I’ve heard from many of the listeners of the show that they’d like to be more skillful with the way they experience and deal with difficult emotions.
We all feel unpleasant emotions and sometimes they can really get the better of us.
In addition to just feeling awful, fueled by these feelings we then often act in ways we later regret – like emotional eating, saying unkind words, physically acting out, or turning to substances to numb the pain.
If you can relate, then this post is for you. Read on.
The good news is there is a way to move through these difficult feelings so that you actually get more in touch with yourself and later appreciate (rather than regret) the way you decided to act (or not act) at the time.
This process is called emotional regulation and it’s all about helping us to be driven to action (or inaction) by our values, rather than by our emotions.
There are four parts to The One You Feed’s model for emotional regulation.
The first part is to Realize You’re Triggered.
By triggered, I mean, that you are feeling an unpleasant emotion.
This may sound obvious or too simple of a thing to do to merit its own step in this process but it is an essential step and one that has to happen in order for anything else to go right.
Once we notice and acknowledge that we’re feeling triggered, we can begin to work with the feeling(s) and thoughts that are going on inside of us. But if we don’t notice that we’re triggered, we often jump right to action, sometimes without even realizing that we’re being driven by a bad feeling.
For example, let’s look at a couple of scenarios around emotional eating.
Scenario #1: You might notice that you’re feeling sad and so you think – I’ll comfort myself with food.
Scenario #2: The first thing you might consciously notice is that you are really craving a piece of cake. From that point on, you are addressing the craving for cake – should you have some or not, can you resist the temptation. It’s all about the cake at this point – or is it?
If you were to back up a minute and connect with your emotions, you might have first noticed that you were feeling bored and blue. And what’s a quick fix to stop feeling bored and blue? The serotonin and dopamine boost that comes with eating sugar. So, the first thing that surfaces into your consciousness is the action of eating something with sugar in it. Blowing right past the unpleasant emotion and right to action. (And, an action that you might regret later.)
This applies to any action that would serve to numb or discharge a difficult emotion. If you feel an impulse to act, pause first and check-in with yourself to see if, in fact, you are actually feeling a difficult emotion beneath that inclination to do something.
At this point, it’s important to commit to non-action until you’ve worked through the 4 steps of this model of emotional regulation.
You may experience strong emotion when triggered and though it can be uncomfortable, know that you can be emotionally uncomfortable for these 10 minutes or so. Emotions aren’t emergencies. As Julie Simon puts it:
“Stop, slow down, and make the conscious choice to delay gratification for ten minutes. Say to yourself, “I am willing to be uncomfortable for ten minutes so that I can reach my goals.” Remind yourself, “I can endure discomfort for a short while. It’s not a root canal or childbirth!”
So, part 1 is to Realize You’re Triggered. Literally say to yourself, “I’m feeling ______”.
At this stage, you may know the name for the emotion or you may just know that you feel bad. Either way, acknowledge it by filling in that blank.
The second part of the process is to Feel/Address the Emotion.
After you Realize You’re Triggered, you might then sense that the feeling(s) can be really intense and you can feel overwhelmed or hijacked by a strong surge of unpleasant emotion(s). In this case, you’ll want to engage in some form of self-soothing practices.
If you can remove yourself from the situation that triggered you at this point, that can be really helpful.
Here are some ideas for self-soothing practices according to Julie Simon:
- “Breathe deeply
- Snuggle up with a beloved pet
- Listen to comforting music, uplifting audio messages or affirmations
- Read comforting passages
- Play a musical instrument or sing
- Do yoga or stretching exercises
- Take a walk or hike in natural surroundings
- View or create artwork
- Write about your feelings
Once you feel less emotionally overwhelmed, you can move into a skillful experiencing of your emotions.
The following exercise, RAIN, will help you to do this.
Maybe you already know about RAIN – but are you actually doing it? For it to work, you have to engage with it so I’d encourage you to bring it into your life at moments of strong emotion.
Recognize, Allow, Investigate, Nurture
- Recognize: Ask yourself, “What emotions am I experiencing in this moment?” Go ahead and say to yourself, “I feel (name your emotion(s).”
- Allow: Give yourself permission to feel all of these feelings and sensations. Breathe through them. A helpful phrase can be, “It’s ok to feel _______.”
- Investigate: Get curious about your experience with the emotion. Pay attention to your bodily sensations. Just notice what you’re feeling. What does it feel like to feel angry? Where is the emotion showing up in your body? What bodily sensations are you experiencing? Tightness in your chest? Clenching at your jaw? Do a mental body scan to find out.
- Nurture: Bring some kindness and compassion to your experience. Pretend you are a mother talking to her child, or an older version of yourself talking to your present self. A benefit of this step is to create a safe psychological space in which you can work. Some helpful phrases can be “This feeling belongs” or “I’m so sorry you are feeling sad” or “It’s understandable you would be angry right now”.
