Greetings fellow mindful travelers!
This month I am continuing my exploration of the question “How the heck do I deal with my emotions?!” To recap, here’s the introduction from last month:
To many people, emotions are a mystery. The mainstream media does not talk about them directly, schools don’t teach about them, and many people grow up in households where emotions are never talked about.
And yet, all 7 billion of us humans are experiencing emotions all day every day, and they play a major role in our wellbeing and decisions we make.
Typically it isn’t until people start to feel anxious, depressed, or overwhelmed that they start to pay some attention to their emotions.
And when people are in emotional pain, there’s one question they start to ask: How do I get out of this emotional pain?
When anger shows up, what do I do with that?
When I feel sad, how do I cope?
When fear takes me over, what do I do to help myself?
Why do I feel like I “should” be happy all the time but I’m not?
What people are really asking is: How do I relate to my emotions?
The thing is, most people don’t even realize they are relating to their emotions in certain ways, all day every day, so they just unconsciously relate to them in ways they were taught as children and don’t consider any other way.
In my opinion, learning to relate to your emotions should be as fundamental as learning your A,B,C’s
It is in fact in childhood where we set the foundation for how to relate to our emotions, even before we learn to speak!
Newborn children communicate almost exclusively with their emotions, and how our caregivers respond to those emotions teaches us how we respond to our emotions later in life.
One of the keys to emotions is this: We can’t control exactly what emotions show up in our lives, but we can control how we respond to what emotions show up.
Our emotions are not problems. It is how we relate to our emotions that creates problems.
In this article I’m going to talk about 2 different toolboxes, 2 different ways of relating to emotions.
The first is the toolbox sometimes given to us by our parents, by society, peers, teachers, or coaches. Sometimes we don’t even know why we are using these tools to relate to our emotions, and sometimes they provide a temporary relief, so we continue to use them in hopes they will be a long term solution. Often we are completely unaware that we are relating to our emotions in these ways.
The second toolbox is an alternative to the first, but seems much less popular, and much less used by most. However, in my experience this toolbox tends to lead to healthy outcomes in the long term. But don’t take my word for it, experiment with each toolbox and see for yourself.
So let’s take a look inside each emotional toolbox, and as we go through each, put a check mark by the ones you tend to do. Just becoming aware of your tendencies is the first step.
You may also want to reflect on how you relate to other people’s emotions in these ways, as it is often similar to how we relate to our own emotions.
Each toolbox has 26 tools, one for each letter of the alphabet. In this post (part 2), I will be going over the second 9 tools from each toolbox. So let’s dive in and start to learn our A, B, C’s of relating to our emotions.
Toolbox #1 – Do you relate to your emotions with these strategies?
Justify or Judge
-We try to explain why we feel a certain way and at the same time we judge ourselves for feeling this way, as if we are weird for being human and having emotions. We never need to justify why we feel a certain way. It would be the same as justifying why the weather is a certain way. We don’t control what emotions show up, we do control how we respond to them.
Keep it hidden
-We may know how we feel, but we don’t let others see it, or we don’t share it for fear of being judged. We may also be hiding how we feel from ourselves if an emotion has frequently been repressed. It’s the “don’t let them see you sweat” mentality.
Limit your emotions
-We do things to make it so we feel as little negative emotions as possible. We avoid situations that may bring up negative feelings, take drugs that numb how we feel, etc. The more that we limit our negative emotions, the more it also limits our experience of the positive ones. Essentially we want to be more like a robot than a human and not feel at all.
-We try to get in there and rationalize our feelings away, play games with ourselves (“you don’t need to feel this way”), or gaslight ourselves.
-Similar to limiting our emotions, we can numb ourselves with distractions, food, substances, or even meditation can be a way of avoiding feeling (if it’s used that way).
-A popular strategy for those who are intellectual; we retreat from our feelings and into our minds. We think about a situation over and over again, we try to problem solve, or rationalize our emotions.
