When I was a kid, I used to have tantrums.
And not just any tantrums.
The on the ground, store-clearing, face-purpling variety.
And I had them a bit longer than was considered to be developmentally appropriate.
Sorry, mom and dad.
I can still remember the feeling. It was like a bucket of fizzy emotion had just been poured into a shot glass, overwhelming me with its intensity and confusion and frustrating me with my inability to make sense of what I was feeling and to communicate it to others.
And it was the latter that prompted the tantrums, that external display of anger that actually came from anger at myself and my struggle to reign in my other emotions.
If I had still been engaging in these external displays of excess emotion once I reached school age, I would have been referred for anger management classes.
When really what I could have used was emotion management classes.
But for some reason, anger seems to be the only emotion we feel has to be managed.
When the reality is that part of being a healthy, functioning adult is managing your emotions. ALL of them.
I went from that over-emotional mess of a kid to a much more controlled young adult. In fact, my mom even accused me on occasion of not feeling. But that wasn’t the case. After experiencing the potentially overwhelming nature of emotions, I was afraid to give them the floor. So as much as possible, I turned the analytical brain on and shut the emotional one off. Or at least turned the dial down low and ran them through a rational filter, which seemed to serve me fine.
And then the divorce happened.
And my analytical side went on the fritz and once again I had the sensation I was drowning in emotions.
I thought about throwing myself on the floor of my classroom and crying until my shrieks ran my students out of the room and my tears dried me out.
But I realized that I still needed my paycheck. And besides, I really didn’t want my face on a middle school carpet. Yuck!
My first step towards emotional management was basic; I divided areas in my life into two categories – safe to cry and keep those tears in, lady!
And for the most part, I succeeded. As long as you didn’t look too closely at the sweat pouring down my face while I was on the treadmill:)
But that wasn’t enough. I was dealing with emotions on a grand scale and I even if I wanted to wrangle them back in, they were flat-out refusing. The following are the nine ways I learned to manage my emotions while sill acknowledging my emotions.
1 – Set boundaries.
Much like I did with my refusal to cry at work, create some hard lines in the sand where you are going to keep it together. Your brain is trainable; teach it when to think and when to feel. And don’t fall into the trap I did for a while – you can’t set your entire life as a “don’t feel” zone! You need some times and places where you feel safe crying and some times and places where you feel safe that you won’t cry.
2 – Be aware of triggers and do what you can to mitigate them.
Know thyself. Pat attention to your patterns. If you understand the antecedent, you will be better prepared for the reaction. Taken a step further, you may find that it’s easier to get a handle on things before your emotions spill over than after.
Are you irritable because you feel stifled? Get out and move. Are you feeling brittle and overwhelmed? You probably need sleep or, at the very least, rest. Do you find that you’re more prone to emotional wash-outs when hormones are peaking? Learn to ride easy at that time. Do certain calendar dates hold sway over you? Give yourself permission to grieve on that day and schedule a smile for the following.
3 – Breathe through the emotions.
The first thing our bodies do when we’re flooded with emotion is to stop breathing. The instinct when we’re trying to hold in all together is to hold it all in, including the breath. It’s a strange adaptation, like the body is summoning its reserves to attempt some great feat or is grasping onto its last breath out of fear that it will indeed be the last.
Learn to breathe deeply and slowly while you’re feeling the emotions. It’s a sign to your brain that emotion is nothing to fear, you don’t have to fight it or flee from it. Breathe it out and ride it out.
And while your at it, express some gratitude too. It’s pretty powerful stuff.
4 – Acknowledge emotions and name them without judgment.
With some of the autistic kids I’ve worked with, the teachers used an emotion board, a study page with simple illustrated faces displaying a variety of emotions. Those kids didn’t have the language to describe how they were feeling, so they were taught to simply point at the image that captured their emotions.
I know I have a tendency to get too complex when I try to pinpoint my own emotions. I explain certain things away, outright dismiss others and try to make connections and interpretations. And then I stop and think of those kids and the elegance of selecting one image.
