We are primarily responsible for our emotions. There are certainly genetic components to how intensely we feel certain ways. Some people are just more highly-strung than are others. Also, experiences in our early life can often prime us to feel certain ways when put in similar situations. At the same time, it’s empowering to recognize that other people do not “make” us feel certain ways. While we may have an understandable knee-jerk reaction to other people’s behavior, we can then choose what to do. We can also look at our underlying beliefs and expectations about that person, situation, or life in general that may have contributed to our feeling as we do.
Words are very powerful. Take the commonly-used phrase “You made me feel [angry/sad/scared/etc.].” When we say this, we are taking a victim stance and probably putting the other person on the defensive. We can still get our point across, while not blaming the other person or ourselves, by assertively stating, “When you [said/did such and such], I felt [anxious/disappointed/confused/etc.]. I would prefer that you [not call me names, speak in a harsh tone, etc.].” By doing so, we are not condoning the other person’s behavior nor allowing them to get away with it, but we’re more likely to open up a useful dialogue than if we blame them for our feelings. The other party can hear us, consider our point of view, and give their input. They may also continue acting in the same manner, in which case we may eventually choose to terminate the relationship.
This is not to say that horrendous things such as enduring child abuse, witnessing horrific events, or being held-up at gunpoint don’t provoke powerful feelings in us. However, for the most part we are dealing with less extreme situations. Also, we are fortunate to have intellects that allow us to manage our feelings, recognize what we might be telling ourselves about the situation, and how to reframe the matter in order to minimize unnecessary emotional suffering. If someone insults us, we can either believe that they’re right about our being stupid, which might cause us to feel sad or ashamed. Or we can consider that the other person was angry, spoke rashly, did not know us very well, had inadequate information about the matter at hand, or was upset about an unrelated issue. As a result we might feel a brush of annoyance but possibly also compassion for the other person.
Emotions serve as important clues to us and to those around us regarding what we’re experiencing. In addition, emotions give valuable information regarding the best next step for us to take. We don’t always have time to “think things through”, so listening to our feelings, which can crop up in an instant, can be a shortcut to connecting with our intuition. A caveat: It usually helps to listen to both our emotions and our logic to come to the best decision, which emanates from our Wise Mind. The key here is balance.
Managing our emotions does not mean that we suppress them. Healthy people have a full range of feelings and impulses, while not being carried away by them. For instance, we can feel anger without punching in a wall or slapping someone. We can feel anxiety without running away from or procrastinating about what we need to take care of. We can feel ravenously hungry (which can be an emotional as well as physical sensation) without devouring an entire chocolate cake. Trying to convince ourselves that we’re not feeling a certain way, or attempting to deny that we’re experiencing a particular emotion, takes a lot of energy, can confuse both us and other people, and ultimately is not successful.
We have a right to our emotions. Other people may tell you that you’re “too sensitive” or not to “take things so personally”, but feelings are neither right nor wrong – they just are. Granted, you may have a tendency to react more extremely to situations than might other people, or you might feel a certain way due to a particular “read” on someone’s treatment of you. You might benefit from investigating such matters and seeing if there’s another way to interpret what’s going on, but your initial feelings weren’t “wrong”.
Allowing ourselves to feel uncomfortable (if need be) can strengthen us emotionally. The way to build the belief that you can tolerate discomfort is to let yourself experience it (if need be) and learn that you can weather the emotional storm, while practicing healthy self-care. Doing so would be an example of what is called “building mastery” in Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) and is a powerful antidote to despair.
We can learn to modulate the intensity of our emotions. We can learn to view ourselves, other people, and the world in more positive and less frightening ways. It may take a considerable amount of work and may feel strange to experiment with changing your perspective and belief system. Nevertheless, taking a good look at why you believe what you do, what evidence there is for your belief system, and what effects (positive and negative) your beliefs have on your emotions and actions might be helpful. Consider how your best possible self would think and behave, and begin to experiment with acting accordingly. Your feelings are likely to change in beneficial ways as a result.
We are not always in control of our emotions. This may sound contradictory to the previous point, but it’s not. We are not robots and we cannot program ourselves (or anyone else) into having pleasant, “appropriate” feelings and eradicating uncomfortable feelings. Rather, we can be our own best advocate and do what we can to offer kindness, compassion, and unconditional acceptance to ourselves regarding what we’re feeling at the moment.
- Do my emotions fit the facts of the situation?
- Would acting on my current feelings be in my best interest?
- Would acting on my current feelings create an additional problem?
When experiencing painful, unexpected, or intense emotions, accept your feelings rather than beating yourself up. Also, recognize that you can choose how to respond to that feeling.