Without emotions, life would be dull and TV would be unwatchable. Sit in front of any television drama and you will find people emoting all over the place. Ally McBeal, in the TV show, reacts emotionally to whatever life throws at her, often with scant regard for the recipients of her outbursts. So do many of us in the real world.
“So what is wrong with that?” you might ask. “Isn’t the free expression of emotion healthy? Aren’t we supposed to ‘get things off our chest?’”
In truth, many of us are hostages of uncontrolled emotions – ours or someone else’s. And although high emotion might be compelling on TV, it’s usually draining and damaging when we experience it firsthand.
Don’t get me wrong, experiencing emotion is a crucial part of being human. We do need to feel our emotions and it’s important to express them. But there are different ways of doing this.
Thinking it’s fine to erupt with anger because we are free spirits who have a right to our express our feelings may not serve our long-term needs.
Calling a friend in the middle of the night because we feel lonely may not be appreciated, especially if we make a habit of it.
Powerful emotions do need to be expressed, but not impulsively.
Many people think they have a right to express their feelings without restraint because these feelings run deep. Doing that will almost certainly damage a relationship. It’s better to take responsibility for our feelings and the way we express them. Rather than immediately discharging our emotion by reacting, we can defer it. Later we privately feel it and listen to its message. Emotions always have something to tell us.
If we feel uncomfortable with the abruptness of a colleague, we can explore that feeling. We may feel slighted because we find abruptness rude. Hurt because we suspect the colleague doesn’t like us. Or annoyed because others have treated us like that and we are fed up with it. The more information we gather by exploring the reason for our discomfort, the more self-aware we become.
With this understanding, we consider the best way to deal with the situation. Only when we have clearly thought through the consequences, do we express the emotion. Expressing our feelings calmly, rather than just reacting, respects the needs of others.
Often, in exploring our feelings, we find that we haven’t enough information to act. Our first step may be seeking clarification. For example, we may need to ask the colleague whether she intended to be abrupt. She may just be very busy and unaware of how she came across.
How can we express our feelings, while respecting hers?
- “I” statements are usually effective. For example, “I felt offended when you spoke to me earlier because I found you abrupt.”
- Unfettered emotions push others away. They create a barrier between ourselves and those we are targeting. Those free spirits who react before thinking are on an emotional roller coaster. That soon becomes exhausting.
- To get control of our emotions we need self-discipline. Of course, we completely retain the right to express our feelings. But when we do, we do it in a considered manner.
Gillian has been described as straightforward and down to earth. She usually says what she thinks, when she thinks it. Lately she has been even more expressive than usual with her husband Bruce. She has good reason. Bruce, she discovered recently, has been having an affair. Once he was found out, Bruce quickly ended the affair. Both Gillian and Bruce wanted to stay together so they began counselling to help rebuild the relationship.
Like most relationships dealing with infidelity, Bruce and Gillian’s had many problems before the affair. One was Gillian’s habit of expressing her volatile feelings to Bruce whether he was ready to listen or not. Another was Bruce’s subsequent withdrawal away from Gillian. Over time they grew apart. That’s when Bruce, inappropriately, found solace in the arms of another woman. Bruce willingly addressed his conflict avoidance behaviour in counselling and made significant progress. The relationship seemed to have a good chance of enduring.
Gillian, however, was reluctant to give up the luxury of expressing her emotions as she felt them. Whenever she woke up in the night feeling angry with Bruce over his infidelity, she felt completely justified in waking him up and telling him so. Although making him miserable gave her some short-term satisfaction, she was risking the relationship. Because of his infidelity, she believed she had every right to tell him how she felt whenever she wished. However, expressing her emotion in this way just pushed Bruce further away.
Eventually Gillian’s refusal to discipline her emotions led to Bruce finishing the marriage. Even though Gillian was the wronged party, she suffered more loss.
- Decide to take responsibility for your emotions.
- Be willing to give up the freedom of impulsively expressing your emotions.
- After an emotional outburst, think about how you reacted.
- During emotional outbursts, become aware of your behaviour.
- Now, as soon as you feel your emotions surge, defer your reaction.
- Later, privately, explore your deferred feelings.
- Determine, thoughtfully, the most appropriate way to express these feelings.