Emotional Responsibility

Welcome to 2020
From Reddit u/atomicprimeo

There’s a lot of shit going on right now. It seems like in every corner of the globe, something is exploding, imploding or on the brink of doing either. Makes you question if Earth or God or whatever higher power you ascribe to is a little annoyed with the human race experiment.

Some people are dealing with the end of the world as we know it better than others. That’s perhaps not particularly surprising. Some people are better at dealing with everything better than others. But what nugget do these magical unicorns have, that maybe the rest aren’t quite aware of.

I feel like I’ve been having the same conversation over and over again. Sometimes it’s with friends or family members. Sometimes it’s in sessions. and sometimes it’s even in my own head. It usually starts with an awareness of something happening, and that something being no good. What follows is a wide range of emotions – anger, frustration, distress, sadness, helplessness, etc. Then there’s the secondary reaction – the anger, sadness and frustration that one would even have to experience these feelings in the first place.

I mean, what the hell man? Why do we keep having to deal with things that are outside of our control and that impact us on this very personal level? Why is the world exploding? Why are things the way they are? Why doesn’t my partner understand why I’m upset? Why is my country failing so miserably to find a way forward? Why are the people around me being such inconsiderate assholes? There is so much pain pent up inside this tightly wound ball of our perspective, screaming at the injustice of it all. It yells out “ARGH! WHY ARE YOU MAKING ME FEEL THIS WAY!?”

And I mean, I get it. The so-called negative emotions don’t feel great. There’s that pit-in-the-stomach sensation that goes with sadness. The antsy, jittery feeling of anxiety. The tingling, heated, throbbing angry sensation. And, my personal least favorite, that gut-punch, spike of adrenaline that goes with fear. I don’t begrudge anyone who isn’t specifically looking to experience more of that in their life. But sometimes we give our emotions just a wee bit too much power. They are, after all, just feelings. They may be strange and complex, but they, in and of themselves, aren’t dangerous. So why do we act like they are?

As a young therapist-in-training, the model on which I was educated focused on identifying and exploring a client’s “emotional avoidance” while encouraging that person to engage in “emotional tolerance”. There are few of us who get any form of adequate emotion coaching or mentoring, so if client’s can emerge from therapy being able to confront their emotions and “feel the feels” rather then avoiding them through drugs, alcohol, exercise, eating, self-harming, ruminating, or depending on others to manage their feelings for them, I would count that as a success. But at the same time, Emotional tolerance can only get you so far. I feel like it’s missing a key part of the picture, and the key part is responsibility. Tolerating or accepting emotion has this implication that the emotion is going to happen to you, just like all this cruddy stuff in the world is going to happen to you, and your job is to just sit there and take it. Accept that the anger is there. Accept that the sadness is there and ride it out.

I think we’re capable of more. Accepting an emotion sounds peaceful, but it also takes us out of the driver seat of our own experience. As if to say that we’re resigned to just watching our lives play out in front of us rather than taking center stage.

What would that mean, then, to take full ownership of your emotions?

For one, it would mean giving up your emotions as excuses.

  • “Sorry I was such an a-hole, I was just really angry about something my boss said.”
  • “I can’t hang out with you today” (because I’m way to anxious to leave my house).
  • “I know you wanted to have sex, but I was feeling too annoyed with you to having any kind of connection.”
  • “You hurt my feelings, so I’m going to ignore you and give you the silent treatment”.

For another, it would mean taking a step back, identifying what your tendency is, and then, in most cases at least, doing the opposite thing.

  • “My kid is pushing my buttons like whoa and all I want to do is scream my head off and yell at her to go to her room. Instead, I’m going to go sit down with her calmly and connect with her on an emotional level so she understands where the boundary is, and what the consequences are if/when she crosses it”
  • “My husband is being a complete grouch. It makes me want to avoid him so his negativity doesn’t rub off on me. Instead, I’m going to approach him, compassionately and empathetically and offer him support – even if he doesn’t ask for it”.
  • “My mom is criticizing me yet again and spouting off her wacked-out opinions. I want to snap at her for her backwards ways and uninformed beliefs. Instead, I’m going to accept her as she is, even if she has trouble accepting me as I am, while also affirming who I am, what I like, and what I believe.”

What do you think? Have you ever been able to take a step back from the roar of your emotions long enough to see a different way through them? What’s happened?

Always let your (emotions) be your guide

Emotions get a bad rap. I’ll be the first to say I was not always on-board with listening to, feeling or otherwise acknowledging my emotions. It was drilled in to me at a relatively young age that emotions are superfluous, unnecessary, messy, inconvenient, and certainly not fit for public consumption. Not to mention – they certainly said a lot about you as a person and what you cared about.

The kid who cries because he didn’t get what he wants? What a brat! And also his parents suck because how dare they allow their kids emotions be on display. Or the kid who gets angry and throws, hits or kicks to demonstrate just how clearly upset she is.

