A couple are commuting to work in their car. There is an easiness between them as they drive along the highway. She, quite innocently, raises the unresolved issue about the high cost of their upcoming holiday.
He experiences this question as an attack. He tenses up and goes silent. That's his usual way of coping when emotions like this arise in him. In that moment he thinks of her and this question as 100% the cause of his uncomfortable feelings.
You see, the biggest challenge in dealing with difficult situations is to first of all manage your own emotional reactions to them.
He is not alone in this. It's 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.
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.
The husband then remembered 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 recorded.
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 had unconsciouly accessed 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.
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.
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.
The Thriving Under Fire (TUF) book, workshops and e-learning equip people with the skills to deal with not only their emotions, but their reactions to other peoples.
Thriving Under Fire - The book
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