A Headshrinker's Guide to the Galaxy

Psychoanalytic wisdom for everyday life

When Your Feelings Are Too Hot To Handle

How to turn on your wise mind

Last week, I wrote about the temptation to turn off our feelings like a light switch, "Book of Mormon" style. I tried to show how this strategy ultimately just doesn't work. So the question begs to be asked: if we don't turn off our feelings, what do we do instead? What do we do when anger, fear, lust, and grief grow in intensity? What do we do when our emotions run hot and hard to handle? 

The key to handling ourselves in these provocative situations is to do our best to step back and try to think about them, too. Unleashed, feelings rule us. But when tethered to thinking, feelings become our friends.

We are better able to manage our feelings when we can get objective about them. So often, we get into emotional trouble because we confuse feeling with facts. Instead, as I like to say, we need to learn to think about our feelings more like a scientist. In emotionally challenging situations, we need to learn to ask ourselves, What is the data? My feelings may be registering a 10 out of 10 on the hotness scale, but what is really going on here? Is it really as dangerous, threatening or offensive as I feel it to be?

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With this shift, things tend to change inside. Pay attention to the shift.

If I take a deep breath and begin to be run more by my rational mind, what happens to the feelings?

If I give myself time to cool off, how does my perspective change?

The familiar strategies of counting to 10, sleeping on it, and calling a friend are all rooted in giving our emotions time and space to recede so that more reasonable thinking can come into the picture.

Marsha Linehan, a psychologist who has developed a program for helping people whose intense feelings chronically disrupt their lives, proposed a concept for this process called “wise mind.” Wise mind is the partnering of what she aptly calls emotional mind and rational/logical mind. The passions of the emotions are harnessed with the scientific advantages of thinking so that a wiser state of mind can be found. From that more comprehensive vantage point, a wiser path can be chosen.

Feelings are neither good nor bad. As Marsha Linehan says, they just are. They are vital to a passionate, motivated, and sensitive psychological life. They can provide useful information to guide us along our way. But they tend to be better servants than masters, better navigators than drivers. Disconnected from more rational, objective thinking, they can lead us into acting unwisely.

So when your feelings are lit up like a light bulb, give yourself time and space to bring your reasonable mind into the equation. Try to think about the facts of what is going on—both inside you and around you. If you are so overtaken by your feelings that you can’t see clearly, talk about it with someone you trust to have a reasonable mind.

In a way, I essentially am describing what good therapy is all about. Good therapy is the regular, disciplined practice of putting yourself in a state of mind and in a relationship with a reasonable-minded other, so that you can chill out, develop a better capacity for thinking, and find a more measured, wise approach to your life that honors both your feelings and the facts.

Copyright 2012 Jennifer Kunst, Ph.D.

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Jennifer Kunst, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist and psychoanalyst, working with adults and couples in her private practice in Pasadena, CA.

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