Sunday, May 27, 2012

The Complexity of Emotions as Shown in Equations

Having multiple tools for managing emotions is important for the emotionally sensitive. Different strategies will work for different people at different times in different situations. One way of understanding emotions is through considering them in equation form.

In his book Emotional Equations Chip Conley describes how understanding the connections between your primary emotions, rather than identifying individual emotions, can help you understand yourself, your purpose and your relationships with others.

Conley explains that emotional equations are like grown-up finger painting. If you mix two primary colors, like red and yellow, you get a secondary color, like orange. He notes that primary emotions work together to create secondary and even tertiary emotions.  An emotional equation is like having a reminder of how emotions are related to one another and to thoughts and perceptions. An example of an emotional equation is:
Disappointment = Expectations – Reality.

Being aware of the way emotions come about and their contributing factors helps us make choices about our responses and how to manage the emotions. Conley quotes Victor Frankl who said, “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.”  One way we get that space or pause is from mindfulness.

According to Conley, Matt Lieberman has shown that we temporarily lose 10 – 15 points of our IQ when we are emotional. That is not good news for making decisions. Decreasing the intensity of your emotions to make wise choices is clearly important. The best initial action you can take when feeling emotional is to label your emotion. Just the act of labeling helps your logical brain kick back in gear. Emotional equations help us to label complex interactions of our emotions.
In working through the above equation for disappointment, Conley suggests first determining whether you are experiencing frustration or disappointment. In most situations, you are likely to experience a lot of frustration before moving into disappointment. Frustration would mean you still believe you can influence the outcome.

If that is the case, the response called for is determination and perseverance. The action indicated by frustration is to move forward while the action indicated for disappointment is to retreat. If the outcome is fixed, already clear, then the emotion would be disappointment and the best decision is to accept the disappointment and move on to a different project or task. Perhaps a difficulty for many in letting go is in accepting disappointment. But staying in frustration when the outcome is clear is to create suffering. That would be not accepting reality.
When it becomes evident that an outcome may not be what you expected, a way of coping and letting go may be to  lower your expectations. You may want to give information to others as well so that they can lower their expectations, which will likely help you accept the outcome with less upset. Delaying giving the information to others will likely make the situation worse in most cases.

Consider this equation for jealousy:
                   Jealousy = Mistrust divided by Self-Esteem.                                                                    

Jealousy is the fear of losing something that one has to someone else, often in a romantic situation. The less you trust your partner, the more likely you are to be jealous. Studies have shown that people believed the world was a dangerous place were less trusting than people who were by nature cooperative, trusting and compassionate.
Trust also is based on more personal issues than a world view, such as does your partner tell you the truth and stand by you when times are tough? Has your partner cheated before?  Have you cheated? Those who have cheated are more likely to be able to imagine being cheated on.
Self-esteem is part of feeling jealous. The better you feel about yourself and who you are the less jealous you are likely to be.

Conley shows the relationship between suffering and despair as

Despair = Suffering – Meaning.

Finding meaning seems to sooth suffering and lessen the experience of despair. Right-brained individuals may find meaning through expressing themselves verbally. Left-brainers may work better with writing. But both can transcend suffering by developing a narrative or theme that helps them see how their experience was a learning experience or otherwise had meaning for them, such as a lesson to take away from the experience.

The meaning may also be more concrete. What is it that life expects from you right now?  Do you need to be a role model for your children or family?  How can you help others focus on the meaning and not on the bad news or other reason for suffering?

You may find meaning through describing the way you have grown from the experiences you have had. Consider adjectives that describe new habits or behaviors that you have gained.
Conley’s equations remind us that emotions do not often exist in isolation. Understanding the ways emotions combine and affect each other helps us know how to cope.

To create your own emotional equations, watch Conley’s TED talk or learn more about his work, go to

Conley, C. (2012) Emotional Equations:Simple Truths for Creating Happiness + Success. New York: Free Press.
Creative Commons License photo credit: mfhiat

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Coping With Difficult Emotions, Part 2

In the previous post, Coping With A Stressful Situation: Managing Your Emotions, we discussed the importance of not acting impulsively on your upset emotions. When possible, taking a break until you are calm so your logical mind can be in charge is the best strategy.
What you do during that break is important.

