Today I wanted to write about what I do when I get overwhelmed with emotions that feel completely disproportionate; essentially exploring my coping mechanisms for understanding and learning from strong emotions bought about by strangers and other people.
Most information I initially found talked about getting therapy or about simply calming yourself down, deep breathing etc. But I wanted something more direct and effective, something accessible and personal. After lots of research, I’ve found a self-help method that really works well for me, and I wanted to share this and see if this could help other people.
Starting with Yourself and Your Mind
A select few places actually dive into understanding the mechanisms that make us upset. HuffPost Why being Upset with Someone Is Always About YOU is one article that I read that started to help me understand a better way to look at my feelings. Another great resources was School of Life, in particular the video below, Why are People So Nasty. School of Life is a great Youtube channel about exploring the inner psyche, and this specific video shows how our reactions to others are actually about beliefs we hold about ourselves, and our own experiences.
After more research and exploration, I began to understand the range of what emotions could mean in the context of a social interaction that has set off disproportionate emotional reaction. It could be transference, or projection, or having a bad day, or something deeper. Transference and projection are both really well described here in this fantastic informative piece by J at “Peace in the Storm”, on BlogSpot, which uses some lovely little cartoon pictures and is really clear. Essentially, transference is reacting to someone based on how someone else in your past acted towards you (either positively, or negatively), and projection is seeing other people as having feelings which actually belong to you, based on your past and your own personal experiences. As you can see, the School of Life video is an example of projection here. All this information about the logic and process of emotions is fantastic in theory, is completely worth researching and can be really helpful in calmer moments.
When I am overwhelmed with emotion however, I actually clear away the confusing potential logic and go straight to explore the feelings instead.
Instead of overthinking, you can directly use your emotional response to work out what the logical reason actually is and to then process the emotion. This works better and more efficiently than the popular concept of calming yourself down and then attempting to logically understand, because it uses the emotions as a direct tool to allow you to find an effective healing method which then calms you down, not just in the moment, but in any similar moments in the future.
This process starts when you have time to yourself.
You can’t really do it whilst you are still at work or school or in the shops or wherever the situation started, because fresh emotions will keep coming up, plus you will have the demands of the situation to distract you as well. If you feel you can manage it, you can think on the way home or to wherever you go to have peace and quiet, but be careful of your heated state then causing road rage, yet another example of how irrational and contagious emotions are!
From your quiet space, whether it’s home or you have to pull over early, you can now start to think about what upset you. My tactic for this is to explore through experimentation with what about the interaction made me angriest, or at what point I felt the situation tipped over and became emotionally unmanageable or inappropriate. Try out phrases like “It was because they ignored me” or “It was because they were being stupid” and see which one fires you up the most. It might feel strange to encourage the negative emotion like this, but it’s an important part of processing it.
Once you find something that really sets you off, let the emotion cool.
Breathe. Perhaps write it down so you don’t forget. Once you feel you can think, examine your beliefs and ask what could have gone differently to help you deal with the situation. It’s important here not to focus on how terrible and foul the other person is. Undoubtedly they are a complete and utter monster or else you wouldn’t be feeling this awful and upset, right? Wrong. They are of course not perfect, because they are human, just like you, however this doesn’t mean finding their flaw is the answer. The answer is how to cope with and understand that “flaw” in a positive and hopeful way.
Good questions to ask yourself here are; would it matter if it happened to someone else? Would I do this to someone else? Why wouldn’t I? Are other people bothered generally by these situations? These help put the emotion and reaction into social context and help you judge how far out of the norm you are and where you want to get to. You might aim to be peaceful all the time, or maybe only reach a level of mild annoyance as opposed to incandescent rage, the point is about finding what is helpful to you and your situation.
Once you have social context, the next part is about looking for personal context.
In your own personal story, what does this emotion mean? Were you always ignored in your childhood? Have you often been mocked and bullied at school? Did you always feel like you let people down? These questions help examine your own personal “triggers”, and are the key part of breaking down a huge emotional reaction into an understandable life lesson and healing process.
Finding your personal triggers and sore points is painful. Remembering the injustices and pains you have experienced will undoubtedly hurt, fresh as if it was yesterday. This is the point. All of those emotions that were too much to deal with and that never got made right at the time will rush back whenever unconsciously prompted until they are dealt with properly. This is a great opportunity to find a subconscious wound and take the time to make it right and heal it.
At this point, you have the full puzzle set.
