Are your emotions dangerous? Never. But most of us are afraid of our strong feelings. Why? Because the power of raw emotions can be overwhelming. Often those emotions drive us to do things we’re sorry for later, whether that’s being physically rough with our child, screaming something hurtful at our partner, or throwing a “tantrum” where we stomp and yell. But it isn’t the feelings that are dangerous. What’s dangerous is taking action based on those feelings. At the time, we feel justified in lashing out. We think we’re addressing the problem. But the actions we take when we’re angry are designed only to alleviate our upsetting feelings. So despite our urgent need to take action, the action we take when we’re upset makes everything worse.
So, should we repress our emotions? No. When we stuff our feelings down rather than acknowledging them, we carry them around like a boiling pot. We make ourselves sick and tired. Our feelings often burst out unbidden and we find ourselves out of control. (You may know this as the Mommy or Daddy Tantrum.) Luckily, there’s a better solution, and it’s the key to healthy emotional self-management: Allow yourself to feel all your emotions, but resist acting on them while you’re upset.
This lets us get the message that the emotions are sending us, and choose whether and how to act on those turbulent feelings. We call this self-regulation, and it is foundational to emotional intelligence. Of course, it’s easier said than done. If we didn’t have parents who helped us with emotions when we were young, it can even seem impossible. Luckily, though, this is a learnable skill, and it gets easier with practice. That’s because every time you choose to pause, feel and not act, you’re rewiring your brain, and that makes it easier the next time. Here’s how.
1. Allow All Feelings, Yours and Your Child’s
Notice them. Accept them. Acknowledge them as just part of being human. Emotions are a reaction to how we’re perceiving our experience, whether we feel disrespected by our child, betrayed by our partner, or taken for granted by our boss. The other person doesn’t “cause” the feelings, of course. Every emotion we feel is triggered by our own interpretations. But the emotions are a real event in our bodies, complete with fight or flight hormones.
2. Limit Behavior
Just because your child is allowed to be jealous of the baby doesn’t mean he can hit her. Just because you’re allowed to be fed up with your 2-year-old doesn’t mean you scream at her. You will always feel righteous when you’re angry (and so does your child), but that doesn’t mean you’re “right” or should take action out of that anger.
3. Notice that Feelings Come and Go
The fact that you’re feeling something doesn’t mean you’ll be feeling it tomorrow. Don’t get attached. You aren’t “mad” or “sad”—you’re feeling “mad” or “sad.” You are so much greater than your emotions, no matter how powerful they feel at the moment. You really can just notice them, accept them, let them move through you, and let them go.
4. Don’t Take Feelings Personally
Just because your child is expressing anger at you doesn’t mean her anger has anything to do with you. Just because you’re mad at your partner doesn’t mean your partner is wrong. Nobody has to be wrong.
5. Notice How you Defend Against Vulnerable Emotions
When humans are sad, hurt, or disappointed, we often find it hard to tolerate those feelings. So we get angry. We smack our kids, or blame our partner, or say something mean about our colleague. Anger is a defense, the body’s response to “fight or flight.” Get in touch with the fear or sadness under it, and you no longer need the defense. The anger melts away.
6. Resist the Urge to Act on Your Feelings
When you urgently need to take action, that means you’re in fight or flight. Stop and breathe. Resist acting. Yelling at your child is never a good solution because your child gets defensive and less cooperative. (When your child feels worse, he acts worse.) If leaving your partner or quitting your job is a good solution, it will still look good tomorrow when you’re calm.
7. Notice that While the Feelings are Real, the Conclusions we Draw from Them in the Heat of the Moment are Not Necessarily True:
My partner doesn’t love me. My boss will never reward my hard work. My child will be a criminal. That’s not the thinking part of the brain talking. When you’re upset, you actually lose access to reason and thoughtfulness. The emotional part of the brain takes over. Unfortunately, it tends toward rash conclusions.
8. Notice that When you Just Sit with Your Emotions They Begin to Evaporate
… breathing, tolerating them, letting them sweep through you … they begin to evaporate. That’s how you heal old wounds and dissolve old baggage, so you don’t get overrun by emotion so easily.
9. Instead of Acting on Your Feelings, Use Them as Information
… to motivate you to solve that recurring problem once you’re calm again. When you’re upset, the solution always seems to be forcing your child to do what you want. But when you’re calm, you can see that a more effective solution is to meet your child’s deeper needs, help them with big emotions, and create an environment that allows them to flourish. So, for instance, you may decide that your child needs more one on one time with you, or that you need to start earlier on the bedtime routine.
10. Remember that When You’ve Been Hijacked by the “Fight, Flight, or Freeze” Response, it’s Never a Good Time to Work Through a Difficult Issue
When things heat up, always start by restoring a feeling of safety to help everyone calm down. Then, explore win/win solutions that meet everyone’s needs, and make structural changes to avoid a repeat scenario.