There are actions that will help you manage your emotions effectively and actions that tend to increase your emotional upset. When people are angry or scared or experiencing an uncomfortable emotion, they sometimes feed the emotion, like throwing wood on a bonfire, though that’s not their intention.

Don’t feed the emotion by going over and over the situation. People who are emotionally sensitive are sometimes prone to rumination, meaning  they repeatedly review or replay the event in their head. Rumination is a key variable for depression and tends to increase upset feelings or extend the length of time you are upset.

Though it’s not always the case, rumination is often about worry. As Robert Leahy notes in The Worry Cure: Seven Steps to Stop Worry from Stopping You, productive worry occurs when the worry encourages you to take necessary or prudent action in a situation. Unproductive worry is when there is nothing you can do about the situation, no action you can take to change it.
Most of the time rumination is about unproductive worry. There are many skills to stop unproductive worry and each individual must find what works best for them.

One skill is acceptance. Accepting what happened doesn’t mean that you approve or agree, only that you acknowledge it occurred. You stop wishing it were different, believing it shouldn’t have happened, or blaming others, and accept that it did happen.

Acceptance is also about thoughts. Accepting that you are having a thought that is upsetting to you means to stop fighting the thought or feeling. Each time you experience the thought, you label it, “That’s a thought,” and stop yourself from going down the “what if” path. By doing so, you are recognizing that just because we think something doesn’t mean it is true. Humans have thoughts all the time that aren’t reflective of reality. Many thoughts are about what is out of your control and what might happen, with no evidence at all that the outcome is likely to occur.

Check the evidence is another strategy.  Identify what is most upsetting to you. Do you know if what you are thinking is true or likely to happen? Is there a way to find out?  Be sure you have the facts about the situation.

Visualization can be helpful. For example, you could visualize all your upsetting thoughts being locked in a steel case and buried under the ocean.

Distraction by exercising is a great option. Exercise tends to calm people and help them think more clearly. Distraction by becoming involved in a absorbing activity is also helpful.

Opposite emotion, a skill used in Dialectical Behavior Therapy,  is about doing an activity that creates the opposite emotion to what you are feeling. Watching a comedy show that makes you laugh when you are depressed or anxious, or watching a scary movie when you are angry may be helpful. Thinking of people you love and who love you, or talking with them when you are angry may also work.The idea is to do an activity that creates an opposite emotion to what you are feeling.

Exhaling slowly is a way of calming. Progressive relaxation has been proven effective in lowering anxiety levels.

Don’t feed the emotion by gathering evidence from the past. When people are angry or scared or experiencing an uncomfortable emotion, their minds sometimes look for additional evidence to support the way they feel, maybe to justify their feelings. They remember all the wrongs done to them or they remember other times when someone was hurtful to them. That behavior is  so common it has a term for it–throwing the kitchen sink at someone. Emotions of the past only multiply the intensity of the emotion they are feeling in the present.

Don’t feed the emotion by ignoring the big picture. Often a person’s emotion blinds them to characteristics or actions that don’t support what the person is feeling at the moment. For example, when you’re angry at someone, it is unlikely you’ll think of all the times that person was kind or helpful. Most have experienced this when having an argument with their spouse. For example, let’s say your mate forgot to get the groceries that you needed for a party you were hosting that evening. Most likely you’ll be angry and recall all the other times your partner has not come through for you, forgetting when he or she was helpful or kind. If you do this, then pushing yourself to think of the positive will allow a more balanced view.

To manage your emotions effectively, keep bringing your mind back to the present issue. Focus on what is here and now, one situation at a time. Mindfulness is a good skill to use.

Ask yourself if  the emotion is  justified.  Just like with deciding whether worry is productive or unproductive, check out the facts to see if other emotions you are having are  justified. Is there a reason to be scared or jealous, or angry? If the emotion is justified, then taking planned action based on that information is important. Marsha Linehan suggested this step in Dialectical Behavior Therapy.

