This will help you keep them in check
Experiencing negative emotions is horribly unpleasant. The mechanics behind how emotions work, however, are quite simple. Once you start to understand emotions, you can learn to control them.
Do you hate feeling emotional? That feeling when negative emotions take over your mind and your body. That feeling when, suddenly, you can’t think straight anymore. You can feel your temperature rise. Your body and your head become very unpleasant places to be in.
I know these all too well. When I become emotional, my brain shuts down. Ironically, this gives the impression that I’m really calm. Inside my head, however, it feels like my brain is saying “This is too much. I can’t deal with it.” It literally abandons me.
You’ve been taught to avoid emotions
From a very young age, you were probably taught that it’s bad to express negative emotions (“stop crying,” “stop shouting,” “calm down”). You saw adults avoiding negative emotions as much as possible. You probably have very unpleasant memories of when someone around you became “emotional” and “lost control.”
A client I worked with, Julian*, told me that he grew up with a very emotional mother. She was prone to outbursts. Small things, like a plate in the wrong place, would throw her into a rage. He did his best but she would regularly burst into tears and say “You’ve disappointed me.” As an adult, Kumar found any negative emotions, whether his own or other people’s, unbearable.
If you’ve watched Paris Hilton’s Youtube documentary (watch it before you judge me), you’ll see first hand another, yet common, example of a family where adults do not discuss emotions. Paris Hilton’s parents probably reproduced how they saw adults deal with emotions growing up. That is, pretending they don’t exist.
Getting to the how and why of emotions
Emotions can be horribly unpleasant. But if you look closer, they are not as scary as they seem. We have emotions for a reason. If you understand why – as well as how – emotions work you will see that you can learn to control them.
Here are 2 little-known facts about emotions that will help you change the way you deal with your own.
Fact #1 Emotions are powered by thoughts (and not situations)
You probably feel that situations and other people trigger your emotions. We all do. All sorts of things will trigger negative emotions, like when your boss, spouse or friend say something nasty, or when your flight is cancelled, or when you hit your toe on the living room table (that last one infuriates me particularly) .
Every time an upsetting situation crops up, even situations you imagine in your head, like that conversation you’ve been replaying since yesterday, your emotions turn up.
Most of the time, emotions are proportional to the situation that triggered them. A dramatic situation will often trigger equally dramatic emotions. Losing someone you love can feel like dying.
Sometimes, however, small things trigger big reactions (like every time I hit my toe on the table) and vice versa. The same situations trigger different emotions in different people. My husband gets irritated (depressed?) when he sees the sink full of dirty dishes. I don’t even notice it.
This is because, despite what we feel we experience, emotions are not triggered by situations. Emotions are triggered by what we think of a given situation. Your thoughts are the ones powering your emotions.
The (life changing) toe experiment
I noticed that every time I hurt myself, even in the silliest ways, I became angry. I became angry at what had hurt me (yes, including the table). Looking closer inside my brain, I realised that I would think “Why me? This is so unfair.”
This thought triggered a strong feeling of injustice which in turn triggered anger. Somehow, my brain thought that it was tremendously unfair that the table should target me, and not anyone else.
You might think that it’s ridiculous to unconsciously accuse a table of injustice. But this is exactly what was happening. How do I know? I trained myself to switch my thoughts to “Why you? This is so unfair” instead of “Why me? This is so unfair.”
The next time I bumped my head into the corner of the table I actually felt guilty and apologetic towards the table. Incredible, but true.
Why you should care
If you know that thoughts power your emotions you know that you need to act on your thoughts to be able to control your emotions. Trying to control your emotions directly is a bit like shooting the messenger. It doesn’t make the message disappear. The message will pop up again later on, you know it does. Focus on identifying – and transforming – the thoughts that power your emotions.
Fact #2 An emotion lasts for 90 seconds
The neuroscientist Dr Jill Bolte Taylor explained that in chemical terms, it takes 90 seconds for the body to generate and “flush” out an emotion.
As she puts it in her Ted talk, “for 90 seconds you can watch the process happening, you can feel it happening, and then you can watch it go away. After that, if you continue to feel fear, anger, and so on, you need to look at the thoughts that you’re thinking that are re-stimulating the circuitry that is resulting in you having this physiological reaction, over and over again.”
You don’t believe me?
Think about animals. Have you ever noticed how dogs can growl one minute, and then playfully wag their tail the next?
When you think about it, this makes sense. An emotion is information, it is a message.
When something happens, your mind processes it and then sends a message to your body – the emotion – preparing it for action. If you feel fear, it’s because your mind believes there is a danger you must run away from. If you feel anger, your mind believes you need to defend yourself.
If your emotion lasts longer than 90 seconds, it is being fuelled by your thoughts. The issue is not that you are stuck in an emotional loop. Rather, you are stuck in a thought loop. You keep having one thought that is triggering that emotion over and over again.
The dog growling example
Let’s imagine that I’m driving and another car comes dangerously close to mine. I suddenly feel fear, possibly anger too, and I honk. The other car then drives off. The danger is gone but I still feel angry. I think: “How could this driver be so dangerous? How dare he drive like this?” Every time I think these thoughts they trigger anger. My anger lasts for much longer than 90 seconds, sometimes a whole day.
Now let’s take the example of a dog growling. Imagine that he’s growling because another dog came too close to him. Once that other dog is gone, he stops growling. The dog experienced an emotion – in this case anger or aggression. The emotion dissipated when the trigger was gone, i.e. when the other dog left.
Imagine if the dog continued growling on his own, even after the other dog had moved away. In a human equivalent, the dog would be thinking “How dare this dog come so close? How dare he disrespect me like that?” as he sat there, on his own, growling to himself.
Kinda silly, right?
Yet, we do it all the time. We do it all the time without even realising it.
I worked with Sophie* last year. She told me that her husband – whom she loves very much – drove her nuts every time he left dirty laundry in the bathroom. Cliche, yet so true, right? It could sometimes take her hours to calm down on the days that she found a sock on the bathroom floor. On those days, she turned up at the office in a bad mood. Not a great way to start the day.
She started to pay attention to the thoughts that kept triggering her anger. She worked on taking control over that pattern and we worked together on transforming her thoughts. No one should be having a bad day because of a sock.
Why you should care
If you know that an emotion is designed to last only 90 seconds, you know that you are unconsciously powering emotions that last any longer. You can choose to take action instead of feeling like a bystander to your emotions.
Emotions are not as scary as they seem
Once you look at them closely, emotions follow a simple and distinct pattern. Your thoughts trigger emotions that last for just 90 seconds. If you feel stuck in an emotional state, instead of feeling like a helpless bystander, you can consciously track down the thoughts that are keeping you in that state. You have much more control over your emotions than you think.
If you are on a journey toward becoming more in control of your emotions, I can help.
You can book a discovery session (free) to discuss whether my program would make sense for you.
*Not their real names
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