Managing emotions: stop shame, stress and fear from running your life
If you prefer to listen, here’s the podcast version of this post on iTunes and Soundcloud.
Oh no. This is bad. There’s no way out. I wish I never met that person. I should be doing better by my age. I haven’t done anything with my life. No one loves me. I am worthless. I look like crap. These are the voices of worry, shame, fear, regret, pain and stress – the loops that play out and push us to solve for x or act according to x.
This is when you can’t find your way out of a situation and instead your life just gets fogged over by it: something is so wrong with life that you feel terrible, inside. Life suddenly loses its highlights. You ask for advice, you work on plans to overcome it, you wish on it, pray on it, lament it, replay it, try to aggressively work on alleviating it, or you hide from it and numb it. And it thickens. It turns to hopelessness. It’s just this one “thing” but it catalyzes a whole lot of other negative beliefs — and as it grows, you can’t seem to find a workaround. When an emotion sticks inside you, it controls and often pushes you to act on its behalf — like a little demon with a joystick inside your brain.
So if this sounds vaguely familiar, this is an episode for you. There are three parts — the what, the why, and the how – the tools! Before I go on I wanted to let everyone know about my second podcast called “Love is Like a Plant” with Ellen Huerta of Mend (letsmend.com). She’s building an app to help you get you through a break-up. Check us out on iTunes and Soundcloud — it’s all about relationships and dating. Anyhoo, here we go… the what!
Part 1: The What
What we think about on a daily basis creates our life. What we perceive and feel, shapes our reality. Including when we go through big, difficult stuff that hurts: major life challenges, ego challenges — overwhelming, stressful situations. The smack downs of life that we can’t soothe, that really break us down and level our confidence — pushing us into a dark place. This is when emotions BECOME us. They take over the perspective we might otherwise be able to access and instead live as us. The mental narrative of the pain thus becomes your experience of self. And that’s because there’s a sort of bait and switch that occurs. A moment when a balance is tipped by the chemicals and how much we dislike them, when the challenges become MORE than just challenges. In the experience of them, suddenly you begin living out the scripts the challenges hand you. They become “me and my life” and not just a really intense pain or thing that you want to get away from.
That’s what I want to target in this blog: that moment of power that exists — when you’re actually holding a script and playing it out, and you can’t actually see that you’re doing that. Because this is the moment the pain is encouraged to become worse, and you feel stuck.
I am not suggesting that you can avoid all pain, forever. Pain and stress and conflict is just a part of life and living it fully. Being a person who feels joy and love means inevitably you will feel pain and sorrow. When you try really hard and you care about things, you’ll get hurt and that’s okay. The valleys make the peaks. There will never be a time when pain will be totally avoidable – when you will be able to predict the future and float above hurt. However — the pain you encounter can be much more manageable depending on perspective. Your power lies in the way you choose to THINK about the pain when you experience it.
It takes a gentle mental reminder to get you back into a position of empowerment and eventually, control. Which means you won’t continue reading the pain’s script aloud, donning the costume and acting the corresponding scenes to follow. Because the more you rehearse an emotion, the stronger and more pervasive it becomes. Which brings me to….
Part 2: The Why
Emotions are our feedback system — sort of like a human version of sonar, but way less high tech and evolved. So when you feel something in reaction to something external, it’s like you’ve gotten visceral feedback as to how to understand this external thing. Hot = ouch! Cold = Brrr! Only, with more complicated and layered experiences. They are just emotions but because they record experiences, they can take you for their own neural pathway rides. Big loops of chemicals and the memories associated with them are triggered and replayed, and thus the track gets reinforced. Emotions — when indulged, can be catalysts for beliefs that cloud perception. Fear can protect you but it also sets you up to expect bad things. Hate is a blend of fear, anger and shame and it can make you act out in ways that destroy your self-image. Sadness can quickly turn from a tear to an ocean of self-loathing. So you must remind yourself to be ACTIVE in the CHOICE. Is the emotion serving you or is it hurting you? Will it beget more of itself? You get to choose whether or not you will continue to live out the loop.
Just like you are not your thoughts, you are not your emotions. They just happen to you and through you – like nerves in your body reacting to touch. You are a being, a presence, an energy — a soul that expresses itself in all kinds of mediums from your handwriting to the sound of your voice. And you — as a “being” — can train yourself to reach a state where you are empty of thoughts, or you are able to simply witness the thoughts like muscle spasms. When you’re in this state, the emotions, though they’re in you, do not control you — and you can choose how you want to react. If you don’t have a practice of meditation or you’ve never been able to train your mind to shut off, this might sound totally alien or impossible. You can, as a practice, empty that presence of all distractions — including thoughts and physical distractions like itches. You can become like a pure essence: a leaf on a tree, just the pure essence of being alive and here. No emotions, no feelings, no thoughts in the way. Is it necessary to get to this place? No, there are other activities that create the same effect — and meditation might not appeal to you at all — but I just want you to be aware it is a real state that can exist for you if you were to practice getting there. You can access the sensations in your body, but they are not controlling you.
