Tool # 4 Navigating Emotions

Navigating feelings

Self-regulation is a goal of being a full and  mature human. We all have the capacity to integrate our thoughts and our feelings to life full lives and experience the full and glorious range of emotions in our ‘beautiful and broken world.’

Self-regulation can be a bit tricky. We have long over valued ‘being rational ‘ and demonized emotions. ‘Self-regulation’ is at risk of being simply shutting down emotions, pushing them under the rug until they suddenly explode in harsh words and hurt feelings or we withdraw and loose connections and caring.

There are ways to recognize feelings early on and use them to motivate and energize yourself and others, to embrace and enjoy life fully, to build a positive emotional climate.

As described yesterday, the first skill is to recognize the feelings and understand the source.

If the feeling is unpleasant which is how we might describe a  feeling we have when our needs are not being met,  we may need to create a pause between the trigger and the reaction. Each feeling causes a fairly predictable reaction. Unless you want that emotion to be in control you need to develop skills to maintain the control yourself and to be able to access and blend thoughts and feelings.

When your child spills her cup of milk on the bed at the end of a long day and starts crying and hitting her brother, it is difficult to not also lose your temper and start yelling too.

When you find yourself worrying over and over about the same possibility in the future, or heading into a no-win argument with your partner, child, or mother, once you recognize and become aware of what is happening, you can choose to interrupt the chain of thoughts and feelings and influence the outcome.

Say aloud, “I recognize this is not a helpful path we are on, I am going to take a ‘time out’ and  get myself a  glass of water and step outside so I can navigate my feelings and calm myself down. I will be back though, in 2 minutes when my mind and body are calmer.”  If you  leave without assuring everyone that you are coming back  (and set a time), you can make those you leave feel very anxious, abandoned, scared, especially a child.

Then move. Get up, shake a little, pay attention to your body. Go outside, get a glass of water, listen to the sounds in the room or outside, check the sky for the weather. Whistle a tune, do something to bring yourself into the present moment. If you notice your thoughts returning to the argument, or problem stop, get some more water, shake some more, stay in charge of your thoughts and feelings.

The earlier you interrupt the chain of thoughts and feelings the better! Once the chemicals produced in response to the emotions get started, they flood the brain and the body and it gets harder and harder to change your mood.

Also when we are tired, hungry, or thirsty it is much easier for our brains to ‘hijack’ going from a cool 1 to a hot and angry 10 in a matter of seconds! This is just a biological reality. Anticipate these states for yourself and your children and avoid them if possible.

Stay aware. Notice where your feelings are going and where your children’s feelings are going and interrupt the flow as early as possible.

Once you are back in control of your emotions, return to the situation and if you need to clean up the split milk you can do so with greater kindness and more forgiveness after you have taken a pause and navigated your emotions. The child probably did not mean to spill the milk. Accidents happen. Build your child’s trust in you to be a dependable, kind, self-regulated and helpful person they can turn to, even when they make a mistake.

If you’ve left an argument, return to the person and continue the conversation, or not. If you return to the argument you can do so with a calmer, cooler head and probably with new thoughts and solutions. Otherwise you can choose to set a time to discuss the problem later if it remains an issue.

Learning to navigate feelings, like a sailor navigates a sailboat, utilizing the wind and the currents, expertly setting the sails to catch the wind, and using the rudder to skillfully arrive at safe harbor, is a skill set that improves with practice. In the coming days we will explain and explore these skills.

Think about what kind of person you want to be for your children, your family and your community during these times of uncertainty. Be the kind of person you will be proud of being.