June 05, 2012


Emotions can be inconvenient. Sometimes we experience intense and difficult feelings at work, during a social occasion, or at some other awkward moment. It's not a convenient time to explore the emotions in depth or to sit and have a good cry, so what's the best strategy? Ignoring feelings? Suppressing them?

Like thought suppression, emotion suppression doesn't usually work; paradoxically, it can make feelings more intense. The trick is simply accepting that the inconvenient emotions are happening and allowing them to be present. It doesn't make feelings go away, but allowing eliminates the struggle against the feelings, freeing up your energy and attention for other things.

Here are two strategies for allowing:

1) Replace but with and. Say you're at a a great social event that you really want to enjoy, and you can't stop worrying about something stressful you have to deal with the following day. You're saying to yourself I'm at this great party, but I'm really anxious. Replacing but with and means telling yourself I'm at this great party and I'm really anxious. Whereas the original phrasing implies that there's no way you can enjoy the party with anxiety present, replacing one small word creates a new sentence that implies that the two can co-exist: you're anxious and also, the party is great.

2) Draw a picture. A client told me this story recently: At work one morning, he received a personal email that provoked intense sadness, fear, and jealousy. He tried to ignore his emotions and turn his attention to his tasks, but the feelings got stronger and stronger. The client needed to focus on his work; remembering the concept of RAIN, he decided to switch strategies and try allowing his feelings to be present. He wrote sadness, fear, and jealousy on three respective post-it notes and stuck them to the side of his computer monitor, illustrating each word with an emoticon-style face.

What happened? Emotion post-its turned out to be a great way of simultaneously defusing from emotions and allowing them to be present. The feelings/notes remained present in the corner of the client's mind/computer monitor, but the struggle to get rid of them was over, allowing him to redirect his attention. The feelings/notes became less and less distracting and after half an hour, the client was absorbed in his work. When he returned to his desk after lunch and saw the post-its, he laughed.

Neither replacing but with and or drawing a picture involves ignoring, suppressing, or denying feelings, and both strategies can help manage intense emotions at inconvenient times. Let me know if you try either of these tricks!

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