You’ve just learned that your boyfriend cheated on you. Or your boss criticized you in front of a large group of people. Maybe a friend has talked about you in not-so-flattering ways with other people. Full of anger, you write a scathing email and push send. Or you tell the other person off. A few minutes later, you realize you are in agony, wishing you could unsend the email or unsay your angry words.
In such situations, you may wish emotions didn’t exist. But emotions give us important information. Being completely logical leaves out the information we get from emotions. For example, depending on the context, anger can communicate that we need to protect ourselves, shame may help us adhere to values, and fear helps us escape from situations that could be harmful. Sometimes, though, we experience emotions for reasons that have nothing to do with surviving the situation we’re in, such as being afraid when there is no physical threat. For example, maybe we are afraid of uncomfortable situations, afraid of our emotions and afraid of speaking up for ourselves.
In times of immediate danger we need to act quickly without thinking. When emotions are not an accurate reflection of the situation we’re in, we still often act in an urgent way even though that’s not the best option.
Emotions can be so strong that we act on pure emotion and don’t pay attention to consequences, logic or reason. We get tunnel vision and don’t consider other alternatives other than the perspective that has made us so angry or upset or afraid. When the emotion goes down, we are then able to think more clearly because the logical part of our brain is engaged again.
Most of the time acting immediately is not necessary and not advisable. When we can pause between the feeling we have and the action we want to take, we can usually make a better decision based on both logic and emotion. Marsha Linehan, the treatment developer of Dialectical Behavior Therapy, calls that wise mind.
Developing a Pause
Mindfulness is one way to develop the pause between thoughts or feelings and your actions. When you are mindful of having a thought, you can step back from the thought and not act on it. When you are mindful of an emotion, you step back from the emotion, observe it, and decide if you need or want to act on the emotion and if so in what way you want to act. You remain in control of your actions rather than being at the mercy of your emotions or thoughts.
You may decide to not act. Sometimes the best course is to just let the thought pass or just sit with the emotion until it dissipates.
Mindfulness helps you develop the pause that allows you time to decide if and how you want to act. The more you practice mindfulness, the more likely you can have the pause, even when your emotions are strong.
Make a Commitment to Not Act. In personal situations it’s not often that you have to make decisions immediately. Whenever possible, wait until your emotions have passed before making decisions or taking action. Commit to yourself that no matter how strong the urge or how sure you are about your action, you will not act until you are calm.
Don’t Assume. Sometimes we assume we know the motives of other people when we really don’t. Sometimes we judge their personality characteristics by their actions when their actions may be specific to the situation. For example, someone may rush past you in the grocery store, almost running into you. You may think of that person as rude. Maybe they are rushing because they need baby aspirin for a sick child and the sitter has to leave in just a few minutes.
Sometimes we assume others’ actions are specific to us when they are not. We assume that they ignored us because they are mad at us. In truth, maybe they are preoccupied with troubles of their own. Maybe we think if we were “good enough” our spouses would treat us with more kindness. Maybe the facts are that the person believes he is being kind–his definition of kindness is different than yours.
When you are emotionally upset, take time to check for assumptions. Are you sure of your facts? Taking time to check the facts doesn’t mean you won’t take needed action, it just means you take some time to be sure you have correct information. Saying “There couldn’t be any other explanation,” isn’t knowing the facts. In many surprising ways,we can be so sure all the evidence points to only one explanation and then learn that the truth was something entirely different that we didn’t consider.
Look for the Dialectic. Dialectic thinking says that none of us have the whole truth. You may have factual information but not see the whole picture. We see other people and their actions through our own fears, biases, history and culture. When you have a certain perspective, consider what other views might be possible. Doing so can help you move away from extreme emotions and extreme thoughts, which tend to make us miserable. Taking time to see what information you might be missing will help you develop a pause.
If You Feel Urgency When There’s No Emergency–Wait. When an immediate response is not necessary in an emotionally-charged situation, take the time to let your emotions fade. If you are feeling a sense of urgency, double-check whether the situation is truly urgent. That urgency you are experiencing is likely to be emotional urges to act on your anger, fear, hurt or other feeling and have nothing to do with the effective response that is needed.
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Last reviewed: 9 Sep 2012