Please see part 1 of my article in Positive Psychology News Daily here.
Unlike many parents, I absolutely adored the Terrible Twos. Two-year olds are so completely authentic, and they also feel their emotions so completely, you can see their expression from head to toe. Whether bliss or outrage, there is no mistaking where they stand.
I used to sit back and laugh (yes, my poor children) at these outbursts. We adults have learned to manage our emotions so that we don’t have to skip through the hallway or pound our fists on the floor. We can be civilized and mature unlike these toddlers who have not yet learned to manage their emotions.
But we also have depression, anxiety and divorce rampant in our society. Perhaps part of the problem is that we spend too much time and effort managing our feelings rather than feeling them, respecting them, acknowledging them.
It’s not fun feeling despair, depression or disappointment. And it’s too easy to dwell on them to the point of rumination and escalation. For example, I tend to be a ruminator, just regurgitating that bad event over and over in my mind. Usually I stay on the anger side because that’s easier to cope with than sadness or shame. Then if I really want to ruin my day (and probably the relationship), then I start to create a chain of assumptions: well he must also believe that _____; well she must’ve also ________. Rarely, when in this mood, are those assumptions forgiving or compassionate. Then I feel worse, ruminate some more on these new assumptions and down I go. This is the adult version of the temper tantrum but instead of just manifesting the feelings through our body, that toxic emotion might infect our whole life.
I feel so much more grown up when I don’t go down that rumination/assumption spiral and instead turn it around to find positive emotion. I can find forgiveness. I can find perspective. I can understand their point of view. I can find the silver lining, one of my best talents. I can just manage those feelings right away. Doing so makes me feel so much more in control, wise and mature.
But when I skip the part where I feel and share my emotions before going into forgiving and re-evaluating, then those negative emotions just seep out of me in my tone, actions, and choice of words in a sort of toxic radiation that’s invisible to me. Then I’m surprised when others are reacting to me like I’m a b**ch. My self-awareness is pretty much down to zero at this point all the while thinking I’m managing my emotions like a pro.
I’m starting to learn how to tell when I have bottled feelings up that I have not dealt with. I can’t meditate. I feel tightness in my chest that I can’t let go of. Others, as I’ve mentioned, tend to be short with or disrespectful to me or avoid me like I have bad breath. I have trouble accessing my awe and joy.
So I’ve learned from Chris that effective emotional management is more about finding that sweet spot in feeling those emotions in a constructive manner (avoiding rumination and escalation) before trying to turn them around into something positive. In other words, positive emotion needs a clean, uncontaminated soil to really grow.
What’s your formula for emotional management? Do you tend to dwell in or skip the feeling, escalation or re-evaluating/turn around stages? What strategies do you use to find the right balance?
There is something magical about the way young children are unapologetically them. They are not self conscious. They don’t try to cover up who they are. They say and do what they please. As they mature, kids begin to edit their behavior to conform with societal and family norms and expectations.
This modification is necessary and important if they are going to start getting along in civilized society. Running around the backyard in your underwear just isn’t cute by age 18 anymore. On the other hand, behavior regulation can also go too far when we forget who we really are beneath that civilized, socialized exterior.
That social behavior tends be context-specific. Adolescents may feel fake since they experiment with different personnas in different settings. For example, she may feel like one person at work/school or sports, and a different one at home or in social situations. She has to be obedient, compliant, smart, studious, social, cool, sweet, outgoing, aggressive, competitive, hard-working, etc. When wearing so many hats its sometimes hard to know which is the real you.
These feelings of inauthenticity may persist into adulthood since we tend to adopt even more roles than we did as a child. It may be confusing to hang out drinking beer and watching football in the garage with the neighbors by night but a high powered executive in an Armani suit by day. My version is enjoying trashy novels and television though I’m an intellectual and professional. So sue me.
Having many roles and different facets to our lives does not mean that we’re being inauthentic. We are complicated beings, we humans. We have many strengths (remember, 34 StrengthsFinders and 24 VIA strengths, at minimum) and 9 types of intelligences. We have endless number of interests and passions. At any given time or any given situation, we can draw upon any combination of our strengths, intelligences, interests and passions and still be ourselves. In fact, the more nimbly one can access one’s range of skills, the more versatile one can be.
For instance, one side of me is very analytical, responsible, persistent, and interested in justice and fairness. If you’ve pissed me off, then you’ve probably met that version of me. That Susanna is deploying analytical, responsibility, perseverance and consistency strengths. However, there is another side to me that is nurturing, compassionate, forgiving, wise, introspective and a devoted friend. That is my developer, forgiveness, ability to love and be loved, and relator strengths. I tend to bring that soft side more to children, family and friends though recently I have been enjoying using both sides at work in my training and developing activities.
If I had to use just one set of strengths all day, every day, not only would I get bored, but my repertoire and effectiveness would be very limited. Being able to draw on both types of skills means that I can do both science and personal development. The stuff in between, such as understanding the professional and personal needs of scientists and academics, is where I find the most enjoyment. My experience tells me that doing just one without the other feels incomplete.
My struggle to find my niche is not all that unique. After all, not everyone is lucky enough to have a passion for a career path or life role that’s in the societal mainstream and approved by both family and friends. The rest of us struggle to come to terms with feeling out of place, awkward, or not fulfilled by our roles. As I discussed in my last blog, that discomfort and negative emotion are your invitations to explore and learn about yourself. When that negative emotion surpasses your fear of self-discovery, you will discover yourself too.