Sometimes what you feel is what makes life worth living: love, joy, ecstasy, delight, curiosity… Your emotions bring you these experiences and fill you with the meaning and motivation that bring that experience to life.
Sometimes what you feel can throw you into the worst that humanity can endure: pain, sadness, horror, grief, anger, fear, terror, depression… When this is what you feel, life can become very challenging; and conversely, when life is very challenging, sometimes these are the feelings that come to dominate.
Much as the second list and its relatives are unpleasant and sometimes even devastating, the goal for most people is not to get rid of their feelings but to find a way to feel the awful feelings less and the wonderful feelings more.
Your circumstances will certainly play a role in this. When things are going very well, you will naturally feel differently than when things are going very badly. In this sense, the more you have a sense of agency in relation to your circumstances, the more you can make a better life and therefore a more positive emotional experience.
But we don't always have control of our circumstances – at least not as much as we would like. I can't control how our government affects the economy that in turn affects my business and my personal circumstances. I can vote, I can communicate and I can do what I can to influence things politically. But I do not have anything approaching control of these forces.
I have much more influence over how I run my business, how I behave in relation to my family, friends, customers, clients and coworkers. (I also have more influence over the political situation locally than nationally, which is why the Federal government should have the least impact on our lives – because we have the least impact on it.)
Sometimes we can find ourselves in circumstances where it seems we don't have much control at all over anything. That is where many of these more negative emotions can grow and color our entire experience.
Today I want to give you some tools for mastering your emotions, even when times are very, very difficult. I can't give you any magic formula that will bring you only the positive. I wouldn't do that if I could because the negative emotions are no less essential to living a full and effective life as the positive.
Being resilient and strong during troubling times is not a function of eliminating the negative or keeping a phony cheeriness in the face of dire threats. Being resilient and strong during troubling times is in part a function of being able to channel and redirect your feelings so that you are in touch with them and aware of them but you are not at the mercy of them
First, let me describe some of the negative emotions and why you need them:
· Anger is largely a response to trespass. When you feel that somebody has crossed the line, or you feel wronged or mistreated in some way, your feelings of anger let you know that this has happened.
· Fear is a response to perceived or imagined threat. The feeling of fear can tell you that you may be in danger and that you should be wary or get away to safer territory.
· Grief is a response to loss, and it reminds you of what matters to you.
· Depression is often a symptom of helplessness, and it lets you know that there may be some action that you could be taking that you are not.
You can see that we need these emotions. They provide us with information that we should pay attention to. But these emotions are not wise or omniscient purveyors of truth. They are reactions. They are colored by our history, our expectations, our temperament and our beliefs.
You might be a person who is quick to anger or who gets frightened much too easily. You may have a tendency toward depression or you have a sense of sadness and loss on a hair trigger.
It is important to be aware of your feelings, but they are not your guides. They are more like signposts. You are the guide; you get to – in fact, you must – decide what a given emotion means.
When you have a challenging situation that you have to deal with and you are feeling overtaken by feelings that you know are either stronger than the situation warrants or you know that indulging those feelings would interfere with what you have to do to get through, you have the choice to redirect or distract yourself from those feelings.
If this is the case for you, here are some things that can help you to manage your feelings:
· Do not indulge your negative feelings, particularly anger. Contrary to pop psychology theories of the '60s, venting your anger does not actually "get the anger out"; rather, it serves to dig that pathway in deeper, making your anger more intense and coloring your experience more broadly. You get good at what you practice. If you practice getting angry you will get good at getting angry.
· Redirect your feelings. If you are facing a challenge that seems too big for you and you feel like collapsing in fear or sadness or helplessness, find one thing that you can do, one action that you can take, that will improve your situation. Direct your feelings toward accomplishing that task. Then find the next action and do that.
· If you are feeling despair, or are feeling overwhelmed by your circumstances, look for at least one thing that you can feel grateful for. I am not suggesting that you "pretend that everything is wonderful" or "just put on a happy face." You know darned well what the stakes are in your situation. But given what's true, by finding something that you can feel grateful for you are, in effect, identifying where you are strong. That strength will help you to deal more effectively with your situation.
· Use music to moderate your emotions. If you are feeling sadness or grief, don't listen to sad music. If you are feeling depressed, don't listen to music that has a hopeless feel or message. If your emotions are posing a challenge for you, find music that can help you to redirect your feelings toward hopefulness and joy rather than driving you further into the negative.
· Reach out to friends and family, seek their help and comfort when you need it – but don't abuse the privilege; don't use them to vent your anger or sadness beyond a reasonable point. It's true that misery loves company, but company does not love misery.
· Once you have identified and acknowledged the meaning of what you're feeling, and that feeling helps you to see an action that you need to take, focus more on your goal and less on the feelings themselves. Once you know what your feelings are and you identify the action that you need to take, those feelings have effectively done their job.
· Grief is a little different, because you will feel a deep loss for a while – weeks and months, certainly. Just roll with these feelings and know that they are an expression of the love you felt for somebody or the meaning of what you lost. You will always miss a loved one who is gone but the intensity of grief should subside over time.
This is not an exhaustive list, of course. Life is much more complex than this and sometimes it's important to get more personal help. But if you can use these suggestions to move through your more difficult times and to ride your feelings rather than having them ride you, you will earn for yourself a sense of greater strength and resilience and a deeper sense of ownership of your life.