Emotions Controlling Your Life? 3 Steps to Take Your Control Back!

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  • Do you feel like your emotions drive your behaviors and reactions? 
  • Do you find yourself feeling embarrassed or ashamed about the way you reacted after the fact? 
  • Do you wish you felt more in control of yourself and your emotions? 

Great, this blog is for you.

Feelings aren't facts. This is not to say that our feelings don’t matter or aren’t valid.  Every emotion we experience is caused by something, and therefore valid.  It gets tricky when we start talking about valid vs. justified; that is not for this blog post as I am working hard to stay in my “long enough to get the point across and not be aversive” wordcount. Bottom line is: valid means it make sense that you are feeling the way you are feeling, i.e. because you ARE, and justified means the feelings fits the facts, and the intensity of the emotion is appropriate and justified.  The intensity part is usually where folks get in trouble.  The main take away is that emotions are always triggered by something, it is often difficult to decipher what exactly triggered them, this takes practice, but the fact that every emotion we experience is caused and therefore valid is so damn validating! 

Level 4 validation in DBT’s 6 levels of validation is:

  • Validate Behaviors based on history: We react to the world based on our life experiences and biological wiring, assuming if someone is having an emotional reaction there is a reason or a cause even when the reaction is not one you relate to or identify with. Identifying why it makes sense for this person given their history or biology that they may react in a certain way.

Emotions and feeling out of control is one of the main struggles people come into therapy with.  Knowing you are behaving or reacting in a way you aren’t proud of or happy with but not being able to change it is really challenging.  I have come up with 3 steps to help you practice getting those emotions under control.

Step 1:

STOP IT! Immediately pause, there is a 30 second window between skillful reactions and hot-mess emotional bomber.  The art of pause is one of the most important skills in regulating difficult emotions.  Pro Tip: meditation helps to build your pause muscle (read more about getting started with meditation). Stop, take a step back, don’t do anything. There is a fabulous slogan in addiction recovery, “Don’t just do something, sit there.” It is fucking Brilliant!

Step 2:

Check Yourself: Check in with any stories, judgments, or assumptions you may be making about the current situation.  Check in with all the different parts of yourself that may be reacting to the current situation because it is like a past situation.  A past situation that is difficult, perhaps traumatic, and therefore difficult to react to with accurate intensity.  There is a reason we often experience the same things happening repeatedly in our relationships or lives.  Maybe they are happening and we have crap luck or continue to recreate the dynamic we need to heal, or maybe we are seeing our relationships through the lens of our experiences, where we interpret behaviors based on the things we fear most.  Again, your emotions are valid and caused, however, they are sometimes not caused by what it is happening in the present moment.  Rather, caused by a historical wound that is just below the surface and when it is activated it takes over leaving us feeling like prisoners to our emotions.

Pro Tip: Ask yourself 1. Do my emotions fit the facts of the situation I am currently facing? 2. Is my intensity measured and appropriate? Am I at a 9 when the current situation only warrants a 2 or 3?

Step 3:

Self-Validate: Validation is the best.  As humans, we need a lot of it. When it comes to our emotional experiences one of things that makes our reactions worse and more difficult to regulate is invalidation.  For example, “why am I so sensitive,” “why can’t I just chill,” “I shouldn’t be feeling this way” etc. When you are feeling intense emotions there’s a reason, something is happening, our emotions communicate to us and for us.  Saying to yourself, “of course, this is difficult for you it is another example of feeling taken advantage of by someone you trust. That is shitty, and that is hurtful.” Simply acknowledging our reactions to difficult situations can help regulate them.  Pro Tip: Validate yourself and validate the people around you. (More on levels of validation in Why you “Help” Isn’t helpful.)

Practice, Practice, Practice!  Change is really hard, and emotion regulation is a difficult skill to master specifically because we don’t always know when or what will trigger them.  The more fluent you become in your own experiences and identifying what your emotional triggers are, the more quickly and effectively you will become at modulating and regulating emotional reactivity. 

Getting Okay With Being Wrong, and Why it Matters.

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When I work with couples and families one of the major barriers to vulnerability and connection, is a preoccupation with who is right, and being right.  The standoff of one person’s perspective of an event in conflict with another person’s perspective of that same event.  Dialectically, of course it makes sense that both these perspectives can exist and neither is “right” or “wrong” but when it is your conflict, your family, and you who in your mind is “right,” you betcha it matters. 

