Observe and Describe; Getting Back to our Emotions

Our emotional system is quite amazing. We are born with a set of emotions that innately work for us and yet that same emotional system is shaped by the world around us. The experiences and lessons we have been taught by our caregivers will influence and guide us into our emotions and our reactions to those feelings, healthy or not.

We know that emotion trumps reason every time. In reclaiming our emotional system so as to begin to feel more emotionally regulated, the first step is to simply observe and describe our emotions at any given time in our day. This is easier said than done 🙂

Our emotions as adults often come with judgement: “Crying is a sign of weakness,” “I go from 0 to 60 when I’m angry and I know its wrong,” “I feel guilty because I disappoint people.” Judgments,; however, tend to be a precursor to action; so we are much better served to set our goals on observing and describing: “I feel sad right now,” “I can feel a tightness in my chest,” “I can feel my anger rising.”

This may not be easy, but with practice and patience, you will begin to see your emotions in a different light. Freeing them from their cages, you will feel lighter and less tied to developed patterns; giving you a sense of agency and direction in your own emotional world.

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10 Ways to Distract Yourself from an Uncomfortable Emotion

Dealing with an uncomfortable emotion can wreak havoc on our comfort system. We can try to avoid a prickly feeling, but it likes center stage; it will keep poking at us to the point where emotion trumps reason, leaving us feeling flustered and possibly regretful for things said or done in the heat of an all encompassing emotion.

When we attempt to bring our rational mind into the picture, one of the ways we can do that is with distraction. It is important to note that distraction techniques are not avoidance; rather they are useful activities that help shift us into a position that is closer to wise mind. Taking a few deep breaths to start, here are ten ways we can distract ourselves from an uncomfortable emotion:

  • Get moving on a task you need to get done. Focusing on something allows you to feel productive.
  • Pay it forward; doing something kind for another person allows you to feel altruistic, a higher-level emotion.
  • Watch a funny show or movie.
  • Complete a word puzzle such as a crossword. Work on a Rubik’s cube.
  • Count to 10, forwards and backwards. Repeat song lyrics or a prayer.
  • Get outside; fresh air and walking always help.
  • Organize something; a closet, your calendar, your plastics cupboard 🙂
  • Call a friend; inviting them out for coffee.
  • For 15 minutes, resist the urge to act. Very often, that is all it takes to resist unhealthy behaviours.
  • Use sensation; hold an ice cube in your hand, take a hot shower, wash your face in cold water.

Any one of these distraction techniques opens up the space for your rational mind to get a bit more wiggle room in the space that your emotions are occupying. When we allow some common sense to temper our emotions, we feel more grounded and prepared to deal with the situation in a calmer state.

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The Difference Between Guilt and Shame

Guilt is one of our healthy emotions; if we manage our feelings of guilt in a way as to help us repair, it can strengthen our relationships and help contribute to a sound regulation of our emotions. Although there is a belief that shame is an extension of guilt, that is a misconception. Shame may share some characteristics with guilt; they are both self-conscious and fall into the class of “moral” emotions; however, shame differs from guilt as it is tied to self-worth.

When we feel guilty, we did something bad; when we feel shame, we are bad. Guilt will make us feel regret; shame will make us feel small. When we feel guilty, we desire to apologize; when shame strikes, we desire to hide.

People who struggle with shame often have experienced childhoods that planted the seed of worthlessness. Trauma, attachment injuries, abuse or being made to feel shameful can all apply. Although the working through of shame does often require therapy, it is important to remember that if you or a loved one struggles with shame, experiencing a shameful act or being made to carry the weight of shame by a parent does not make you a shameful person. You may have been affected by the experience, but you are most definitely not defined by it.

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Working to Change our Anger Habits

Yesterday we explored the phases of anger; if our goal becomes to be able to use anger to our advantage, and stay “above the line,” the first step is in acknowledging that our anger habits are in fact habits. We learn about anger and how to process it from our experiences growing up and we often inherit learned behaviour from our caregivers. If for example, you had a parent who had a “0 to 60” temper, you might also have developed the same tendency.

It is important to note here that the following steps in processing anger are meant for alleviating the first two phases; aggression and hostility/resentment. Chronic anger and rage need deeper exploration and typically require professional help.

