4 Steps to Keep Your Cool When Emotions Run Hot

In my last post I talked about something we’ve all experienced: those awful moments when we say the exact wrong thing at an important moment and immediately regret it. Open mouth, insert foot.

Intense emotions can wreak havoc on the good working relationships and harmonious home life we’ve worked hard to build, causing us to say stupid things that might unravel years’ worth of accumulated good will or closeness. We all need strategies to effectively manage our emotions, so they don’t mess up all the good things we’ve established.

Angry face emoji on a phone

Mindfulness meditation teacher Michele McDonald has coined the acronym RAIN to identify four steps that can help us manage our emotions and keep them from sabotaging our behavior. Here are the steps, and my translation of them. 

  • Recognition: Identify the problem (when you lose it or are about to).
  • Acceptance: Allow this problem to exist without fighting it or trying to change it.
  • Investigation: Dig into the problem to understand it better.
  • Non-identification: Observe the problem as separate from yourself.

In my last post, I talked about the importance of the first step, recognition, and offered some strategies to help you push the pause button once you notice that strong emotions are about to cause you problems. Now let’s dive into the next three steps.

But first, a caveat. . .

In my experience, RAIN is incredibly powerful and useful but also challenging to put into practice. Each step takes effort and time to become good at. My point is, be nice to yourself, and recognize that adopting this strategy is a marathon and not a sprint.

The good news is, while I’m hardly an expert RAIN practitioner, I can honestly say that learning this strategy a few years ago has helped me enormously in both my personal and professional life. My hope is that over time, this strategy will help you, too.

Onward…

After recognition, the second step in the RAIN process is acceptance, or allowing a problem to exist without resisting it or trying to change it. This step is challenging because many of us want to immediately try to fix or avoid any problem – especially when high emotions are involved - rather than just let it exist. But acceptance is important because allowing an emotion to exist without action for a while enables you to gain control over it rather than letting it control you.

Hand holding a magnifying glass

Next comes investigation, which involves carefully picking apart the problem to understand it better. I’ve found it helpful to probe into how strong emotions affect me physically and mentally so I can begin to recognize the downward spiral when it starts. Asking specific questions can help, too: What stories (true or untrue) do I tell myself when faced with these types of situations? What assumptions do I make? What insecurities do these situations rile up that may cloud my vision and obscure rational thought?

Finally, non-identification. This refers to the idea of separating yourself from the problem you’re facing so you don’t take the problem personally. This step is critical because accidentally identifying directly with the problem means you’re much more likely to feel shame.

Shame is one of the most powerful negative emotions we experience. It’s defined by shame and vulnerability expert Brené Brown as “the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging.” Once shame takes over, it’s nearly impossible to separate yourself from the emotion and act in a way that serves your highest purpose. Instead, practice separating who you are from the problem at hand: recognize that you aren’t the problem; you have a problem.

If you’ve read this far, I heartily congratulate you. This is heavy stuff, and it’s summer, for crying out loud. We’re supposed to relax and have fun, not fix problems.

The thing is, though, that adopting a new habit is often easier when our regular routine has been upended. Habit expert Gretchen Rubin calls this the "clean slate" strategy. Summer tends to bring several changes in routine (vacations, summer work schedules, etc.). Using the existing change to start a new beneficial practice is a smart idea and may be worth fitting in this summer along with trips to the beach or family barbecues.

Scrabble tiles spell S-U-M-M-E-R in the sand

If you’re up for it, take some time to think about a situation you’ve experienced in the past where your emotions got the better of you, and practice applying these steps in hindsight.

  • Identify the signs that the downward spiral was about to begin.
  • Practice letting the situation (awful as it may have been) exist without trying to change it right away.
  • Ask yourself good questions to understand the situation better.
  • Work to recognize that this problem does not define you.

This may give you a tangible frame of reference the next time you’re faced with an emotionally charged situation you wish to handle well.

Does this seem like too much right now?

No worries. Consider taking just one small, slow “turtle step”. Pick one part of the RAIN strategy and nibble on it a bit over the summer.

Friends toasting marshmallows on the beach

Still too much?

No problem! Just tuck this information in a back corner of your brain and let it marinate for a while. Maybe at some point in the future, when you’re stuck in an emotionally charged situation and desperate to navigate it well, these ideas will pop into your head and give you a way forward. No need to act on anything right now.

In the meantime, go enjoy some fun in the sun. And at the next family gathering, toast an extra marshmallow for me.