-Again, we tell ourselves “I shouldn’t be feelings this way.” However, pushing away our feelings doesn’t make them go away. Instead, they just continue to build up underneath the surface.
-We do what we can to “fix” how we feel as fast as possible. Eat something sweet, take a pill, put on a show – “quickly, just make it go away!” 😉
-We push down, bottle up, or unconsciously tell ourselves some emotions are “wrong.” We may have grown up in a situation where we were punished, or saw others being punished for expressing a certain emotion. A common example is sadness for men. We are told sadness is weakness so don’t be that way. Thus, we repress the sad parts of ourselves.
Repression looks like holding a basketball underwater while floating in a pool. It requires a lot of energy to repress parts of ourselves but it does in fact make it so we don’t feel them as strongly, for a time. But we can’t hold that basketball underwater forever and repressed feelings tend to come out one way or another.
OK, how did you do? If you find yourself doing any or all of these, you are not alone. We all end up relating to our emotions (or the emotions of others) in these ways. Again, just notice and bring awareness to them to begin.
Toolbox #2 – Do you relate to your emotions with these strategies?
Just be with
-Often times we don’t actually have to DO anything with our emotions, we just have to BE with them. Imagine a friend that is hurting. Sometimes all they need is for someone to be there with them and offer their presence.
-Can we treat our emotions with the same kindness as we would a newborn child, or a pet that we love? Can we see our emotions as friends and not foes?
-We can extend love to our emotions in many ways. Try placing a hand over your heart space, or wherever you feel the emotion in your body. Try speaking to the emotion directly saying “I see, I hear you, I’m here for you.”
-Mindfulness means we bring non-judgemental awareness to what we are feeling in each moment. This is a combination of acceptance and presence.
-Each emotion we feel points to an underlying need. When we feel positive, it is often because we just got a need met. When we feel negatively, the emotion is often pointing to an unmet need. Ask the emotions: What do you need? Some space? Loving touch? Movement? Expression? Listen, and then meet that need.
Observe with Openness
-We can start by relating to any emotion by observing it with open arms. Watch it play out inside of us and be curious about what it feels like, looks like, and what it is communicating to us. We can be open to whatever arises within us.
-This means we are in the moment-to-moment experience of our emotions as they arise. It is not a doing or an acting out that heals our emotions, it is a mindful presence that puts them at ease.
-Simply try asking your emotions questions. “How are you doing anger?” “What do you want me to know sadness?” “What are you needing fear?” Ask and listen to what they have to say.
Reach out for help
-We do not have to do this alone. If emotions are too overwhelming or difficult to be with, we can always ask for help from someone else. Think about people in your life that would relate to your emotions in similar ways to toolbox #2. Perhaps a good friend, family member, therapist, mentor, or support group. We can learn to relate to our emotions in healthy ways by having others do so first.
OK great. Take a moment to go back and reflect on each strategy for yourself. When have you done that one? With what emotions do you relate to in certain ways?
Do you judge your anger, but are able to just be with your sadness?
Do you push away your anxiety, but can be present with your joy?
Just notice and bring awareness to this. We have all done some of the strategies in toolbox 1 (I know I have) so no judgements about it. The more awareness you bring to what you do, the more power you have to choose from either toolbox in the future.
The key to all of this is:
Step 1: Notice what emotion shows up
Step 2: Choose a tool for how to relate to it
When in doubt, ask the emotion: How do you want me to relate to you right now? What do you need?
That’s it for this month. Check back next month for part 3 where I will uncover the final 8 strategies in toolbox 1 and 2!
Until next time,
Ellis Edmunds, Psy.D.
P.S. Want to learn more? I have two upcoming workshops in Oakland:
*Mindfulness for Stress and Anxiety – Free Introductory Class – January 9th, 2020
*Mindful Dating in the Digital Age workshop – December 14, 2019
(click the links above to register)