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Stopping the Runaway Train – Part II: The Importance of Naming Our Experience

by Jason Pogue, PLPC

This is the third blog in a series. So far, we’ve explored the very real experience of relational chaos and trying circumstances and looked at our ability to choose how we want to be in response to them, and we’ve discussed how the first step to stopping the runaway train is slowing down through relaxation exercises like the breathing one we tried together. Today we will explore the importance of naming our experience.

[Remember, this all takes time, patience, and practice. So, though our blog series chugs along, stopping the runaway train usually takes some serious time and discipline and perhaps help from a friend, mentor, or therapist. If you want to take the next step in this regard, feel free to email or call and setup an appointment.]

“You can’t just change plans last minute! I have studies, and work, and a life to plan of my own!” I shouted over the phone. My brother’s wife wisely jumped in, “This is getting unsafe – we need to have this conversation when we aren’t driving through this crazy weather.” She was right, and I was out of control. And, I wish I could say I realized it in that moment and stopped the runaway train of my anger – but I didn’t. I did hang up, but I was still furious.

My brother and his wife were taking a cross-country road trip for their honeymoon. Based on a number of legitimate reasons including weather, they had to change the days in which they were arriving to visit me in St. Louis where I was working my way through my graduate studies. When my brother delivered the message, I was in the midst of a hectic life – running from work, to class, to work, to making dinner, to studying through the night, and so on. I was moving so fast, that I didn’t skip a beat when my anger overtook me – I just let it fly without a moment’s delay.

Now, after the fact, I can look back and realize that anger wasn’t primarily about what was going on. I was feeling overwhelmed with life, and feeling like my schedule and anxieties were invisible to my brother and his wife.

This experience hit on threads in my story of times when I felt like my experience took the back seat to others, and I was so tired of that feeling of being trampled or not worth people noticing my needs.

All of this was actually pretty removed from anything my brother or his wife did, but I was moving so fast that in the moment I had no capacity to understand this because I had no ability to name my own experience.

We live in a culture that values ‘busy-ness’ – where being on the go is often a status symbol of our success.

There’s nothing wrong with a healthy ambition in your career or life, and yet sometimes we are moving so fast we entirely lose touch with ourselves – with what is actually going on inside our minds and hearts. We enter autopilot.

Autopilot isn’t always bad either, but when it comes to relationships it becomes a barrier to knowing others and being known. It’s like trying to be in relationship with a robot. So, after we’ve incorporated various relaxation exercises into our life to help manage our big emotions like deep breathing or mindfulness, another crucial step is putting words to what is going on in our internal world without judgment.

The last part can trip many up because we want to justify ourselves. Maybe a small piece of us wonders if it’s okay what we’re feeling? Perhaps we shame ourselves that we should never feel such things, or we blame others for what we are experiencing internally. Much of this comes out of what we’ve learned about emotions from both our families of origin and our experiences along the way. These areas are another step of exploration, but for now we must simply name our experience.

Just as a doctor cannot move forward with treatment without fully understanding all of the symptoms, so we cannot move through our internal emotional experience without fully understanding it from a distance – without judgment. What is there, is there. To jump to judgment before fully understanding it would be to like the doctor treating you without asking any questions about symptoms – yikes! To avoid naming it, is to brush it under the rug and give what control we have over how we want to be back to the runaway train. This is why naming our experience, and the accompanying emotions, is so vital to not being ruled by them.

 

Feeling your Feelings

Feeling your Feelings

 By Jonathan e. Hart, LPC

Human emotions are unpredictable, complex, surprising things.

Feelings. We all have them.  It can be confusing when we don’t understand the feeling we are experiencing, or why we are even experiencing it in the first place.  Often the feeling doesn’t seem to match the scenario that triggered it.

We humans seem rarely to question our emotions.  They exist as reflexes.  They occur without our choice or invitation.  When we don’t understand them, we usually try to rationalize them away or turn them off.  This gets us into trouble more often than not, because simply not feeling our emotional reflexes is like trying not to kick when the doctor thumps us at the knee with the little mallet.   

The discipline that will help understand our emotional reflexes is to practice feeling them.  Learn what they physiologically feel like.  Does it burst or contract?  Does it rise or fall?  Does it feel like a flutter or a weight? Do I get hot or cold in my face, hands, etc.?  Where in my body do I feel it?  What does it make me want to do?   

