If you have ever wondered how to manage your emotions, you are not alone. We tend to think that emotions are beyond our control, something like herding cats. But what if that idea isn’t even close to accurate? What if there were ways to rewrite the narrative on emotions, to use them to guide you, but not be overwhelmed by them? I am sharing a TED Talk with Lisa Feldman Barrett. I recently was at the ICF Converge Conference in Prague, where Dr. Feldman Barrett was a speaker. And, she had an important message about how we can begin to take back control of our emotions. And, ta-da, science is backing up what cognitive therapy has been saying for a long time.
What if you could develop the skills to be a Jedi Emotion Master? Yes, you.
What the Brain Does
Your brain is predictive. That is just what it does. It filters through all sorts of data and makes predictions, and your emotions are the output of how your brain is making meaning.
Let me put this in an example. You have just gone on vacation, and you took a diving class to prepare for your first live open water dive. Your stomach fills with butterflies. Your hands might be clammy; your heart is pounding; you are about to dive into the ocean, and see the world in a whole new way. It’s a thrilling new experience, and your body is a live wire. Because of your training and planning, the sensations that are washing over you funnel through your filters. What emotion are you naming? You’re excited, right?
Let’s take another perspective. You are standing in front of 100 people, ready to give your presentation. Your stomach fills with butterflies. Your hands might be clammy; your heart is pounding, you are about to dive into a topic you care about, if only could stop seeing all those faces. It’s a chilling new experience, and your body is a live wire. Again, name the sensations washing over you. What emotion comes to mind? Does fear sound, right?
Making meaning is what the brain does. It takes the experience you find yourself in, racks and stacks it, and then pop, out comes the emotion that your mind predicts will fit the situation.
Skills to Master Your Emotions
This may be the first, middle, and final skill in learning to understand yourself. Being willing to be curious on your behalf is a tremendous gift. Noticing emotions and allowing yourself to wonder, what the heck is going on inside me? Giving yourself time to get out of the reactive state of mind allows for the curiosity to ignite. Is what I am feeling excitement or fear? What is the difference between anticipation and anxiety? These are essential ideas to noodle around on.
Take a Time-Out:
Teaching Anger Management for the Air Force for seven years taught me a lot about myself. Let’s be clear, I am a red-headed, Irish, Leo, so I know something about being emotional. And, one of the hurdles that we had to address class was the idea that emotions occur and we are helpless to the process.
People often say things like, “I instantly get angry.” Or, “It’s like a light switch, one minute, I am fine, and the next, I am an inferno.”
The truth is that when we slow down in our responses, we can give ourselves time to be curious, and also to choose some other emotional state. There are many ways to take a time-out, take a walk, or distract yourself till you get back to a more balanced state. Breathe, use your mindfulness techniques, do whatever you need to, so that you can calm yourself and invite yourself to be curious.
This is an excellent tool from the folks at the Heartmath Institute. I have used it for years myself and also shared it with clients.
Here are the five (5) steps of the Freeze Frame Technique
1. Think of a stressful situation. Recognize the stressful feeling that occurs in your body and Freeze it. Now take a time-out.
2. Make a sincere effort to shift your focus away from the racing mind or disturbed emotions to the area around your heart. It is helpful to imagine that you are breathing through your heart, to focus your energy in this area. Keep your attention there for 1 minute or more.
3. Recall a positive or fun feeling or time you’ve had in life and try to re-experience it. Work on bringing back the emotions that you experienced when you had this positive experience.
4. Now, using your intuition, common sense, and sincerity, ask your heart, “What would be a more efficient response to the stressful situation, one that would minimize future stress?”
5. Listen to what your heart says in answer to your question. (It is an effective way to put your reactive mind and emotions in check and an in-house source of commonsense solutions.)
Pay Attention to Your Filters:
The last tool I will share are the filters that your brain instantly draws from in predicting an appropriate emotional response.
- Habits or patterns of how you tend to respond to life situations are a great place to begin. If my reactive mode is anger, fear, or anxiety, it’s time to get curious about these emotions. What physical feelings or thoughts are triggering that response?
- Past experiences tend to inform your habits. I have wounds, and you have wounds; in fact, I have yet to meet anyone who got out of childhood without some trauma. Maybe it isn’t a “Big T” trauma, but lots of “little t” traumas, these can wear us down also. These past experiences color the lens of how we look at situations and guide our brain in predicting the emotional response.
- Attitudes and biases, too, can color our lens of emotional responses. If you smell something terrible, you typically will have an emotional response of disgust. Sometimes these biases can save your life; for instance, rotting food is not a healthy option. And, they can also go unnoticed and unreflected upon, thus influencing you to respond in ways that might not be life-saving. Take some time to explore the ones you need and challenge with curiosity the ones that don’t serve you.
- Values impact how your brain decides emotions too. It’s a difficult experience to have something that means a lot to you, be disregarded by another. Feeling disregarded leads to feeling_________________. I wrote about nothing being personal in, It’s Not Personal, Empower Yourself, letting go of attachment to agreeing can help us let go of being hurt.
- Curate the lens of not taking yourself too seriously. Having a filter that lets you see the humor or allows you to re-align with your funny bone can also make all the difference in how you end up feeling.
Finally, You’re Responsible
This is maybe the most difficult message to hear; you’re responsible for how you feel. Your emotions are not a herd of cats running you in circles. They are not wild horses or mercurial winds within your mind. Your emotions come from how your brain, i.e., your thoughts, physical sensations, habits of response, etc., predict you “should” respond.
Choose to get curious with yourself, make time to practice self-reflection, and always breathe. Then play with new ideas about how you could respond and take the helm and steer your emotional ship. You’ve Got This!
Also, if you enjoyed this article, you might like, How to Use Emotions as a Road Map for Life.
I would LOVE to hear from YOU!
- What habit or pattern of emotion are you willing to get curious about?
- What is your best tool for shi
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article originally posted on Dec 2, 2019. Updated Feb 16, 2023.