The reason a lot of people like to meditate is because it empowers you to access this place whenever you need it — usually most handy when you’re in a lot of pain or triggered. I used it (via yoga) for PTSD and it’s an incredibly powerful way to relieve anxiety and emotional overwhelm. It’s like a safe zone. Whether or not you choose to meditate, I want you to understand how this level of manual-shutting-down works related to emotions that motor your boat around against your will.
Another powerful perk is meditation forces you to stop looking forward or backward in your thoughts – instead you just come to now. Truly, nothing exists but right now yet when you’re angry or upset you’re fixated on something outside of the present moment. Your brain is making you live it more by bringing it up into your current state. By not redirecting, you’re allowing the issue to live through you – like a videotape. Meditation brings you back into the here and now — where nothing is wrong and you are safe.
This “something’s wrong” state is becoming a bigger and bigger issue for people because we’re moving quickly through life and multitasking, and the split-attention span creates a pervasive sense of anxiety. When you are not with yourself entirely, you are unsettled — lacking a connection to that state of clarity and calm. This forward/backward focus causes your life to be guided by the wrong thoughts — the ones that don’t live in now. If you’re always tugged in one direction or another — you’re always compromised and unable to be clear and directed in where to place focus. You’re also unable to connect to the deeper recesses of who you are and what you want. You are separated from the experience of your life by your thoughts. When you are consumed with a thought about something — no matter what it is, you are actively practicing that thing. Living it and creating it, in the present. For example, if you are all consumed with resent and someone who wronged you, you are practicing feelings of resent. You are bringing them into your present moment and how you live your life. The more you practice something, the more your life embodies it. Think of it as a ratios game! So this is really about being deliberate in those moments of emotional overload and pressing eject on the video tape as soon as possible.
Part 3: The Tools
In all of these tools, the answer is all about softening. They are not things to muscle or resist — it’s about reminding yourself gently and in a kind voice. Tame the thoughts with compassion, not anger at yourself or self-judgment. Reminding yourself to relax backwards and not attach.
Mantra: Not everything has to mean something.
This is a great tool for the times when you are starting to “watch yourself” in third person like a melodramatic movie scene. When you start to think to yourself, “OMG life is so hard. I’m in such pain!” Take the drama out of the moment and remind yourself — gently, that not everything has to mean something. Maybe this isn’t such a big deal — maybe it just “is.” If something isn’t serving you – and you aren’t going to be helped by focusing on the pain, choose to let it just be another day and nothing more.
Come back to the physical.
In the moments of emotional takeover, you can decondition your brain from spinning out of control by shifting over and over again into your senses. Like literally in the moment your thoughts are getting intense, immediately focus on the sensations you feel in your neck, then move to your chest. Try to locate where the emotion is clenching in your body. Keep coming back to the experience you sense in your body — shift from living inside your emotions to perceiving them as they are happening.
If you don’t want to do that, you can also shift into other perceptions — like sounds you hear and how they describe the space around you. Really reminding yourself to focus and tune into the literal details of your environment. When you can train yourself to do this mental practice — gently come back again and again to the surrounding elements, you are giving yourself the time — and little by little – the space, to choose vs be controlled by the emotions. And with practice, you’ll gain more and more control.
Turn the red turtle over.
Imagine there’s a raging demon turtle and it’s all red with emotion. That’s you when you’re in a toxic state of pain. When you feel things like rage or hate or resent or hurt, it can be hard to find your way out- the emotion almost has an undying power. So this is a visualization to find your way out. The turtle can be flipped over and underneath — on its belly, is soft green. This is true for you as well. Underneath the toxic potent emotion is something very human and small. The roots are very childlike and come from softness. For example hate is usually the self-protective veneer atop extreme vulnerability and longing. Once you can see that in yourself you can forgive yourself and come back to compassion and acceptance. It can be undone.
When threatened, we strive for an ego pad: approval or reinforcement of any kind that tells us we’re right or makes us feel strong. Beneath all that padding is the vulnerability that makes us human, and once you can see that feeling beneath — you can see how basic and understandable the need is — which is ultimately how you can soothe.
Meet the trolls face-to-face.
