between thoughts, feelings, and physical sensations.

Physical sensations are what you feel in your body. A headache. An itch. The gratifying relief sensation of scratching that itch. Sore muscles. The pleasurable sensation of your lover’s lips and tongue on your favorite erogenous zone.

Feelings are the basic emotions we evolved to have that manifest in the body—a physiological change that can be felt. (Or measured.)

Fear makes your heart race. So does anger.

Sadness can slow your heart and your breathing, lower your head and your gaze, and cause tears and sobbing. A sad body slumps.

The body response is a major component of how we experience emotions, and are the reason they’re called “feelings.” If you had a thought that didn’t show up in your body or physiology in any way, you’d experience it more like a neutral thought than a felt emotion.

“Given the same cognitive circumstances, the individual will react emotionally or describe his feelings as emotions only to the extent that he experiences a state of physiological arousal.”¹

And there are only a handful of different flavors — fear, anger, joy, sadness, disgust, surprise. (And because it fits the definition we’ll include sexual arousal here as well.) These are the basic feelings that are part of our evolutionary heritage. However creative the brain can get, the body only has these few rudimentary responses. In fact,

Everything else is a thought.

Hopeless is a thought.
Guilt-ridden is a thought.
Embarrassed is a thought.

The feelings these thoughts bring up are either fear (of anticipated consequences), or sadness (over consequences already happening), or some combination of both.

When your dog has that guilty look on his face — that’s not guilt, it’s fear.²

When you say you “feel ripped off”—well, you’re having thoughts of being ripped off. The feeling is probably anger, possibly with some sadness.

When you say you feel or hurt, or wounded, or wronged, that is a thought. The feeling is probably sadness, possibly with a hint of anger.

When you feel like you “hit the jackpot,” first of all, Yay! Congratulations! And, that is a thought. The feeling you’re having is likely joy/excitement. Maybe surprise. Or you might be noticing previous feelings of fear or sadness subsiding.

The distinction is crucial. The brain regions that generate our felt emotions are much older and simpler than the cognitive areas that generate all the vastly complex and nuanced thoughts we have. They’re deeply connected but distinct, and they operate differently.

Here’s why it matters.

In her New York Times bestseller My Stroke of Insight, neuroanatomist Jill Bolte Taylor makes the point that feelings run their course in the body in about 90 seconds.

An event happens… we have a feeling… and after a minute or two it subsides.

After that, the only way for a feeling to linger on and on is if we actively keep it alive with our thoughts.

Feelings are involuntary; they’re difficult or impossible to exert any control over. Our evolutionary machinery is doing what it was designed to do.

(Nor should you try to control them: the healthiest thing to do with your feelings is feel them. That’s precisely how you allow them move through and subside.)

But we can and do control our thoughts.

In other words, what we think affects how we feel ongoingly, and even though feelings themselves are an involuntary response, our thoughts are very much under our control.

Photo by Jack B on Unsplash

OK, so what are some ways to change our thoughts?

Here are the three most effective techniques I rely on, both for myself and with my clients, to get unstuck from an emotional loop.

The first is to notice one’s immediate surroundings.

When I was younger I had a few nightmares in which I died. The monster caught up with me and devoured me; the evil sword ninjas surrounded me and sliced me to bits; I drowned before I could make it above water. I died in my dream.

That is about as immediate and dire as it gets. This was beyond threatening or imminent danger; The Existentially Bad Thing happened. And the consequences were fatal.

In waking life I haven’t drowned, been eaten by a monster, or sliced up by evil sword ninjas. But there has been a time or two when I̶ ̶f̶e̶l̶t̶ ̶l̶i̶k̶e̶ —excuse me—I had thoughts that the world was crashing in on me.

In one of those moments when I was spinning out, I noticed something: the stark contrast between that thought and the reality of my immediate lived experience. Right now, in this moment, I’m sitting in this chair. I’m in this room. It’s sunny outside my window. The dishwasher is running. There’s the cat, sleeping. There’s my lunch, chicken breast and broccolini.

The incongruity between my feelings and my present surroundings had me confront that nothing bad is happening right now. Yes, there’s something I’m deeply concerned about, but right here right now, things are fine. Nothing bad is happening.

For several days I sat with that incongruity. On the one hand, I was confronting the most difficult life change I’d ever faced. On the other, right here and now, things are fine. Nothing’s wrong.

I started to see the difference between awareness of a problem and mentally calling into existence my worst case scenarios with such vividness that I start feeling it as though they’re happening to me right now.

And I stopped doing that. Why? Because it’s not productive.