Being wrong is such an underutilized skill.  I know for a lot of folks taking ownership of behaviors, making a mistake, being wrong, can feel like the absolute worst thing, as if being wrong but not acknowledging it somehow absolves us of being wrong? Or admitting we are wrong, or made a mistake, somehow makes us less desirable or lovable?  I get it, the preoccupation with perfectionism and over-functioning behaviors are in response to the fear of being wrong, blamed, or criticized. Brené Brown, PhD, author, and researcher who has studied shame and vulnerability for over a decade describes perfectionism as a form of armor we use to protect ourselves against being judged. "It’s a way of thinking that says this: ‘If I look perfect, live perfect, work perfect, I can avoid or minimize criticism, blame and ridicule,’”  Brown says in an interview on OWN for Oprah's Life Class. What does it mean when we are wrong, or make mistakes; big mistakes/little mistakes? For a lot of people, it means we are defective, unworthy, less valuable.  Of course, we would want to protect ourselves from that, right?  

Objectively speaking, being wrong, making mistakes, and being imperfect just means we are human and that, sometimes, we are wrong, make mistakes, and do things less than perfectly.  I come from a long line of, “Yes, we will get to solving the problem, but most importantly and first things first: whose fault it is?” It is as if I lived much of my early adult life trying to be “right,” know things, be the best/smartest/most competent so I couldn’t get blamed for being wrong. Being wrong was the worst thing to be, something being coded as your fault was the ultimate burn.  I learned two very important lessons from this conquest of knowing things, and being right.

  • It is SO lonely.
  • It doesn’t fucking matter! 

I’ve decided, for me at least, it’s such a relief to be wrong, to not know, to need help figuring something out, and ironically, not be right.  Of course, I am not right all the time, what a ridiculous expectation to have!  Although, I know I am not alone in placing this expectation on myself.

Being Wrong Gracefully

  1. Remain Teachable: “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s mind there are very few”- Shunryu Suzuki. When we are open to learning, and live under the assumption that everyone has something to teach us, whether it is about ourselves or a situation, we have limitless possibilities of learning and growing together.
  2. Lead with Curiosity: The most important characteristic in leadership and management is the ability to be wrong, to not be the smartest person in the room, empower and share ownership to elevate and reinforce the strength of members on your teams.
  3. Own it, Be Wrong! Say out loud to the team, “Oops I am wrong,” or, “I completely missed this,” or “oh shucks I thought more about this and I was 100% moving us in the wrong direction.” Great, now we can problem solve and find a solution that works, together.
  4. Fall on Your Own Sword. Instead of doubling down on your rightness, fall on your own sword and be happy for fucks stake. Who really cares? It may not be the look we are going for, if when we die, our tombstones say, “Here lay Meghan, she was always right.” Especially where it matters most, in relationships, marriages, partnerships, or families, it is even more important to be wrong. 
  5. When Right, Be Humble. Who really cares about being right either? WE DO! When you are right, wear it like a lose fitting garment. It’s nice to be right, but if we have more humility around our rightness, being wrong may not feel like such a dreadful thing. We are all familiar with the saying “Do you want to be right, or do you want to happy.” If we can keep a balance between how much we value being right, we may not be blind to how much prioritizing being right gets in the way of our happiness. “Here lay Meghan, she was happy.”  I much prefer the sound of that legacy.
  6. Be Vulnerable and Human, it is your most authentic state. Say, “Hey I am really sorry I took this out on you.” Or, “I am really scared and it is not fair for me to put this pressure on you, I was wrong.” Or, “I wish I could do that over again, I really didn’t mean what I just said, I am sorry.” Then see what happens next, it is incredible what happens with the power of vulnerability.
  7. All in This Together: We Are All Wrong. IT IS THE BEST TO BE WRONG. And the greatest part is how much room it gives other people to be human alongside us. What if we didn’t equate being wrong with shame? What if being wrong didn’t have an evaluative judgment attached to it, and it was just a thing that happens sometimes, like being right. Sometimes we make mistakes and sometimes we crush it and then there is everything in between.  

6 Life Hacks for Accessing Your Zen Zone From the Red Zone.

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Do you struggle with decision making? Feeling confident in your next steps and actions, while constantly second guessing or doubting yourself directly after the fact? I know right!

There is so much about living life that feels complicated. Decisions that feel high stakes, and an irritating preoccupation with getting it “right” this time.  Dialectically, we also have moments of peace with a deep awareness of the simplicity of our existence and feeling of being grounded in ourselves and aligned with our values.  These moments are often fleeting and are hijacked by self-judgment or a thought like, “okay hippie, this is real life though, and we have to work for what we want.”  I often feel the latter moments more often on the backend of a vacation, ideally in another country.  Taking time to unplug from the daily grind has this grand impact of putting things in perspective for me. Having moments where I feel completely sure that whatever is coming next is meant for me, and if it my expectations aren’t met or something doesn’t happen then it isn’t meant for me. Exhale.  