Former guest, Tara Brach, teaches the method RAIN as a way to experience difficult emotions.
Now that you’ve made skillful contact with your emotion(s), you are better able to identify and work with the thoughts that exist. And that is what part 3 in the process will help you to do.
Part 3 is to Untangle Your Thoughts.
As in part 2, there is a specific exercise here that will help you to untangle your thoughts. But before jumping into the exercise, it’s important to understand the framework you’re working within.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy explains the way we process life experiences through the framework of Activating events, Beliefs, and Consequences.
Activating event → Beliefs → Consequences
The activating event is the instigator in the equation. It’s any kind of stimulus which you perceive that goes on to activate a series of thoughts and emotions within you.
Then, there’s the belief – i.e. what you think about the activating event or situation.
Following the belief, come the consequences. The consequences are the emotions you feel and/or the behaviors you engage in as a result of the activating event and belief.
Putting it all together: something happens, you have a thought about it and then you have a feeling about it or you take an action on it. A → B → C.
Ok, on to the exercise to untangle your thoughts: Cognitive Journaling
This is modeled on a method devised by Richard Ragnarson.
I’m going to pair this exercise down to its core components. If you would like to know more about how to practice Cognitive Journaling in your own life, I help people do that through The One You Feed Personal Transformation Program and you can schedule a free 30-minute call with me here https://ericzimmer.coach/ to see if the program might be a fit for you.
- Step 1 is to write down the consequence; in other words, write down the emotion or behavior you’d like to reflect upon.
(Note: We’re working backwards through the A → B → C equation in this exercise, starting with “C”.)
- Step 2 is to describe the activating event; in other words, write down a description of the instigating situation.
- Step 3 is to find out the belief. To do so, write down the answers to the following questions to discover what the activating event meant to you:
- What did this event mean for me at the moment?
- Why did I feel this emotion or behave that way?
- What did I think following the event that could have caused that feeling/behavior?
- What was my thought at the moment of the event?
- Step 4 is to challenge the belief; in other words, using a perspective of doubt and skepticism, question the validity of the belief. To do so, write down the answers to the following questions:
- Is it based on sound logic?
- Is it falsifiable?
- Is it useful?
- Does it make me more flexible or is it rigid or extreme?
- Do I have proof of it?
- Is the belief useful?
If your belief is good, each answer should be a yes. If you answer even one no, you can go on to ask these questions:
- How can I demonstrate this?
- Does this belief help me feel good and achieve my objective?
- Is this fear really that terrible? What’s the worst that can happen?
- How likely is my projection?
- Why should things not be like this?
- Is it really possible to have the world go according to my wishes?
- Step 5 is to form a replacement belief. Here you’ll brainstorm up to three new beliefs that are flexible, logical, helpful/supportive of your wellbeing, falsifiable/objectively true/congruent with reality.
- Ask yourself, “what is an alternative thought that can I think?”
- For each thought, determine if it fits with the activating event and identify what emotion it causes in you.
Part 4 is to Act According to Your Values.
Now, it’s time to determine the “right action” for the situation based on your values (rather than your emotions). This approach is called Values Based Action.
In their book, Emotion Efficacy Therapy, Matthew McKay and Aprilia West explain Values Based Action this way:
“Values-based action (VBA) is defined as any behavior that is in alignment with or expresses value for the context of the situation. VBA is an alternative to acting on painful emotions. VBA can also be defined as behavior that takes one’s life in a direction that matters, that’s in alignment with what feels important and right for the situation. Clarifying values across life domains is the first step to being able to identify VBA in the moment of choice.
- Step 1: In your journal, identify your core values that guide (or that you would like to guide) your life’s decisions.
- Step 2: Consider the situation at hand and list which value(s) apply or are relevant.
- Step 3: Identify specific values-based actions that allow you to express yourself —in the moment of choice—in a manner consistent with your values.”
When working here to determine “right action”, it can be helpful to take on the voice and perspective of a wise older version of yourself, a kind friend who also holds you accountable or a loving yet firm parent.
The goal of The One You Feed emotional regulation process is to help you work more skillfully through the space between the moment you feel triggered and the moment when you decide to act (or decide not to act), so that you can ultimately act according to your values, rather than acting according to your emotions.
If you would like to have your values drive your actions rather than your emotions – in other words, you realize that having your emotions run your life will not lead to the quality of life you’d like to have – then this process will help you get there.
Would you like some additional help in applying this 4 step model to your life?
I help people every day to do just that – and more – in The One You Feed Personal Transformation Program.
In this program, I work 1-on-1 with you to help you uncover what is standing between where you are now and where you’d like to be in your life. Then we work together to create and implement a plan to get you to your goal.
You don’t have to go it alone and some would argue that you can’t. Whether it’s me or someone else in your life, having someone to support and guide you on the path to a better version of yourself – and thereby a better life – can be the difference between another failed attempt and a new reality for you.
Wishing you all well.