Managing Emotions and Herding Cats
Herding cats is difficult not because cats are stubborn or unruly, but rather because cats weren't meant to move like a herd.
The same is true of managing your emotions. Emotions are not meant to be managed. They are meant to be noticed.
You have likely found yourself trying to manage your emotions in all sorts of ways. Sometimes you try chemicals* like caffeine, chocolate, alcohol, pot, or painkillers. Sometimes you try changing activities, friends, towns, and even families. Sometimes you try sleeping, movies, hours of surfing the internet, or obsessive exercising. Sometimes you try to change your partner. It's as though there is a set of little emotion knobs and if you just adjust everything and everyone in the right way, you will be in a happy and peaceful emotional state.
This is a tragic way to go through life. Like herding cats, you just won't get anywhere. The cats will keep going this way and that. Just as you have one in the right place another will slip out.
Emotions aren't as random as they seem. They are a signal system. Signals are for paying attention to, not managing. They arise from your sense of whether your needs are being met and that sense arises from your bodily sensations, perceptions, and thoughts in a given situation.
For example, the emotion of anger is a signal that you are perceiving a serious threat to your needs or values. When you are mindful enough to notice that you are angry, you can take the time to evaluate the actual level of threat. You get to question your interpretation of what's happening and evaluate if your needs are met or can be met in some creative way. This is where effective management can happen.
People sometimes say they meditate to feel peaceful. But meditation doesn't magically make you feel peaceful. A peaceful feeling arises because you are effectively managing your thoughts, perceptions, and needs.
Reflecting on your past and current experience by sitting still in silence or even doing something simple like knitting, sculpting, or basic cooking in silence allows you to become a focused and effective manager of your thoughts, perceptions, and needs.
When you are still enough to notice your thinking, you get to decide whether to believe those thoughts or not. You get to reflect on your experience and notice when your needs are met, unmet, or actually threatened in some way. With this clarity, you can make decisions and act in accord with what truly meets your needs, rather than attempt to adjust imaginary emotion knobs.
When you notice emotions as a signal rather than taking them at face value (i.e., "I am feeling overwhelmed so I should get out of here!"), you can get curious rather trying to wriggle away from them or herd them into a box.
Emotions are a powerful form of experience. They are made to get your attention. In and of themselves, they have no meaning. However, because the experience of them is so immediate and powerful, it's easy to automatically assign meaning. For example, you might consciously or unconsciously decide that anger means you should lash out, anxiety means something is wrong, overwhelm means you should isolate, hurt means someone is judging you, etc.
The more you notice your automatic meaning making system, the more you can question it and find what's most true for you and what best meets your needs. With this kind of attentiveness your emotions inform you rather than being some mysterious and uncomfortable force.
This week notice when you have the impulse to manage your emotions, that is, make a decision based on how you feel. Before acting on that impulse pause for 30 seconds and reflect on your thoughts and needs.
*This is not meant to be a statement about prescription drugs, which is a much more subtle and complex topic than I will address here.