I just got home from a magical vacation with my husband, I was aware right as I was finally landing back in NYC how desperately I try to “hold on” to the vacation feeling, demanding of myself that I “stay present, stay calm, fucking hold on to it!” Inherent in holding on is letting go, always. I came up with some ways to connect with this Zen self-state even when I am back in the daily hustle of NYC life, and as a reminder to myself when I forget to let go.  I am exactly where I’m supposed to be.

1.     Be Here NOW. Right Right Right now, I like to think about the present moment as being inside the clap, the second your right-hand hits the left to create the clapping sound, right there, that is this moment. Ask yourself, “right here right now, is everything ok?” The answer is almost always yes, right in this moment everything is okay, nothing crazy is happening right now. Then our persistent and imaginative mind remind us, “but in 45 minutes I have this important meeting and I am scared I’m going to blow it.” Or “I really shouldn’t have made that comment to Ashley about the work event, what was I thinking, it was so awkward, gosh I’m so awkward!”

Ok, but right here, right right right now…is everything is okay? Pause, inhale, exhale.

2.     Notice it and STOP IT! When we find ourselves in the irritating preoccupation with getting it “right” this time, notice we are struggling with an important decision, feeling stuck or urgent about an upcoming event or an experience that has already happened: STOP IT. Urgency is possibly one of the most dysregulating environmental variables we encounter.  Imagine what would happen if the next time you were feeling urgent, anxious, or high-stakes about a decision or an event that instead of staring at it, you look away. Get in on this moment right now, take a break and allow yourself to remember this: nothing in this world happens by mistake and we are not going to miss something or blow something that is meant for us. When you are feeling urgent and pressure about taking an action, quick- STOP IT. Wait, take a break and come back to it when the urgency has decreased.

Remember the Wise Mind test question, “Can it wait?” Everything important can wait until you can make a grounded, wise minded choice.

3.     Decide.  Indecision is another dysregulating environmental factor, I find indecision to be such a tricky space to navigate especially when paired with a sense of urgency around the decision.  The most useful approach to indecision is one of the following two decision life hacks:

  • Decide for now. Make a decision based on the information you have in this moment, solve for X and then put it away.  When more information presents itself or circumstances change, level up and make a new decision with the new data set. Let go, for now.
  • Decide not to decide. Make a decision not to make a decision for an allotted amount of time, a few hours, a day, a month, 6 months.  Decide not to decide, and trust that you will know what to do, when you know what to do.  Sometimes it isn’t time for making the decision we are demanding ourselves to make, we don’t know enough, we need to circle back to the decision in different self-state.  I have had this happen more times than I can count where I will be killing myself about a decision that I am not ready to make, hence the indecision, and then I decide not to decide and give myself a decision deadline.  When I come back to the decision in a week, a month, or even 2 hours, I am shocked by my clarity. I am decidedly clear on this dilemma that had me baffled just the other day. Sometimes we quite literally cannot see it, because we are staring too hard. Look away, let go for now.

4.     Remember. When we are feeling emotions we often forget that there was a time when we have felt differently than we do right now, ever.  Fortunately, everything changes. Impermanence allows us to trust in the fact that everything is temporary, everything will pass. If what you are experiencing is magical- experience it fully and completely- it will pass.  If what you are experiencing is painful and you feel miserable- allow the experience without pushing it away or making it bigger than it is- this too shall pass.  Everything passes, remember sometimes all we need is a prescription for tomorrow. This is important to consider when looking at the first three tips for finding your Zen.  Sometimes emotions can really jam us up about a decision, a reaction, or an outcome.  The best, most skillful thing we can do for ourselves is detach until the emotional charge has passed. It all passes, if we let it.

5.     Acceptance. Change the things you can change, problem solve, and make decisions.  We are essentially only in control of two things: 1. Ourselves and our actions, 2. Our reaction to others and their actions. That is a lot, and it is not a lot. The practice of accepting life as it is, rather than as we believe it should be, is the most effective skill I teach and use in my own life.  When you notice you are disturbed or angry, check in with yourself, is there something you are struggling to accept? Is there something that you don’t like or agree with that is happening in your life causing you pain? Is there something you are not fully accepting that is getting in the way of your ability to be at peace. Can you accept it, even just in this moment, right here, right now? (go to #1.)

