Blog Short #107: A Simple Trick to Keep Your Emotions in Check
If you were to ask me, “What’s the most important thing you’ve learned?” here’s what I would say:
I’ve learned that I am not my thoughts, feelings, or actions. I’m the one who engages in them.
Sounds like double talk, doesn’t it? It isn’t. It’s simple but profound. It’s also nothing new, although it feels fresh when you get it in a way that changes your overall perception of things. Once you know it, it affects everything else. It’s self-awareness, but not just in thought. It’s self-awareness in action.
Let me go through the benefits and how it works.
1. Creates Space Between You and Your Reactivity
I’m starting with this one because it’s the most valuable benefit.
I imagine you’ve tried several strategies to separate yourself from your emotions when they get out of hand so you don’t overreact. Some common ones are taking deep breaths, getting some time alone, taking a break, exercising, talking yourself off the ledge, and temporarily distracting yourself.
All of these are helpful, but they’re after the fact. They’re things you do to bring down your reactivity.
When you focus instead on the space between you and the reaction, you step in front of the reactivity, which allows you to head it off before it gets rolling.
Here’s how you do that:
As soon as you feel yourself ramping up, ask yourself, “Who’s having this reaction?” or “Who’s feeling this?” The answer, of course, is “I am.”
So what? What’s that going to do?
Upon asking the question, your attention diverts back to you, which separates you from the emotional reaction you’re moving into. It creates this little space between you and those emotions.
It’s subtle but powerful. And if you keep asking the question as the emotions try to move in, you keep that space. You don’t stop the feelings, but you interrupt your engagement in them – a little at first and more as you practice.
This process is like mindfulness, but it goes a little further. It’s not just watching your emotions and thoughts but disowning them in a sense, even as they march on.
Practicing this regularly will make that space more accessible and prominent. Eventually, you don’t have to work at finding it. It’s just there.
You can use the same question when thoughts arise, or you need to make decisions or feel compelled to act or behave in a particular way. The question is always the same:
“Who’s having this thought? Who’s making this decision? Who wants to do this or act this way?”
These questions are not literal but rather a device to bring your attention back to you – the “you” who’s engaging or not engaging in any of these activities.
2. Increases Your Ability to Act Deliberately
When your sense of self moves back into your feeling of “I” instead of being pulled outward by your thoughts, emotions, and actions, you have more room to make decisions deliberately rather than compulsively. You can stand back, evaluate, and decide the best course of action because you have that space between you and what you’re doing or choosing.
That space you gain by asking the question “Who’s deciding?” or Who wants to do this?” allows you to be more objective and intuitive because you feel more grounded in yourself.
3. Inhibits Overthinking
The other great thing about this continued questioning of who is thinking is that it cuts right through runaway thought trains. Instead of getting sucked into a circular labyrinth of overthinking that you can’t seem to stop, you bring yourself back to your sense of “I.” You lift yourself above the maze.
You get lost if you try to think your way out of it. More thinking increases overthinking – it doesn’t stop it. By asking, “Who’s thinking?” you halt it. You may have to ask a few times. Our minds are very pushy and will persist toward our established habits. But you can successfully create the habit of focusing on “I” instead of being pulled into other thoughts. You focus inward instead of outward.
4. Intention without Attachment
This one’s a more subtle effect that occurs after more practice, but it’s interesting. The more you ask the question, the more you become aligned with that sense of “I” outside of what you do. So when you do engage in something, you do it with some detachment. However, because you’re calmer and have that emotional space, you can exert more focus and act with greater intention. It’s a paradox that allows you to perform better.
Aids to Help You With this Practice
The calmer you are in general, the easier it is to use this practice. Three habits help: meditation, exercise, and a clean diet.
No other practice can help you manage your mind like meditation. The positive effects of meditation are quickly felt when you begin. But with regular meditation over time, you acquire a blanket of calm that lies underneath the surface of your mind and is always there regardless of what you do or what comes your way. It’s subtle and powerful. Simply watching your breath for 10 to 20 minutes daily will quiet your mind and leave you less vulnerable to stress.
There are other types of mediation, and I encourage you to research them if you’re interested, but you can always start with watching the breath. Click here for instructions on how to do that.
Besides all the physical benefits of exercise, regular aerobic exercise (walking counts) increases your stress threshold while also helping you recover from stress faster (Ratey, 2008).
When you exercise – especially when you get out of breath – your body mimics the physical symptoms of anxiety or stress. Your heart rate and blood pressure increase, breathing speeds up, and you’re in a state of arousal just as you are when you’re stressed or anxious.
When you stop exercising, your body recovers and returns to a relaxed state. And the more you exercise, the faster it recovers.
Regular exercise allows you to practice experiencing and recovering from stress, thus increasing your ability to handle it and recover more quickly.
A clean diet means opting for whole foods prepared with small amounts of non-saturated or mono-saturated fat, and including an abundance of plant food, including fruits, veggies, nuts, seeds, whole grains, and legumes.
Eat real food without all the additives and chemicals, and keep it clean. A high-fat, heavily processed diet creates mental sluggishness, intolerance to stress, and energy drain. Working with difficult emotions, thoughts, or situations is much more challenging when you feel that way. More importantly, a poor diet can lead to states of depression and anxiety without any other stimulus. A clean diet creates a quiet mind.
Each practice augments the effects of the others. If you try them all, you’ll find you can handle stress more easily and experience a stable and reliable mood, which we all would like!
That’s all for today.
Have a great week!
All my best,
Ratey, J. and Hagerman, E. (2008). Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain. Little Brown, Spark.