This may seem silly, but all of our emotions have a physiological component.  We talk about our bodies and our minds and our feelings as though they are separate things.  We do this because we have to in order to be able to talk about them and learn about them.  But body, heart, and mind are all one thing.   

Think about the last time you got startled.  Chances are you jumped or twitched somehow.  Your heart rate accelerated and you experienced a sharp intake of breath.  You did not choose these things.  They happened.  They are the physiological component of the feeling of fear.  It passed quickly enough when you realized that there was no real danger, but they happened nonetheless.

Slowing down and taking the time to feel our feelings is particularly difficult when the feeling that is present is a negative one like fear or anger or loss.  

This process requires us to sit in the feeling, to allow it to exist without making it better.  This process requires the work of deliberately NOT managing the feeling, but rather observing it in order to understand it.

When we do this, we gain an edge.  We cultivate the skill of awareness.  We will more quickly recognize the feeling when it arises again, and more quickly be able to understand ourselves.  We gain a delay between when we feel and what we do next.  We can use this delay to make a conscious, careful choice about our next step rather than simply doing what the feeling tells us to do.  Particularly in relationship, this thoughtful choice can be the difference between a healthy, responsible interaction and a reactive, destructive one.  

In order to begin learning how to do this, take a moment and think about a mild emotion.  Don’t start with a really big feeling.  Think about the physical feel of it.  Cultivate an understanding of this physiological component, and pay attention.  You might be surprised by how often you feel that same feeling in other places.

When you’ve got a bit of practice with this, you can begin working on larger feelings, like the ones that rise up around conflict or arguments.  Again, slow down and pay attention.  You may be surprised by what you learn.

Why am I so angry?

By: Andy Gear, LPC, EMDR Trained Therapist

Why am I so angry? 

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Do you ever ask yourself “why am I so angry?” Or maybe your life just feels way too frustrating and stressful. If so, this may be a sign of a deeper issue.

It’s tempting to blame others for our frustration, but irritants don’t have to cause outbursts. There are other choices; you don’t have to live like this. Here are four ways to change your life:

1. Notice the difference between the emotion of anger and our response to it. 

Anger is an appropriate response to legitimate injustice. But most of us don’t notice the transition from emotion to reaction.

That is where we can get ourselves into trouble. We feel like it is one big reflex that we have little or no control over. But that is generally untrue.

Slowing down our response allows us to notice the choices we are making. 

This is where anger management techniques can be useful. Breathing exercises, mindfulness, and other such skills can help us slow down our physical reactions and choose how we want to respond.

2. Notice your expectations.

Anger often springs from our unrealistic expectations. We are not entitled to a problem-free life, and life rarely goes as planned. As obvious as that sounds, our anger often reflects these illogical expectations.

It is important to objectively examine our expectations. If we find ourselves consistently frustrated by traffic, it is likely we have unrealistic expectations of what driving in a city is like.

Cars will cut us off, lines will be long, people will make mistakes, and customer service will be laughable. Accepting these as a given will drastically improve our enjoyment of life. The world isn’t out to get us, even if it feels that way sometimes.

People (even close friends and family) are not required to respond the way we prefer. If your pet peeve causes you consistent irritation, consider giving it up. It is unlikely that people will suddenly change.

3. Notice what anger tells us about our boundaries.

Anger can be a useful sign that our boundaries are being invaded. It warns us that something needs to change.

You may be too busy, too tired, or living an inauthentic life. Stress and exhaustion can significantly impact outlook. We may need to learn to say ‘no,’ pursue healthier relationship, or live more in line with our values. 

This may involve downsizing to what you really care about or pursuing a goal that is truly significant to you. Otherwise our deep seeded discontent may come out in unexpected and sometimes violent ways.

4. Notice what’s behind the anger.

Anger is often a secondary emotion. It is generally not the first emotion we feel. It is a reaction to softer emotions like anxiety, sadness, or hurt. But we often prefer anger over admitting that we are hurting.

Anger allows us to feel more powerful or in control, but it prevents us from dealing with the real problem. We neglect the roots of our problem—such as anxiety, depression, grief, or trauma.

Going straight to anger stops us from communicating with our loved ones about what’s really going on. Sharing our feelings of hurt or rejection would allow them to reassure and comfort us. We could have healing conversations that lead to greater connection. But communicating surface anger leads only to defensiveness.