6.     Love yourself hard and be gentle.  The most incredible things happen out of a place of self-love and acceptance.  We are complex people, living in a complex time, sometimes walking with confidence and a rock-solid sense of who we are and the life we are leading, and sometimes flailing around in the dark.  You are doing the best you can, remember that and be easy when you get it “wrong” after decidedly operating out of the irritating preoccupation with getting it “right” this time. You are exactly right, as you are, keep it up!

Meditation: Are You Doing it Wrong? The #1 Barrier to Successful Mindfulness Practice...

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Well, “wrong” is a judgment, and one of the tenants of mindfulness practice is non-judgment, so no, the problem is not that you are doing it wrong. Although, judging ourselves and feeling wrong or not good enough is what gets in the way of doing a lot things that are beneficial to us. The biggest barrier to meditation is the belief that there is a right and a wrong way to meditate. The best mediation practice for you is the one that you do.

Dr. Ellen Langer, the first tenured female psychology professor at Harvard University and Mindfulness researcher for the last 35 years says, “Life consists only of moments, nothing more than that.  So, if you make the moment matter, it all matters.”

When I start treatment with new clients one of the first things we work on is increased mindfulness, increased presence in the moment and decreased mindless, impulsive behaviors, or reactivity.  For this blog, I am going to speak directly about meditation even though it is only one form of mindfulness. I am trying to stick to writing blogs that I would read myself, which means it can’t be aversively wordy.

“I’ve tried meditation, it’s not for me. I have a busy brain.”

Myth # 1:

Mediation is the art of being able to be completely still, thoughtless, and relaxed. 

Sometimes that happens for a few moments. It likely happens more to folks who are dedicated to their meditation practice and have been practicing for a long time.  If you have a busy brain, your meditation workout is even better. Since meditation is noticing your thoughts without attaching to them or judging them, and returning to the present moment over and over again; then the busier your brain, the more reps you are doing.  The more repetition the stronger the muscle. 

 Like any other practice, it is not always the same.  The ability to allow ourselves to be exactly where we are without having to fix it or change it, is likely one of the most beneficial skills an individual can poses.  We practice this state of being present without needing to change anything, in part, to build exposure to tolerating discomfort. When life is not as we think it should be, and people are not behaving as we wish they would, is when we need increased tolerance and the ability to be non-reactive. We practice every day so when we need these skills, they are available to us. 

Myth # 2:

Meditation should leave you feeling relaxed and/or peaceful. 

This is true, sometimes, but at the beginning and even for seasoned practitioners, we notice we are feeling anxious, having a lot of thoughts or judgments, struggling with being present or staying focused, or having difficulty with sitting still.  Feeling peaceful and relaxed is awesome, and we are often not given the perfect set of circumstances to be mindful, therefore practicing no matter how we feel is much more useful and practical for our daily lives.  I don’t know about anybody else but I am usually pretty chill at home on my mediation pillow, it is when I am on the 4/5 train during rush hour that I need my mediation muscles. 

Meditation is not always immediately reinforcing, if you know how it feels to go back to the gym after taking more than 20 days off, you know that initial workout is not you living your best life.  And after about a week or so, you feel back on track and exercise is your friend again. It is always easier to stay on track than it is to get on track, and there is an initial getting on track that must happen.

Mediation is like medication, you don’t always notice the effects right away, the practice has to get into your bloodstream.  I usually experience the benefits of my mediation practice in moments, in increased capacity to detach, accept, and allow life and circumstances to be exactly as they are, especially when I don’t agree with them. I joke with my clients that being skillful when emotionally dysregulated is like trying to do your taxes while you are being chased by a lion. We need to learn the skills, build the muscle, have exposure to tolerating discomfort so we can use them when we need them.

Meditation Starter Kit

  1. Start with something realistic and manageable. I usually suggest 3-5 minutes. Transcendental Meditation is incredible and I have many colleagues and friends who swear by it, but 20 minutes twice a day is not where most people start. Let’s start where you are, the best practice for you is the one that you do.
  2. Pick a time of day, be consistent and gentle: It is important to be consistent when trying to build a habit and it is equally important to be flexible and forgiving. First thing in the morning when you wake up, during your morning commute on the train, right when you get home for the day, or before going to bed. It is helpful to pair the new practice with a habit you already have, for example if you journal in the morning, you can meditate for 3 minutes right before you journal.  
  3. DO YOU: Find a practice that works for you. Don’t compare yourself to other people or judge yourself.  Some people really like guided meditation practices, while others like to focus on their breath in silence.  I have clients who love using mantras or inhaling a word and exhaling another word, for example inhale peace, exhale fear. Find what works for you, start where you are, and practice every day. Remain flexible, because “what works for you” will change. Stick with it, you got this. 

