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Managing Your Emotions So They Don’t Manage You

Summary: We've all said or done things we regret in the heat of the moment. Managing your emotions when they run hot is difficult but also necessary to maintain good relationships. Read on to learn a key practice to help you step back and take a breath when your emotions threaten to hijack your behavior.

Managing Your Emotions So They Don’t Manage You

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 into. 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. Emotions like anger, guilt, or shame can arise when 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. We all need help managing our emotions from time to time.

The Pros and Cons of Emotions

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.”

Man yells into phone

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. That’s where managing your emotions comes into play.

For example: Maybe we’re embarrassed when our boss says something insensitive, and we respond in the heat of the moment in a way we regret. This can damage the relationship and makes us less likely to be considered for the promotion we’re hoping for. Or we lose our temper when our spouse makes an offhand comment that makes us feel vulnerable. These little moments can ruin what was otherwise a lovely time together.  

Managing Your Emotions to Achieve Your Goals

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. Which requires us to rise above emotionally-charged situations so we behave in ways that bring us closer to these goals.

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. 

The First Step? Recognition

Numbers scattered on a blue background

Recognition 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 to 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. Recognition is the first step to managing your emotions. 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.

Tips for Success

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 when managing your emotions so you can cool down and 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 PTSD 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 into 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…” 

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