How To Master Your Emotions

For all our education and wisdom, most of us are deeply challenged when it comes to emotions. Anyone can see that not expressing them is a disaster of epic proportions waiting to happen.

Given that it’s not rocket science to deduce that repressed emotion is the cause of 90% of all illnesses, what boggles the mind is why we resist expressing how we feel so strongly. It’s one of the quirks of our clinical work. People can sit around all day discussing how they need to get old emotions out of their system, but one minute of actually doing some emoting (expression) usually creates a stampede for the door.

Why? Because we are so uncomfortable with strong emotions, especially the so-called negative ones. We have been taught absolutely nothing about the function of emotions. We just know that we need to make them go away - and we want that to happen right now.
 

 
We become so inexperienced with the “big three” (anger, sadness and fear) that they genuinely scare us. I’ve lost count of the number of men who have told me that they are afraid of what might happen if they were to let go of the tight leash they hold on their anger. Even greater numbers of clients tell me that they don’t want to sink into a pool of sadness because they are sure that they will drown in it. Anyone who has genuinely been scared knows it isn’t fun - a simple fear of heights, once triggered, is a paralysing, heart-pounding, blood-pumping affair. And I haven’t even touched on shame or guilt – two uninvited gatecrashers who’ve locked themselves inside the booze fridge.

These negative emotions are not bad per se. We’re just oblivious to any benefit that might come from them because we are so busy trying to get rid of them. We have learned only how to make them go away. In truth, the best thing we can do is to turn toward the feelings and explore them. This is most practically done when they arise but may have to be tackled at another (more private or convenient) time.

Emotional expression involves actively exploring your emotions and releasing their energy. This is the emotionally intelligent option. Fresh emotions are healthy if fully felt and properly expressed. Numerous studies have demonstrated both mental and physical health benefits associated with emotional expression, and as a widely-respected paper published in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology posits: “…on the basis of research over the past decade, psychologists now have a strong sense that talking or even writing about emotions or personal upheavals can boost autonomic nervous system activity, immune function, and physical health.”
 

Example:

Two ducks float peacefully along in their pond; suddenly one crosses too far into the other duck’s territory. A fight starts – fast and furious. It lasts only for a few seconds before, just as suddenly, they float off in their respective directions. As they do so they flap their wings furiously and then return to their peaceful floating as if the fight never happened.

How do they return to a peaceful life immediately after the fight? Why don’t they suffer afterwards, as most humans do? Why don’t they have any ‘wounds to lick’?

It’s simple. When they flap their wings, they work off the energy and emotion they’ve built up in the fight – they purge it fully.
 

 
While expressing your emotions is not always easy or comfortable, it will allow you to experience total emotional mastery, where no external event can knock you into a negative emotional state.

Suppression is essentially avoidance. When an emotion is painful or uncomfortable, our natural reaction is to push it away. Painful emotions are pushed deep within ourselves to be ‘dealt with later when it hurts less’. This is unrealistic (it will always be uncomfortable) and extremely unhealthy.

Those suppressed emotions get infected and begin to rot. The longer they are left, the nastier they get, and before you know it what began as a cut on your toe might cost you your leg.

As Keith Petrie observed when assessing the effect of written emotional expression on immune function in patients with human immunodeficiency virus infection, there is “considerable data to suggest that when individuals actively inhibit emotional expression, they show measurable immunological changes consistent with poorer health outcomes.”

Recent research on emotions states that suppressing emotions can lead to physical and psychological health problems. The leading researcher in this field, James W Pennebaker, suggests that suppressing emotions requires a tremendous amount of effort. Pennebaker speculates that the very act of avoiding feeling creates physical stress. Holding our emotions in prevents our bodies from functioning properly because of the stress it creates.
 

Recent research on emotions states that suppressing emotions can lead to physical and psychological health problems.

 
Imagine that you have a bucket inside you for each feeling you suppress. Each time you avoid an emotion it is pushed down into this container. As you go through life, your bucket starts to fill up. To prevent the emotions from welling up, you push them down further and put a lid on the bucket, creating pressure. The result is that the buckets are silently quivering away inside you ready to blow – one more drop and they will burst open like floodgates.
 

