Even if it seems far away, 2020 and 2021 have been an emotional rollercoaster for most of us more than usual: pandemic, working from home, uncertainty, changing habits, not seeing our families and friends, loosing dear ones, jobs and the list could continue. The roller coaster continued with the economic and political crisis, war, unrest, worries and even more uncertainty. All these came on top of what we already had on our plates, on top of our already existent emotional turmoil and habitual stress.
“I need to control my emotions!”, “My manager tells me to learn to keep my emotions under control!”, “I can’t control my emotions! I need to be better at it!”, “I can’t show my emotions at work!”, “I’ve had an outburst, even if I tried to control my emotions!”, “I have to be strong for my family, I can’t show what I feel.”
Did you ever hear yourself saying one of these sentences? I’ve heard at least one of them or something similar from most of my clients. And to be honest, I’ve used some of them myself. For many years, I thought that emotions like anger, fear, sadness, anxiety, uncertainty needed to be controlled, needed to never be experienced, because they are “really bad” and not helpful at all. Plus, they are uncomfortable, unpleasant and contagious.
There has been a lot of research made and the results all show the same: we can’t avoid only certain emotions. If we want to experience joy, contentment, happiness, we will experience also anger, fear, sadness, anxiety, uncertainty etc.
Paul Eckman, who dedicated his life to studying emotions, says that the initial role of emotions is to protect, motivate and connect us. He is also dividing emotions not in “positive or negative” but he says that all emotions can be constructive or destructive. Anger can be for example constructive if it motivates us to stand up and take action against injustice. On the other hand, happiness can be destructive if we are happy that our colleague was not promoted because we think that they are not better than us.
When talking about how we respond to emotions, most of us grew up learning that we should hide our emotions – hide them from others and hide them from ourselves. While suppressing our emotions, a lot of energy is built up and this is when we explode (we are yelling at others, cut them off, cry, have no patience, etc.) or implode (get tensions, heart attacks, different diseases, depression, anorexia, bulimia, addictions, etc.).
In reality, there is nothing wrong with experiencing emotions – it’s just being human – and there is nothing we should control. The question is what do we do when we experience these emotions, how do we respond to them, how do we let go of cooking the emotions like a pot under pressure?
A couple of years days ago, these were exactly the questions asked by one of my clients. An expat, living away from home and family, found out that one of his family members was very sick. Due to pandemic, he couldn’t travel, but he stopped all his work and got immediately on the phone with the family trying to find solutions. He started to use his project management skills and organized everyone, told them what to do, when and how. For a week, he hardly ate and slept, couldn’t think of anything else, he was snappy and irritable, bitter and angry when the others were not doing what he was saying. Afterwards, he felt remorse and guilt, and at the same time stuck, as he didn’t know what else to do. He wished he were calm and grounded, but had no idea how.
We started to get over the whole week and he realized he could’ve been more empathic, listen more to the other members of the family, be kinder, let go of control. We talked also about what that means – letting go of control. He realized that he actually couldn’t control the outcome – he could’ve still done all he did without expecting that things will go his way, knowing that not everything depends on him. This was a big step, even more so because we started our conversation with – “I want to be able to control my emotions”.
At that moment, I asked his permission to do an exercise together. Having in mind the work and research of Kristin Neff on self-compassion, I invited him to recall the moment when he got the news. I invited him to notice his emotions, what was he feeling, how did that feel in his body. Tears started to roll down his cheeks. I asked him to acknowledge how difficult it was for him to receive such news, acknowledge he’s suffering, acknowledge that it was ok to feel what he was feeling, it was human. I invited him to say a few kind words towards himself and to offer himself what he needed in that moment. I practically invited him to practice self-compassion.
After we finished the exercise, he told me that this was the first time when he got in touch with his own emotions. He thought that doing this was selfish and couldn’t do it. Yet now, he was feeling relived, clear minded, grounded and calm.
Many of us suppress our emotions because we are too afraid that we will be perceived weak, selfish, that we won’t be able to support those who need support. Unfortunately, this is when we are actually exploding and we end up with what we want to avoid. If we pause for a moment, acknowledge our emotions (mindfulness), how much we may be suffering, how difficult it may be for us (kindness), acknowledge that all human beings are experiencing emotions and that is ok (common humanity), then we become calmer and take action from this space. This is what Kristin Neff calls yang self-compassion.
If you want to learn more about how to let go of controlling your emotions through being self-compassionate, I invite you to sign up for our next Mindful Self-Compassion program (MSC) starting soon, joining other human beings on this journey. You can read also more about how to relate to difficult emotions here
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