Raise your hand if you feel like your emotions get the best of you sometimes. (ME!) We’re human, we are meant to experience emotions. They are actually protective to some degree. Imagine never having anxiety—we’d be reckless and would act without caution. Imagine never having fear—we probably wouldn’t be in existence because our ancestors wouldn’t have known to run from that bobcat. Imagine never having emotional pain—we’d likely have little insight into what actually matters in our lives and what to be grateful for. But sometimes those emotions are overwhelming and we have a hard time dealing with them (see my previous blog post, Emotions are like Waves).
In the words of a recent client, “Alright, I can understand that I need to look at my feelings now but what the **** do I do with them?” Ahh, good question!
There is a 4-step process I typically use with clients.
“Only four steps?” you ask—easy enough!
1.) Identify the trigger
Your emotions do not just appear out of thin air. They are the instinctual reaction you have to events that occur around you or stressors that involve you. If it isn’t immediately apparent, perhaps you could do a little investigating: When did this feeling start? Are there a combination of mild stressors that might be impacting your emotions? Any changes that have occurred recently?
2.) Do an inventory of your bodily responses and emotions
I usually have clients close their eyes and scan their body from head to toe for discomfort once they discover their trigger. Most clients recognize the bodily sensation of tension in their back, pressure on their chest, a choking/ball feeling in their throat (the one that happens right before you burst out crying), or knots in their stomach. Then I help them gain insight into what their body is telling them by determining which emotions are present. Could it be betrayal, jealousy, disrespect, frustration, hurt, annoyance, fear, or any of the other hundreds of emotions known to humankind?
The only emotion I do not allow clients to hide behind is anger. Anger is considered a secondary emotion that needs a primary emotion to fuel it. Think about it, most of the time anger is a response to another emotion that we haven’t gained full awareness of. For instance, a client in the past has come to me angry about a promotion they did not get at work. This person was RED hot, fuming at the beginning of our session, having just left the meeting where they were denied. Throughout the session, it was evident that their feelings were hurt, they felt underappreciated for their extra hours, and they felt betrayed and rejected after feeling their boss had led them on.
There are always feelings underneath the anger. In my defense to my husband, it often stems from hunger. If you are reading this, honey, please restock the ice cream in our freezer. I'm hungry again. :)
3.) Take a deep breath and validate those emotions
Emotions can be overwhelming but there is a reason you have them. They are valid and understanding them is never a weakness. Here are a few of my favorite validations to repeat with each inhale:
4.) Express yourself
Talk it out with a trusted confidant. Whether it is a spouse, a friend, or a parent, get the emotions out and connect with others using “I feel…” statements. The next thing you know, they may be validating your emotional response and relating to it too. If this is absolutely not an option, turn to journaling for a little more introspection and connection within yourself.
There you have it, folks! My tried and true steps to managing emotions. The "basics," if you will. Of course, there may be other things that impact your ability to use these four steps to better manage your emotions (e.g., trauma history, current unhealthy relationships, etc.), and in those cases, these steps might be something you work with your therapist towards.