by Brian Rood, PhD, MPH
Consider the different skills that you have developed over the course of your life — for example, tying shoes, reading, driving a car, cooking a meal, or playing a sport. For any skill that you can imagine, ask yourself: Did my ability to do the skill well increase with practice? You have likely heard the saying that “practice makes perfect,” and it is usually true: with practice, individuals can develop and strengthen most any skill. From this perspective, I often work with individuals to consider why and how they might develop skills related to their emotions — specifically, the ways in which they experience and express difficult emotions.
We have all been there: someone does something to make you angry and you respond by yelling at them; or someone does something that hurts your feelings, and you respond by “shutting down” and wanting to be left alone. Although there is no “right” or “wrong” way to deal with difficult situations or emotions, there are “effective” and “ineffective” ways. You will know if an approach is effective if it (1) reduces the feeling of the negative or difficult emotion; (2) does not harm you or another person; and (3) makes the difficult situation you faced less likely to occur again in the future. What is a recent situation that you found to be difficult and was your response an “effective” one?
Let us revisit the situation of someone making you angry, to which you might respond by yelling at the person. Although some individuals might believe that yelling and releasing the anger helps to reduce negative feelings, this approach usually harms the other individual and makes the difficult situation more likely to happen again. For example, the other person could become defensive or angry and begin yelling back at you, or closed off and refuse to talk with you (which usually leads to more anger and frustration). This approach to anger, then, could be considered ineffective. So, what could you do instead?
This is where developing skill in experiencing and responding to emotions can be very helpful. To begin, I usually ask individuals to practice identifying and labeling difficult emotions. I often hear that difficult emotions occur much like “flipping a switch” — that they can just come out of nowhere. With practice, however, individuals usually find that they can begin to notice small changes in their emotions when faced with a difficult situation. Imagine the practice of boiling water on a stove: at first, the water is still and beginning to heat; then, as the temperature becomes warmer, the water slowly begins to move; and finally, when the temperature is very hot, the water begins to boil. This speaks to the idea of an “emotion thermometer.” Using a scale from 0-10, and with anger, for example, a “0” might mean no anger at all, whereas a “1” might mean slightly frustrated, “3” might mean slightly upset…and up to a “10,” which might mean explosive rage. Next time you find yourself in a difficult situation, try practicing the emotion thermometer, and see if you can identify and label your emotional reaction, and notice those small changes.
Okay, so you can identify and label your emotions when they begin to happen, but how do you then respond effectively? I usually work with individuals to develop skill in how they express their emotions. A simple way is to (1) describe the situation, (2) describe your emotion, and (3) describe what you need and why. Again, revisiting the situation of someone who made you angry, this could be an example of a more effective response: (1) “We seem to disagree and are saying really negative things to each other.” (2) “I’m noticing that I’m becoming really upset,” and (3) “I need some space, otherwise I’m going to start yelling soon.” In this scenario, the upset individual is still able to express his/her anger; however, it is done in a way that does not hurt him/herself, offers an explanation to the other person, and helps to prevent the situation from becoming more difficult. The other individual might still respond negatively, yet, one has taken action to make the situation better, while still expressing one’s true feelings.
Although we cannot always control others or the difficult situations we face every day, what we can control is how we respond. It is a skill, though, and we are all in need of continued practice.
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