 
Strong emotions often come up when we least expect them to. A shocking number of couples come to us for help when their marriage nearly dissolves over the toothpaste tube being squeezed in the middle. As you might guess, the real problem has nothing to do with toothpaste.

For men, the only negative emotion that is safe to express is anger. If you’re a man, you’re taught that you aren’t supposed to get scared or cry. If you do, you’re simply labelled weak. Conversely, women are taught to suppress anger because it’s not nice to be angry. Angry women are often referred to as ‘bitches’. These conflicting teachings often mean that dealing with the opposite sex is like walking through a minefield – be very careful or you’ll get blown up. When we express our emotions enough to keep the buckets empty, misunderstandings (like the marital toothpaste tube mentioned above) fizzle quickly because we can be patient with each other.

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Let’s have a closer look at emotional intelligence…

Many people mistakenly believe that external events exert control over their emotions. Abandoning this belief and realising that we can decide how we feel at any given moment is the first step to emotional mastery. From this point of view, perspective is essential. Nothing is good or bad. Events are neutral. What causes us to feel a certain way is how we interpret the situation – how we think about it. The event itself has no meaning other than that which we assign it. The act of assigning meaning, whether conscious or not, is what causes us to feel a certain way. Different people will always interpret the same situation differently.

When diagnosed with a terminal illness, some people interpret it as terrible and become depressed, while others interpret it as a challenge and find a way to overcome the illness. Still, others view the sickness as a ‘wake-up call’ and re-evaluate their priorities to make the best possible use of the time left. To some, it’s an end, to others a new beginning.

More often than not, these interpretations are subconscious, but they don’t have to be. We can choose to find and assign a different interpretation to any situation we come across. In this way, we can become empowered by our own choices. Instead of failure, we can create a learning experience. Instead of loss, we can feel gratitude for what we have. In place of rejection, we can see a mismatch and a renewed opportunity to find a perfect fit.

Between stimulus and response lies the opportunity to make a conscious choice.
 

Between stimulus and response lies the opportunity to make a conscious choice.

 
We can go bankrupt and move on to even greater wealth – many people have done exactly that. We can be disfigured and still inspire others – W. Mitchell did. A loved one can leave us feeling depressed and suicidal and we can still bounce back – Billy Joel did. On the other hand, we can enjoy outstanding success and still abuse ourselves to the point of death – John Belushi did.

For any ‘negative’ event, you can find someone who turned it into an empowering experience, and for any ‘positive’ event, you can find someone who interpreted it badly enough to hurt themselves. Once we truly grasp this, we can begin to master our emotions.

When we avoid the trap of letting external situations control us we can use our consciousness to direct our interpretation toward the greatest possible outcome. When we are independent of external events, we can be truly free. No matter what happens to us, we can choose to be at peace.
 

No matter what happens to us, we can choose to be at peace.

 
Emotions are not thoughts; however, being emotionally intelligent challenges us to use our thoughts to affect our emotions. We must understand that we have the innate ability to consciously direct our thoughts to create any feeling we want, whenever we want. This prevents external circumstances from hijacking our emotions and creates a sense of inner peace.

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Quick Tips for Emotional Stability

 

Become Self Aware

We cannot master our emotions and practice emotional intelligence without first becoming aware of what we are feeling. The simplest way to do this is to constantly ‘check in’ with yourself. Just pausing to reflect on how you feel throughout the day can prevent many of the minor mishaps that result in you being hijacked by your emotions.
 

Listen

Another simple but effective strategy is to start listening to what you say to others – both the words you use and the tone of your voice.
 

Express Cleanly

The key to successful emotional expression is ensuring no one else gets hurt in the process. This is what we call expressing cleanly. Yelling at the person you are angry with will not help – it will only make you angry with yourself for hurting them, and ultimately provide you with more proof that suppression is a better method.

Remember – this can be uncomfortable.