Often people experience emotions that aren’t justified by the facts. For example an adult bully may be annoying and unpleasant but not have the power to hurt you. Your reactions may be based more on past experiences than what is happening in the here and now. This doesn’t mean you won’t take action, but you can act with the knowledge that there is no true danger.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Coping With Difficult Emotons

Whether you're dealing with an emotional bully (see previous post about adult bullies) or other difficult situation, one of the first steps is to comfort yourself and manage your emotions.
The part of the brain that is responsible for decision-making and planning cannot function as well when you are filled with emotion. Acting on emotions without the thoughtfulness of the logical part of the brain usually means trouble.
Even when you're in the right about a situation, if you act impulsively and emotionally it's unlikely others will listen. They'll tell you to calm down and don't get so upset. This situation happens frequently for the emotionally sensitive and they soon believe no one listens to them. They also may find themselves reacting first and regretting later.
There are ways to learn to not act immediately on the feeling you are having. Mindfulness is a skill that helps you develop a pause between feeling and acting so you're not ruled by whatever emotion you are experiencing. Jon Kabat-Zinn defines mindfulness as "Paying attention in a particular way; on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally."
Marsha Linehan, the creator of Dialectical Behavior Therapy, lists three How Skills and three What Skills of mindfulness. The What Skills, meaning what you do, observe, describe and participate.
Observe means to see what is present and real without coloring it with interpretation or assumptions. Observe is to see the facts of a situation. Describe is to put words on what you see without judging. You can see that the chair is red. Saying the chair is a horrid shade of red would be a judgment. Participate means to participate fully in events with full awareness of what you are doing. This means you're not daydreaming or half-aware or clouded by emotion that you aren't paying attention to what is actually happening.
The How Skills are how you do the What Skills: One-Mindfully, Nonjudgmentally, and Effectively. One-Mindfully means to do only one thing at a time and to have your attention fully on whatever you are doing. Non-judgmentally means to just experience without labeling good or bad and Effectively means to do what works.
In the case of the adult bully, observing and describing what happened is the first step: doing this in a nonjudgmental way may be difficult. Effectively is key. Regardless of whether the other person is being fair or behaving in reasonable ways, how can you be most effective in coping with his behavior?
Wait until you are calm enough to think clearly. Strong emotions seem to compel people to take some action, whether it's to fight or run away or tend and befriend. The body is poised to act, not think or plan. This system was effective when human surivival depended on avoiding a tiger or a lion, but doesn't work so well in most of the situations people face today.
The urge to do something to protect yourself against a perceived threat can be very strong, but in most situations the urgency is not real. Acting impulsively, without thinking through the action, can make the situation worse. Then one crisis is followed by another and then another. Impulsive efforts to solve the problem usually create more problems. Soon it may seem like your life is one crisis after the other. That can be discouraging and only makes your emotional state worse. Being mindful of your emotions and your internal experience without acting on your urges and impulses is an important skill. You learn that the emotion will pass.
Be Aware of and Name Your Emotions. When you observe and describe your internal state, that is one step in managing your emotions. For some, this means taking time to identify the specific emotions they're feeling: jealousy, hurt, anger, or fear?
Sometimes anger acts as a shield against feeling hurt or scared. Knowing that your anger is a secondary emotion and that your primary emotion is fear will help you manage your feelings effectively. Knowing what you are feeling gives you more of a sense of control and gives you ideas about what action to take.
Some people have great difficulty identifying feelings and distinguishing between feelings and the bodily sensations that are the basis of emotions. This characteristic is called alexithymia. If someone is alexithymic, then learning how emotions are expressed in the body is important. Sadness is often felt in the throat, chest and belly. Anger is felt in the neck, head, shoulders, hands and arms. Fear is felt in the belly, head, face, chest, and throat.
Sometimes focusing on the body sensation, such as your throat feeling tight, is more helpful than repeating in your head how anxious you are. Saying "I'm so anxious," repeatedly may actually feed the emotion.
These are beginning steps in managing your emotions. Not acting on your emotional urges takes practice, but the peace you gain by not acting impulsively is well worth the practice time.

