How to Manage Emotions: Read the Message

To know how to manage emotions mindfully, get this: they’re just messengers. So don’t judge them, or try to hold onto them. Learn to read them, and let them go. 

how to deal with emotionsEMOTIONS ARE not necessarily bad or dangerous, although they can sometimes feel that way. This idea comes from American psychologist and Professor Emeritus of Psychology and Psychiatry at Boston University, David Barlow. He has said, “You need the full range of emotions—‘good’ and ‘bad’—to be able to function in the world.”

Imagine if you had no emotions, you would be like a robot, without any emotional ups and downs. You may say you’d like that, but if you had it, you might soon change your mind. Life would be a monotonous hum. In addition, you’d struggle to make decisions and the ones you did make would be without context or meaning. (In his book Descartes’ Error, author Antonio D’Amasio has proffered that we find it difficult, if not impossible, to make good decisions without emotions.)

Even so-called “negative” emotions can serve a purpose

Or what if you only had the “good” emotions? Without the physical pain of a toothache, you wouldn’t know you had a problem and you’d end up without teeth much sooner than you’d like. Similarly, without fear, you wouldn’t know if your life was in danger. Without anger, you wouldn’t know that you need to stand up for yourself.

You sometimes see this in people who are overly positive in their outlook. They may think that they know how to manage emotions — by being positive, of course. However, they can remain for too long in situations that are not good for them because they keep rationalising the situation. “Everything will be OK,” they say, “I just need to do X, Y or Z.” Or they make excuses for the other person in the relationship who is not pulling their weight. Often, what’s really going on is that the person is trying to hold onto the “good” and avoid the “bad” emotions. (Their underlying judgement may be that they don’t want to be seen as a negative person—that, for them, would be bad.)

Emotions tell you important things about the world

You can see that your emotions tell you important things about the world. To paraphrase Barlow, they help you to navigate it and motivate you to act in ways that are adaptive—and, in some cases, necessary—for your wellbeing, even your survival. In the case of the overly positive person mentioned above, that person might benefit from recognising their frustration or anger and allowing it into their life. With mindfulness, they’d hopefully be able to channel it in a constructive, purposeful way, for example by making some requests or setting some boundaries.

The problem arises when you’re not able to separate out what the emotion is trying to tell you—its message—from the experience of the emotion. You’re not taught this in school and there are no formal training programs, except perhaps some leadership programs. Without this awareness, you have no choice but to become the emotion—or, as we say in the Practical Mindfulness program, to become the weather. Naturally, that’s not how to manage emotions.

Read the message, don’t hold onto it

A good analogy is your email inbox. What do you do when you receive a message with an attachment? You could save the attachment in a folder for easy access later and delete or archive the message to save disk space. Most people just leave it. If you do leave it, your computer will slow down because of all the unnecessary data and you’ll have to do long, clumsy searches for information when you need it. When you hold onto your emotions instead of dealing with their messages, your consciousness becomes cluttered and slowed up in the same way. It becomes harder to make decisions.

Of course, there are those people who identify strongly with their emotions, and with being emotional. They like to feel their feelings intensely and to express them overtly. If you’re that person, you might be ready to stop reading right now. Or, perhaps you know someone like that who you hope will read this, but you know they won’t want to give up what they see as their rich emotional life.

The simple response to this dilemma is this: although you may believe that you’re choosing your emotions, you’re not. Your emotions are choosing you. Your proof is that as much as you try to hold onto the good ones, you can’t; you also get swamped by the bad ones. Therefore, your emotions, and not you, are running your life. How long do you want that to go on for? Getting ahead of your emotions doesn’t mean you won’t feel anything ever again. It means you’ll have some choice and freedom around what you feel and for how long, and how you act in response to them.

Recognise the judgement you have about the emotion

So, what can you do about an emotion, once you’ve become aware of it? Once you’ve recognised that you’re experiencing an emotion, the next step is to be cognisant of the judgements that you have about the emotion itself.

Consider for a moment the type of relationship you usually have with emotion.  Usually, you unconsciously label each emotion as good / bad, right / wrong, like / don’t like, and you want to experience the good ones, while avoiding the bad. What this means in practice is that you spend your efforts either trying to stretch out the good emotions or turn the bad ones into good ones by resolving them.

For example, you try to stretch the party out for as long as possible. Or you nurse the anger or sadness in the hope that you can make it better—you can spend days having that argument in your head, looking for someone to blame, making sure somebody pays, or plotting revenge. Of course, that’s not how to manage emotions either. It doesn’t get rid of the emotion, it only makes it worse, as your own reactions lead to further reactions from the outside, and you enter a vicious cycle. The bottom line is that either way—whether you see the emotions as good or bad—you tend to hold onto them and even get lost in them.

Let go of the judgement, see that the emotion is just a messenger

So, what new type of relationship can you have with emotion? Since emotions are driven and sustained by judgement, it would make sense to establish a relationship with emotion that is nonjudgemental. As Barlow points out, “By learning to observe how our emotional experiences are unfolding, accepting without judgement that our initial emotional reactions are sending us a signal that something is occurring that may or may not be important to us, we become able to stop the vicious cycle of interacting thoughts feelings and behaviour before it has a chance to run away with us.”

A starting point for knowing how to manage emotions would be to see that emotions are just messengers. Without a label or judgement attached, they are neutral, neither good nor bad. There is no need for them to lead to a reaction. Think about it like this: if somebody shouts a warning at you that a car is about to run you over, do you go tell them they’ve been rude, or do you thank them? There’s your clue about how you could treat emotions. You could take the message, say thanks, and move on!


practical mindfulness the bookFind out more
This an adapted excerpt from the Practical Mindfulness book and online course. Both options provide more details on the typical messages within different emotions. You’re invited to explore both options via the links provided.

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