What are the practical steps we can take to tackle unwanted emotions and restore balance? Address the internal causes of emotions in a personally effective, systems manner. So that destructive habits dictated by our triggers are replaced with the freedom, balance to choose a response.
A brief process overview:
Before we start
1. Process goals and signs of progress
A goal of the process is to replace an unwanted emotion with a balanced, constructive response in the context of a specific situation.
The long-term result — sustainable change:
- Unwanted emotion cessation and non-production: we work with the emotion and its internal causes until it no longer arises in the contexts processed. Intermediate results:
- A decrease of intensity: the emotion no longer overwhelms, becomes manageable, active for shorter periods of time.
- Eventually, only residual reactions arise: they have no impact and dissolve as soon as we become aware of them (no internal causes left to support them).
- We remain balanced, constructive responses arise naturally (replacing unwanted emotions). Despite the presence of external triggers, or our internal focus on previously triggering memories. New views and habits are now embodied.
Signs of progress during emotion processing:
As we apply sufficient effort we can start experiencing moments of relief, forgiveness, letting go. Our former tensions and discomforts in relation to the situation or a person are getting replaced by warm, light feelings of compassion, contentment, and gratitude.
We are not merely escaping from triggers, diverting our attention, or suppressing emotional symptoms. The change of feelings is sustainable, even if we focus our attention on the triggers, or have a similar life situation.
Signs of insufficient progress:
- our current state has not changed (the unwanted emotion arises when we think about current or one of similar past situations),
- the emotion relapses during future contacts, similar situations.
2. A systems framework
It is hard to change even a single story without updating connected views, notions, and habits. Internal causes of emotions are not living in a vacuum. They are tightly interconnected parts of a wider system. In order to make a lasting change to one component of such a system, we are to consider the mutual impact and resistance of the other components. Approach emotion processing in a systems manner.
Sometimes we selectively choose a component of the system, a practice, or a single story that we like, but discard all other integral parts (that make the system work). Like, practice self-compassion, but keep the roots of anger with other people.
We are to be open to revising any parts of our worldview, even the notion of “I”. It does not matter whether the worldview is secular, scientific, spiritual, religious, or “none”.
A proposed emotions processing framework
is based on a systems approach to mind training, finding a viable personal roadmap:
scientific or spiritual (worldview, people who embody it, practices).
notice and name the emotion, connected thoughts, body sensations, and other phenomena
revise views and habits that support the emotion, compare them with experiences of people who transformed such emotions, embody the solution
apply new views and train new habits to embody them, make the chosen worldview functional
Evolving processing cycles
Each emotion usually requires multiple processing cycles, and real-life tests to support sustainable change. We do the first cycle, process the causes, and then monitor vulnerable contexts for residual reactions. Repeat the cycle for subtler reactions until we are happy with the embodied change.
3. The hardest issue first
Start by choosing the strongest irritant at the moment. It has to be dealt with first. Otherwise, it will undermine our efforts to subdue lesser issues.
4. External logistics
As we notice the unwanted emotion it may do us good to delay interactions with an external situation, and other people, if possible. The chances of it increasing our bias, undermining decisions, and actions are quite high.
Conditions for processing the emotion
Modern busy schedules rarely offer sufficient time for us to jump right in and start processing the emotion. However, even an intention to address the issue later in the day helps.
Once we get to it: a special place, seclusion and full attention are nice. However, after a little bit of practice, one can work on emotions while walking, traveling, doing household chores, or even playing a game.
5. Beginners: build enough momentum
Beginners need the first successful experience of changing a destructive emotion to a balanced response without:
- altering external triggers (fixing the situation before fixing a reaction to it)
- escaping triggers: diverting attention, or suppressing emotional symptoms.
Apply sufficient internal processing effort, build enough momentum to emerge: restore balance, compassion, peace of mind. Thus, obtain:
- a viable personal roadmap of “getting there”,
- and a verified conviction they can actually do it.
6. Finalize the process
How do we fully process an unwanted emotion? We are to progress over three essential stepping stones:
- Get started, “unroll the mat” (1% progress)
- Gain momentum (30% progress)
- Finalize (100% progress)
Each of these steps is required to make a lasting change to our reactions. Otherwise, the causes we left unprocessed will trigger the unwanted emotion again, continue managing our reactions, and choices.
Step 1. Mindfulness
We notice and name the emotion so that we can:
– clearly address it for processing purposes
– identify it in other cases and in the future
– compare with external references
We observe and investigate:
- Internal phenomena (as direct symptoms):
- destructive emotions (i.e. fear, anger, jealousy, anxiety, etc.)
- agitation, stress, tension, a loss of peace of mind/resourceful state
- restless or violent thoughts
- body sensations
- feelings of discomfort, unexpected tiredness, physical pain, change of vitals, even illness
- The external situation, especially interactions with people (as indirect signs of emotions we may be unaware of):
- disturbing, undesired external events, problems, accidents, impediments to wish-fulfillment (especially, persistent or repetitive),
- conflicts, counter-action or hostility of others (especially, “for no obvious reason”)
Recognizing and naming the emotion
It may not be easy to identify the exact emotion behind the restless mental activity and other symptoms. However, we have to put sufficient effort in to find a fitting reference name so that we can work with it: address the emotion, cross-reference its theoretical implications and our actual experiences, clearly see its connection to our stories, past repetitions, etc. Find the word/phrase that resonates. Use our internal response as a guideline when matching the name with the state/emotion. Consider displaced signals, e.g. getting angry with family members because of workplace anxieties.