photo credit: AbigailPhotography

Sunday, January 29, 2012


Sometimes people who are emotionally sensitive are angry with themselves: angry because they feel different than other people, because they are easily hurt, and sometimes because they feel broken.
Perhaps they've heard that they are too sensitive or overreacting so often that they are angry with their sensitivity. Some emotionally sensitive individuals feel ashamed, like they are less than other people. Some are frustrated that their emotional reactions have gotten in the way of achieving their goals or have hurt relationships they valued. Sometimes there is a feeling of hopelessness and they have retreated from the world, seeing it as too painful.
The anger and shame that people sometimes feel about being emotionally sensitive adds to their suffering and their emotional pain. In addition, fearing being alone, left out or abandoned blocks the joy and pleasant experiences that might otherwise be available.

Our culture's focus on self-esteem, on being the best and/or  gaining the approval of others, may add to the suffering of emotionally sensitive people. This focus encourages continual self-judgments and judgments of others. The emotionally sensitive may be particularly severe  in their judgments of themselves.

People judge themselves harshly for various reasons.  Some have learned from critical people in their lives, internalizing the messages they received so they now say the same negative statements to themselves. They have accepted the judgments of others as the truth. Some individuals may criticize themselves because they believe it will motivate them to do better, though in fact it tends to do the opposite. Others may berate themselves as a form of protection. Maybe if they judge themselves harshly, they can avoid the condemnation of others.
Neff suggests that we stop judging and evaluating ourselves as either good or bad and treat ourselves as kindly as we would a best friend. She encourages people to stop floccinaucinihilipilification, a very long word that means the habit of estimating something as worthless.

Neff asserts that our culture's emphasis on self-esteem is part of the problem of not liking one's self. Self-esteem  is all about judging, an evaluation of  our worthiness, derived from being good (or not) at  doing things we value. For example, self-esteem could be based on being a good cook or an athlete or a scholar.

Self-esteem can also be based on what we perceive as the view others have of us. For emotionally sensitive people in particular, this can be a trap. Given the value our culture has placed on logical thinking, many emotional sensitive people may have a history of being judged negatively for their emotional reactions. This past experience can lead them to anticipate rejection by others and perhaps even believe  been judged when they haven't.

A focus on self-esteem can foster the belief that your value as a person depends on your experiences at any given moment. Are you successful in what you are doing right now? Are others faster than you at running? Did you get an A on your last test?  Are you more or less successful than the person sitting next to you?  At this moment do you sense approval by those around you? Or is a friend angry with you?

Basing your self-worth on the approval or disapproval of others or on your success or failure in the moment leads to constant ups and downs in your view of yourself. With this focus, establishing a solid identity, knowing who you are as a person, would be difficult. In addition, the joy of doing what you love could be lost. Instead of focusing on the enjoyment of running, each race would be about your value as a person. So would evenings out with friends.
When focused on your value as a person, everyday situations become tests of your worth. For example, when going out with friends,you may find yourself promising to not react emotionally, because others judge you negatively for that. Then you use every ounce of self-control you have to push down your emotions until you are safe at home.  Even when you succeed, you might later go over the evening in your head, criticizing yourself for each perceived failure. Or focusing on how your friends acted or what they said, fearful they were judging you.

Neff proposes that self-compassion offers an alternative to the focus on self-esteem. Self-compassion is a form of self-acceptance and would fit in the radical acceptance choice of the four options for what you can do when you face a problem (see previous post, No Matter What the Problem, There's Only Four Things You Can Do). We'll talk more about self-compassion in upcoming posts.

Creative Commons License photo credit: vvonstruen 

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Masking Emotions

The world can be a bruising place for emotionally sensitive people. A regular day can feel like being covered in biting, Texas-sized fire ants. A natural response is to do whatever works to avoid the pain of believing others have judged, rejected or left you out. Feeling powerless to stop injustice adds to the hurt. One option is to wear a mask and hide who you really are--anAvoidance Mask.  You know, avoid all the pain and protect your authentic self as well.