Fear is designed to rapidly equip me to handle a predator coming at me. Its wheelhouse is immediate physical danger. That’s why the body gets revved up. It’s like hitting the afterburners. It’s meant to be a quick, intense burst to handle an acute situation coming to a head in the next 90 seconds. It’s poorly adapted to help me handle, say, a business crisis or relationship break-up. I’m better able to handle those without the immediacy of intense feelings.

Whether my feelings are justified, is irrelevant. How likely my worst case scenario is, is irrelevant. What’s relevant is that freaking out is not useful, it’s not effective. It’s not a good match to the situation. Triggering myself into an involuntary state of fear (or sadness or anger) does not put me into the state I need to be in to handle it well, right now.
In this context, fear is a false signal. It’s jacking me up to act right now, but there’s nothing for me to do in the moment that would benefit in any way from being pumped with adrenaline.

The present moment and my immediate surroundings give me more accurate cues as to how I should be feeling. Right now in this moment, things are fine, they’re ok. There is no call for me to be in a heightened emotional state meant for immediate physical danger. Look around the room and breathe.

I can afford to stop fixating and vividly envisioning worst case scenarios. I can notice that right now I’m ok. I can allow the feeling to run its course through my body and subside. And from that place I can take a deep breath and say, OK, now what needs to be done, what are my options?

Photo by Drew Coffman on Unsplash

The second approach is what author Byron Katie refers to as The Work. This is a powerful sequence of questions that can loosen the grip of a painful thought.

The starting point is to ask whether what you’re thinking is true. Almost insultingly obvious, I know, but even if your reaction is, “Hell yes it’s true!” the follow-on questions are still disarmingly effective at shifting how one feels about the situation.

The simplicity of the process is part of its strength: when we’re emotionally triggered, the last thing we need is some complicated flowchart to make our way out of the weeds. I need something so simple I can do it even when I’m at my most emotionally activated.

I must admit though—initially, the simplicity of it made me skeptical about how it could possibly be useful.

How wrong I was. I’ve used this process to walk myself and my clients out from the jaws of hell.

The process itself can be googled, but I highly recommend reading or listening to her book, Loving What Is: Four Questions That Can Change Your Life. That book is full of real-life examples that really showed me how to use her approach effectively.

The Serenity Prayer

And the third technique is one I refer to as the serenity choice. Named after the Serenity Prayer, because that’s a familiar reference for most people, and because it captures a basic choice we all face: is this something for me to accept, or is it something for me to change?

Deciding this is the first and most important step to moving past suffering and stuckness.

Another common quote that conveys the same idea is:

You always have three choices in life. You can get into agreement with the situation. You can get the situation into agreement with you. Or you can do neither, and suffer.

And yet another way of saying it:

Complaining always has one of three motives:
1- moving toward acceptance.
2- gearing up to change.
3- bragging.

(That last one tends to raise a few eyebrows. Think about it though. When someone is complaining—to a friend, say—usually they’re trying in earnest to work through their feelings. Or, they’re in search of solutions. Or some combination of the two. But if it’s genuinely neither of those, the next most likely motive is to garner a certain flavor of attention. A bit of showboating. People do this. Look how bad my situation is. Feel for me. They’ve started using their bad situation as a way to cultivate connection. In this scenario it might even be advantageous to, you know, exaggerate a little. Rather than seek ways to mitigate or resolve it. That’s what’s meant by “bragging.”)

When I’m working with a client, after we’ve spoken at length about a situation without much motion, I will often ask outright. “I’m curious, are you wanting to be coached in the direction of getting right with the situation? Or to be coached toward changing it? Either is fine. What’s your preference, which direction would you like to go?”

So to summarize:

  1. Is the bad thing upon me right now in this moment? Is a jolt of energy from fear or anger really going to help me handle it in the next ninety seconds, or is a more thoughtful approach required? Are things OK in the immediate here and now? Can I find the distance that allows me to approach the situation with clarity?
  2. Is my take on the situation factually true? Are my thoughts helping me or harming me? Can I Byron Katie the shit outta this thing and reclaim my inner wellbeing?
  3. Is this something for me to accept, or something for me to change? Or am I refusing to do either and gripping tightly to my suffering?

And if none of this works—if you absolutely, positively cannot seem to shake a negative emotion—I have one more option for you. This is like the nuclear option, kind of like major surgery, but it is effective. Read Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning. Read that, and you will not be able to look yourself in the mirror and stay stuck.

Photo by Roger van de Kimmenade on Unsplash
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