Focus On EmotionsHealth & Wellness

RyersonSA Has the Feels 201 (Part 2): A Primer on Managing Your Emotions and Feelings

Welcome to Focus On Emotions, an article series that will delve into our emotional depths, getting at one inalienable truth: emotions matter. Our culture generally teaches us that feelings are to be avoided, suppressed, and controlled; that feelings lead to irrationality. But I have learned, and affective neuroscience would suggest, that feelings are central to self-knowledge, self-management, and good decision-making. This series is designed to help us better understand our emotions, how to work with them, and, when needed, how to heal them.


Welcome to Part Two of our discussion of managing emotions and feelings. In Part One, I walked you through some principles for understanding your feelings; we reviewed the idea that emotions and feelings are part of a signalling system, directing our attention towards important aspects of our environment, helping us to know what we need, and priming us for action to get our needs met. I also introduced four categories of feelings, each of which provides us with a different kind (and different quality) of information:

  • Primary adaptive feelings,
  • Primary maladaptive feelings,
  • Secondary feelings, and
  • Instrumental feelings.

If you haven’t read Part One yet, I suggest you start there. (It’s okay, I’ll wait.) You’re back, excellent! Now that we have an understanding of our feelings, we’re ready to talk about managing those feelings. I’m going to approach them in the reverse order from last article.

Step 3: How do I manage my feelings when triggered?

Managing Instrumental Feelings

In the last article, I wrote that “expression of a feeling is considered instrumental if we are expressing something we are not actually feeling in order to control or manage the environment around us.

Using instrumental expression is a form of power and control, rather than authentic emotion expression. While it can be effective in achieving an outcome, the cost can be high including undermining others’ trust in you. If you recognize this as a pattern you have learned, stop and ask yourself what the benefits and costs are. If the costs outweigh the benefits, ask yourself what you are really trying to achieve, and work to learn ways of communicating your honest intentions and feelings more clearly and transparently. Your relationships may benefit from it, and your real underlying needs are likely to be met more effectively.

Managing Primary Maladaptive and Secondary Feelings (In the Moment)

A Quick Review:

  • Primary maladaptive feelings occur when you encounter a stimulus (something in your environment that draws your attention) and immediately have a feeling that is highly familiar—one that feels old, repetitive, or stuck, or that is an overreaction given your present circumstances. These feelings do not feel “fresh and new” and do not give you good information to guide your actions.
  • Secondary feelings are feelings that you have in response to other feelings or thoughts.  

Managing primary maladaptive and secondary feelings are what we’re really talking about when we talk about managing (problematic) feelings and their triggers. These feelings need to be managed or regulated in the moment. Regulating a feeling is like turning up or down the volume of your feeling so that you can work with it and understand what it is telling you. Both secondary and primary maladaptive feelings can be managed or regulated using similar techniques. To manage these categories of feelings, try the following steps:

1) Tolerate, identify, and differentiate your feelings.

Identify that you are feeling something. Use patience to sit with the experience long enough that you can name what you are feeling. Remember, you may be feeling more than one thing at once, like the Gorg who feels mad-sad in the movie Home. (Have I mentioned that I that movie!):

2) Use a strategy to regulate the feeling.

This involves being able to turn the volume up or down on your feelings as needed. You will be best able to manage and understand your feelings if you are able to simultaneously feel the feeling (the signal is loud enough to hear), and coherently organize your thoughts about the feeling (the signal is not so loud that it’s impossible to think).

To turn the volume up on your feelings, sit in a quiet place, pay attention to your feelings, and try one of the following:

  • Engage in stream-of-consciousness writing. No censoring. Set a time limit, and write exactly what comes into mind, following where your thoughts and feelings lead you. Alternate between recording your thoughts, and answering the question: “What do I feel in my body as I write this?” Name your feelings as you go.
  • Use a technique called Focusing, created by Dr. Eugene Gendlin, to increase your awareness of your feelings. Focusing involves identifying any sensations you are feeling in your body so you can make meaning of the sensation. This process will help you to name your emotions and become aware of your feelings.

