Nicole Law says emotions should be put to good use and not allowed to dominate our actions.
Sometimes a phrase from a book or poem strikes home. Bullseye. It’s a powerful moment when you read on a page or a screen a reflection of your own soul. I experienced that impact recently as I read these words by the American poet Sylvia Plath: “It is as if my life were magically run by two electric currents: joyous positive and despairing negative – whichever is running at the moment dominates my life, floods it.”
I echo Plath’s sentiment on the ‘electricity’ that flows through the circuitry of our daily life – that of our emotional states. The sheer range of emotions which we experience daily – from disappointment at a cancelled appointment with a friend, to anger with a colleague who has accused us at a meeting, to joy at an unexpected text message from a relative with photographs of her newly born baby attached – is staggering.
Whether we like it or not, emotions have an influence on our behaviour and our responses to changes in our environment. When under excessive stress, even the best of us may react harshly towards others – it is simply a sign that our tolerance level has lowered and we are finding it difficult to exert self-control. I think of the times I have become impatient with friends or family when experiencing a peak in workload and my less-than-admirable response has seemed the ‘natural’ reaction.
Sometimes, we may be labelled as ‘emotional’ or ‘overly sensitive’ – both catch-all terms for anyone who appears to have a disproportionate response to a certain event. We have thereby created an ‘ideal’ emotional state and accorded higher value to individuals who remain calm and stoic regardless of the circumstances.
It’s certainly true that stoicism serves us well in perilous situations, but it need not be the default emotional state in all cases. Rather, when a preference for an absence of emotion takes root, unhealthy suppression occurs which spills over into other areas of our lives.
The outward manifestation of our internal turmoil comes through in our short temper, our harsh language and our choice to shut down conversations. It may even take us by surprise if we are usually mellow by nature. We wonder where this intensity has arisen from.
In reality, it’s likely to be an effect of our emotional response which may sometimes work against our sense of rationality. In an argument with one’s spouse under less stressful circumstances, one would be more likely to reach a compromise and repair any damage done. But under the stress of work deadlines and family pressure, one might comment on the other’s unkempt appearance or hurl an insult. We are still the same people, yet our response to the same issue differs widely, depending on the trigger they have unconsciously set off.
The word ‘trigger’ itself has entered contemporary speech in intriguing ways. We say “I’m triggered by…” to refer to something that induces a negative response from us – often annoyance, rage or discomfort. It is interesting to note that these ‘triggers’ are usually inconsequential when viewed rationally – a friend rolling their eyes, a truncated message from our fiancé or a sigh from a family member at home. Yet, the effects of this ‘trigger’ being activated are significant.
The beginning of acquiring greater control over our emotions thus begins with identifying what these triggers are but not necessarily avoiding them per se. If truth be told, we will never be able to evade a critical first impulse, or stress or disconnection, but what is within our control is our response.
I find that identifying my triggers allows me to better understand my responses and to see patterns in my behaviour. The vicious cycles we trap ourselves in are harmful in the sense that we do not take active steps to break free from the pattern. We end up making the same choices and feeding the emotional beast.
Awareness is the first step, as, instead of being a slave to an unconscious tendency, we make a conscious effort to take a critical distance from difficult situations and to enquire why we react in certain ways.
Random unpleasant circumstances plague us constantly and we would do well not to dodge or avoid them altogether but to move forward with a clearer perspective of how we can respond.
“What is the challenge in this situation and how could I rise to it?” We could ask ourselves. Anger is a response to something we don’t like, but am I really right not to like this? Is the problem in the comment or event or in myself? The problem might be more my pride or touchiness, or that I’m simply tired and not at my best.
At other times, I might be right to be angry but still need to see that I can’t stop there. What good can I draw from this? What can I learn from it? How can I grow through it?
Emotions can also be re-channelled or turned on their head. Anger can be turned into pity, envy into rejoicing at another’s good fortune, despair into resilience, and so on. The negative emotion can be converted into a positive one. What threatened to destroy us now enhances our existence and our relationship with others. Though, yes, this might need some struggle, wrestling with the negativity to keep it down and fighting to allow positive feelings to predominate.
Sometimes we almost have to feel the emotions as if we were detached observers. We feel them swarming within, yet still we can force ourselves to think otherwise. My feelings seem almost uncontrollable and yet I am able to know in my mind that they are not the fuller, the better me.
As a Christian, I also find it very helpful to turn to prayer in such circumstances, asking from God the grace to respond well to this challenge and turn it to the good, and struggling to pray for the one who has disturbed my peace.
All this involves a bit of self-reflection and taking active responsibility for our actions and words. The mark of maturity or its oft-conflated notion of ‘adulthood’ may not be paying taxes or cooking our own meals. It could be stepping back with grace from situations of possible conflict before we plunge headfirst into them and let our emotions guide and not cripple us.
Emotions are a powerful force that underlie our lived experiences. If we learn to harness them well and understand how they affect our daily decisions, maybe we’ll realise that there is a rationale behind our emotions after all.
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