This is a reminder for the times you feel like running in the other direction and numbing a pain – kind of like when you were a kid and you were afraid of monsters under the bed. A powerful tool in these moments is simply turning on all the lights and looking at that troll face to face. In the moment of running from an overwhelming emotion or when something is starting to build inside you, try focusing intently on the sensations. Like fully be in them with all of yourself — swim in the feeling and confront it. Explore them. How do they feel? What you will likely discover is that — though intense and unpleasant, they are totally tolerable. Like a really hot bath. It’s not something that you MUST react to — you can absolutely just sit with it. If you practice this you will find that you grow your awareness of your own power and stability. You can and will handle anything calmly. Emotions are just emotions — and they become more doable.
ZAG’s top-ten hits.
This is a journal exercise! This one was inspired by a tool from Tara Brach — another podcaster I highly recommend. It’s for the fears or pains that bother you — this is a way to take power away)
You can look at that feeling and take it apart to see the underlying belief. The broken record that plays. There will be specific cues that recur in your life — mark them down in a top-ten hits!
The first step in defeating them is giving them their real life label. The second step is CHANGING the pattern of your behavior to follow — so leaping into something totally different and unrelated. Anything at all that’s new. And PRE-DECIDE these all now.
Identify the ruts you get into.
Cues that set you off, and then choose new routine that has a similar benefit — for example — if you get upset and eat, and you know that’s your cue – you will choose to enact an opposite behavior. Run like hell!
The last gate before change: self-doubt.
The greatest test — the final test, is doubt: self doubt is a DOOZY! It’s like the final battle of mortal combat: this ninja demon has lightning bolts and knows how to hit your weak spots! It’s the voice that tells you you’re broken, you’re a loser, you’ll never be different, you should just give up now, you don’t deserve happiness or love etc.
Here’s what I want you to remember: this is the FINAL STEP before change actually takes hold. When you face this final stage of self-doubt, it’s actually a part of you that is recognizing the change that’s about to take place and getting fearful of straying from sameness and routine. In other words, it’s a GOOD SIGN that something new is on the horizon!
As you get “good” or practiced at making change, you will begin to recognize that this feeling of “who am I kidding – I can’t do this…” is the last gate right before your change has been successful. So when you feel this fear, all you have to do is smile and greet the doorman – keep walking on through the gate. Remind yourself that this fear is a positive sign: all you have to do is keep doing what you’re doing and you’re almost there. Self-doubt is the final gate you pass through before successful change and growth.
I want to say thank you to my latest monthly sponsors – Margaret, Gabrielle and Enrique! YOU ROCK!!!!! You made my month and last two months – thank you thank you. And thank you to all my current sponsors – you’re creating my dream every day.
We’re taught by a society with high standards, that if we are weak or we can’t be strong in a given situation, there’s something lesser or broken in us that needs to be shunned or suppressed from view. This belief is what drives many to run from these kinds of “crippling” emotions. When you hit walls of pain or you feel like something has taken you down with it, remember that sometimes it just is what it is — and you don’t have to get carried away with it. You can choose to move through it — as messy as it is — and let it be what it is: an emotional state that is not who you are. It’s not you, it’s just happening to you. You get to choose what it means for you in your life.
The greatest opportunity for growth arrives when you admit where you are — even if that’s at rock bottom and your face is covered with mud. Because from there — everything is accessible. All change is possible. From honesty and acceptance, you can CHOOSE empowerment. It starts with the awareness of the true reason you feel powerless. That simple step of acknowledgement gives you a key. To separate from the chaos and also face it — from there it can be overcome. It becomes just what it is: a very human and powerful emotion.
I will tell you from my own personal experience (and lots of science and research) these moments of painful emotional confrontation are when a capacity for great change arises. When you hit rock bottom or you’re leveled by something majorly painful, your brain has the greatest opportunity for growth: it can say, “I don’t like this. I need to make a change.” And that change will for the first time be accessible — because you mean it enough. You can’t hide or run, anymore. When you accept all that sucks and really look at it – see it for what it is – and not fight it or push it away – you can take the real steps needed to alter your situation. It all starts with acceptance and the commitment to a new goal – a new way of being. So no matter where you are right now or how much you hurt, be brave. Do not run away from your pain – choose to confront it. If it’s too painful to look at alone, absolutely get the right support and professional help! I am with you on that front: confronting deep pain is a lot less life-threatening when you have a guide to hold your hand.
My point is that the pain cannot rule your life or rob you of yourself. Whatever you’re trying to move through, it can be done. With the right tools and support, you can move through this and come out stronger than before. I believe that 100%. I wish you much luck and love and strength of heart. And if you know anyone who might benefit from this – by all means share it. Smile lovely friends! xo