It’s amazing the power that naming an emotion can have. By acknowledging, “I feel sad right now,” it provides a sense of awareness and control over the feelings. Keep it simple, pick one emoticon: happy sad, scared, frustrated, angry, anxious, tired, surprised, disgusted. Keep the statement neutral. You’re human; it’s okay to feel any of those things. And saying that you shouldn’t won’t make you not.
And note the “right now.” Those two words are important. They concede that you feel that way now, yet allow that you may feel differently later.
5 – Release excess emotion without indulging it.
I remember when the advice was to treat anger by screaming into a pillow or attempt to beat a punching bag into submission. Yet research disagrees with that approach. It seems as though when you scream or hit when angry, your brain then solidifies that connection, leaving you more prone to screaming or hitting when you’re angry.
I would suspect a similar mechanism is at play with the negative effect journaling has been found to have in some cases – if you’re feeling low and all you write about is your sadness, it’s indulging it, not managing it. Which is why I frequently recommend this journal strategy.
Some people release emotions through writing. Others, running. Some may knit. Some may sleep. And some may whip up a feast. Know your own soothers and have them ready.
And try to keep from indulging your excess emotion. It’s just feeding the beast and upping your drama set point.
6 – Be aware of the impact your emotion may have on others.
What you feel, you project, even if you never part your lips. And what you project will impact how others respond to you. Be aware of the impact your feelings have on those around you. Try to understand the cause and effect and if you don’t like the response, aim to change the call.
You may need to apologize for your actions, but never apologize for the way you feel. It’s appropriate to express regret for snapping at someone. It’s not okay to make it sound as though you’re not allowed to be irritated.
Above all, strive to be kind. After all, we’re all in this thing called life together.
7 – Accept responsibility for your emotions.
“You made me feel that way!” Ever said that? Yeah, me too. But it’s not accurate.
Here’s a powerful idea – what is one identifying trait of an abuser? They lay the blame for their actions at the feet of their victim, “You made me hit you.” We know that’s not true. It’s a shifting of focus and a way to escape responsibility. So why is this any different?
Others are responsible for their words and their actions. You are responsible for your response, either emotional or actual. Yes, people will do some sh*tty things sometimes. And you have every right to be angry. You’re angry because your boundaries were crossed. Or your sense of fairness violated. Own your anger. When you try to make the other person responsible, you’re allowing your anger to own you.
8 – Listen to your emotions, but don’t believe everything they have to say.
Think of an unruly toddler. When they scream, “I hate you!”, do you listen? Or do you recognize that they missed their nap and they’re overtired? And what are toddlers but walking, talking squishy balls of emotion?
We evolved as emotional beings for a reason; we are social creatures and depend upon connection to thrive. Emotions serve to bring us together and also to protect us from threats inside and outside the group.
And our emotions are smart. There’s a reason that we feel uneasy about certain situations before our thinking brain has had a chance to process any danger. When we ignore our emotions, we do so at our own peril.
Yet, if we listen to everything they say, we’re blindly following an uneducated leader. Just think about your body’s response at the top of a roller coaster. Your fear says, “I’m gonna die!” while, if you like a rush of adrenaline, your cognitive brain looks forward to the fun.
9 – Be compassionate towards yourself and kick your butt if you need it.
For a recent “get to know you” activity for my new school, we were asked to stand up in front of the group and reveal two truths and one lie about ourselves. The group was then supposed to call us out on our lie. I volunteered to go first and in my best loud and bubbly teacher voice, announced
I’m an extrovert.
I’m scared of going downhill.
I went skydiving last summer and I’m excited to go again in a few weeks.
All of those that knew me responded, “You’re not an extrovert!” While the strangers all assumed that somebody afraid of a hill would never voluntarily jump out of a plane, so one of those must be false. When the reality is that I refuse to let my fears (or any other emotions) limit me.
When I go skiing, I know that it’s harder for me than the others. So I congratulate myself for facing my fear instead of comparing myself to those that don’t share that anxiety.
There’s a balance between accepting where you are and always pushing yourself to be better. Basically, give yourself a hug and kick your own butt at the same time. And please post a video – I’d love to see that! 🙂
Emotions are feral and often require domestication to play nicely. Don’t ignore them and also don’t be afraid to tame them. With the right work, they make great companions.
And if you feel like you’re constantly drowning in emotion, get help. There’s no shame in it.