Sometimes the smallest remarks or inconveniences cause us to blow our top.
Before we know it, we go from being the adult in charge to the child having an emotional meltdown. Some of us justify our reactions and maintain a false sense of righteousness. Philosopher David Hume was right when he said that “reason is slave to passion.” We may hear an inner voice that begs us to stop even as we yell, but we just can’t in that moment. Either way, in the tussle between our emotions and our conscious mind, it seems that our emotions are frequently the winner.
The good news is: We can change that! We can go from being the victim of the less evolved parts of our own mind to becoming the adult in charge; that way, we can calm the howling child within.
Step #1: Name Your Emotion
This simple act promotes greater bilateral integration in the left and right hemispheres of the brain, and makes it feel like your emotions are both heard and acknowledged. So if you’re fuming over a comment someone made, get curious and ask yourself, “What emotion am I feeling right now?” Is it anger, disgust, frustration, or perhaps sadness?” This is the first step in creating distance from your emotions rather than being engulfed by them.
Step #2: Listen to Your Thoughts
Along with heightened emotions, there’s invariably a commentary running through your mind. Can you hear what it’s telling you? Is it venting about the unfairness of the situation, about how you’ve been treated wrongly? Is it reminding you of similar incidences in the past and how it’s about time you took revenge? Or perhaps it’s beating up on you for being a doormat and never standing up for yourself. Listen closely!
Step #3: Connect to the Meaning
A thought is just a thought…until we attach meaning to it. That’s when it becomes loaded with emotion—and when the meaning is negative, upsetting, or scary, we react in extreme and often self-defeating ways. So if your thought says, “How dare she talk to me in that manner,” what’s the underlying meaning? Does it bring up beliefs that you’re superior and that others don’t have the right to stand up for themselves? Or does it touch on those unhealed parts within you that believe you’re incompetent and fear you’ve been exposed? Again, reflect on the meaning until it rings true for you.
Step #4: Challenge the Meaning
The meaning we attach to situations, to other people’s motives, and to our own reactions are often the result of past experiences (mostly from our early years). Because they’re a childhood formation, they’re rigid, concrete, and extreme. As adults, we have the ability to challenge these beliefs because our brains can think in more flexible ways. So if you are scathing in your belief that the other person is incompetent, you may want to remind yourself of all the wonderful areas in your life where you’ve shown your skills and talents, risen up to challenges, and performed well.
Step #5: Change Your Thoughts
Once you’ve shifted the meaning, it’s easier to change the thoughts. Ask yourself whether the other person truly meant to offend you, or if they were simply stating their perspective. Or perhaps they were tired and didn’t mean what they said? Changing “How dare she…!” to “I’d rather she didn’t…” has a completely different effect on our mind and body. Remind yourself of this person’s better side so you see the full picture. It may even help you to understand them better and accept them for who they are, with their strengths and their weaknesses.
Step #6: Decide to Act—or Let Go
Once you’ve connected inward and can think with your adult brain, you’re in a position to decide what to do about the situation. You may express your opinion, but then cut the other person some slack and let go of the outcome. You may feel strongly that this reaction needs addressing and express your need for respect in a calm way. Or perhaps you realize that the other party’s reaction was out of character for them, and you feel compelled to provide some TLC instead. Either way, you act consciously rather than emotionally.
Victor Frankl wrote: “Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” Science shows that this space of restraint is also where we connect to our capacity for compassion, perspective, and forgiveness. And it’s these qualities that free us from blame and grudges, helping us rise to our highest potential.