When you begin to feel anger rising, if you naturally move to aggression you will have an action urge; if your tendency is to suppress, you will feel that tendency to push it away (or down, hence the build up.) In either case, following these steps can help:

  1. Take some deep breaths. Research shows that deep breathing inhibits anger, anxiety and impulsivity.
  2. If you need to, remove yourself from the situation for 15 minutes. During that 15 minutes, continue to maintain some deep breathing and ask yourself the following question:
  3. “What am I really feeling? What is the emotion that I am skipping over? (remember that anger is our safe emotion so it becomes a default position for us).
  4. Before returning to the situation, ask yourself “How do I want to handle this? What can I do differently to avoid falling into my usual anger habit?” Tip: the 3 M’s help!
  5. Returning, keep in mind that the new behaviours you are choosing are the only ones you have control over. Rewarding the effort, not the outcome helps to reinforce your overall goal of moving towards healthier ways of coping anger.

Giving yourself permission to understand and accept unhealthy behaviours is the first step to growth; the work in changing habits takes time and patience. Please be gentle with yourself as you practice, practice, practice.   🙂

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When We Cross the Line; The Truth About Anger

Anger can have a bad rap. One look at an angry face and it can elicit a whole mix of emotions; everything from fear to helplessness to defensiveness. But anger really is meant to be a useful emotion to us; one that can motivate us to bring about change, one that can help us feel relief, one that aids us in processing more complicated emotions. When anger is in our control, we can put it to good use; however as soon as we cross the line; anger no longer works for us in positive ways. Listed are common phases of anger:

Aggression: As soon as we move to yelling, sarcasm, swearing, name calling, or hitting, we no longer have full control over our anger. It is at this stage, that we move to wanting to be right or gain control and we lose the ability to see the situation in an objective light. There is no room for solution in the aggressive stage. 

Hostility/Resentment: This is anger built up. It is a suppression of anger; sitting heavy within. It is during this phase that I am often reminded of the saying, “Holding on to anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else; you are the only one who gets burned.”

Chronic Anger: This is a phase in which someone lives in anger. Every emotion is now filtered through anger and it can lead to mistrust and paranoia at times. In reality, a very difficult way to live.

Rage: The phase of truly uncontrolled anger.

We may recognize ourselves in one of these phases; certainly the first two at different times in our lives. Tomorrow we will explore how to stay “above the line” so as to how to make our anger work for us in positive ways.

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The Fear Response

When we are going about our everyday lives, our brains help us to move and flow through our activities with a fair amount of ease. We call this top to bottom thinking; as the top parts of our brains, the pre-frontal cortex especially, help us to attend.  When our fear response kicks in, we call this bottom to top thinking; as the fear response part of our brain, in the amygdala, is closer to the base of our brain. When the brain detects danger, the fear response kicks in, and the rational part of our brain gets hijacked in a sense in order to attend to the threat.

The fear response sequence follows as such:

  1.  Freeze (danger is being assessed; happens in milliseconds)
  2.  Flee (fear will always choose to flee if it assesses the possibility)
  3.  Fight (when our fight response kicks in, it is still in an attempt to flee).

While this works considerably well for true danger, it is important to note that it works for perceived dangers as well. Our perceived dangers are often emotional, based on past experiences, or worst-case scenario thinking. Our brains get hijacked into bottom to top thinking, but in the absence of true danger, we get locked into an anxious state; which for some people can lead to panic. Knowing this can help us to begin to assess the reality of the worry. By focusing on fact, our rational brain allows greater space to be objective, which in turn settles down the fear response, and we return to a more grounded state.

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What is Our Window of Tolerance

We all have a window of tolerance. It is that place where we have full access to our Wise Mind, where both our emotions and our logic inform us to make decisions. This is the state in which we are mentally engaged and in a growth mindset. It is here that we function optimally.

When we move out of our window of tolerance, we move into either a hyperarousal state where we can overreact emotionally, or into a hypoarousal state of shutting down. In either case, our emotions are what begin to dictate our behaviours. In a heightened state, we begin to feel overwhelmed, anxious and can have emotional outbursts, triggering our fight-or-flight response. In a dulled state, we begin to feel numb, unmotivated, separate from our feelings; triggering our freeze response.

