Sometimes it can seem like we are controlled by our emotions. The temptation may be to suppress them or vent them. But what can we do to get control and be in the driving seat? Sometimes emotions serve a useful purpose, but it’s not always wise to feed them. Emotions are part of what it means to be human. They were essential to survival when we lived in the savannah, and in danger of being another predator’s lunch. Intense fear can activate extraordinary feats of running or self-defence. But sometimes it might be better to keep quiet and still and make sure the tiger doesn’t sniff you out. So suppressing emotion can be just as useful as expressing it.
But the problem for us in modern times is that we aren’t often required to run or fight, although as Dr Who and my Tae Kwon Do instructor would have said – when faced with a violent opponent, it’s often better to run away. But faced with the prospect of losing your job or the break down of your marriage, there may be very real fear, but no opportunity to run or fight; so we may feel that all we can do is shout at someone or suppress the emotion. Of course experience tells us that neither of these are helpful.
And then there are all the what-ifs – what if I get ill and can’t work? What if my son fails his exams? What if my wife leaves me? We make ourselves ill just imagining things that may never happen.
Where do emotions come from?
There is an old story from the Zen Buddhist tradition.
Once there lived an old man who kept many different kinds of animals. But his grandson was particularly intrigued by two tigers that lived together in one cage.
The tigers had very different temperaments. One was calm and self-controlled while the other was unpredictable, aggressive, violent, vicious, and prone to despondency.
“Do they ever fight, Grandfather?” asked the young boy.
“Occasionally, yes they do”, admitted the old man.
“And which one wins?”
“Well, that depends on which one I feed the most.”
In a sense we already contain all of the emotions inside us: fear, anger, sorrow, love, compassion. It’s all there waiting to be summoned when needed. A sort of resource bank of emotions. We can feed an emotion so that it grows and if we feed it too much it starts to take us over, and then it really seems like we are controlled by that emotion.
When uncontrolled emotion runs wild, despair, anger, violence, jealousy and addiction can sweep us before them, dictating the course of our lives, stymieing our intentions, destroying our relationships and ripping our dreams apart.
Yet we have the power to change which emotion we feed – the aggressive tiger or the calm tiger. In the heat of the moment it may seem like we have very little choice. But emotions only persist when we feed them. We can either be caught up in them or take a step back and become an observer. Anger, fear, loathing and disgust can seem like the raging of a tumultuous river in a storm. And sometimes it feels like we are in a little boat being carried along by that white water. But when we stand on the bank and watch the river pass, there is a greater sense of safety.
It’s worth remembering that fear and anger were life-savers when we lived on the savannah thousands of years ago. If we were confronted by a tiger, we needed to be able to run and run fast. The fear is enough to fire off the fight or flight response and in that situation we would have had speed we could not have imagined possible. It’s all down to the changes in our physiology which take place when we engage the fight/flight mechanism – increased heart rate and lung capacity; increased alertness and faster reflexes; more blood to the muscles; and copious sweating to cool the body. These are all essential to survival. Or they would be if the threat were coming from an attacker, whether a tiger or an assailant.
But so often the fear is about something that does not require us to run away. The physiological changes are not adaptive and not healthy. If we are not running, they are just burning us out.
The inside-out nature of emotions
Most of all it is important to remember that our emotions are always generated within the brain and body (we often we feel them in the chest or abdomen). They are usually a response to our thinking and they are always a product of brain activity. All of our experience, from what we can see around us to what we sense in our bodies and the emotions we feel, are generated or constructed by the brain. The brain uses the same neural networks to generate our waking experience as it does to generate dreams. Nothing can “make” us feel any emotion. All emotions are generated from the inside.
For instance a few months ago I got scammed. The con-man was charming and convincing – he was very good at his “job.” I paid him a lot of money for a job that didn’t need doing. My initial reaction when I realised I’d been scammed was to be angry with him, and angry with myself for being such a fool. I could have said that the con-man made me angry.
But I knew he hadn’t. He had ripped me off, but he never had the power to make me angry – only I can do that. I was angry about losing money, about falling for the con and for allowing myself to get sucked in even as I could see what he was doing. But he didn’t inject that anger into me. The anger was my emotional response to my thinking about the situation. It took a few weeks to let go of the emotions that I experienced (anger, shame and annoyance at losing money I couldn’t afford to throw away). But it helped to know that the anger was generated completely from the inside.
So what can we do? The body in emotion
Remember the little boat on the white water, spinning out of control. You pull the boat and its occupant out of the water and what do they need? A space blanket perhaps; a hot drink; some reassurance; medical care if they have been injured. So it is the same when we feel our fear or anger spinning out of control: we can take a step back and look compassionately at the person who is experiencing those emotions, and offer some kindness, some TLC. Maybe a hot drink, maybe a walk in the park. And of course that person is ourself.
It makes sense to direct some of that self-care to the body itself – a calming hand on the heart or the abdomen.
There are some steps you can take when you feel your emotions getting out of control:
Take some slow breaths with the out-breath lasting longer than the in-breath. Maybe in for a count of 5 and out for 8. (This is known as 7/11 breathing, as the goal is in for 7 and out for 11, but this isn’t possible for everyone).
Name the emotion “ah this is anger I am feeling” or “this is fear.” Naming the emotion helps you take that step back onto the bank of the river. It has to be a choice – “do I want to be swept away and take the consequences or do I want to take a step back and take control?”
Then notice where you are feeling the emotion in your body. Maybe it’s in your chest or in your abdomen; sometimes it may be in the throat.
While keeping your breathing nice and slow, place a hand on the place where you feel the emotion.
Breathe into that place and give the feeling some space to be. This is about accepting the emotion rather than trying to close it off or run away from it.
Thoughts are just thoughts: they are not real
As you start to feel a little calmer, remember to remind yourself that your emotions are “made of the stuff that dreams are made on.” They often come with angry or fearful thoughts such as “she shouldn’t have said that to me,” “he obviously doesn’t love me,” “I never get anything right,” or “I’m going to lose my job and then we’ll lose the house.” Remember these are just thoughts; they are not real, they are not true. And most importantly you are not your thoughts; whatever you are thinking in the moment is just what you are thinking in the moment and your thoughts change moment-to-moment, day-to-day. You are considerably more than what you are thinking and feeling in that moment.
Remember the two tigers. Which tiger do you want to feed? The unpredictable, aggressive, violent, vicious tiger or the calm, confident, compassionate tiger? Compassion requires courage: courage to face something we find difficult or frightening, and the courage to take action and change the way we live, moving away from familiar old patterns (such as drinking heavily or shouting at those we love) towards new, unfamiliar territory. It means moving out of our comfort zone into the unknown. But there is a courageous tiger in each of us, as well, so that’s possible too.
Sorrel Pindar, Health Coach & Osteopath
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