Top Question #1. How to deal with negative (insert ‘toxic’, ‘bull’, ‘aggressive’, ‘narcissist’, ‘abuser’) people in my life? A close second – ‘How can I change my partner’s (insert ‘boss’s, ‘colleagues, ‘mother’s, ‘father’s, mother-in-law’s) behavior?
The truth is, we have very little control over other people – much less than we think.
- Yes, the bully at your work should manage his emotions better, but you cannot make him do it.
Yes, your partner should not use you to feed his ego, but you are unlikely to change him – at least not to the extent you want.
Yes, you might want to comfort a friend who only sees the negative side of her life. But you will only be able to help her if she wants to change too.
So what CAN YOU DO?
Apart from the obvious one (eliminating the toxic/negative/abusing people in your life) you can focus on what YOU think-feel-do instead.
THINK. What are your thoughts when you are around that person? Can you change what you think? It the person is an aggressive bully, can you reframe this judgment to something else. For example, can you think of this person as an unhappy individual who only needs attention? Or think of why this person triggers you so much? Could it be because you are so similar and you are triggered because you see him in you?
FEEL. What are your feelings around this person? Can you change them by focusing on another emotion instead? Could you replace your annoyance at your boss’s criticism with gratitude from the time she helped you when you were going through a divorce?
DO. What behaviors, words or reactions you exhibit when you are around this person? Can you change them towards something more positive, more connecting or lighter? For example, you are dealing with someone who is a complete bummer and only sees everything in grey or back. Could you steer your conversation towards some activity that you did and enjoyed together before? This will remind your friend about something positive AND connect you together.
The bottom line is that you can change much more about yourself than about another person. So you might as well focus on where your biggest impact lies.
Top Question #2. How can I stop myself BEFORE I react emotionally (insert ‘cry’, ‘burst in anger’, ‘become defensive/reactive’)?
This question has the easiest answer, but the hardest change required.
The key to NOT reacting emotionally and NOT allowing your emotions to get out of control becomes self-aware about your triggers. There are 4 aspects to this awareness:
- The trigger. Knowing who and what triggers you most.
- The body reaction. Your body often reacts to the trigger first because it gears you up for action, often before you formulated thought or captured an emotion. You feel tense in your neck, fluttering in the stomach, clenching the jaw, the hotness or coolness in various areas. When you recognize those signs, you can regulate the intensity of your emotion and plan appropriate responses.
- The thoughts. For example, if someone rejects your idea, are you telling yourself you are a failure? I know I do. By capturing those thoughts, you can stop them from intensifying the situation. Emotions and thoughts feed into each other so if you capture your thoughts, you can try and stop the vicious cycle.
- The emotion. For example, you might feel anger at someone who criticized you, but by naming it, you reduce its intensity. You also start thinking again and can plan better actions.
Once you improve your self-awareness, you can pick 2-3 strategies that work best for you and practise. These days I only get into emotional hijacking when I am unprepared. For example, I expect a relaxed conversation and someone in a combative mood which makes it hard to bring self-awareness. But with practice, this is increasingly easier.
Top Question #3. I feel nothing. What can I do?
This question has come up through many channels, but I resisted addressing it till now. This is because I focus on self-help exercises to manage emotions. Enduring lack of emotion for a prolonged period of time might signal the need for stronger intervention. A qualified healthcare professional is much better placed to assess the situation in such a case.
If you are experiencing milder numbness or simply want to feel more alive, more excited, more enthusiastic, there are a couple of things you can do.
The reason behind my numbness was the emotional management strategy gone wrong. It is a high impact and instant relief strategy, so it’s very tempting and I definitely indulged in it a few times. Once, I experienced a strong heartbreak due to being in love with someone unavailable. Another time I was unhappy with my job and couldn’t see a way out so I became a walking zombie for a while. I was so keen to reduce my emotional pain – rejection, sadness, anger – I numbed them. Often, I interrupted any emotion that I was feeling, not allowing it in, and by doing that, numbed the pain.
The problem with this strategy is that you cannot numb one emotion without numbing others.
So if you feel like you want to feel more, not less, accept that pain and negative emotions is part of the deal. So the first step is ACCEPTANCE.
Second is LETTING EMOTIONS IN. You are likely very skilled at interrupting your emotions – most of us are. Not all interrupting leads to numbness – for example, interrupting your anger can lead to feeling helpless instead. But all prolonged interrupting leads to issues. So if you want to stop numbness, you need to stop interrupting your feelings and let them in. If you numbed yourself long enough, you might be out of practice to feel. So don’t push too hard, start small, be gentle and do it.
You might want to start with inviting positive emotions first. Invite AWE by walking in nature. Invite JOY by listening to your favorite song. Invite LOVE by looking at the picture of your best memories. Feel CONTENTMENT by creating something new.