Fran Miller, Ph.D. ©
Along with self-esteem, emotional management is almost always addressed in therapy. Whether someone is suppressing emotions and refraining from expressing them, having serious problems with strong emotions, or just realizes that things would be better with a stronger sense of emotional control, emotional management is an important topic to address.
Although I try to avoid sex role generalizations, in the case of experiencing and expressing emotions, there does seem to be a frequency of patterns for males and females. Males tend to be less aware of their emotions, tend to name them less often, to focus on a few emotions rather than others, and tend to express them less frequently. Women tend to experience stronger and more frequent emotions, have a wider variety of emotions, and tend to feel the need to express them more often. However, as I have seen, it is also true that in many cases this manifests in the completely opposite way.
In the case where you tend to be less aware of emotions and express them less frequently, there are a number of things that we work on in therapy. First of all, it is often a good idea to familiarize yourself with the number of emotions that are possible, and I often have a client “google” emotions. Here is a sampling of what you will find: annoyed, impatient, irritated, frustrated, angry, critical, judgmental, fearful, disappointed, discouraged, inadequate, hurt, envious, jealous, tired, sad, unhappy, depressed, lonely, isolated, alienated, encouraged, eager, excited fascinated, optimistic, curious, interested, determined, persevering, patient, hopeful, secure, calm, relaxed, peaceful, understanding, caring, kind, compassionate, happy, joyful.
Next it is helpful to increase your awareness of the emotions that you are experiencing, and also to focus on the different physical manifestation of each emotion. You can become better at naming emotions by recognizing the physical aspect of the emotion. For example, with frustration you might feel your jaw or your fists clench, or your arm or abdominal muscles tighten. With sadness you might become aware of a mild ache literally in the area of your heart or feeling like you’re going to cry.
After learning to feel and name your emotions, you then, in each particular situation, will want to look at the options for dealing with or expressing the emotion. It’s important to realize that you always have a number of options. Here are some possibilities: journal about the emotion, send an email, write a snail mail letter about the situation, prepare and formulate how you want to express your emotion, or formulate something to express right in the moment.
If you are going to express your feelings right in the moment, as we’ve all learned by experience, it is best if you still take time to plan what you are going to say and how you are going to say it. Even if this is only a split second review in your mind. Taking that second will help you to avoid saying things that you might regret later.
If you tend to suppress feelings and this has become a problem in your relationships, then one way to help the situation in the moment is to express that you want to have time to think over your feelings and how you want to express them. However, I recommend that when you do this, you also agree to discuss the topic within a certain period of time. That way those involved will know that you are going to get back to the topic and not avoid it.
When emotions are conscious, strong, or variable, one often experiences serious difficulty internally and in relationships. Here are ten steps to calming yourself and learning how to tolerate emotions and express them calmly. These steps are difficult, and you want to approach and practice them with determination, but also with patience.
- Focus your attention on awareness of your emotions and on the physical manifestation that you are experiencing. Name your emotions and be aware of what in particular is causing each emotion.
- Practice taking a short amount of time to tolerate your emotion. Let yourself experience that you can tolerate the emotion without taking any action. Over time, let this be a longer period of time that you practice tolerating the emotion.
- While you are tolerating the emotion, do some activities: get exercise, go to a gym, go for a walk, or run, write in a journal, do mindfulness practice or do a short meditation.
- Next discuss the situation with your therapist, a friend, or a family member who is not involved in the situation causing the emotions.
- Review your options and alternatives for dealing with and expressing the emotion.
- Know that you can tolerate the emotions and make choices about expression
- Practice feeling and being calm while you think about the situation
- Set a time to discuss the situation with the person involved in the emotional situation
- Prepare yourself to be able to express yourself with calm and fairness
- Make your communication and express the emotion with a calm demeanor.
These steps can be very difficult to implement, and require serious, determined practice. Partners and family members need to give those trying to learn to tolerate emotions time to practice and to become adept at a completely new and challenging set of goals. It is helpful to work on these steps with your therapist, and to share your experiences with friends or family members. It’s important for family members to be reinforcing and validating when there is improvement with any of these steps.
There are two communication techniques that are extremely helpful when emotions are part of the problem. Marshall Rosenberg has written a very popular and successful book called, Non Violent Communication. In it he recommends four topics for the speaker in a communication: 1. observation, 2. feelings, 3. needs, and 4. requests. We can discuss how to implement these recommendations in your therapy sessions.