Noticing what comes before the anger helps us to deepen our relationships through those healing conversations. This awareness also allows us to seek healing of the root issues that are driving our anger.

When we pursue this healing, we find that anger no longer holds power over us. We now have the capacity to respond differently.

3 Essential Questions to Ask Yourself When Big Feelings Happen

3 Essential Questions to Ask Yourself When Big Feelings Happen

(#3 is the real kicker!)

If you’re looking for a way to keep from losing your mind when big feelings happen, I’m going to suggest these 3 essential questions to ask yourself.

First let’s define “Big Feelings”. These are feelings that swell up and burst in a nanosecond. It happens as quickly as a reflex (because they usually *are* reflexes, not choices!).   A sudden, very intense feeling of anger, offense, rejection, hurt, or other similar powerful emotions.   Often you may be able to recognize that the intensity you are feeling seems out of proportion to the thing that seems to have caused it.

Avenues Counseling

 

The Big Feeling is generally accompanied by a strong reaction of some kind: you erupt in anger, you run and hide, or maybe you shut down and withdraw. Whatever you do, it seems automatic.

So the three questions are a tool you can use to get underneath the reflex and understand what is pushing you around. The end goal is to gain enough understanding and distance from the feeling that you can intelligently choose what you are going to do next, rather than letting the feeling dictate your actions.

Question #1: What is the feeling? This seems simple at first: “I’m ANGRY, you idiot!! Isn’t that obvious?!”   Not so fast. Usually with an emotion like anger or offense, there is a softer feeling that comes first. Think of a parent that sees their child playing in the street. They react in anger: “What have I told you about playing in the street??” But the first feeling is fear: “I’m afraid you are going to get hurt or killed!!”

The key to mastering Question #1 is volume: wrap *a lot* of words around the feeling. Go into as much detail as you can. What does it physically feel like? Where do I feel it in my body? Is there motion to it? Does it rise or fall? Move forward or retreat? Burst or crush? It’s probably more than just one feeling, so what else is there? How many synonyms or clarifying words can you come up with to describe this feeling? These are just some examples, but hopefully it’s enough to get started.

Question #2: Why is it there? This question moves from what’s happening inside you to your immediate surroundings. What just happened to trigger this feeling?   Again, it seems obvious at first. “I’m pissed because you’re a jerk.” This part may be true, but let’s go a bit deeper, shall we? Get into the layer of meaning. What is it about that word, that action, that tone of voice that makes it so intense? Does it tell you they think you’re worthless? That they don’t respect you? That they’re not going to hear anything you have to say no matter what? Again, get into as much detail as you can.

Question #3: Where does it come from? We’re still dealing with the feeling that you named in question #1. Answering this question can be extremely informative, as well as kind of scary. The goal of this question is to discover where in your story, as far back as you can remember, have you felt this feeling before? Often, as you think about the physical sensation of the feeling, the answer comes quickly. It may be a specific story or event. A moment that, though it happened 10 years ago or 30 years ago, is crystallized in your mind so clearly you can remember what you were wearing.

It may not be a specific moment, but rather a type of moment. The feeling might be connected to something that happened often enough that specific moments are lost in the sheer number of them. What remains is the impression of “always”. “We always had to… He always said… It was always like this… Whenever I saw/heard/felt this, I knew…”.

Discovering your answer to Question #3 can sometimes be like a bomb going off in your mind and heart. All of a sudden you realize that you are connecting two different stories together, and that the old story is what you’re really angry at (or afraid of). Maybe the two stories are similar enough that they feel the same, and it’s the kind of story you never want to be a part of ever again.

Gaining this understanding is absolutely essential to developing the capacity to thoughtfully respond to the triggering situation rather than reacting out of the power of your emotions. Please don’t misunderstand: I’m not suggesting you ignore what you feel, but that you seek to understand what you feel clearly so that you can deal with it intelligently.

Big Feelings are tough to handle. They always will be. But you don’t have to blow up or disappear when they happen. The Three Questions are intended to help you be able to stand up, speak your peace, and seek resolution in a healthier way. Rather than getting lost in the fog of confusion, fear, or anger, you can engage with openness, clarity, and self-control.

-by Jonathan Hart, LPC