Do you remember that time when you said the thing you wish you hadn’t said to that person you wish you hadn’t run in to during that conversation you really wish you hadn’t had?
Yeah, me too.
These open-mouth-insert-foot moments tend to happen when we’re in the throes of a charged emotion – anger, guilt, shame, vulnerability – and find ourselves in a situation that requires a specific response from us. When emotions run high, it’s difficult to keep them from sabotaging our behavior.
On the one hand, emotions provide important cues to help us navigate our environment. Psychology Today notes, “If your brain comes across something it appraises as a "red flag," you'll be sent a general, vague alert in the form of the feelings and thoughts that are created by an emotion. This somewhat imprecise signal alerts you to pay attention. In this way, your emotions serve as a cueing system--an attention directing system associated with physiological changes that can prepare you to take action.”
Because they’re so powerful, though, strong emotions can hijack our behavior, taking over so we can’t think straight. The same article goes on to say, “[emotional cuing] is also not a very smart system because it has many false alarms. There are emotional misfires. Thus you need to evaluate your response to see if it is appropriate.”
Left unchecked, strong emotion can prevent us from behaving in ways that align with our true values and goals.
For example: Maybe we’re embarrassed when our boss says something insensitive and respond in the heat of the moment in a way we regret, which damages the relationship and makes us less likely to be considered for the promotion we’re hoping for. Or we fly off the handle when our spouse makes and offhand comment that makes us feel vulnerable, ruining what was otherwise a lovely time together.
Here’s the thing: we all want kind, respectful relationships and to live in a harmonious environment. We also want to set meaningful goals and stay on course to meet them. This requires us to rise above emotionally charged situations so we can behave in ways that that bring us closer to and not further away from these things.
Behaving proactively instead of reactively requires us to develop an effective process for managing high emotion when it occurs.
Meditation teacher Michele McDonald uses the acronym “RAIN” to represent four stages of emotional awareness and management. RAIN stands for Recognition, Acceptance, Investigation and Non-identification.
Recognition is the first step in this process and refers to the process of identifying emotional problems when they arise. It’s the most important step because without it, the other steps are worthless.
“Recognition” is also in many ways the hardest step because it requires us separate our feelings from our sense of awareness just as the downward spiral is starting to happen - when our emotions have started to boil and obscure rational thought. Separating these two, in my experience, is a bit like trying to wrest a piece of candy from the hand of the toddler. It’s as messy as you’d expect, and often doesn’t go very well.
Mastering recognition is worth the effort, though, because it allows us to press the behavioral “pause” button to keep high emotion from hijacking our behavior. Here are a few tried-and-true tips to help you do just that:
- Don’t respond right away. Don’t be fooled by our go-go-go society into thinking that you must respond in a heated situation right away. It’s perfectly reasonable to say, “Let me think about that and get back to you.” This buys you valuable time to let your emotions cool so you can respond more thoughtfully later.
- Think about your big toe. I know this sounds ridiculous, but it can be helpful to come up with a redirect activity – like wiggling your big toe five times or counting backwards from 100 – when you find yourself in emotional hot water. Known as distraction therapy, this technique has been used successfully to help cure everything from overeating to post-traumatic stress and can provide just enough diversion to buffer your emotions and keep you from saying or doing the regrettable thing.
I don’t know about you, but the next time I run in to that person I really wish I hadn’t seen for that conversation I really don’t want to have, my plan is simple. I will ferociously wiggle my big toe, smile, and say, “Let me get back to you on that…”