“If your emotional abilities aren’t in hand, if you don’t have self-awareness, if you are not able to manage your distressing emotions, if you can’t have empathy and have effective relationships, then no matter how smart you are, you are not going to get very far.” -Daniel Goleman

As a psychotherapist, I am constantly struck by how little the average person knows about emotions– both why we have them in the first place and what we are to do about them when they cause us pain and suffering. It seems as though half of humanity wishes they could do without them–and they try very hard to avoid or suppress any painful feeling that comes along. The emotion-avoiding types say things like, “I don’t want to talk about it because then I’d  feel sad,” or “It won’t change anything to get angry, so why bother…”

The other half, the emotionally dramatic as-if-on-a-roller-coaster type, seems to honor their emotions, giving them not just a voice but the whole driver’s seat. These folks say things like, “I can’t do that when I don’t feel like it,” or “I can’t possibly change the way that I feel since it is who I am.” If given too much weight, feelings can be used to blame or shame others or to justify inappropriate behavior.

As clinical psychologist and Buddhist practitioner Daniel Goleman so aptly reminds us, feelings are an essential part of our humanity, and we need to learn how to work with them so they don’t get the best of us. As infants, our emotions helped communicate our needs to our caregivers, and as adults they still help us to know what we like and don’t like. They are essential in order for us to be able to empathize and have compassion for ourself and others. The trick is how to find the balance between too much expression and too little. For most of us, this is a lifelong process. Here is a way to begin.

First, ask yourself which one of these two tendencies are you most likely to exhibit? Are you able to express your emotions? When was the last time you allowed yourself to cry? How do you express your frustration or your anger? Are you the type who wears your heart on your sleeve or do you keep everything bottled up inside? Or perhaps, there are certain feelings that you allow yourself to feel and to express and others that you hide not only from your family but from yourself.

If you aren’t sure how to answer these questions, ask a friend or loved one what they notice about you. Ask for honest but gentle feedback. The first step is to bring more awareness to this arena. Once you have some awareness, then you can begin to take the steps necessary either to learn to be more expressive or to learn to hold back the expression of your emotions when they are out of control and unmanageable. In another blog, I shared about how to make peace with painful memories.

Begin with the practice of simply becoming aware of your emotions day to day, moment to moment. Neither expressing nor suppressing but simply watching and naming your emotions as they arise is the first step in learning you can withstand them. It can take a lifetime to perfect, but even a little bit of this practice usually brings about a greater sense of control. When we learn to maintain a relaxed yet energized state of open awareness, (without forgetting to breathe), we can remain engaged in the present moment, poised for whatever may come next. Isn’t this very moment all we can do anything about?