Who hasn’t struggled with overwhelming emotions?
A two-year-old has a tantrum because they cannot have something they want in that moment. And equally, a 40-year-old will struggle with feelings of anger over a situation they cannot control.
What’s the difference?
When I was around six years old, my parents were being incredibly unreasonable. They stopped me walking 3 miles alone to the gas station to claim my free Smurf toy. At the time you received tokens which you could then trade in for little Smurf characters.
They were amazing, I already had some and I wanted another.
I knew where the gas station was; opposite my school. As an adult I know it was a long way and the road was dangerous. As a child, it was completely and utterly ridiculous. My parents wouldn’t allow me to just walk and get my Smurf. I had the daddy of all tantrums – it went on for hours. Nobody would listen, nobody could understand how unfair everybody was being, and I was outright mad.
But really, how is that different to an adult losing their temper because of something that they find equally frustrating and have no control over?
Everybody feels emotions, and they always rise from the same place: a place of deep caring. If you are angry with the guy next door for parking his car in your space it is because you care, maybe about the space or maybe about the disrespect, but if you look below the surface you’ll find that you care. Just like I cared about that Smurf; having that toy would have made me feel good, and not being able to get it overwhelmed me with negative emotions that I had no idea how to deal with.
Do we ever learn as children or adults to overcome overwhelming emotions?
In recent years I have learned techniques and ways in which we can be triggered and still choose our response. Too often, we follow the same pattern of responses we always have, patterns we learned based on our childhood and the mentors around us, and it’s usually not a constructive pattern!
So here are my three tips on dealing with overwhelming emotions:
1. Take regular timeouts, even if you are not currently stressed. Take time out to focus on what is currently happening from within: your feelings, your thoughts and your breath, and what’s currently happening on the exterior: temperature, weather, current company and how others might be feeling. Doing these things enables us to create a little time to respond if something happens. Even if it’s just a few seconds it gives us a little extra room so we don’t have to react without thinking.
2. Allow yourself to feel your emotions. Ever since childhood, when we got hurt in the playground and cried, someone has imparted the great wisdom of ‘Don’t cry, be a big boy/girl. You’re way more grown-up than that.’ And we’ve ended up trying to suppress our feelings and push them away so we do not show them in public. The knock-on effect is that we eventually struggle to even show them in private. We run from them or push them down in the hope they will go away. Just like taking time out, we should feel these emotions and consider them objectively, so we can understand them and be okay with them. For example, I talk a lot about getting lonely, so sometimes I do feel lonely. I recognise the feeling – I’d be lonely for a while, accept and allow the feeling to arise. Within a few hours it has normally moved on to another feeling. In my case, hungry!
3. Write down how you are feeling. This gives you the ability to get those feelings out as well as feel them. The simple act of writing something down requires cognitive action from your mind, which enables you to deal with them. Just like when you have something you need to do and can’t forget it to the point of distraction; writing it down will let your brain accept it as dealt with, and then you can normally get on with what you’re doing.
Overwhelming emotions can be positive
Emotions aren’t just negative, and even positive emotions can overwhelm us. How many times have we made crazy decisions when we are feeling amazing inside? So how do we deal with overwhelming positive emotions? Things like excitement, desires and lust. These are very different than our negative emotions because we want them to stay, so we cling onto them rather than push them down, but the end result is just the same – they are consuming and disruptive. So, as the result is the same, the method for dealing with them is the same! We need to take time out to feel the emotions, accept them, and in this case enjoy them. We need to be with them and experience them – but without the fear that they are going to go away.
How many times have you thought when something is going well that it is ‘too good to be true’? We often sabotage our good feelings because subconsciously we know they can’t last forever, and to avoid the pain we jump ship too early. Taking time to enjoy good feelings for what they are, and take time to understand and accept negative feelings. Our capacity for deep and strong emotions are part of what makes us human, so they won’t go away. We can learn and grow from them if we swim with them rather than let them drown us.