Feeling your emotions takes courage, but it is nothing that you cannot handle. Ensure that you have the time to complete any exercises properly; stopping in the middle will leave you feeling a lot worse. Have faith that if you allow yourself to feel, you will come out the other side better off.

Remind yourself that your emotions are not wrong, they simply are. Feel them fully when they are fresh and you will truly experience freedom.

Remember that we rarely feel one emotion at a time. Don’t be startled if you are working with anger and suddenly find you feel very sad.

These exercises may seem too simple and easy to make a difference. The difficult part is finding the time to continue using them. If you want to alter the way you experience life, you will have to commit to consistently repeating these exercises.

Create a safe place where you can say or do whatever you need, and jump in head-first!
 

Practical Exercises For Emotional Expression

 

Exercise 1: Anger

We have found that the most effective method for dealing with anger is using a punching bag. Lay the bag on the floor in front of you and position yourself on your knees. The idea is that you yell and punch the bag at the same time, but there are a few things you need to make sure you do.

  • Raise your arm backwards and up behind your head – this opens the chest. Move your whole body up off the floor as you do this. Drop your arm down to the punching bag as your body moves closer to the floor again, making contact with the side of your fist. This will prevent you from hurting your knuckles.
  • Inhale as you draw back and exhale as you hit the bag. This makes it easier to yell at the same time you punch. Being vocal is essential – this will not work if you don’t yell and scream. Start by exhaling very loudly with a ‘huh’ as you hit the bag. You can then build up to yelling.
  • Start slowly. Spend five minutes alternating arms, working at about 60 per cent of capacity (both physically and emotionally). Then step it up – another five minutes at about 80 per cent – this should be louder and harder. The next step is to let go – let the bag have it. Go at 100 per cent until you are exhausted. Yell as loud as you can, hit as hard as you can, and allow the anger to surge through you.
  • When you feel like you have nothing left, get vertical again. Stay on your knees, but straighten up. Close your eyes and spend five minutes breathing deeply.

If you don’t like using a punching bag, you can make a pile of pillows in front of you – just make sure there are enough that you don’t end up punching the floor and hurting yourself. If you live in an environment where it is necessary, you can play loud music to hide the yelling.

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Exercise 2: Sadness

If you do the punching bag exercise, you may find you get sad once you have expressed enough anger. This is normal and natural. The best thing to do with sadness is to let yourself feel it. Cry – for as long as you need to. Many people don’t allow themselves to express sadness because they feel that if they start crying they will never stop. This is not true. Like all buckets, this one has a bottom, and if you just let yourself, you will find it.

Find a trigger for your sadness – sad movies do it for most people. The best thing to do is take the time to do the punching bag exercise first and let the sadness surface after the anger.

Once you trigger yourself, get on the floor. Position yourself on all fours – elbows and knees supporting you. Hang your head, and let the tears come. Move a little as you cry; a simple rocking motion is enough. It is very important that you don’t freeze up. You may like to have someone be with you during this exercise, but it is imperative that you choose someone who will allow you to cry without trying to stop you or make you feel better. They can place their hand on your back, or get on the floor next to you, and rock with you.

Cry until the tears run out. It may take a while, but you will eventually get the same sense of completion you felt with the anger exercise.

Spend five minutes breathing deeply when you finish.
 

Exercise 3: Written Expression

We have discussed the importance of expressing your emotions. Most people talk about how they feel with trusted friends or partners, but what do you do when they aren’t available? Or when it’s too hard to say it out loud? What do you do when it’s not safe for you to open yourself to someone else?

Write. Writing as a method of expression is certainly nothing new. People have been writing their experiences in journals for centuries. Scientific research now links written emotional expression with good physical and psychological health. Several studies have found that writing about emotional experiences has a direct relationship with well-being. Interestingly, the more emotion-laden the writing, the more health benefits were observed.

When we feel stressed, it usually indicates that several different emotions are jumbled together and trying to get out. Emotional writing involves an effort to sort through these feelings, name them, and express how they are affecting us.