Perhaps those are poor examples, after all, they’re kids. Kids are notorious for having unstable moods and flipping from ecstasy to despair faster than you can blink. I’m actually witnessing this right now in my own kids. “You can have a piece of cake (YES!!!! Full ecstasy!!), but not for breakfast (NO!!! Utter despair!)”. Part of growing up is learning about all these different states called emotions and learn how to engage with them. Anger is okay – biting is not. Sadness is okay – but maybe we don’t need to sob on the floor of the grocery store. We learned when emotions are acceptable and what behaviors are acceptable outlets of those emotions.

Unfortunately, sometimes the messages we receive about emotions get a little scrambled, and by the time we’re grownups, we don’t necessarily have the best handle on them. Instead, we learn various strategies to “cope” with the emotions, some of which may be harmful, some of which may be completely ineffective, and some of which may be preventing us from living our lives as fully as we would like.

Examples:

  • Growing up in a family who viewed sadness as a weakness. The sadness is still there, but now can’t be expressed and instead is made visible through different means: engaging in self-harm, using substances, developing an eating disorder, etc.
  • As a shy person, feeling highly anxious about social situations and so avoid places or environments where social interactions are likely: weddings, reunions, meetups, dates, etc.
  • Not liking how uncomfortable certain emotions make you feel so learning to control your environment so that you aren’t forced to experience anger, fear, sadness, embarrassment, etc. When you are put into a situation outside of your control (cough cough, covid19), the overwhelm feels almost unbearable.
  • Coming from a family that never shows emotions and meeting the person of your dreams, who happens to come from a highly expressive and confrontational family. You realize that you don’t know how to communicate in such a way that the other person can even hear you.

Emotional Guidance System

What we rarely learn in childhood or elsewhere, is just how useful and important emotions are. And I don’t just mean in woo-woo, self-awareness sense, but also in a practical day to day to sense. What no one tells you (unless you go into therapy), is that emotions are our guides. We have developed these internal systems to alert us about the outside environment and how what’s happening IN THIS VERY MOMENT aligns or conflicts with our core values.

Sadness – Indicates there has been a loss, that something you want in your life is missing

Anger – Indicates a threat or that boundary has been violated

Guilt – Indicates that you have done something wrong which needs to amended

Fear – Indicates a threat or some kind of danger

Anxiety – Indicates a potential threat in the future

Joy – Indicates that things are good

How awesome is it that we were equipped with these? Also awesome – that we’re a social species, so while our emotions communicate something to us about what’s going on, they also communicate to those around us about what’s going on, so that we better know when to stay away and when to approach and offer help.

The one caveat to this whole emotional thing is that in order to receive the message from your guidance system, you have to be listening. That’s often where many of my clients struggle. We have been taught to tune out, ignore, “control”, or otherwise minimize the signals we receive from our emotions. Learning to tune back in can be a challenge. You might not hear anything. So instead, I offer this suggestion:

Observe your behaviors

Just like our emotions are our guides to how things are going in our lives with respect to our values, our behaviors are our guides to our emotions. Thankfully, behaviors are WAY more obvious that emotional signals. Anytime you find yourself having an urge to do something, that’s the time to check-in.

Last night, I got my kids to bed, it should have been time to relax. Instead, I had a very strong urge to eat chocolate. Like, a lot of chocolate. Okay, check-in time. Was I hungry? Nope. Was I tired, yeah, somewhat. Was I angry? sad? Nope and nope. But I was tense. And a little jittery. Ah – that one is anxiety. The president of Uganda was making yet another speech about the current state of the country-wide lockdown. My social media feeds were blowing up. Some young men were loitering on our street, taking pictures of our house. All of this led to a general sense of unease.

This leads to another important part of emotions: they guide us to action. Anxiety alerts us to a potential threat, so what is the potential threat, and can I do anything about it? The threat is that no one knows where this whole covid thing is going. No one knows how the people of this country in particular will handle sweeping movement restrictions. And I don’t know if those guys are plotting to attack my house or are posing for their instagram feed. What can I do? I can’t change the president’s edicts, but I can limit how much social media about it is streaming into my head. I can’t chase those guys off the street, it’s public property, but I can alert our guards (all houses/compounds here have guards) to their presence and them to keep an more vigilant eye out. I can ensure all my doors/windows are secured and that our outside lights are working. This is all helping to address the potential future threat. For the future threat I have zero control over? That’s where relaxation and breathing techniques come in. Remaining in a over-hyped state is not useful. It breaks down the body and actually limits the cognitive functions you probably want online should shit hit the fan and really spatter (splatter?).

If I had not checked-in with myself, I would have quickly grabbed some chocolate (and then more chocolate) in hopes that the small burst of dopamine would calm me down and make me feel a little better. And while it may have in the very short-term, it doesn’t address the threat that the anxiety was trying to alert me to, which means I would have needed more and more something to keep that anxiety feeling at bay. Better to just notice it, feel it, and take appropriate action.

What emotion do you find yourself avoiding? What do you suppose it’s trying to tell you? Drop me a note and let me know.