Focusing Exercise — Adapted from the work of Dr. Eugene Gendlin

Turn attention inward to what is troubling, but may be unclear. Identify and pay attention to all of the sensations you feel in your body as you hold this troubling thing in your attention. Sit with this feeling with an attitude of open curiosity for at least 30 seconds. Find a word or image that somehow captures what you are experiencing inside your body. When a word or image comes to mind, ask yourself if this word or image really captures what you are feeling. If so, continue. If not, or if your experience has changed in the naming of it, wait for a new word or image to arise that somehow captures your experience even more closely. Once you have a label for your feeling (a word or an image), ask yourself the following questions:

  • What is at the heart of this experience for me?

  • When have I felt this way before?

  • What would it take for this experience to change, for me to feel more comfortable?

Stay with the feeling and the label until the sensations in your body shift. Over time, it will. When your internal experience changes, start this process again. Continue until you arrive at a sense of calm, or clarity, or until your experience no longer changes. When you have finished, identify what feelings lay deepest, or underneath the others. You may notice that one feeling was sitting on top of another (a secondary feeling to a more primary feeling underneath it). You may notice that one feeling is a reaction to another feeling (secondary feeling), or you may notice that one or two large core feelings sit side by side and are very familiar feelings that tend to arise again and again (primary maladaptive feelings). Once you know what your feelings are, explore your memory for times you have felt this way before. Look for patterns across situations such as common triggers, common sequences of feelings, and past actions that led you to feel better or worse. Knowing your triggers will help you predict and manage challenging feelings when you encounter them in the future.

To turn the volume down on your feelings, try one or more of the following:

  • Use your imagination to create distance from a feeling or problem. Although it may sound a bit strange, emotions and feelings often respond rapidly to visual imagery. First, imagine what your feeling would look like if you could see it. Give it a size, a shape, and a colour that somehow captures the essence of the feeling. Then, try any one of the following to decrease the intensity of a strong feeling or a problem that seems too big to manage:
    • Distance metaphors and imagery: place the problem or feeling on a raft and imagine it floating out to sea, or place the problem or feeling in a train car and send it down the tracks.
    • Containment metaphors: place the problem or feeling in a box or container and apply whatever locks, walls, or security systems are necessary to keep the lid closed. Make sure to come back to unpack the box later, when the time is right. In my experience, even the best containment systems break down if boxes are allowed to get too full!
    • Protective barriers: If you are reacting to a strong trigger in your immediate vicinity, imagine a protective barrier or layer of armor between yourself and whatever is triggering you, much as Albert did in donning his armor. Remember, armor is meant for short-term use, not daily attire. (And also: if there is something dangerous in your environment, fear is primary and adaptive; don’t imagine—run!).
    • Remember times you felt really good to recreate the feelings: Vividly recall a time when you felt calm, content, proud, or happy. Recall what you were seeing, hearing, doing, who you were with, and what you were feeling in your body.
  • Negotiate with your feeling. Hear the signal that your body is sending you. Mentally identify what the signal is telling you, and name what you actually need. Ask the feeling to come back at a later time, and promise to fulfill the need at that time.
  • If the feeling is big, old, and familiar, and especially if it evokes memories of past hurts or future worries, pay close attention to sensory information in your immediate environment to recentre you in the present moment:
    • Name five things you can see, five things you can hear, five things you can feel against your skin, five things you can taste, and five things you can smell.
    • Take 10 deep breaths, focusing on the feeling of your abdomen rising and falling. Changing your breathing changes your physiology.
    • Wrap yourself up in your warmest, coziest sweatshirt or blanket and focus on how comfy that feels, or hug your favourite stuffy and feel how soft it is against your skin.

Sarah's plush owl, in front an image of a stylized tree.

  • Power Pose! In this rather awesome TedTalk, Dr. Amy Cuddy teaches you to “Fake it ‘til you become it.” The summary: change your body posture to increase confidence. If you’re feeling ashamed, scared, or vulnerable, take up space!
  • Use cognitive distraction such as: counting backwards by 7 from 100, or name a city starting with each letter of the alphabet, starting with the letter “A”.

3) Identify the trigger for your feelings.