Our window of tolerance lies in our comfort system; it is the place to which we can self-soothe, think clearly, act accordingly. We can strengthen our window of tolerance by first recognizing our triggers that will lead us away from it – anxiety, feeling frazzled, exhaustion, worry, being emotionally or physically drained. We can use grounding techniques such as deep breathing or a guided meditation to strengthen our familiarity with what our comfort system feels like. We can create an inner dialogue that is supportive and non-critical. We can remind ourselves that taking a break to re-group is okay. We can prioritize self-care.

By expanding our window of tolerance, we move towards feeling more comfortable with our emotions,; we are better able to handle the ups and downs that daily life presents us.

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The 3 Functions of Emotions

How exactly do emotions work for us?

  1. Emotions help us to non-verbally communicate our feelings. We can tell the tell-tale signs of emotion by: the look on the face of our partner if they had a bad day at work, the quiver of our two year old’s little chin when on the verge of tears, the heaviness of grief in someone’s eyes, the look of terror that is captured when riding a roller coaster (you’ll never see that on my face, ha-ha!) or the universal look of joy when someone is wholeheartedly laughing. We wear our emotions in our body language, tone, facial expression and posture, and we can learn to put trust in our non-verbal expressions and those of others around us.
  2. Emotions prepare us for action. Undoubtedly, our emotions will produce an action urge and we are motivated to act on them. At times, this can work for us (the tears that follow feeling sad, hugging someone when we feel happy) and other times the behaviour that follows an emotion we can live to regret (sending a nasty text when we’re angry.) Emotional regulation becomes an important part of learning how to manage our action urges so that the emotion and behaviour can work together for optimum success.
  3. Emotions give us valuable information about ourselves. When we tune in to how we are feeling, our emotions can be self-validating, they can serve as a signal that something is wrong and they can help us to find words to how we are feeling. It becomes about listening to our gut. 

Defining both emotion and it’s functions can allow us to move towards a greater understanding of how our feelings are hard-wired into our amazing, complex system of mind and body; ready to work efficiently for us if given the opportunity. 🙂

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“I Don’t Care What You Think”

Is often the sentiment when a difference of opinion gets to a heated place. We may not say that (or maybe we will) but either way, the point of the conflict has moved to one of having to prove that we are right; an indignant, inflexible place. Lost to our own anger, we are fueled to feel justified in our belief until it reaches the point of conviction, both parties becoming stuck in an unyielding pigeonhole of wanting to get your own way.

I often tell clients that there is no point in arguing with an angry person; as soon as anger rises in contention, you move into defensiveness and denial and there is no space left for solution. It is always best at this point to take a time out, agreeing to come back to resolution when everyone’s jets have cooled.

In order to find a solution to the argument,  two things can help:

  1. Approach the problem with a healthier aim; one in which the focus becomes to find a win-win solution to the issue. This helps in creating an open-minded, curious position.
  2. Focus on the notion that listening to another person’s opinion may not be about changing your mind, but rather about developing your thinking.

Approaching conflict in this manner helps to move us to a more receptive position; one whose focus is of a deeper sentiment of care and benevolence. (As a side note, these tips work great with teenagers too!)

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A Focus on De-Escalation

Sometimes we are faced with someone whose anger is getting the best of them. This might be a child, partner, co-worker, friend, or someone at the grocery store. In any case, we are better served to employ some de-escalation strategies in an effort to bring the communication back to a place where compromise has space to be sought.

  • Remain calm. Or at least act it. When someone is getting angry, it automatically creates in us a defensive or frustrated stance. By centering ourselves to not fight anger with anger, we are helping to de-escalate the situation.
  • Lower your voice, speak clearly. When anger is rising, so does the cadence of our voice. By purposely lowering your voice, it creates space for listening.
  • Use language in which they feel heard.  “I’m here for you.” “Tell me what happened.” “How can I help?”
  • Be aware of the non-negotiables. Just because someone is angry, it doesn’t mean we automatically give them what they want. We may be able to compromise, but we might also be in the position of reminding them (calmly) that “sometimes no is a no.”
  • Take a break. Sometimes we need to encourage our loved one to create some space for themselves to slow down the emotion train. This might include taking some deep breaths, holding the hands of our little ones, asking the person to take a walk if they need to. Revisit the issue when things have settled.

Healthy communication requires calm parties. Sometimes anger will get in the way of that process; however it always takes two people to have a conflict. Sometimes we are better to take the high road and move first to de-escalation as a means to pave the way towards a healthier way to deal with someone’s troubles. 🙂

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