An Avoidance Mask is different from a Functional Mask. A Functional Mask is one everyone needs.  That's the one you wear at work when you need to look like you're in charge even though your daughter just eloped with a guy in a rock band.

A Functional Mask is put on for those necessary times, like when famous people don't want to show how sad they are so the tabloids won't figure out they're devastated that they were fired as the star of a movie or television show. With a Functional Mask you feel your feelings and are only temporarily sheilding them from others. Having a functional mask is helpful but often difficult for emotinally sensitive people.  So sometimes they choose more permanent masks in an effort to protect themselves emotionally.

People Pleaser Mask.  The People Pleaser Mask means doing whatever it takes to make other people happy so they'll accept you and be less likely to emotionally attack you. When you have thoughts or feelings or preferences that are different than those of your companions, you shove them down or push them away.
When someone says your friend is a two-faced neanderthal who doesn't know how to dress and belongs to the wrong church, you nod or don't say anything out of fear, terrifying fear, even though you don't agree. Then you feel angry at yourself because you were afraid. You can do this so often that you lose yourself and don't know what your own thoughts and ideas are anymore.

Mask of Anger:  Anger can keep people away from you and protect you from feeling vulnerable. Anger feels more powerful than hurt, fear or sadness and can be used to avoid those painful feelings. Angry people cover up their sensitivity in a way that few people guess that they are sheep dressed in porcupine quills.  Emotionally sensitive people who use the mask of anger are often lonely and feel worthless on the inside.

Happy Mask:  Another way of protecting yourself is to behave as if you're happy all the time. No one ever knows when your feelings are hurt and to the outside world nothing gets you down. Happiness covers your real feelings. You joke and smile even when the lady next to you volunteers you to host the next sit down dinner for the neighborhood right at the time you are expecting six guests from out of town.
Almost any emotion/behavior can be used as a mask.  Maybe you mask insecurity by disliking others or mask sadness by being the life of the party or mask fear by being perfectionistic. Putting on a mask is a way of disappearing--being invisible.
Masks provide some emotional protection in the short run.  But the costs of wearing masks are high. When you wear a mask, you don't really feel the warmth of belonging because others don't really know you. One of the most basic needs people have is to feel connected to other people and that can't happen when you are hidden.
Not only that, but you may wear masks so long you don't really know yourself or what you are feeling. Not knowing yourself creates a lot of anxiety because you can't make decisions and who you are is defined by others or how the day went. Avoiding feelings means you lose part of who you are and increases the liklihood that you'll be depressed or anxious. Plus it's exhausting to wear masks.

Dropping the Mask and Reclaiming Your Identity
1. Make the Decision:  The first step is to decide you want to drop the Avoidance Mask. This means you are committed to taking action even though it may be painful in the beginning. If you aren't sure, make a list of pros and cons--pros and cons of dropping the mask and pros and cons of keeping the mask.
Dropping the mask will not be easy and recognizing the difficulty of this task will help you succeed. Remember taking one step at a time may work best. For example, speaking up about which restaurant you'd prefer for dinner might be one initial step.
2. Focus on Awareness:  If you've lost touch with your own preferences and feelings, spend some time asking yourself what you really think and feel.  Keep asking and keep experimenting--it will come back to you. Consider keeping a journal, writing down what you liked and didn't like each day. Accept your feelings and trust that they will pass.
3.  Be Visible:  Notice if you have the posture of someone who is trying to hide. If you do, stand up straight and let yourself be visible. Begin to express your opinion and thoughts gently, with kindness.
4. Develop New Coping Skills:  Before you drop the mask, it's important to have alternative, more effective  ways to cope with emotional pain.  More about that in future posts.
5.  Face Whatever You've Been Avoiding:  Whatever your thoughts and feelings, they are your thoughts and feelings. Everyone has their own internal experience and yours is likely different from that of your friends'.
Accepting your internal experience instead of avoiding it will allow you to check to see if your feelings have any base in external reality and to choose healthier, more effective ways of coping. Facing the external fears will help you overcome those as well. Being rejected or criticized by others is not pleasant, but you will find out you can survive it. Take small steps, have support, and use alternative coping skills.