  • Sift through your feelings – you might need to close your eyes and remember the situation. Pick them out one at a time until there are none left.
  • Identify the emotions – name them.
  • Write about how you are experiencing these emotions – what thoughts are connected to them?
  • Focus only on how you feel – the facts are meaningless in this context.

Don’t think too much or try to write ‘well’, just let the words flow. Bring to mind a stressful or troubling time in your life. It could be a situation at work, at home, maybe even in the grocery shop – something that bothered you. Current research recommends twenty minutes of writing emotion-laden words.

Here’s an example of written emotional expression:

Every time I think about it I get a burning sensation in my stomach. It’s like a story that never ends…huh, story. What an interesting word – this is not a story. Stories start with ‘once upon a time’ and have happy endings. This is more like a nightmare. A scary, terrifying nightmare I can’t wake up from. When I was young I would jump into bed with my parents if I had a nightmare. I found comfort lying with them in their big cosy bed. There is no one here to comfort me now. I feel so alone. And scared. What if I can’t do it? What if it gets worse? Could it be worse? I don’t know. That scares me even more.

My head pounds. Thoughts are racing through my mind. I want to yell and scream and stomp my feet. But I can’t, all I can do is cry. I feel like that’s all I ever do now – just cry. Even as I write this I have tears streaming down my face. Hot and salty, they make familiar tracks down my face. My eyes are tired and sore. Burning. I wish I could sleep. Wow, sleep would be so nice. Maybe if I could sleep then I could wake up and realise it was all just a dream. But this is not a dream. It is my reality, so I will have to find a way to live with it.

A small part of me knows I can. The rest of me is scared to death. Terrified. There are so many questions, so much uncertainty. Sometimes I want to hide – it seems like it would be easy and safe. But I will find a way. I have no idea how, but I will. I have to focus. I don’t know what I need to do. I feel lost.
 

Exercise 4: Drawing

Many people say they are not good with words and therefore find the writing exercise difficult. This exercise applies the same principles through a different medium.

  • Get yourself some paper and coloured crayons. You can use pencils, but crayons tend to work best.
  • Bring to mind a situation you feel emotional about.
  • Draw your feelings. You don’t need to draw an actual picture; abstract drawings tend to be far more common in emotional expression. Don’t think; just let your hands create whatever you feel.

If you aren’t sure what to draw, explore your emotion. What does it feel like? Anger often feels heavy or dark. Joy tends to evoke brighter colours and more flowing lines.

Remember – there is no right or wrong.

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A Few Final Thoughts

If you find yourself resistant to exploring your emotions, consider this: most societies encourage the suppression of difficult or hurt feelings. Choking back tears and looking cool despite our anger or fear is often judged as courageous, a symbol of strength and good breeding. These cultural attitudes are often reinforced by experiences in early childhood, which teach us that suppressing our hurt feelings is sensible. At an early age, you may have learned that by expressing them you were putting yourself in danger of being shouted at, laughed at, hit or rejected, and you were likely to hurt other people, emotionally or physically, whom you needed or loved. You may have also witnessed (and indeed felt) plenty of evidence that when other people expressed their hurt, the results could be painful and dangerous.

So, like many other people, you may have reached adulthood thinking that even the safest and most natural forms of expression such as crying, trembling or foot-stamping are: bad-mannered, uncivilised, childish, unmanly, unfeminine, unprofessional, hurtful, dangerous, and maybe even sinful.

If you have not had enough practice in discharging hurt feelings, expression may at first seem unnatural and may provoke anxiety in you, because it will feel ‘awkward’ and/or ‘wrong’.

But stay with it!

Remember - the healing is in the expression of the feeling.
 

The healing is in the expression of the feeling.

 
Therefore, we need to recall these feelings and let them return to our senses – deliberately. When I say this, most people think I sound like I’m stark raving mad. But, as we say in our clinical work, “If what you’ve been doing has delivered want you want out of life, what are you doing here?”

