Managing our emotions may be one of adulthood’s major challenges. How well we are able to self-soothe defines at least one important aspect of our maturity. In early life, our survival instinct alerts those around us as to how we feel so they can meet our needs. During times of crisis and intense stress – such as divorce – adults regress to more primitive strategies and their survival behaviors may get activated. Though the tendency may be otherwise, it’s helpful to be aware that the more we can care for ourselves at these times, the greater our sense of security and self-regard.
When we unconsciously out-source the managing of our feelings, we enter a precarious space, exposing our rawest needs to those who may or may not be able or willing to meet them. By paying attention to our inner state and how we might attend to it, we empower ourselves as our own primary caregivers.
What happens when we don’t take a conscious pause to attend to ourselves? When irritated, we may react by sending an email/text to our ex-spouse, looking for him/her to relieve the irritation. When there is no immediate response, or the response is unsatisfying, the discomfort grows. We may send another electronic communication, still trying to make ourselves feel better. Before we are done, we may have fired off multiple emails/texts, none of which got us what we needed, and none of which constituted the effective communication of which we are capable. When a communication is the product of uncontrolled feelings and lack of self-management, it often expresses aggression and intensity, leaving the recipient feeling attacked and battered.
Even when an adequate response from him/her occurs and relieves our distress, the result is only temporary and the consequence is increased reliance on the other to stabilize our emotions. Essentially we are putting the person on the other end of the communication in charge of our well-being. If instead of responding to the impulse to reach out, we paused, and then reached in, we would have better results.
Managing our inner selves requires:
– Acknowledging the urge to escape ourselves and fly into the arms of another
– Replacing this urge with the act of turning towards ourselves with curiosity and compassion
We may still choose to reach out for support, but the primary validation first and mainly comes from ourselves.
So how do we manage these uncomfortable and unmanageable feelings that propel us into impulsive and unhealthy actions? Here are 5 suggestions:
1. Know that the feeling doesn’t require the first action
Know that the feeling and the action are distinct. Hold on to this as fact.
2. Acknowledge the feeling without judging or seeking to change it.
Eastern spiritualists invite us to regard our feelings as we would visitors to our home. We host them but are not them. We can observe them with curiosity and thoughtfulness, but we do not give them permission to take over the dwelling.
3. Separate the feelings from the actions.
Having a particular feeling doesn’t necessitate you taking a particular action. It is enough to have the feeling. Spend some time with it; spend some time away from it.
4. Take a different action.
Call a “safe” friend – someone who can listen to you and to whom you can vent if you choose. Talk to a professional. Take a walk or a bath. Write in a journal.
5. Create an affirmation and carry it around.
Create something that speaks to what needs soothing and use it. Literally put it on a post-it and put it in your pocket. Or hang it up somewhere so you see it often. Examples of useful affirmations are: I am safe. I am whole. I am well.