My favorite Meditation apps are Calm, Headspace, and Buddhify

The Indecision Trap: When it Comes to Life's Challenges We Really Only Have 4 Choices.

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Radical Acceptance is a Dialectical Behavioral Therapy Skill used to help reduce emotional suffering. It is also a common practice of meditation leaders, Buddhists, and Zen masters, and a book written by the incredible teacher, author, and psychologist, Tara Brach. It is called radical acceptance because it is freaking radical.  We don’t need to radically accept things that aren’t particularly challenging or causing us distress, those things are just fine.  When we approach life’s challenges we have 4 choices.

  1. Problem solve. When there is a problem that can be solved, by you, SOLVE IT. Admittedly my favorite option, I love solutions.  I love being able to fix things or make things work better.  When there is a problem that is solvable, go get at it.
    • Identify the problem and that it is in fact solvable (by you).
    • Analyze the problem, explore pro/cons of different solutions, what could go wrong, anticipate possible barriers and strategize the best solution for the problem at hand.
    • Implement solution: take action: troubleshoot along the way, tweaking and changing as you go, remain flexible and solution focused.
  2. Change your Perception of the problem. Re-frame. This involves changing the way you see a problem, for example, if there is someone difficult in your life you can view the relationship as an opportunity to learn about yourself and how to cope more effectively with difficult people. Now when difficulty arises you see it as a chance to practice new skills! This can take the focus off the other person and on to what matters most, YOU.
  3. Radically Accepting the Situation: Accepting completely and all the way whatever the situation is with your whole heart and whole self. Accepting reality as it is, rather than how you believe it should be. Letting go of the resistance, judgment, and control and detaching from the story of right/wrong or fair/unfair, settling into what is happening, because it is happening! Radical acceptance is not agreeing or condoning something, but rather accepting it as it is, because it is. For example, getting the flu and having to radically accept that you are sick and cannot go to Miami for an amazing conference you have been looking forward to! 
  4. Stay Miserable/non-acceptance: Of course, staying miserable is never an option we would sign on for intentionally. “This can’t be happening,” “I can’t stand this,” “This isn’t right.” It is almost as if we think refusing to accept the truth about what is happening will keep it from being true or stop it from happening. It is like closing your eyes, and hoping for the if I can’t see you, you can’t see me trick.

 I often reflect to clients after going through a decision dialogue around a particular problem, “so you are choosing to stay miserable?” Then we laugh and go back in, trying to find something, ANYTHING more effective than that.  Staying miserable is akin to a default state, it happens way more often than any of us would like. If you can’t solve the problem, are unwilling to change your perception of the situation, and aren’t ready to radically accept it, then by default you are staying miserable.

Refusing to accept reality doesn’t change reality, it just increases our pain.  Accepting you didn’t get the job, the person you love doesn’t love you back, that you were let go from a job you busted your ass at, these are not easy pills to swallow. Life is full of things we cannot change, accepting life is difficult when life is painful. When we think about challenges as being contingent on the choice we make, it makes our default state of “stay miserable” less likely, as we are being intentionally aware and mindful of the power choice has over our experiences.

I am reminded of the serenity prayer, “Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” We are often stuck resisting something or trying to change things that are unchangeable, like the past or another person. When we focus all our energy on things we do have power over like our own behavior, reactions and choices, we can get out of the tug of war game with ourselves and our problems. The real skill is the wisdom to know the difference.  It is hard to accept that things are out of our control or not solvable by us, trust me- it usually looks something like this:

Me: “You cannot change this, it is 100% out of your control.”

Also Me: “Maybe if you {xn•y<(7n+7y)*sum of + n-yz2} then you can change it…”

Pro-tip: Radical Acceptance is not linear and it is not a one and done kind of skill. Sometimes we need to radically accept something five minutes after having just radically accepted it the first time.  You may notice you have picked said accepted challenge back up, and now it is in your hand again. That’s ok, radical acceptance happens over and over and over again.  Put it down, rinse repeat.  You got this. Radical acceptance is the answer to ending unnecessary emotional suffering, one radically accepted breath at a time.

Pain + non-acceptance = suffering.

Pain + acceptance = pain that is about to pass.

Practice Practice Practice. <3 Meg