You have the inciting incident, the social context, your personal context, and the chance to make things right not only in this incident, but in the unprocessed incidents and experiences and life lessons that came before it which make up your story so far. Now is the time to find the words or the message which will begin to heal these emotional wounds that have been accidentally re-opened.
Now that know you were hurting, you can start to try different phrases and logic to directly “speak” to that need and that pain. In the example where you were ignored for example, you could try repeating “I am worth listening to” or “Even if someone doesn’t listen to me, I still matter”, or “Everyone counts and is important and deserves to be heard” to yourself. The most vital part of this process is to listen to your emotions. Before, you were thinking about what hurt you, but now, you are fixing the hurt in yourself, and accordingly, you’re going to start feeling better, and more comforted, the closer you get to the right message.
Tips for finding a good message:
- Try experimenting with synonyms (replacing “I am not bad” with “I am not evil” for example, and feeling which one is more effective for you)
- Switch between negative or positive phrasing (“I am not a bad person” vs “I am good person”
- Join phrases up and see if they are stronger together (“I am a good person AND I haven’t done anything wrong”)
- Make it general or universal, this is compassionate and avoids singling yourself out (“No one is an inherently worthless person”)
- Single people out who were wrong (“my teacher was wrong, I deserved better”)
- Make judgements and be on your own side “no one should ever have to go through that”
- Cliché it up! These phrases are over-used for a reason, so use a cliché as a prompt and go from there e.g “Two wrongs don’t make a right”–>”Two wrongs hasn’t made this right”
The importance of the message is that it has an effect in you. To have the right positive effect, it should be true, meaningful, and simple, but it could take a while until you can pin down a simple and effective phrase, so go wild with rambling sentences and twisted phrasing or emphasis to give yourself the best chance of finding it. In this space, give yourself free reign to be as judgy and mean as you like, think dramatic things you wouldn’t normally think, or contradict yourself, whilst you explore your own unprocessed emotions and push yourself to find emotional responses. Allow yourself to repeat effective phrases several times if you feel an emotional response.
After this messy soul-searching angsty process, you should come out at the end of it with a new positive message for yourself. Think it to yourself, write it down in a book, put it on post-it notes around your house, or even make a poster or art work if you like. The important bit is that you can feel the effect it has on yourself, that you feel better, that it heals wounds you weren’t fully aware of having before.
This is something that I do every single time something touches a nerve in a way that scares me. I’m a bit of a perfectionist personality type, and I find this allows me to process my own overwhelming emotions in a process that makes sense to me and allows me to learn. When I talk to other people going through strong emotions, I try to help them to find their own messages that they need to hear, the real issue that the emotion is coming from. When you find the right message, you can always fall back to it when you need it; my issues with male affection and my insecure self esteem are routinely snapped back by my messages to myself that “I’m desirable even if no one wants me” and “I’m a good person I have done nothing wrong and I don’t have to be perfect”. These aren’t especially meaningful phrases to anyone outside of myself, but they speak deeply to the needs and beliefs that I held and still hold. They put myself into context and correct my unspoken irrational feelings.
When you start to understand how emotions from the past effect you and cause you to react irrationally, you can also start to see how this works in other people. You can start to see that the person who is being strangely wrung out about you not following the rules has an emotional wound somewhere that is about having high standards and obeying authority, and that actually, that is their wound that they need to heal and fix in themselves. It can be frustrating to see people struggle and blame it on you, but as long as you do your own processing, you can understand that it really isn’t about you, which will allow you to show more compassion and empathy towards these people who so need it. An excellent example of this is is this little skit song about projection by guest star Bayne Gibby on Crazy Ex Girlfriend*:
*which also is the best show ever about mental health, relationships and musical comedy ever and everyone should watch it please dear god watch it it will help you so much it is on Netflix and it is amazing and please OMFG watch itttttt. Thanks.
Transference (from Psychology Today): “The classic use of the term transference comes from psychoanalysis and includes “the redirection of feelings and desires and especially of those unconsciously retained from childhood toward a new object.” We all do this all the time. A boss at work reminds you of your cranky grandmother, so you cower accordingly. The guy next to you on the train reminds you of your college friend Stan so you crack a joke that Stan would appreciate, to the train-stranger’s bewilderment. Or the battle cry heard from loving couples around the world: “Stop treating me like I’m your mother!” Perhaps you respond to your younger-than-you female therapist as if she were your father. Transference happens everywhere, including within any therapeutic modality.”