photo credit: pietro_CCreative Commons License

Monday, January 9, 2012

Learning Acceptance and Finding Peace

In January people evaluate their progress toward goals they made for the past year. Emotionally sensitive people evaluate themselves and wish they were different than they are regardless of what the calendar says. Change can be positive, but sometimes it's learning acceptance that's really needed--acceptance of who you are instead of judging yourself as unworthy and living in fear of being rejected.
Some societies don't understand the concept of judging oneself as unworthy. Our culture tends to be competitive, based on the idea that we have to be "good enough" to succeed, to belong to certain groups, to not be rejected. Many, many years ago being part of a group was necessary for survival. Belonging is still a basic need for everyone.
Mother Teresa once said that the greatest disease of our time was the feeling of not belonging. In a misguided effort to gain acceptance from others, some emotionally sensitive individuals repeatedly criticize and berate themselves. But criticism isn't a good motivator for change and often leads to the person feeling alienated from him or herself in addition to feeling "less than" others.  That adds more suffering.
Acceptance is accepting life on life's terms. Acceptance is also the idea of accepting yourself, with all your human imperfections. That means that instead of fighting your imperfections and your flaws,  you accept them. What's the good in that? Well suffering consists of the pain in life that you have no control over, plus the upset and resistance you have about that pain, which you do have control over. If you stop resisting or avoiding the pain, then you lower your level of suffering.
Emotions build on each other.  So if you feel worried and then you are angry that you are worried, the two emotions combine. Your upset is multiplied. If you feel worried and accept that you are worried, then you only have the original feeling without adding additional emotion to it.
Acceptance doesn't mean giving in to or agreeing with or being passive. Acceptance is the acknowledgement of what is happening within us, acknowledgement of our emotions, that they exist. Acceptance is letting yourself see reality without judging it.  Sometimes acceptance allows you to move forward. Sometimes acceptance leads to change.  Sometimes it doesn't. But acceptance decreases your suffering. When your suffering is lower, you are able to have a more open mind and a broader view of yourself and others. Options may be more clear.
How do you get to acceptance?  In his book, The Mindful Path to Self Compassion,Christopher Germer outlines the steps for acceptance:  aversion, curiosity, tolerance, allowing, and friendship.
Aversion is usually the first step.  This is our resistance to an uncomfortable feeling, our wish to avoid it, even when it's a minor unhappiness. We all have our avoidance behaviors, perhaps drinking too much or overeating or gambling or overworking. We may start to avoid at the first physical sensation of an unwelcome feeling, before we're even aware of what we are feeling.
Sticking with the feeling rather than avoiding is the path to acceptance. Mindfulness is what allows you to stay with the feeling, to create a pause so that you don't push the feeling away without even knowing you are doing it.
Curiosity is wondering about the mood,  trying to figure out what caused it, hoping that we can change it. Sometimes even knowing what the source is doesn't help you change the feeling.
Tolerance means that you endure the mood but wait for it to change, wish it was gone, resist it, perhaps even trying to force cheerfulness. Curiosity and Tolerance require energy and involve discontent in addition to sadness, fear, anger or whatever the original uncomfortable feeling. Keep in mind that for some, happiness can be uncomfortable.
Allowing means letting feelings be, come and go as they will without resistance, judgement, or making building them bigger. This stage brings peacefulness.  This is saying, "It is what it is."  Feelings will pass, though often not immediately.
Friendship is being able to see the value in uncomfortable emotions, perhaps the lesson that you learn from them. For example, sadness about a friend is part of our caring for them, being able to feel connected to others. In this stage you may even be grateful for the uncomfortable feeling.
Accepting  less desirable  feelings takes practice. Being mindful of the here and now,  trusting that you are safe, knowing that emotions come and go, and not engaging in avoidance behavior will gradually bring more peace to your life.

photo credit: ZedZCreative Commons Licenseap