How do you feel about your feelings?

My brother is an amazing man. But one thing he struggles with is controlling his anger. Recently, he’s talked to me about how upset he gets when he realizes that he’s lost control of his emotions, and how that creates a spiral of more and more anger.

That feeling is very familiar to me. You too may be suffering from this self-sabotaging loop of unwanted emotions.

Coincidentally, my research lab is investigating meta-emotions, how people feel about their feelings, so I’ve made my own mini-survey based on the ones we use to assess how well we deal with unwanted emotions.

If you care to measure how well you are doing in dealing with your emotions, read each statement. Think about whether each statement is true or false for you, and how often you think that way: Very often, Often, Sometimes, Not often, Never.

  1. I am irritated with myself when I begin to feel stupid emotions.
  2. I constantly critique myself.
  3. When I talk to myself, I am usually kind and gentle.
  4. Often times, my emotional reaction is bad.
  5. When I feel negative emotions, I comfort myself.

If you answered “very often” or “often” to question numbers 1, 2, and 4, then you probably know this cycle all too well. If you identify as a perfectionist, you probably also scored high on those items. People like you are extremely critical of themselves because they have set a high standard for their work. Usually, that standard is achievable but our emotions get in the way.

This is hugely problematic. If you listen to the voices in your head and only hear self-criticism, you are destroying your self-esteem. This is self-hate from your own doing.

From this mini-survey, you will notice there are usually two emotions occurring in your brain at the same time. How you feel (emotions) and also how you feel about how you feel (meta-emotions).  Less self-aware people may not pay attention to their meta-emotions, but they still exist and affect their behaviors subconsciously. Next time you experience a “negative” emotion, ask yourself “how am I feeling about this feeling?”

If you feel any judgment towards that feeling, try to convert that self-criticism into self-compassion.

From this article, “research in the US, Canada, Israel, and Europe… show(s) that self-criticism… contributes to depression, anxiety, eating disorders, substance use disorders, juvenile delinquency, physical health conditions, and even suicide.”

Not only is self-judgment killing you, but it’s also not bringing you closer to your desired outcome. Think about something that you tried very hard to learn, a dance move, an instrument, whatever it may be. What were you were telling yourself as you were learning? Were you patient with yourself even as you failed? Most often than not, if you coached yourself with gentleness and compassion, you successfully learned. And if you relentlessly got angry with yourself every time you failed, you probably gave up and still haven’t learned that thing till this day.

It’s the same way with coaching other people or teaching young children. As a tennis coach, you wouldn’t yell at your client if they miss the ball. You’ll find simpler techniques to help them secure their grip or jump lighter on their feet. My question is why don’t we treat ourselves with that much kindness, patience and gentleness?

At the end of the day, you are the only person responsible for your happiness. Judging how you feel will only suppress that feeling. Growing angry at your anger will only ignite that emotion. The only way out of that vicious cycle is a non-judgment assessment of your feelings. 

At the end of the day, your emotions are data. They tell you how you feel about something. Emotions may cause a reaction, especially for those with low self-control. But they also don’t have to. You are not only your impatience. You are not only your anger. You are not only your depression. You are experiencing those emotions in those moments, so simply understand your emotions as a scientist analyzes data.

When you look at life as a scientist, you’ll see events and responses as data points. Your reactions will be recorded as patterns of your behavior. Scientists don’t judge data. They only observe.

But the best part about your life being your experiment is you can manipulate your behavior. If you took any science class in high school, you learned that an independent variable is the one chess piece you can move at a time. The play your opponent decides to make as a result of your play is the dependent variable. All the things that happen in life as a result of your choices are things you can’t control. The only thing you can control is the independent variable- your behavior.

Seeing life like a scientist not only helps you visualize the power you have in your choices but it also subtracts emotion from the equation. You can experience an emotion without getting emotional about it. If you need to cry, you’ll do so unashamed. You understand anger and joy are equally and simply necessary emotions. But when you label a feeling as “bad” you are judging that feeling and there is no room for judgment in the lab.

Susan David gave a life-changing Ted Talk about false-positivity.  In her work, she talks about “emotional agility,” which is a process to deal with emotions with self-acceptance and an open-mind. She is destroying the concept of “just be positive!” and calling people to experience their emotions indiscriminate of the emotion.

In my personal life, accepting my emotions without judgment has given me a profound amount of relief. As we’ve all learned at one point in our lives, denying or ignoring something doesn’t really make it go away. These emotions are begging to exist, and awareness brings them into existence. If you’ve ever meditated, you know not to deny a thought but to welcome it, bring awareness to it, and then it will simply leave on its own. As if that awareness is all it wanted all along.

Understanding you are angry without judgment will help you experience the anger as fully as it exists. Only after you have given all of it your awareness will it finally leave you.

I find crying a therapeutic part of the process of experiencing very sad emotions. There’s a magnitude of research that deems crying as a natural response to reduce stress. Under a microscope, researchers have found higher amounts of stress hormones in crying tears than in different types of tears. You are literally releasing the stress as you cry. The Japanese have taken it to another level and opened up “crying-clubs” called rui-katsu, where people literally go to a club to cry.

I guess it all comes down to two things: you have to find what works for you and you have to quit the self-judgment. Once I spoke to myself differently, I became more patient with myself and even with others.

Try to score high on numbers 3 and 5. When you talk to yourself, be kind and gentle and when you experience emotions you consider negative, comfort yourself as you’d comfort a child. It’s true that we all have an inner child, so keep the word nurture in your vocabulary!

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