If you want to be emotionally stronger, you need an emotional workout
“I don’t want to be at the mercy of my emotions. I want to use them, to enjoy them, and to dominate them.”
We know that in order to get physically stronger and achieve our fitness goals, we need to exercise our body.
What most people don’t know is that emotional strength also requires practice.
Think about the next few steps as a powerful emotional workout that you can practice at home everyday.
Just like going to the gym, it might take you a while to see the results. However, if you stick with the practice, they will inevitably show.
You will gain complete control over what you say during heated arguments, instead of letting out hurtful words that you’ll later regret.
Receiving negative feedback from a colleague will no longer put you on the defensive or damage your self-esteem.
You will no longer need to smoke, check social media, or bite your nails whenever you feel anxious, because your muscles will be strong and flexible enough to handle the weight of any emotion.
1. Stop Trying To Control Your Emotions
Imagine you’re driving on a highway at 100mph, and suddenly you hear a really loud sound coming from the engine of your car.
Would you put on your earplugs so as not to hear it anymore? Of course not. That would just make the problem worse and potentially put you in danger.
Just like the weird sound from the engine of our car, our emotions are not the problem itself—they are a symptom, a sign that something in our life needs fixing.
However, we often insist on putting on our metaphoric earplugs by numbing our emotions with food, social media, or Netflix marathons.
So how can we start listening to the cause instead of trying to fix the symptoms?
Here’s an exercise you can do either as a daily routine, or when you feel a specific emotion surfacing:
1. Close your eyes, and bring your attention inwardly.
2. Instead of trying to escape your emotion, just sit with it. Observe it as if it wasn’t yours—just like a scientist examining a new specimen.
3. Ask yourself questions. Where is it in your body? How strongly do you feel it? Have you ever felt it before?
Get close to your emotions. Stop fearing them, and start curiously studying them—and eventually you will be able to see patterns, draw conclusions, and come up with solutions.
2. Name Your Feelings
Studies show that giving names to your emotions actually makes you feel them less.
“To reduce arousal, you need to use just a few words to describe an emotion, and ideally use symbolic language, which means using indirect metaphors, metrics, and simplifications of your experience. This requires you to activate your prefrontal cortex, which reduces the arousal in the limbic system. Here’s the bottom line: describe an emotion in just a word or two, and it helps reduce the emotion.”
—David Rock in “Your Brain at Work: Strategies for Overcoming Distraction, Regaining Focus, and Working Smarter All Day Long”
Create the habit of asking yourself “how do I feel?” (to help you remember, create a trigger, such as asking the question everytime you check your phone, or every time you close a door, or have a sip of water).
3. Harness Your Attention Skills
In order to deeply listen to your emotions, you need to be able to control your attention.
Otherwise, as you try to focus, you will find your mind constantly thinking about what to make for dinner or reviewing random Harry Potter scenes in loop.
A great way to cultivate stable attention is through meditation.
A big misconception about meditation is that you’re supposed to keep your mind empty at all times. This is absurd, because it’s impossible (and as a result of this expectation, a lot of people end up feeling frustrated and giving up on meditation altogether).
One of the goals of meditation is to cultivate stable attention. You don’t do that by trying to clear your mind. You do it by:
1. Locking your attention on the meditation object (the of the best objects for beginners is the breath, due to its accessibility and simplicity);
2. Observing other things/distractions (work-related worries, outside noises, Voldemort killing Cedric Diggory, etc.) without engaging in them. That means that you see them as they come, and then you let them go, without getting lost in them and without forgetting about the meditation object.
Start by focusing on your breath. Then, as you develop your attention skills, you will be able to apply them to something more abstract, such as your emotions.
As your meditation practice develops, you will gradually gain a much higher understanting of your emotions.
You will let go of the tendency to identify with them (“I am so impatient!”), and instead start accepting them as neutral, temporary conditions (“I am feeling some impatience right now. How interesting!”)
You will learn how to use your emotions as fuel for your thoughts and actions, instead of letting them control your mind.
You will start distinguishing the nuances of how different emotions affect the very way your mind works, and eventually discover their deeper cause (sometimes, this will surface as old childhood memories, or a whole new range of more sutble, interesting emotions).
4. Use Your Journal to Track Your Emotions
One of the habits that completely revolutionized my emotional health was starting to track my emotions.
By writing about my emotions in my journal every day, I make it into a habit to bring them to conscious awareness, which allows me to feel more at ease with them.
How I track my emotions:
- I use the Minimalist Journaling System—a simple habit tracker where I draw one square per day and fill it in with symbols that correspond to different habits;
- In each square, among other things, I track how I felt each day upon waking up, during the day, and just before bed;
- I use emojis to make it simple and clear (happy, apathetic, peaceful, motivated, angry, emotional, anxious, and sad) but you can use words, or any other method that suits you.
Why do I do this?
