by Kassandra Lamb
Note: In light of the events in Paris Friday evening, I considered changing this post, which had already been written and uploaded. But I decided to leave it alone, as the topic is relevant. We are all reeling emotionally a bit right now. I will write a post soon on coping with the reality of terrorism. But for now, here is the original post scheduled for today…
Road rage, mass shootings, domestic violence… Self-control is highly valued in U.S. society, and yet we seem to be more out of control than ever.
Maybe that’s because we’re going about it all wrong.**
Now I’m not saying this is a simple issue–it’s not. A lot of different factors play into the escalating violence, but one of them is how we attempt to control our emotions.
We often try to do this by suppressing them, and this doesn’t work well over the long haul. Those feelings don’t go away; they just go underground.
The word emotion comes from the ancient Roman word, exmovere, which means “energy that moves.” Those Romans were wise beyond their century, because that is exactly what emotions are: energy that has to move. It has to move up and out of your system in order to dissipate. If you try to stuff it down in your subconscious mind, well, “energy that moves” just doesn’t stuff too well.
Suppressed emotions tend to act like volcanic pressure–they build up to a lava-hot temperature and then spew out of every available crevice.
(**Note: this post is the follow-up to my guest post on misconceptions about emotions over at Jami Gold’s blog last week.)
There are three things that have to occur for an emotion to go away:
1. The emotion needs to be acknowledged for what it’s REALLY about. This is tougher than it sounds because sometimes, often even, we don’t know the real reason! The emotion may have been generated by an unconscious reaction to something in the environment that never even registered consciously, such as a subtle edge of derision in someone’s tone of voice. Or the reason may be forgotten because you didn’t act on it at the time.
Remember the adage for couples, to never go to bed angry with each other. This is why. By morning, you may have forgotten why you are angry, but the anger is still in there unresolved. Now it will come out indirectly and most likely in inappropriate ways.
So when you find yourself tempted to stuff a feeling down, stop and ask yourself WHY you are feeling that way. Try to identify WHEN you started feeling that way. See if you can track it back to its source so that you’re aware of its true cause. Then…
2. The situation causing the emotion needs to be resolved. I don’t think most people would even say that this sounds easy. Lots of emotionally-charged situations are complicated and it’s not that simple to just “resolve” them.
But keep in mind that changing the situation or the people who are the source of the emotion is not the only option. Sometimes we can just get away from the situation/person. Or we may be able to shift our attitude toward the problem in a way that makes us feel better about it.
When I changed careers from psychotherapist to college professor, I found myself feeling very anxious for no apparent reason. Sure this was a new challenge, but I had taught the occasional non-credit course before, so why was I on the verge of panic? Then I noticed that I wasn’t all that anxious when going into a classroom to face students. It was mainly nervousness whenever I thought about my department chair.
I figured out that this was mostly because I was no longer self-employed. I had gotten used to being able to do things my own way with no one looking over my shoulder. To make matters worse, I was adjunct faculty, which meant the department chair could just not rehire me for the next semester if he didn’t like me or my teaching style. I no longer felt in charge of my ability to make a living, and that was pretty scary.
That first semester I discovered two things. One, I loved teaching, and two, the anxiety wasn’t dissipating all that much. I didn’t want to quit, so I reframed my attitude. I lived in the Baltimore area at the time and there were about 50 colleges or universities within commuting distance.
I told myself that I was still self-employed, that I was a “contractor” contracting out my services as a teacher to schools (which was technically true). If I didn’t like a particular school or a department chair gave me a hard time, Well, I’d just go elsewhere.
Poof, most of the anxiety evaporated. I now felt in control of my fate again.
3. The emotion needs to be vented in some fashion. Sometimes this occurs as we are resolving the situation (since the cause of the emotions is getting fixed in some way). But sometimes we still need to “let off steam.” This does NOT necessarily mean that we have to vent the emotion AT the person who caused it, however. That isn’t always a great idea. Marriages have ended and jobs have been lost over inappropriate venting.
There are a variety of ways to do indirect venting. You can write a letter to the person, then tear it up, or you can talk it out with a friend who can be trusted to keep your confidences.
Or you can talk to yourself, pretending that you are confronting that person (either in your head or out loud, as long as there’s no one around to think you are losing it).
I realized that one factor in my angst about teaching was that my department chair had acted kind of strange the day he hired me. And he continued to act that way. My assumption was that he didn’t like me very much.
Finally it dawned on me that he wasn’t real sure how to take me. (I’m a rather intense person.) And that made him tense and awkward around me. When I got it that this was his issue, not mine, I got a little pissed. But I wasn’t about to confront him. He wasn’t mistreating me; he was just a little weird around me. A confrontation would have made it far worse, assuming that he didn’t outright fire me.
So I pretended he was sitting in a chair in my kitchen. (I started this imaginary conversation in his office, but that was too intimidating, so I moved it. Hey, it’s my imaginary conversation!) I told him I was annoyed that he had made me uncomfortable because he was uncomfortable. Of course, people in your imagination always act the way you want them to, so he apologized. (In real life, he would have thought I was nuts.)
The rest of the anxiety dissipated, and the next time I crossed paths with the man, I noticed that I no longer felt uncomfortable around him.
I taught at that school for nine years and loved every minute of it.
There’s no getting away from our emotions, and as already mentioned, stuffing them down doesn’t really work (we just think it does). But those pesky feelings can be fairly manageable if we can remember these three steps: sort it out, resolve it, vent it.
How about you? How good are you at “controlling” your emotions? Or are you just stuffing them?
Posted by Kassandra Lamb. Kassandra is a retired psychotherapist turned mystery writer. She is the author of the Kate Huntington mystery series, set in her native Maryland, and a new series, the Marcia Banks and Buddy mysteries, set in Central Florida.
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