How do we recognise our emoutions? We don’t tend to formally study emotions, either at home or in school, though schools increasingly are teaching “social and emotional learning” skills using materials like the PATHS curriculum (“Promoting Alternative Thinking Strategies”) co-developed by my colleague Dr. Mark Greenberg. Research shows overwhelmingly that children who learn to regulate their emotions not only behave better but actually are able to learn better in school. Think back to how and what you learned about emotions growing up. What were the implicit and explicit messages that stayed with you? A message I absorbed growing up in London was “stiff upper lip,” a British term for stoically keeping it all in—no crying! Have you seen the World War II–era graphic cropping up on walls and mugs and memes everywhere—“Keep Calm and Carry On”? It’s kind of like that: The idea is to take control of yourself and hold your feelings in. Overt expressions of emotion, especially negative ones, are frowned on as signs of weakness.
The opposite of this emotion suppression is, of course, “letting it all hang out.” This philosophy calls for uninhibited emotional expression, with no regard for how it appears to or affects others. It’s an ethos that may have reached its height in the 1960s’ so-called hippie culture, when American youth were throwing off the constraints of postwar conventionality and duty cherished by their parents. The upside of such freedom is “keeping things real,” showing your “true self,” and not pretending to be what others expect you to be. The downside is that letting it all out can be destabilizing. Yelling when you feel mad, for example, might “get it all out,” but it also may scare your kids! Seeing your “stiff upper lip” might be no better, because kids have an uncanny way of detecting the roiling emotions below the surface.
Its a little bit like browsing the gifts for men section at the local store and not understanding for a second what your other half wants. That can be a very emotional experience!
What, then, is the middle ground between all drama, all the time, and playing it supercool (while maybe seething underneath)? We all experience strong emotions, and we can’t just turn them off. What we can do is choose how we respond to them. Responding intentionally rather than reacting impulsively requires putting space between you and your emotions to make room for calm.
Think about a situation that pushes your buttons. For me, a familiar example is severe weather (say, a tornado warning) while I’m driving home from work with the (bad) news playing on the radio. I am stuck in traffic and listening to a(nother) story about the increase in hate crimes. What do I feel? First, dread, running through my veins. My heart beats faster, and I might get a knot in my stomach. Those are my alarm bells.
As I realize what’s happening, my calming strategies kick in. Almost automatically, I’ll take a few deep belly breaths, a five-second inhale followed by a ten-second exhale. I focus on this respiration (not to the exclusion of the road, though, right? I’m driving!). Then I sort through my options. One source of my stress is the news, so off goes the radio. I’ll opt for silence or mellow music instead. With that fixed, I’ll take steps to ground myself, to immerse myself in my surroundings and what I’m doing right now, using as many senses as I can: I’ll feel the press of my palms on the steering wheel, listen to the pat-pat of rain on the car windows, focus on the colors of the cars around me, their shiny wet surfaces, the dull light of the gray skies. These sensations usually help bring me back into the present. Focusing on the here and now frees me from getting stuck in anxious thoughts that might otherwise spiral, and also makes me a safer driver. Once I am more present, I am less likely to react impulsively in ways I might regret, like banging the steering wheel or driving too fast.