Looking back at my emotional fluctuations gives me valuable data on:
- What triggers me (for example, I might see that after a few days of not having self-time, I feel overwhelmed, and therefore prevent that in the future);
- My emotional cycles (this might not be the case for you, but usually around the new moon I know that I should be extra patient with myself and take more rest);
- What makes me feel good (when I wake up at 6am, I feel super productive and energized; when I go for a long walk, I feel inspired; when I journal for longer, I feel enhanced clarity).
5. Write Down Your Dreams
One of the purposes of our dreams is to help us process our daily emotions.
That’s the work of our subconscious mind. However, if we bring our dreams to our conscious awareness, we are able to speed up that process.
We can do that by keeping a dream journal.
An example: I recently dreamt that my grandad had died and I felt super guilty for not having said everything I wanted to him. I woke up full of anxiety, but when I wrote it down and processed it I realized that I often feel guilty and restless due to not voicing my feelings as much as I would like towards my family.
Without this insight, it would probably take me months to come to this realization. This way, I fixed it immediately, and my family relationships improved drastically.
How to keep a dream journal?
1. Every morning, right after you wake up, write down as much as you can remember from your dreams.
2. If you don’t remember much at first, don’t worry—dream recall will improve the more you bring your attention to it.
3. Take note of the feelings that marked you the most during the dreams.
4. Don’t pressure yourself to interpret it or gain insight from every dream—our subconscious manifests ideas in a way that can’t be understood consciously. Instead, focus on the feelings, and only draw conclusions from there.
6. Wear Your ‘Giraffe Ears’
“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”
—Viktor E. Frankl
When we feel angry or frustrated or sad, our tendency is to blame—either ourselves and our behavior, or the person or event who triggered it.
However, as our emotions are signs that something inside of us needs our attention, this impulsive reaction to look for external blame is unnecessary and pointless.
Feeling angry is not bad—every emotion is valid, and it can be useful for our growth. What is bad is punching our friend in the face or shouting at our kids as a reaction to that anger.
So how can we properly digest the emotion, so that we can communicate it in a nonviolent way, protecting our relationships and contributing to our own emotional development?
Marshall Rosenberg, the founder of Nonviolent Communication, uses a great metaphor for that.
When someone else’s behavior triggers you, you can either wear your ‘giraffe ears’, or your ‘jackal ears’.
When your jackal ears are on, you can only hear personal attacks, hurtful words, or an intention to cause you pain—you take everything personally.
However, when you wear your giraffe ears, you are able to hear the true motives behind what the other person is telling you: their own pain, their insecurities, their attempt to protect themselves and seek love the best way they can—just like you.
When you train your ears to hear the other person’s emotions, you are also developing your own emotional awareness. By not reacting, but instead listening and empathizing, you are giving yourself space to find the “message” behind your own emotions, while probably saving a lot of your relationships in the meantime.
7. Use Healthy Coping Mechanisms
Okay, let’s be realistic.
Not always will we be able to stop and listen to our emotions in silence, meditating or investigating their origin.
Sometimes, we just feel way too much for that, and we just want to eat, smoke, scream at someone or punch a wall.
However, it is possible to find a middle ground between those two—we just need to replace our destructive coping mechanisms with healthy ones.
I spent years struggling with food addiction. But every time I tried to stop myself from doing it, it felt so hard that the next time I would just give in to the addiction even further.
Now, I no longer try to stop myself from eating, but instead I replace that activity with something else: going for a walk, watching an inspirational video on Youtube, calling a friend.
It’s been months since I stopped eating emotionally. Gradually, I stopped using coping mechanisms for emotional eating altogether, because I became so comfortable with my emotions that the habit barely surfaces anymore.
8. Practice Vulnerability
A lot of us have a really hard time talking about our feelings because we see them as a weakness.
This couldn’t be further from the truth.
In her Ted talk, Brenè Brown talks about the power of vulnerability in making us stronger and bringing closeness into our relationships.
Despite what you mak think, when you open up and share your feelings, most people will feel much more attracted to you.
Because in today’s world, we crave authenticity. We want to see real, honest, open people. And that’s rare.
Opening up with other people will give you a deeper understanding of your emotions because it allows you to hear your own words out loud, and accepting the validity of what you are feeling.
So next time you feel sad or angry, call your best friend. Do not confuse sharing with projecting (call her to say “Hey, I’ve been feeling really angry”, not “Who do you think you are for having talked to me like that?”)
If someone shares their feelings with you, do for them what you would like to receive: listen with your giraffe ears, hold space, and empathize.
Be In Control
What’s the main takeaway from this?
I would put it this way: if you want to control your emotions, stop trying to control your emotions.
Instead, aim at controling your reactions to your emotions, and start using your emotions for something positive.
Stop numbing them.
Stop hiding them.
Stop finding someone to blame.
Stop trying to fix them as if they were wrong.
Just stop, and give yourself time to listen. To process. To understand.
And then, you will be in control.