Depression runs in my family. From a young age, I was forced to confront this question about how to deal with difficult emotions – profound sadness, anger, fear and anxiety. When you feel these uncomfortable emotions – at home, at work or wherever – what should you do?
How can you respond in an emotionally intelligent way that makes these difficult emotions into a catalyst for a better, stronger you?
Here are 3 expert tips for dealing with difficult emotions – and transforming them into your ally.
Out of the Darkness
When you are sad, angry, or anxious, what should you do?
#1 Bust the myth of bad emotions
Anger. Fear. Jealousy. Sadness. When we have asked people all over the world what they think of these emotions, the responses are always the same. They are “negative” or “bad.” And that is what most of us have been socialized to think. Joy and contentment are good emotions, and these other emotions are bad. They sure feel that way.
But what do you do with something bad? Push it away. Hide it. Disguise it as something else. Control it. And then we get stuck in this cycle of struggling against our own feelings. We feel these difficult emotions, but then instantly push them away, pretend like they don’t exist, or craftily deflect attention away from them. It’s time that we break out of this cycle and bust this myth that there are bad emotions. These difficult emotions have evolved with humans for millions of years, after all, and that is because they serve a purpose. The function of an emotion is to focus our attention and motivate us toward a specific course of action. They are inherently neutral – simply letting you know where you are and how things look ahead. In that sense, emotions – even difficult emotions like anger, fear and sadness – are data.
So next time you feel difficult emotions arising, remind yourself: Emotions are data. Instead of thinking that it’s bad and pushing it away, embrace it. “I feel sad. I wonder why that is? What is that emotion telling me?”
So if the first step is to end this internal struggle, what’s the next step? Start transforming that emotion.
“Vilifying our own emotions is the single biggest obstacle to emotional intelligence.”Joshua Freedman
#2 Tell it like it is: I am terrified of that tarantula
Once you have started to strip away the guilt that is often associated with feeling difficult emotions, you can begin the process of transforming that emotion, whether it’s fear, anger, sadness, or something else. And that process starts with calling the emotion by its name. A lot of recent research suggests that when we name our emotions, they lose some of their power and and an opportunity opens up for us to make better, more deliberate decisions.
Consider this experiment from the University of California at Los Angeles. Dr. Michelle Craske tested out this hypothesis about labeling emotions with a group of participants with a fear of spiders. She started the experiment by having them approach a large, live tarantula in an open container outdoors (you read that correctly) – and told them to keep getting closer until they touched it, if they could get far. Then the participants were brought inside, put in front of another live tarantula in a container, and divided into four groups, based on the instructions they were given for how to think about the spider.
The first group was asked to describe the experience of being around the spider and label what they were feeling. For example, “I’m scared of that huge, hairy tarantula.” Now this is actually a radical way to respond. Normally the goal is to make people think differently about the spider so that it appears less threatening – and this is exactly what the second group was instructed to do. They would say, for example, “The spider is in a cage and can’t hurt me, so I don’t need to be afraid.” The third group was instructed to say something that was irrelevant to the spider, and the fourth group was simply exposed, not instructed to say anything at all.
One week later, all the participants were re-exposed to the live tarantula in the outdoor setting, and told to get as close as possible, and touch it with a finger if they could. Dr. Craske and her colleagues measured how close all the participants got to the spider, how distressed they were, and their physiological responses, specifically how much the participants’ hands sweated, which is a good measure of fear. So what did they find? The group that labeled their fear of the spider performed far better than the other groups. They got closer, were less emotionally aroused, and their hands were sweating significantly less.
So what does this mean? Naming emotions seems to bridge the gap between thoughts and feelings, and making an emotion the object of your cognitive scrutiny seems to diminish its raw intensity. So next time you are feeling a difficult emotion, start by labeling it: I am angry, or sad, or anxious. Just tell it like it is.
Brain Science: So what is going on in the brain when we label an emotion? Matthew Lieberman, a psychology professor at UCLA, is using fMRI technology to answer that exact question. When subjects are shown an image of a face expressing a strong emotion, their brains show greater activity in the amygdala – a region of the brain involved in generating emotions. When those subjects were told to label the emotion, they showed less activity in the amygdala, and increased activity in a region of the right frontal lobe known as the right ventrolateral prefrontal cortex, a region involved in vigilance and discrimination. This simple act of labeling an emotion shifts our brain activity and seems to have the effect of reducing its intensity.
#3 Embrace the help and make a plan
Emotions, even difficult emotions – are really just messages. And when we learn how to listen to that message and let it help us respond, we can transform the power dynamics. Instead of feeling overwhelmed by our difficult emotions and invaded by their negativity, we feel like we have a helper, an ally guiding us through the maze of life.
Imagine this… you are in your car, and your phone starts talking to you. It’s a sort of off-putting, robotic voice, and it keeps telling you where to go. You are already lost and this extra distraction certainly isn’t helping matters, so you try to turn the volume off, and when that doesn’t work, you throw it in the back of the car. You can still sort of hear it, but at least it’s not as overwhelming. This, in a way, is what we do too often with emotions. They are actually an incredibly amazing GPS, giving us data on where we are, where we want to go, and what’s in the way. But we have to learn to listen to those messages, and not dismiss them as mere distractions.
So, once again, remind yourself when you feel difficult emotions that they are here to help you. They are data, messages. And then, really dig in to what that emotion is telling you. Only by doing that can you tap into the power of emotions and reap the benefits of EQ. But I have to warn you: Emotions can be complex, multilayered, even contradictory. So here is a roadmap – and a great resource – for working with emotions. Start by asking yourself these questions:
What am I feeling? And what else?
What is the general message of that emotion? This is where Six Seconds’ Emotoscope Feeling Chart is super helpful.
The other day I felt horrible. I simply had too much to do. It’s the busiest time of year at the farm where I work. I am planning the logistics for our Christmas travels, and setting up the logistics for my partner’s knee surgery in January. We live and work on a farm that’s seasonal, so this is more challenging than it sounds. So I sat down with this worksheet that I got from Six Seconds called the Emotoscope Feeling Chart. It’s broken up into 4 categories: Mad, Sad, Glad and Afraid. And each of those is broken down into variations of intensity, so for Mad there are 15 variations, ranging from Peeved to Furious. And then a short sentence describing what that emotion is telling you.
So I went to the page Sad. I knew that’s generally how I felt. And in sad, one of the first variations was Overwhelmed – I feel overwhelmed because too much is happening. Yup. That’s exactly how I felt. And under Purpose? Challenging you to set priorities. Oh. Of course! The message this overwhelmed feeling is sending me is that I need to sit down and prioritize, make a plan. The change was amazing. It went from feeling like this emotion was a dark cloud over me that was slowing me down, to this realization that it was pointing me in the right direction. I needed to sit down and prioritize all the things on my to do list. And when I did, I felt a lot better.
This is an incredibly powerful practice for EQ practitioners, coaches, educators, or anyone who wants to feel more in control of their life. You can get the Emotoscope Feeling Chart by clicking on the button below, and refer to it when you are dealing with difficult emotions.