When you're in a situation and you feel like reacting with anger, or fear, or hurt feelings – anything that feels like it's an automatic, purely emotional response – you have a choice as to what to do about it. You can react, or you can choose to do something different. This choice is our capacity for self-regulation and self-control, and it is fundamental to what makes us human.
In The Seven Habits of Highly Effective Families, Stephen Covey talks about this as the "pause button." When you feel like reacting to a situation, instead of going right into the reaction, "press the pause button," and consider what you really, from your consciously chosen values and priorities, want to do.
During the '60s, '70s, and well into the '80s the idea that you should "let your feelings out" was a common message in psychology that found its way into the popular culture.
Back in the 1980s I trained in several schools of somatic or body psychotherapy – I even helped to found an institute that trained people in one of these approaches. Some of these worked with emotional release, seeking to get people in touch with their feelings and thus, in theory, leading to better connection with their emotions and their bodies and able to function better in the world through this opening.
There was some good stuff to these approaches and I still find some of what I learned back then very helpful to my clients. For some people, getting more familiar with their feelings can be an expansive, life affirming experience.
Our feelings are where we live. Love, joy, excitement, elation, satisfaction, peace, warmth… these are all feelings. We need our feelings to let us know how people and things are affecting us. We want to know what we are feeling because that is where we experience life as meaningful.
There is a downside, though, in two ways:
When you practice getting angry, you get very good at getting angry, with all of the health problems that this can bring, particularly cardiovascular troubles – not to mention the interpersonal troubles this can cause.
Anger is a response to trespass, to a sense that a boundary has been violated in some way. The pure emotion of anger may have served a stronger purpose some time long ago when the world was a much more violent place (and the world has always been much more violent than it is today; see Steven Pinker's The Better Angels of our Nature, and Lawrence Keeley's War Before Civilization). These days, though, it can be a great barrier to optimal functioning.
Anger serves a purpose but once we identify what we're angry about and what action would best deal with the situation, continuing to feel the emotion of anger does little good. I like to say, "Don't get mad, get effective." Expressing anger is not often effective in itself.
In fact, how you interpret your anger can make the difference in how that experience affects your heart. Research by Kennedy and Kok (cited in Fredrickson, Love 2.0) found if you feel angry and you frame it as an emotion, you will have typical jumps in heart rate and blood pressure that are well known and not so good for you; but if instead you interpret your anger as an "instinctual response to an imbalance of resources" you won't get the same damaging effects on your heart – your reaction will be significantly more muted.
So we are not just passive recipients of whatever our feelings happen to bring us.
When people just vent and shout and follow wherever their feelings take them, they open themselves up to all manner of emotional, psychological and relationship troubles. Your feelings are important, as I said above, but they are not infallible guides.
Often our feelings come to us as a result of neural pathways we have established in our brains over years of practice. They can be automatic reactions to what we may think is going on – but before we even get a chance to think.
This is where Covey's "pause button" comes in handy. If you feel yourself swept up into a tide of emotion in reaction to something somebody has said or done, you may want to express your feelings, or you may not. The pause button is our conscious awareness; it is our capacity to feel something, to feel a reaction coming on and to think about it before we act on it.
One of the common features of criminals is that they do not use this very well. They tend to think in terms of short-term, immediate gratification. They are tuned in to basic reactions of pleasure and pain and have not developed their capacity to stop before they act to consider what they really want to do what would really make their life better over the long term.
If you feel yourself drawn to react emotionally to a situation, practice pressing the pause button first.
You may decide that you really do want to let this #*%!$% have it with a verbal lashing. In that case, do so with fully conscious awareness that this is what you are choosing to do – and accept the consequences (there will be consequences).
On the other hand, you may decide to look more closely at the situation, and to try and understand better what happened. There will be consequences to that, too, but you're likely to be happier about those consequences later on.
In any case, use your conscious awareness to put a step between yourself and your automatic reactions. The next time you feel drawn to follow your automatic reaction, give yourself a moment first. Press the pause button, and give yourself a chance to choose what you really want to do.