Working with the emotion until it reveals itself… or ceases
Our ability to recognize internal phenomena is limited, obscured by currently active emotions. Awareness does not penetrate deeper than current, sometimes hidden, destructive emotions allow. Hence, subduing currently active issues is a prerequisite for being able to recognize subtler, deeper levels of phenomena.
Hence, if despite trying hard, we fail to recognize the emotion and name it, we have to refer to more generic states of mind, wider “umbrella” emotions that may include the non-recognized one. We work with more generic issues, their causes, and continue attempts to locate the actual problem. A little bit of progress, even if flying blind, may improve the clarity of perception so we can finally discern the issue.
Looking for hints, signs
If our perception is skewed by a hidden emotion, we can use the perceived “irregularities” to reveal it. Odd thoughts that seem as if they are not even ours, contradict our ethical principles. Another person’s change in behavior, words, reactions, indirect advice, or comment within an email may provide a hint or sign that would help locate and recognize the problem. E.g. issues with individuals of the opposite gender may reflect strong emotions towards a specific person of that group.
Asking for help
Step 2. Worldview
We revise views and habits that support the emotion, compare them with experiences of people who transformed such reactions (embody the solution). Choose a proven, all-encompassing worldview theory that:
– makes sense/well-understood
– offers no causes for the emotion
A viable theory from those who embody the solution
How do they describe the emotion and their worldview in general? What is their experience of anger or fear? What are the usual causes identified? What are the consequences? What did they do to successfully change their reactions? How did they describe their feelings, experiences, interactions with people after the problem was solved?
We renew our understanding of the emotion: the meaning of its name, what mental activities constitute it, its vector, who does it target, and with what intention, why is it “destructive”?
We choose a target worldview and use it as a benchmark. Compare our views and stories that support the emotion with the target theory that brings about desired responses. So that we can make an educated decision to change them. We can choose a scientific/secular, spiritual/religious, or any other worldview. As long as it offers a balanced, constructive means of interacting with this and any other situation.
Step 3. Practice
We apply the chosen worldview to make it functional. Use mind training instruments integral to the chosen worldview, and effective for us personally:
– accept the situation and emotion
– deconstruct the task into manageable pieces
– find connected issues that support the emotion
– apply new views to reframe the way we see current and past situations
– train new habits
We accept the fact: both the situation and the emotion have already happened. We cannot change that.
Acceptance helps refrain from adding more emotions to the issue we wish to process. We persuade ourselves to, actually, be OK with this. So that additional emotions do not interfere with our main issue processing.
Deconstructing the task into manageable pieces
We break down the task into manageable pieces, the ones we can change (e.g. the story and emotion of a specific case in the past). We try to uncover and process as much as we can remember.
Example of a breakdown:
- Direct internal causes of the emotion in the current situation, e.g. misconceptions, attachments, dependencies, obsolete stories, past traumatic situations, habits, etc.
- People, roles, groups: a history of emotional interactions, relationships, arguments, conflicts, etc.
- Indirectly supporting connected issues, emotions, views:
- Cases of the emotion in different situations
- Our proclivity to the emotion in general
- Other coinciding emotions
- Wider polarized views, stories
- Current situation
- Past cases of the emotion: usual triggers, scenarios, participants, etc.
Current and past cases
Our memory keeps a record of how we perceived past events, people, and reacted to them on the basis of our views and habits at the time. We are to rewire each experience, look at it from the new, chosen perspective. Process all past cases we can remember. So that we can experience a change of response when we focus our attention on any of them.
Reactions to specific people, roles, or groups
Quite frequently, a specific person is involved in multiple triggering, traumatic situations. It can also be a certain role (a spouse, boss, etc.), or a group of people (gender, race, profession, even humanity). We revise all cases with their direct or indirect participation when the emotions were produced.
Mind training practices
We can use psychological or spiritual practices of our preference, as long as they actually change our reactions. E.g. analytical meditation, reframing, mindfulness meditation, prayers, affirmations, cultivation of desired responses and qualities, etc. Usually, the most effective are the practices that are:
- integral to the chosen worldview (part of a proven system, used with other required instruments)
- rooted in our culture, connect to notions we ingrained since birth
- specifically recommended for us and this task by someone who embodies the solution
One of the universal practices is “reframing”. We “reframe” the way we see the story, situation, or person based on the chosen worldview. We can be “reframing” by simply talking to ourselves/reasoning, doing an analytical meditation, or reading a prayer. We repeatedly switch our mind from old to new perspective until it sinks in.
Example of a story that supports jealousy:
– If I do not have the desired object, I think less of myself, as inferior, incapable, incomplete.
It can be reframed based on self-compassion:
– I am always equal to others, worthy, capable, complete despite unfulfilled wishes.
If we reframe a specific situation: we revise our perception of ourselves and the participants, our relationships, interactions, actions, words, etc. So that unwanted emotions have no reason to arise. We start experiencing a different response. E.g. balanced, compassionate, constructive.
Example: reframing stories that support jealousy
[updated: 25 September 2020]
The information is provided for general information purposes only. If you think you may be suffering from any medical condition consult with the professional healthcare provider.