I find these steps can be helpful for the speaker. Regarding the listener, Rosenberg recommends empathic listening, but, as far as I know, he does not list any specific guidelines. I have developed what I call “reflective/empathic listening guidelines” which we can learn and practice in therapy. This can be your absolute best and most helpful tool when dealing with emotional management and communication.
Mindfulness is a practice described by Sidharta Gautama, or the Buddha, around 500 B.C. His words are recorded in the Full Awareness of Breathing Sutra. Unfortunately this practice has sometimes been taken out of the Buddhist context. It is often taught as simply a psychological technique to reduce anxiety, depression or obsessive thinking patterns, for which it is very helpful. But it is important to remember that it also has deeper and more extensive meaning and purpose. However, in this context of emotional management, mindfulness practice can be very valuable as a psychological technique. With mindfulness, the effort is to focus on the present moment rather than on the future or the past. We tend to have regret or remorse about the past, and to fantasize, speculate, or have fears about the future. With mindfulness we try to focus on our sensory input in the present moment: what we are seeing, hearing, smelling, feeling, and sensing. The effort is also to try to focus on the present moment without cognitive overlays that we usually apply to our experiences, such as judgement, preferences, opinions, discrimination, and analyses. This is very difficult, but with practice we can learn to be absorbed in our sensory input without discrimination. Mindfulness practice can be a welcome relief from exaggerated or negative emotions, and provide some time of peacefulness while we work on managing emotions. On my website, www.heartmind.com, I have an article, Beginning Mindfulness Practice, with additional information.
Meditation is also a practice that can be very helpful in managing strong, exaggerated, or negative emotions. Again, it is important to make note that these psychological benefits are not the primary or ultimate purpose of meditation in the Buddhist sense, but rather are a beneficial secondary effect. For the purpose of emotional management, however, meditation can provide many positive benefits. It can provide a calm space for you to learn to sit with emotions, tolerate them, and to learn that emotions, like physical sensations come and go naturally during the meditation period, just as they come and go in our daily life. You can learn that emotions are impermanent and ever changing. That you don’t need to hold on to them or exaggerate them. But rather you can learn to understand them, make choices about their implications, but also to just observe them rise up and fall away. You can learn to sit still in silence, be present with yourself, and be at peace with the present moment, moment by moment, whatever your emotions are.
Once many years ago, one of my clients brought in a quote printed from the book, Old Path, White Clouds by Thich Nhat Hahn. I printed it, and framed it, and gave it to my three adult children one Christmas. This is a beautiful quote to remember. I try to keep it in my own mind, especially the line that starts, “Before I say or do anything…..”
A long time ago, in a forest far away, the Buddha attempted to restore harmony in a quarrelsome Sangha. The World-Honored One said, “Please cease your arguing. It is only creating division in the community. Please return to your practice. If we truly follow our practice, we will not become victims of pride and anger.” But these stubborn fellows persisted, and the Buddha departed. When he traveled to another Sangha, the Buddha asked, “Do you live in harmony with one another?” A monk answered, “Lord, we care deeply for each other. Before I say or do anything, whether the others are present or not, I stop and ask myself what their reaction would be. Would my words or actions disappoint them in any way? If I feel any doubts, I refrain from the words or actions intended. Lord, although we are many, we are also one.”
The World-Honored One stayed in this community for one month. Before he left, he said, “Bhikkus, the very nature of a Sangha is harmony. I believe harmony can be realized by following these principles: 1. Sharing a common space such as a forest (meadow) or a home; 2. Sharing the essentials of daily life together; 3.Observing the precepts together; 4. Using only words that contribute to harmony; 5. Sharing insights and understanding together; 6. Respecting others viewpoints. A Sangha that follows these principles will have happiness and harmony.
In a writing from Yung-chia, quoted by Foster and Shoemaker in the book, Roaring Stream, we can read an ancient description of meditation experience. Even then, dealing with feelings was an issue, and meditation was found to be helpful.
Strong and negative emotions can be overwhelming and disruptive, and suppressing emotions can be harmful to oneself and to relationships. Learning how to be aware of, tolerate, and control our emotions can be beneficial to our health, to our relationships, and to our own inner peace and well-being. Through effort and also with meditation practice, as Yung-chia expressed, you can learn to let elements of the self come and go, like clouds without purpose, and greed, hate, and delusion can appear and disappear like ocean foam.