Emotions fall into two broad categories:
- emotions related to happiness, and
- emotions related to frustration or unhappiness.
As a society, we have become uneasy with emotions related to frustration or unhappiness. Maybe that’s because drug companies, pill pushers and drug dealers have convinced us that these emotions are the result of an “illness” or “disorder.” They’re eager to tell us what to think about how we feel, and to encourage us to drug ourselves and others so we can “feel better.”
If you’re angry and I’m uncomfortable with that, I may insist you attend an anger management program so I can feel better. If you’re depressed and I’m uncomfortable with that, I may insist you take medication so I can feel better. If you’re not getting along with someone and I’m uncomfortable with that, I may get in the middle and insist you stop fighting and get along right now so I can feel better. And if I don’t set clear boundaries for myself but instead allow you to take advantage of me, I may insist you get therapy and take medication so I can feel better.
After my father died, someone close to me, distressed by my grief, asked if I wouldn’t consider going on anti-depressants for a while.
“Well, clearly you’re upset, and this might help you get through the worst of it.”
“Are you kidding me? My Dad just died! This is the right way to feel!”
It’s important to understand who emotions belong to and what they’re for. Emotions aren’t a result or an end in and of themselves. And they aren’t good or bad. They’re feedback. They’re just information. Emotions let us know whether what we’re doing is getting us what we want. Period.
Emotions don’t need fixing. They also don’t need to be judged, minimized, or negated by comments like, “Cheer up!” “Oh, come on, it’s not that bad.” “There’s no reason to be angry.” “You shouldn’t feel like that.”
So why is there such urgency when we’re frustrated, such a need to do something to feel better? Because our emotions are letting us know that what we’re doing isn’t working, that we need to refocus on what we want, and do or think something else to get it.
Every emotion we feel is appropriate, and can be changed—but only by us.
We have direct control over what we do, what we think and what we want. But because feelings are feedback, we have only indirect control over them.
There are three ways we can change how we’re feeling:
a) change what we’re doing,
b) change what we’re thinking, or
c) change what we want.
After my father died, when I thought about him, I missed him and I grieved. But I couldn’t sustain that indefinitely, and when I began thinking about other things, my mood changed with no further effort on my part.
Whatever you’re feeling is the right way to feel. Whatever the other person is feeling is the right way for them to feel—whether you like it or not, whether you agree or not.
Emotions are feedback. So if we start medicating emotions to change them or “get them under control,” how will we know what we need to change, what we need to do differently to get what we want out of life? How will we learn to listen to what our emotions are telling us?
Respect your feelings
For one week, respect your feelings. Pay attention to them. And when you’re feeling unhappy or frustrated, ask yourself, “What do I want?” (This is a very powerful question, because it will move you at once from feeling to thinking, where you have more direct control.) “What am I doing to get it? Is it working? What am I thinking? Is it true? What else could I do or think or want?”
Respect others’ feelings
However someone else is feeling is how they’re feeling. Others don’t have to change how they’re feeling for you to be okay. There may be a problem with what they’re doing, but that’s something they have direct control over, unlike their feelings.
So what can you do when you’re ill at ease with someone else’s emotions?
- First, calm yourself down. Reduce your own frustration. Take a couple of deep breaths. Notice what you’re thinking—without necessarily believing it’s true. Acknowledge that you’re uncomfortable and that’s okay.
- Recognize that this is not about you. Don’t take it personally, and don’t try to fix it. It’s not yours to fix. Don’t hook in, engage or fight back. And don’t offer suggestions, opinions or advise unless asked.
- Once you’ve reduced your own discomfort and come to terms with whose emotion it is, you’ll be in a better position to decide what’s best for your unique situation.
- Now ask yourself what a self-confident, loving adult would do now—and do that. If the best plan would be to take action, take action. If the best plan would be to leave, leave. If the best plan would be to offer support or encouragement, do so. And as long as you focus on your behaviour, you’ll always do your best.