People tend to define themselves (and others) by their emotions.
He’s an angry man. She’s such a happy child. She’s a jealous girlfriend. What a cry-baby. But your emotions aren’t your identity, or even your personality. They’re chemicals that our body releases in response to physical stimuli, thoughts and memories.
Knowing that emotions are chemicals doesn’t negate their potency. Chemicals can cause explosions; they have to be handled with care. Trouble is, people often don’t see their emotions as separate from themselves. Because of this, they give in and let them take over.
Once you let emotions tell you who you are, you trap yourself in a horrible, self-fulling cycle.
Picture this. Alice finds her partner, Chris, distant and dismissive. He pursues his own path without seeming to care about how this affects her. She’s hurt and frustrated, and finds herself feeling tearful and angry. But every time she thinks about confronting him about his behaviour, she feels a wave of terror rise up.
Alice is ashamed of feeling so frightened. She’s ashamed of feeling hopeless and angry. She’s ashamed that she’s such a fearful, emotional person. She turns all her anger back on herself, telling herself she’s pathetic.
Because she now believes she’s pathetic, the sadness and anger she feels aren’t valid responses to selfish behaviour, but are an extension of her own flawed personality.
So Alice never confronts Chris. She wallows in her misery, resenting him for failing to change and hating herself for being pathetic and unlovable.
When the relationship breaks down, this reaffirms her view. She then carries that feeling right through to her next relationship, refusing to address problems as they arise because, she believes, it’s not in her nature.
Such is the power of letting our emotions tell us who we are.
As rational creatures, we do get to choose how we handle our emotions. We don’t have to be in their thrall.
Imagine that Alice had realised her emotions are chemical responses, not an expression of her personality.
Imagine she’d been able to say: “I have these feelings of sadness and anger and they’re telling me that something is very wrong. I’m scared because I’m facing a potentially stressful and unpleasant encounter — and that’s normal and expected. But it shows that I need to do something about the problems that are sparking these emotions in the first place.”
Create a catalyst for change
Imagine if, instead of being overwhelmed by her feelings, Alice had used them as a catalyst for change. Owning your emotions and responding to them productively isn’t always easy, but it’s a skill you can learn.
Here are some steps you can take.
- Start by reminding yourself that you have control. You are not the victim of your emotions. You can’t stop them from appearing, but you can decide how to react.
- Don’t ignore the emotion. Notice it. Identify it. Tell yourself that it’s ok that you have it.
- No matter how hard it is, commit to accepting the emotion, rather than denying its existence.
- Imagine that the emotion is a person. Tell it that you see it and recognise it, but right now, you need to get on with your day.
- Now that the emotion has been “contained”, carefully and deliberately take action – or just tackle your normal tasks – while it’s still there. Don’t let it take over, but don’t suppress it or wait for it to leave. You’re in charge of how this goes. Don’t let the emotion dictate or delay what you need to do.
- When you’re finished your tasks for the day, sit down with that emotion and have a serious chat. Make some tea. Ask it why it’s here and what it wants to tell you. Make notes about what it actually wants you to do.
- Sometimes, you’ll need to plan concrete, practical steps to address the problem that triggered the emotion. But often, once it’s been allowed to have its say, you’ll find it leaves of its own accord.