You may need help to get started so here are a few tips in the 'how-to' category:

  • You will be pre-programmed to make the feelings go away so be prepared to feel stuck. “I just don’t seem to be able to get angry right now” is pretty normal. This is one of the few areas where “fake it til you make it” is a great idea!
  • Set aside time when you can be safe from disturbances.
  • Get support if you need it. A close friend who understands what you are working on and who knows that they are not there to ‘fix' you is ideal.
  • Bring the emotion up deliberately by thinking about the person, the situation or the event that created the drama in the first place.
  • You will need to have a bit of a yell, scream or cry to get going. As you do so, turn towards the feeling to explore it. This means discovering where it is, what it wants to do, where it wants to go, how it sits, what colour it is, whether it is moving or still, how much water it would hold, whether it has a name, is it shiny or dull, blunt or sharp, round or square etc.
  • Persist with this ‘observation’ knowing that you don’t need to understand the feeling, rationalise it or make it go away. After all, if it went away you wouldn’t be able to explore it anymore!
  • Observe yourself observing. You’ll notice that the feeling will naturally dissipate and lose its grip on you. We call this ‘getting un-hijacked’. It is the difference between being a victim of the sensations and observing/exploring them.
  • Notice that underneath all the drama and petrol fed fire, is the real you. Calm, enquiring, inquisitive, peaceful and powerful.

For most people, this transformation happens in minutes. In our clinical work, we see people heal themselves in an hour, even when the trauma is decades old. It might now be easier to understand why I said, “We are mental midgets when it comes to emotions”.

Would you trade an hour of discomfort for twenty years of agony, guilt, shame and fear? Or would you do what most Aussies do and pray that time heals all wounds?

It doesn’t.

Our experience is that people who swallow some brave pills and tackle the task described above, on more than one occasion, learn to pull off the technique on the fly as they go through life.

Imagine what it would be like to know that nothing could upset you….

That you can maintain an inner core of peacefulness and tranquillity that allows you to impact on the circumstances around you, rather than be disturbed by the events of the day…
 

 

A quick final note regarding getting stuck:

Remind yourself that decades of habitual emotional repression can convince us that we don’t know how we feel. This is not the truth! We know, but we have blocked access to knowledge of that information as a way of protecting ourselves.

I’m reminded of a client who came to one of our workshops and got right into some anger work on a punching bag. He went away relieved, grateful and uplifted. Twenty years later a heart attack brought him back. He was keen to know if there was some ‘lack of love’ in his life. I suggested that he was still angry and he gasped, “But I got rid of all that last time I was here!” Perhaps he did – but what are the chances that some events in the intervening twenty years needed clearing?

Just describe the sensations in your body as a beginning point. You’ll be stunned at how quickly these sensations begin to be described (by you) in emotional terms.

What most people won’t do is set aside time in their diary to do the work described above. We labour under the misapprehension that if we expressed an emotion some time ago – we are ‘fixed’ with regard to it. If you are keen to make the most of your potential, you’ll need to make emotional ‘work’ a regular fixture in your life. Set aside time to heal yourself before you need the help of the medical profession to do it for you.

Once you have done enough emotional ‘work’ you will conclude that you can choose how you feel at any time, any place and under any circumstances. Extraordinary as it may seem, most of us get this concept at some level – we just need the method for avoiding falling into the trap of being hijacked by strong emotions. You have one such method described above.
 

You can choose how you feel at any time, any place and under any circumstances.

 
Combine this ability to choose how you want to feel with the concept of detachment and what you get is complete emotional mastery. You will come to understand one of life’s great truisms as demonstrated by people like Nelson Mandela and Mother Theresa. You can be in gaol for 29 years or own nothing but the clothes on your back, and still be full of gratitude and awe at the beauty of life as it presents itself moment by magical moment.

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Paul Blackburn

An internationally acclaimed author and leader in the human potential movement, Paul has taught more than 400,000 people on 4 continents how to reach their personal and professional potential during 38 years as a success coach, author, instructor and keynote speaker. Paul has trained 350+ life/business coaches, held one of the world’s largest fire-walks, was appointed by the Australian Government to its business advisory panel and is a partner in a multi-million dollar business operating in 86 countries (not related to personal development).