We have all experienced days when our emotions seem to be flying out of control. We may find ourselves yelling at the kids, sulking over an insensitive comment, bursting into tears at the slightest provocation, or staying up all night worrying. Anger, sadness, fear, and anxiety—these are some of the unpleasant emotions we experience. According to one research study, people experience unpleasant emotions over pleasant ones by a ratio of two to one. Furthermore, our emotional reactions can sometimes be quite complex since we can be experiencing several emotions at the same time.
There are many reasons why our emotions can get out of control. For example, we may be tired, hungry, ill, or under intense stress. But as soon as we eat, get rest, or finish that stressful project, we return to our usual disposition. Sometimes, however, we experience unusual reactions that aren’t explained by our immediate circumstances, or we continue to react in an over-the-top way despite our best efforts.
Such reactions may be a reflection of a past emotional wound. Psychologist Paul Ekman (on whose research the popular TV show “Lie to Me” is based) relates a time when he overreacted to his wife’s not calling him when she was out of town on a business trip. He experienced waves of anger, fear, and jealousy while waiting for her call—emotions triggered by his sensitivity to abandonment due to his mother’s premature death when he was only fourteen years old. (1)
Even in the midst of an emotional outburst or an anxious meltdown, we may be aware that we ought to be responding differently— calmly and with self-control. We have a strong suspicion that we are overreacting, yet we give in to our emotions anyway. This is because it isn’t really possible to “switch off” an emotion once it has started. (2) We can calmly reflect on the situation later, when we are not in the midst of the strong emotional reaction. We may then regret the feeling we had, the intensity with which we responded, or the angry or hateful things we said. We may even be afraid of our own emotional intensity. It is common for men, especially, to fear their own anger. When people feel particularly overwhelmed by their emotional state, they may try to deny their emotions or ignore how they feel. If this becomes habitual, they may end up losing touch with their feelings. Alternatively, their fear of exploding may cause them to bottle up their emotions.
These are not healthy or effective ways to handle our emotions. Bottling up or suppressing our emotions is not wise because our emotions have important information to give us—about the world, about other people, and about ourselves. Emotions are necessary to a healthy, full life, and a healthy emotional life contributes to our well-being and even our capacity to love and serve God and our neighbor joyfully and completely.
St. Thomas Aquinas judged emotions or passions in terms of their appropriateness to the situation by asking whether the passion is “ordinate”—meaning as it “should be as to manner and time.” In other words, the emotion is neither excessive nor inadequate to the situation, and it does not last an excessive amount of time. For example, excessive anger or anger that turns into long-standing hatred would be considered inordinate. But sometimes it’s difficult to determine whether our own emotional responses are appropriate. One obvious way we can try to measure our emotional responses is by observing the reactions of other people. Are they tiptoeing around us because they are afraid that we will fly off the handle in a rage? Have we gotten into trouble for our bad temper? Do people consistently make unreasonable demands on us because we don’t express our true feelings?
Another way to assess our emotional responses is to look at our activities objectively. Are we engaging in unhealthy activities such as overeating, viewing pornography, or spending hours in online chat rooms? Are we so sad that we can’t get out of bed? Does our fear cause us to curtail our normal activities? Do we often get the same bad feelings, which leave us feeling paralyzed? Some therapists recommend identifying our emotional responses as either “adaptive” or “maladaptive.” If the emotional response is adaptive, it adds value to our life or creates a sense of well-being. If it is maladaptive, the emotional response is unhealthy, intense, and debilitating over time. A maladaptive response is a clue that something needs to be addressed. Here are some questions you can ask yourself to help you judge whether your emotional reaction was appropriate:
• Was my emotional response appropriate for the situation at hand? Did I overreact or underreact?
• Does my response make me feel more out of control?
• Is something else bothering me such that I reacted so strongly on this occasion? Does this situation perhaps bring up uncomfortable feelings from my past?
• Does my emotional response signal correctly to others what I am feeling? Or are people confused by my expressions of emotion and feel pushed away?
• Do I feel burdened and overwhelmed by my own emotions and moods? If I am sad, can others comfort me?
Assessing our emotions in this way helps us deal more rationally with them. The goal is to avoid the two extremes in dealing with emotions—either to completely suppress them or allow them complete sway. Neither is healthy. Rather, we can examine an emotional response and judge whether it is appropriate to the particular situation and helpful to us or not.
Managing our emotions instead of suppressing or ignoring them involves first becoming aware of our emotional reactions and then reflecting on them using our intellect and reason. This process helps us to learn about ourselves. For example, when Carl’s boss makes a rather challenging remark about his work, he explodes in rage. His rage is an inappropriate response (especially in the work setting), leaving him with a feeling of being out of control and vulnerable in his job. He realizes he overreacted, and he reflects on the fact that he may have been reacting to long-buried feelings of anger toward his mother. His mother was controlling and manipulative, yet Carl never worked through his feelings of anger and fear. He recognizes that his feelings toward his mother were, perhaps, appropriate at the time but certainly inappropriate in the work setting. He learns what triggers his emotional hot buttons, and now he can take steps to prevent another inappropriate outburst.
Intense feelings of neglect or rejection (sometimes from a past traumatic experience) can be triggered by a present situation, giving rise to feelings that are not really appropriate at that moment. Our feelings are often trustworthy in alerting us to what’s important and what our needs are. They help us intuit what is good or evil and motivate us to take action against injustice or iniquity. Sometimes, as in the situation faced by Carl, our emotions give us a clue about something in our past that we should deal with.
This process of awareness and reflection not only helps us to learn about our own emotional struggles, but also can help us deal compassionately with others. Our emotional responses are extremely complex. They often arise without our awareness, and often we can only describe or name the emotion we’ve experienced after the fact. Rather than suppressing, avoiding, or trying to control our feelings, a healthy approach is to experience the emotion and then review the situation. When we learn to reflect rationally on our irrational moods and inappropriate emotional responses, we begin to break their tyrannical hold on us. Take the time, alone or with the help of a spouse, spiritual director, or therapist, to reflect on what your emotions reveal about you and your relationships. Your God-given intelligence and reason will assist you in understanding—and possibly even transforming—your emotional responses.
(1) Paul Ekman, Emotions Revealed, 2nd ed. (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2003), 78.
(2) Ekman, Emotions Revealed, 69.
Adapted from The Emotions God Gave You: A Guide for Catholics to Healthy and Holy Living, Copyright © 2011 by Art and Laraine Bennett, The Word Among Us Press, Frederick, MD, 21704, www.wau.org. Used with permission.