The biggest challenge in dealing with difficult situations is to first of all manage your own emotional reactions to them. It is easy to see the other person as difficult and to blame them for your uncomfortable feelings. Acknowledging and accepting your own feelings to yourself is an important first step to making a positive response to someone who you find challenging.
As far back as 1650 the philosopher Baruch Spinoza said “an emotion, which is a passion, ceases to be a passion as soon as we have a clear and distinct idea thereof” In other words you won’t be overwhelmed by your emotions if you can name them.
In recent times neuroscientists have shown using brain-scanning technology that one of the most effective ways of calming the emotional brain (the limbic system) and engaging the rational brain (neo-cortex) is to name your own feelings to yourself.
Picture the scene of a couple commuting to work in their car. There is an easiness between them as they drive along the highway. She, quite innocently, raises the question about the high cost of their upcoming holiday to Fiji. He experiences this question as an attack. He tenses up and goes silent as his way of coping. In that moment he thinks of her as 100% the cause of his uncomfortable feelings because of her question.
Then he remembers what he learned in the TUF programme. “When I’m feeling ‘emotional’ and want to attack the other person or I become defensive (the fight/flight response) it is helpful to name my feelings to myself.”
He gives it a go and says to himself. “I’m feeling pressured. I’m feeling attacked. I am feeling inadequate.” As he does this a big file drawer in his mind slides open. It is stuffed full of manila folders that each have a case history of every other time in his life when he felt pressured, attacked or inadequate. Some of the files are over 40 years old and they are still there as fresh as the day they were first inscribed.
This one act of naming his feelings begins a process of change in him and he becomes less anxious. He no longer perceives that his wife’s question is an attack. He owns the feelings as his own and does not blame her for causing all his discomfort. He sees that she is only a very small file in a much bigger file drawer. He opened the whole drawer when he really only needed to focus on what his wife was actually asking.
He relaxes and is now able to engage in a fruitful conversation about the cost of their holiday without needing to be defensive.
Naming your feelings to yourself can lead to greater self-acceptance; it helps you be less dominated by your emotions; and makes it easier to deal with difficult people and situations.