Knowing what triggers primary maladaptive feelings and secondary feelings can help you understand why you are feeling the way you are and can help you to predict and prepare to better manage these feelings in the future. To identify triggers that are not immediately clear, try this the next time you feel a troublesome feeling. Immediately after regulating a feeling, close your eyes, and let your memory play like a video in your mind. Right before these feelings emerged, what happened? What did you see, hear, taste, smell, feel, think, or remember that triggered these feelings? Write down your response. Keep a journal of triggers to look for patterns over time.

It is also helpful to look for patterns in what has triggered big feelings in you in the past. Most likely, you will be choosing from fear, anger, sadness, or shame. Take out one piece of paper for each basic emotion that comes to mind—for example if sadness and shame are two emotions that often recur in your life, you’ll use one piece of paper for each. Write the name of the emotion you’re reflecting upon at the top of the page, and then write out key memories of times when you have felt that feeling strongly in a way that felt “bad” or out of control; be sure to include the first time you can ever remember feeling that way. For each memory, recall to the best of your ability what it was that caused you to feel that way. Common examples include the look or vocal tone of a parent, being hurt or scared by someone, losing someone or something important, or being bullied or ridiculed. Identify any common themes amongst the triggers. Be forewarned! This exercise can stir up a lot of feelings. If you are prone to especially big feelings, let someone know you are going to do this exercise, and check in with them afterwards, or plan for some self-care after the activity.

HINT: Most people are triggered primarily by maladaptive shame-based feelings, or maladaptive fear-based feelings. To get a quick sense of which camp you may fall in, or whether you’re one of the lucky few who may have both sets of triggers, ask yourself this basic question (adapted from Dr. Les Greenberg, C.Psych):

  • When home alone on a Saturday night, are you more likely to feel nervous or scared (fear-based), or feel unloved and unwanted (shame-based)? (If you feel overjoyed and relaxed, you’re likely experiencing primary adaptive emotion in your fast-paced life—enjoy!)

If most of your triggers relate to interactions with others, try this question:

  • When interacting with others, are you more likely to lose your cool when someone rejects/leaves you, or when someone disrespects/criticizes you? The first may suggest triggers related to attachment needs (a need to be liked and accepted). The latter may relate more to identity needs (a need to be seen as competent or skilled). (We’ll return to the topic of attachment in more detail two articles from now. Stay tuned!)

After identifying your triggers, try writing a script for how you’d prefer to respond when you encounter a similar trigger in the future, and practice that response—out loud. This is another great activity to try with a trusted friend or support; someone who may be able to help you see new possibilities in areas where you are stuck.

So now you can identify your feelings, you can begin to experiment with identifying what category of feeling you’re experiencing, and you have some strategies for managing maladaptive and secondary feelings in the moment. But, how do you change your maladaptive and secondary feeling patterns so they don’t happen as often in the first place? Research by Dr. Leslie Greenberg would suggest that the most effective way of changing stuck emotions (at least in therapy contexts) is with … other emotions. (We’ll come back to that in a future article when we get to why psychotherapy works.)

Summary

So, let’s sum up what we have learned, shall we? We have learned about primary adaptive feelings, those feelings that provide us with current and relevant information about something happening in the “here and now.” Paying attention to and understanding these feelings gives us accurate information about what we need, and points us in the direction of meeting that need.  Don’t “manage” these feelings—act on them!

We also learned about primary maladaptive feelings, those feelings that can lead us astray.  Like a car’s “Fix Engine” light that gets stuck in the on position, these feelings are old, stuck, and repetitive feelings that stem from “then and there” situations. Learn what triggers these feelings, and how to manage them effectively. Eventually you may want to do some work, on your own or with support from friends or a therapist, to heal these feelings so you can more easily be in touch with your primary adaptive feelings.

Secondary feelings are feelings about feelings, or feelings about thoughts. Train yourself to identify these feelings. Then, dig deeper to find the primary feelings underneath.

Finally, instrumental feelings are a bit of a misnomer. These are really behaviours, meant to mimic the expression of a feeling, aimed at controlling or manipulating an outcome. If you think you sometimes express instrumental “feelings”, work to understand your motives, and examine the possible costs and benefits.  

And that’s it for Part Two! Don’t forget to check out Part One (if you haven’t already). Stay tuned for next month’s Focus On Emotion—we’ll take a look at when emotions enhance and hinder effective decision-making.


Focus On Emotions is a year long series, published monthly, written and researched by Sarah Thompson.