Managing challenging emotions is as much about steering away from negative patterns and afflictive mind states as it is about cultivating positive ones. One could come up with hundreds of ways to avoid fanning the flames of fiery emotions like anger and resentment. I cut it down to three tenets that really work for me:
- Don’t talk about it. Talking about situations that upset us recreates the emotional state of the experience again and again. It may feel like telling everyone around you about the jerk-y driver on your morning commute is helping you process the fact that you gave him the finger – but sometimes talking only stirs up the process. You end up re-living your hellish situation and, come on, do you really think your friends want to hear about it? There are exceptions. Some people process stress, trauma, and difficulties by talking through it. If you think you may be one of those people, take note of the way in which you are using your story. Pick a single trusted confidante; someone brave enough to call you out if you’re playing the victim or stewing. Aim for peace. Then consider: does my internal state move toward or away from peace with each new telling? If you are in the habit of exaggerating and embellishing the situation, you’re adding fuel to the fire without even knowing it. Satya, truth, is one of the five yamas or observances within the eight limbs of yoga. Learn to speak honestly, Patanjali says, “and the fruit of one’s actions cannot be wrong.” (Sutra 2.36) Sometimes though, the path to honesty means keeping your mouth shut.
- Don’t steep in it. Like tea left too long in the cup, steeping tends to brings out bitterness. Imagining the hundreds of ways you can smartly vindicate yourself will not bring peace. Don’t take my word for it – spend some time observing how it feels to repeat your yucky stories to yourself. You’re stewing in poison. What a predicament. Try not to give your mind the opportunity to tell you the story over and over, again and again; to go over all the minor and major ways you’ve been hurt and taken advantage of. Take this as a chance to bring mindful awareness to your reactive emotions. The sooner you notice yourself tuning to repetitive negative story-telling, the sooner you can change the channel. Breaking the link between painful conditions and mental reactivity is the key to freedom and liberation.
- The five day rule. This is my absolute favorite, life-saving, transformational secret. Whenever a situation arises that irks me, I vow not to respond until at least five days have passed. Sometimes I may even need more time. This particular tenet has the potential to really piss off the person on the receiving end. Alex doesn’t take it well when I say, “I don’t want to talk about this right now.” He doesn’t see through to the fact that what I really mean is if I say anything to you in this moment, I may forever regret it. I’m still working out the kinks on that one – you’ll have to come up with your own (better) way of framing your needs. There are, however, thousands of witty and wise quotes bearing witness to the truth of this tenet:
“Never write a letter while you are angry.” ~Chinese Proverb
“Take no revenge that you have not pondered beneath a starry sky, or on a canyon overlook, or to the lapping of waves and the mewing of a distant gull.” ~Robert Brault
“Always write angry letters to your enemies. Never mail them.” ~James Fallows
We could spend lifetimes imperfectly practicing and exploring these three simple tenets alone. But next up on the Salty Dog – why vigorous exercises is the cure for what ails (or – more accurately irks) you.This is part of a series of articles about managing challenging emotions. See more: