Mary Ann is a cashier at the local supermarket and the sweetest woman you'd ever want to meet. That is, until you upset her. Then, watch out. She's the secret daughter of the Hulk and the Tasmanian Devil. Furious ain't the word for it.
Here's the thing: When Mary Ann gets angry, she sees red. Or stated another way, she allows her rage to overcome her. Sweet Mary Ann recently had an argument with her neighbor and snapped. She's now serving 35 days in the local jail, a victim of her own emotions.
There are many days Mary Ann wishes she didn't have any emotions at all. The problem is not that she has them, it's that she doesn't understand them. Mary Ann asks, "What are these emotions anyway?"
Emotions are physiological responses to thoughts, a definition that contains some good news -- if the thought which produces anger, fear, or sadness can be modified or discarded, life can change on a dime. A person with a pattern of anxiety can learn to become calm while a person with a pattern of aggression can become gentler. A people-pleaser may modify the belief -- "I must say yes to everyone all the time" -- to "I can choose to say no to others whenever I like." His shift in thinking results in changed behaviors and a lessening of anger and guilt.
But how do we discover the thoughts?
One way of doing this is to work backwards from our emotions. Let's say that Tim is feeling annoyed, but isn't quite sure why. As he writes in his journal, he recalls that one of his colleagues teased him a bit about his colorful shirt that morning. It was an innocuous remark, but Tim realizes that below his annoyance lurks a feeling of embarrassment and shame.
Tim sets down his thoughts, which range from, "I hate Joe for doing that to me," to "I get upset when others tease me," "I was teased as a youngster," and "My dad and older siblings teased me all the time, which made me feel frustrated and powerless."
His unconscious rule, "It is not OK to tease me -- it makes me angry" might perhaps be modified to, "Teasing is all right, but if I don't like it I can let the other person know." His new belief leads to a lessening of inner disturbance and a greater frequency of appropriate emotional expression and interpersonal truth-telling.
For some of us, emotions are overwhelming while for others their presence remains undetected and only suspected. These are the two common extremes of emotional difficulties. The non-feeler may suppress emotions while the overwhelmed person tends toward indulgence and escalation of emotions.
Suppression. It is important to allow emotions to surface without shutting them down. Eckhart Tolle in The Power of Now writes, "If you cannot feel your emotions, if you are cut off from them, you will eventually experience them on a purely physical level, as a physical problem or symptom." Author Joan Borysenko corroborates this: "When emotional energy is blocked and is prevented from flowing in its natural channels, it gets stored in our body as tension and pain."
Suppressing emotion may also turn into depression, sadness or anxiety, or flare up as volcanic rage. The trick is to let the emotions out in a healthy way through writing, verbalizing, exercise, breathing, or some other benign form of expression.
Indulgence. Instead of suppressing an emotion, some people refuse to let it go. They indulge themselves in it, like bathing in clean water until it turns dirty. How many of us, for example, refuse to let go of our anger and resentment, even though it's harmful to us and others?
Picture yourself cradling, bottle-feeding and cooing soft words to a baby viper that will one day sink its fangs into you. On a similar note, we feed and nurture emotions that we'd be better off releasing.
Escalation. The third problematic response to a strong emotion is escalation. Charley, for instance, experiences anxiety daily. In the midst of an anxious mood, he thinks, "I'll never calm down, damn, I'm nervous, man, I'm a mess." Instead of stopping his thoughts or substituting positive or neutral thoughts in their stead, he escalates his anxiety and works himself into a frenzy.
It's as if the emotion had hijacked Charley's car with him in the passenger seat. He feels helpless to stop it as it races down the highway at top speed, narrowly avoiding accident after accident. And while we're on the subject of anger and automobiles, how many accidents are caused by road rage -- a driver talking himself into a fury instead of talking himself into a state of calm?
Charley would be wise to study the thoughts that cause his anxiety. Deeper examination will lead to what is going on below the surface, to what is driving the thoughts that are producing the emotions and behaviors. After all, we all want him to drive safely, and not crash, don't we?
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