The renowned behavioralist BF Skinner purported that all behavior has a purpose. The purpose of all behavior is likely to simply feel good. Feelings are the subject of much of our lives. A psychologist friend of mine described much of the American obsession with feeling good as a pure luxury problem. That struck me as funny, but also partly true. I was reminded of conversations I used to have with my grandmother. I asked her about her feelings when her and my grandfather had their farm. She shared that “we were just too busy everyday to be upset about much.” The focus was on what needed to get done. “The men worked the fields all day. The women did everything else (she laughed). We never thought about how we felt.”
Times have changed. Feeling good has become the national past time. At no time in history have feelings been viewed as so important. Maybe feelings are important. Maybe they are not that important. How we manage our feelings, however, has a direct relationship to our happiness, and the impact, whether positive or negative, we have on others. In the past, psychologists believed we had to vent our emotions in order to release them. Expressing anger by screaming, beating something safe or otherwise fully expressing our feelings was thought to promote healing, an interesting idea that was proven false in the research. So how do we manage our emotions? There are surely thousands of ideas on this subject. Who knows how many books I have read on changing emotions, but the number has to be at least in the hundreds. I will share with you how I currently deal with painful emotions. Hopefully, these beliefs and practices will prove helpful to you.
Acknowledge & Identify
First of all, emotions are a part of us. We all have them. However, Feelings do not define us. Feelings are but a small piece of what defines us. We are bigger. We are so much more.
When you experience overwhelming emotions, a first step in managing them is to simply identify the feeling, i.e., I feel sad, depressed, scared, insecure, etc. We can separate feelings from thoughts in that feelings can be described by completing the following sentence with one word. “I feel……(sad, angry, confused, fearful, anxious, overwhelmed, insecure, happy, joyful, etc). Simply recognizing, and then verbalizing these feelings often helps. Next, if we are experiencing a difficult emotion like fear, we can take a look at what elements of the fear are within our control. Having separated what is within our control from what is not, we can then decide what small steps we can take now to move in the direction of feeling better.
Thinking of psychologist, Albert Ellis, I want to share with you a belief system that may help you regarding feelings. Feelings can be equated to clouds. Clouds form when rising air, through expansion, cools to the point where some of the water vapor molecules clump together faster than they are torn apart by their thermal energy. Some of that (invisible) water vapor condenses to form (visible) cloud droplets or ice crystals. Like clouds, emotions form through some combination of thoughts, beliefs, neural pathways, memories, personality, etc, and just like clouds, feelings form, exist for a while, and disappear. Emotions simply come and go. At times, they are light and wispy, at other times dark and foreboding. But all feelings and every storm dissipates and changes form. Just recognizing and accepting this fact is so helpful. Perhaps even more helpful is the idea that the blue sky always exists above the clouds.
A few months ago, I was in a plane above Chicago with my first born, precious daughter, Lauren. We were above a sea of glistening, pure white clouds that appeared as a massive, opalescent blanket, or perhaps even the landscape of Antarctica. As we descended through the clouds into Chicago the clouds became more and more gray until we emerged into a rainy Chicago. From the ground, the sky was completely gray. At that moment the idea emerged that there is no such thing as a cloudy day. There may be clouds above us at any time, but above them the day is clear, and the sky is blue. The sun shines brightly, perfectly, as it always has. This is a belief. Is the belief absolutely true? I don’t know. But the belief is shared now by my daughter and I, and reflecting on the story, makes me feel happy. Therefore I will reflect on the story. Simple.
Accepting our emotions is also important. Being angry, fearful or insecure is not wrong. When these emotions rise up we can care for them in the following manner: Breathing in, I know I am fearful or hurt, or despairing, etc. I know these emotions are a part of me. Breathing out, I can smile to my emotions. I do not have to fight against them. Think about fighting anger. See the irony? These ideas are so important.
Finally, painful or difficult emotions often arise from faulty perceptions and lack of knowledge or understanding. If, for example, our entire being resonated with the idea that the universe is kind, would we ever be overwhelmed with suffering? Probably not.
We can and will feel everything over time, but part of maturity comes from not doing damage to ourselves and others during times of emotional distress. Strong difficult emotions like terror or rage release chemicals into our bodies such as adrenaline, epinephrine, and noradrenaline. These chemicals reduce our ability to think rationally and clearly. If during these times of emotional distress we can condition and discipline ourselves to contemplate the steps above and return our minds to our bodies through breathing, we will feel more in control of ourselves and be less likely to hurt others. A key to successfully managing emotions lies in how quickly we become aware of what we are feeling. The quicker you become aware of the emotion and tend to it, the better. If you allow anger to “boil,” for example, the residual brain chemicals that are released remain present for hours or possibly days, making you much more susceptible to further outbursts. If you feel controlled by your emotions, I encourage you to really spend time with the ideas and steps above. Practicing during “normal states” will help you when the cloud burst seems inevitable. If you cannot control emotions, get help. There are people who are created to help us in times of distress. A big thank you to all the helpers and healers in the world. Without you, we would be much less happy.
If we do not learn how to let go of painful emotions, we will become bitter. Bitterness is the opposite of happiness and success. The cure for bitterness is forgiveness. Forgiveness is essential to happiness.
The path to forgiveness is often very hard and usually painful, especially for victims of trauma, but I’m mostly convinced that without forgiveness, happiness and ultimate success are not possible.
So where does one begin? Forgiveness implies that a wrong has been done. This is step one. “I was hurt. I have suffered.” So often we sweep our hurts under the rug, or make superficial attempts at forgiveness. In order to deeply forgive, one must acknowledge the ways and the depth to which one has been wounded. Writing about the hurt in depth has proven helpful to millions of people worldwide. Expressing my pain in the written word may take a day, a month, or sometimes years. If you have suffered deeply from abuse, I encourage you to write and feel that suffering. I suggest you do so with a counselor or trusted friend, but by all means, admit the wrong deeply.
Admitting the wrong done comes first, but we must process the resulting damage as well. Not only were we hurt, but we likely developed patterns, both conscious and unconscious that continue the cycle of pain. These cycles need to be broken. I rarely use words like “need” and “must” but I do believe these words apply here.
Summarizing what was just written:
1. Everyone has emotions.
2. Emotions, like clouds, are temporary.
3. Emotions are but a small part of what make you, you.
4. We can embrace our emotions, not fight them.
5. Emotions can propel us to clarify and seek new information.
6. Emotions can help us clarify our beliefs and develop our practices.
With these key points in mind, you will be well on your way to more effectively managing your emotions, always keeping our three essential attitudes in mind: gentleness, patience and a sense of humor.
If this post resonated with you, check out our podcast episode “Dealing with Painful Emotions” for more tips and thoughts on managing your emotions.