I once had a friend tell me, “scruples and you never got along well, did you?”. An ex-boyfriend told me that I did “no things by halves”. I never thought of myself as an extremist–all up or all down, all in or all out, passionate or totally apathetic, black or white. But maybe I am. The more jobs and friends and lovers and arguments I’ve lost, the more I’ve thought, “yeah, I guess I am a bit of an extremist, just a little.” Ah, but there’s no such thing as being “just a little bit of an extremist”! You’re either all or nothing; that’s the point of the name.
In recovery, I hear the phrase “find the five”. Think of your emotional or physical response to a crisis as being graded on a scale of 1 to 10. Try to go with something that ranks at a 5. The moderate response. The middle ground. I’m always at a passive-aggressively cold 1 or an over-the-top, rage-out 10. So finding the 5 is a bit of a challenge.
I’ve been practicing the gray area thing though. I use these tips when faced with an emotion, like fear (of failure, of disappointing someone), anger (being disrespected or condescended), anxiety (am I doing the right thing? Is anyone mad at me?), or sadness (I feel alone; someone unintentionally hurt me), and I want to react by blowing up, running away, or some other 1 or 10 response.
- Observe the emotion. Before doing anything, I do nothing. Stand back; don’t act yet. Breathe and just replay the scenario and how it makes you feel.
- Name the emotion. Sometimes, I am reluctant to admit when I feel jealous or bitter. Other times, I don’t even realize what I’m feeling until I find myself wanting to act out. When I catch myself wanting to behave poorly in response to something, that’s when I try to name it. Sometimes, this is difficult. Whether it’s because of your own pride or difficulty identifying it, take a moment to pinpoint what’s bothering you and how it makes you feel.
- Try to find the facts. When the situation involves another person (okay, this is almost always), try to evaluate the facts. Sometimes your emotions are based on what you feel someone’s intentions or attitude was. I have had a bad habit of jumping straight from “event” to “emotional overreaction” before stopping to realize that they didn’t mean to slight me or ignore me or that their comment wasn’t meant to condescend or berate me. I’ve embarrassed myself by yelling at someone or by being way too cold toward them only to later find out they had no intention whatsoever to make me feel that way. Of course, people can still inadvertently hurt you and that deserves discussion as well. Additionally, real conflicts and upsetting events occur, too, but a lot of the times we escalate and extrapolate far beyond what an appropriate response is, so I still try to objectively evaluate the facts no matter what.
- Watch your body language. When you observe and name the emotion, you’ll notice how how it’s affecting your body. Are you tensing up? Is your jaw tight? Are your eyebrows raised and your eyes wide (like in surprise or shock)? Is your breathing shallow? Focus on relaxing your body and correcting your posture to a more confident, in control position. Head up, shoulders back, spine straight, deep, steady breathing. It certainly helps make me look and feel better (but also, control is a big thing for me).
- Experience your emotion as a wave, coming and going. This was mind-blowing to me. Urges to act out/rage out will actually pass, like a cigarette craving. They feel like they last forever because they are overwhelmingly strong, as though you have no choice but to obey them. Whether it’s a few minutes or 15, it goes away. When it’s too strong and I’m at work or otherwise not at home, I distract myself. I play with my bouncy ball. I look up something that makes me laugh. I ask for a hug. I give someone a compliment.
- Don’t judge your emotion. It’s not good or bad. Emotions are neither good nor bad. We all have them to varying degrees. They exist in everyone, and there’s nothing wrong with them. Only our responses to emotions can be good or bad, depending on the situation. It can feel like a negative emotion because it’s having a negative effect on your psychological state. Accept that it’s making you feel that way and remind yourself that you haven’t acted irrationally.
- It’s your choice what to do. After some thoughtful observation and deep breaths, you’ll be better equipped to respond. You can act out, look foolish, embarrass yourself. You can make yourself feel worse on the inside by doing something passive aggressive to sabotage someone. Or you can think of the consequences and react appropriately. Usually, after deep breaths and some thought, I can respond better.
These are just a few quick tips, chipped right off the giant iceberg of mental health and emotional regulation. It takes practice, and it’s not an exact science to be done in this specific order each time to achieve peace. It’s about getting in touch with your emotions, being objective, and taking time to respond before overreacting. You don’t have to be black and white. You don’t have to lose your color either. The gray means you can have your emotions and eat them, too. No, that’s the wrong metaphor. It means you can respond appropriately and still have your emotions. 🙂