A few days ago, I had a bit of an internal freak-out at my day job. I missed a deadline, and I got called out on it. There was some confusion about that deadline, due to an unclear email—which I really should have cleared up days before. It was my fault, and my frustration was directed at myself. Still, it was tempting to let that emotion spill over onto the person who wrote that email.
So I took a moment to breathe, settle, and move on. I apologized for my tardiness, and sent the completed numbers along.
And then, for some reason, I let my frustration get the best of me. I decided to “vent” by writing an email that I would never send, if you know what I mean.
Before long, my mild annoyance at myself for missing the deadline had turned into serious frustration and stress. I almost convinced myself that I should sent that email.
The bad news is that I let it get to that point at all.
The good news is, I didn’t send the email. Eventually, I got over it and let it go. And, it got me thinking about some of these common myths about emotions, myths that have caused quite a bit of harm in the lives of people that I’ve worked with.
The top three myths about emotional well being:
Myth #1: Letting it out / venting
Let’s clear something up: Expressing an emotion doesn’t “let it out.” Your body is not an emotional bottle, storing up anger until you explode. That idea is long past its time, and has been proven wrong over and over again.
When you feel happy inside, and you talk to someone about it, shout for joy, and maybe do a little dance, does release the happiness so that you no longer feel it?
Of course not!
So why would it be any different for anger, sadness, or frustration?
Expressing an emotion feeds the emotion. It puts your body and mind into a feedback loop that strengthens the feelings. Often, it increases your energy, at least temporarily. It feels good, sometimes, because it amplifies your emotion, not because it releases the emotion.
What to do: When you have a feeling that isn’t serving you, first take a moment to understand what you’re feeling. What purpose does that feeling serve? Feelings have a purpose, and there’s probably something you can discover if you ask yourself what you can learn from your current situation.
Once you’ve learned that lesson, you can allow the feeling to move through you. Don’t try to stop it, but don’t feed it, either. Let it go.
The only time that “bottling up” an emotion actually happens is when you’re actively feeding with your self-talk and actions. If you don’t feed it, it will fade.
Myth #2: Sadness is bad / Happiness is something that should be felt all the time
If you haven’t seen this yet, I highly recommend it:
For those who didn’t watch that clip. Louis starts out talking about kids and smartphones. And it’s hilarious. And then goes on to describe in incredibly poignant yet funny terms the feeling of letting sadness happen. And it’s pure genius.
Sometimes your body or your unconscious mind needs to tell you something. Emotions are one of the ways that that communication can happen, and it’s not always rainbows and unicorns. That’s OK! You do not have to feel happy every moment of your life. Enjoy the variety that comes from the ups and down. And listen for the messages that your body and mind are trying to send you through emotions.
Extreme stress can lead to PTSD. Sadness can descend into depression. But neither feeling is bad in and of itself.
Yes, Virginia, sadness can be good for you!
What to do: Emotions are signals. Listen to the signal, and do something about the cause, if you can. Don’t ignore the signal, and don’t overreact to it, either.
When the fire alarm goes off, you don’t just pull out the batteries on the detector and go back to your business. At least, I hope you don’t! And you don’t immediately go running and screaming in a panic. Check to see if there’s a fire! The fire alarm is there for your own good. So are your “negative” emotions.
Sometimes, a strong negative emotion is just the force we need to get us up and moving on something important. Check out this fantastic TED talk for an example of what I mean:
Myth #3: Emotions can’t be controlled
When I worked in residential group therapy, we were always dealing with the boys taunting each other. There were always certain boys who were consistently taunted by the others. One in particular stands out. Let’s call him Dan (not his real name).
Dan was someone whose buttons were very easy to push. Just a few words and a facial expression could push him into an explosion of anger and sadness. And of course that’s why the other boys picked on him. He was a ridiculously easy target.
He was convinced that this was not under his control. And, for him in that moment, it really wasn’t. He had never learned that it was even possible to control his emotions, let alone how.
But this is absolutely something that can be controlled, with practice. Not always directly, but directly enough to make a difference.
Imagine that you are a car. One of the front wheels is your conscious thoughts. The other is your actions. The rear wheels are your unconscious mind, and your emotions. Turning the steering wheel only controls the front wheels, right? Right. But the back wheels have no choice but to follow.
If you’re alignment is off, it will be a difficult, bumpy ride. If it’s bad enough, you might even go into a skid and crash. But you can take care of these things!
What to do: Take it slow. Work on aligning your thoughts and actions with how you want to feel. Feed the emotions that you want to grow, instead of the ones you don’t!
Emotions are a physical reaction. There’s a reason people say that emotion comes from the heart. It’s because emotions are a whole body reaction, and it feels that way. When we feel anxiety, it’s more than just a thought in our brains. It travels across the whole body. Emotions can have a powerful impact on your physical well-being—both good and bad.
And here’s the cool thing: That whole-body response to emotion is not just the body’s reaction to a signal from the brain. It works the other way, too. Emotion often starts in your body, and the brain reacts.
Why is that cool? You have control over most of your body. So you can choose to use it in a way that changes your emotions and your mental state.
There are exceptions. Someone suffering from depression cannot simply flip a switch and be over it. Emotions that have become pathological (depression, anxiety, etc.) are like boulders pinning a person to the ground. That person may or may not have the strength and leverage to move that boulder on their own. They may need help. The right tools, a few friends… the boulder can be moved.
That’s the point. Even in the direst circumstances, we are not “stuck” with whatever we’re feeling, or not feeling. Change can happen. And the more practice you have at doing it, the more control you have, and the faster you react.
Have you recently struggled with emotions? Do you “vent?” What coping skills have you developed to help you to gain mastery over your emotions? Let us know in the comments below!
Join the list!