6 Emotional Superpowers You Can Start Practicing Right Now
Strong feelings don't have to be your kryptonite.
Posted Jul 31, 2020
Emotions have been my Enemy #1 for as long as I can remember.
As a young adult, it was sadness. First, in high school, it was putting Counting Crows songs on repeat to keep the crying going—then switching to an upbeat pop song when my parents walked in to show them I was OK.
In college, it became a deep, dark, disorienting sadness that I didn’t realize I was even capable of till I found myself standing in a friend’s yard near campus, head spinning, trying to remember the point of it all. Wondering if anyone else on Earth felt this but me.
As an adult in the workforce, and then as a parent of young children, all that anxiety and sadness morphed into an ugly, irritable rage. It suffocated me at every turn. Why won’t these feelings just leave me alone?! My brain would scream. And then, in a softer voice, Is something wrong with me?
In my work, I’ve encountered many people whose emotional intensity surprises them, and whose reactions to these experiences often cause problems at home, work, and school. They come to me for help. Their parents and partners want them to learn coping skills. They want the feelings to go away.
They’re thinking what I always thought: If I could just manage, control, get a handle on these emotions, I could be better. Life would be good. Everything would be OK *then.*
But what if it were possible to accept these strong emotional experiences, invite them in, and try to understand them as part of our larger experience, rather than “coping” them away?
I thought back to that teenager in her bedroom, blaring the last track on the August and Everything After album until I felt the sharp points in my chest might kill me. I wasn’t always running then. I was feeling, too. I wondered at what point the latter became so unacceptable to me.
Here are some things I have come to know, through personal work, learning from others, and clinical work, that have helped me “right-size” emotions as part of the greater experience of life. None of these is intended to change our experience or to make it disappear. Rather, each of these shifts in perspective allows us an expanded space in which to acknowledge strong emotion, feel it, and move forward.
1. You are not your emotions.
They do not define you. You may be on an emotional rollercoaster, but you’re riding in the car… you’re not the track itself. When your brain tells you, “See? I’m just an angry person,” thank it kindly for the commentary and rest in the deeper knowledge that you feel angry right now, at this moment in time, period. (If it helps, I guarantee you've been not-angry for many more minutes of your life than you've been angry.)
2. Emotions come and go.
Despite what you might be thinking mid-panic attack, when you drill down to the core physiological sensations of what we call a “feeling,” it’s fascinating how fleeting it is. That knot in your throat, that burning in your chest, if noticed but not exacerbated by new thoughts and stories, usually pulses, peaks, and fades away within minutes (90 seconds, according to some). It’s your endlessly problem-solving brain that’s prolonging and reigniting the sadness or anger beyond that.
3. Emotions are not physically harmful.
Have you ever realized you were dreaming while still in the dream? Sweet! You can jump off tall buildings, scale mountains, even fly. Nothing can actually hurt you. The same goes for feelings.
I don’t mean to minimize the experience—it’s not called psychological pain for nothing. But when you focus on the actual physical sensations of emotional pain, what’s really there but some energy, vibration, maybe heat or coldness? When is the last time someone died from feeling a feeling?
This is not to discount the cumulative effects of stress on the human body, by the way. On the contrary, learning to focus carefully on the in-the-moment experience of mental anguish without judgment can reduce the negative impacts of stress.
4. Emotions don’t need a reason.
When we feel sad, people always ask, “What’s wrong?” For me, and for many of the people I see in therapy, this automatically triggers a whirlwind of problem-solving. We become desperate to pinpoint the “why.” Was it that fight with my partner last week? Failure at work? Some deep-seated trauma I haven’t dealt with? Something I ate for lunch?
It’s not our fault, of course. Our brains are uniquely tuned to find problems and fix them. (That’s why we hardly ever ask why someone is happy!) But this thought train can accelerate quickly and lead us to a longer, more excruciating emotional experience than necessary. What if you can’t find a reason? What if there are lots of reasons? What if, gasp!, there is NO reason?
Seeing that physical sensations and thoughts about those sensations can exist independently of one another is pretty freeing. Rather than telling your toddler, “Oh, you are sad because your sister took your toy,” what if parents just said, “You’re sad. That stinks. Give me a hug”? When our partner asks, “What’s wrong? You look unhappy,” what if we said, “Yeah, I probably need to rest for a while,” instead of commiserating about the many problems and failures of the day?
5. Emotions are not imperatives.
Just as physical sensations and thoughts can exist without each other, so too can sensations and actions. Thoughts and actions, too. There is a space between a thought or sensation and your behavioral response. That space is magical if you can catch it. It’s the space where you see what’s really going on, both inside and outside of you. You may still choose to yell or throw something, but hey! At least it’s with intention.
All jokes aside, as you practice this in difficult emotional moments, it will slowly get easier to pause and look around before choosing what to do…or whether to do anything at all. (To help with this, try Tara Brach’s RAIN technique next time you’re keyed up.)
6. Strong emotion is not inherently negative.
It’s objectively neutral… and could even be experienced as positive, depending on the frame. Have you ever been running and felt your heart pounding, sweat rolling down your forehead, breath getting short? As Sam Harris likes to say, if you were having the exact same sensations but you were sitting quietly in a chair, you might think you were having a heart attack.
My experience of strong emotion changed most significantly when I started to inject a little heart into my moments of awareness. Pema Chodron reminds us that we don’t have to view strong emotions with a cold, detached demeanor. We can cultivate more than tolerance.
Next time you feel the hot twinge of irritation well up in your chest, try zooming out enough to get some space. Then imagine infusing that space with welcoming kindness, holding the feeling with warmth and compassion. You might imagine it’s a small child or cute animal throwing its food. (Parents of small children, you might go with the animal for now since the child tantrum might hit a little too close to home!) Approach slowly, carefully, and with curiosity. Allow the intensity to ebb and subside, and when it’s safe, give it a little hug. (Or for you who are less hug-inclined, maybe a little handshake?)
Nature worked hard to give us a wide range of emotional experiences and signals. Without them, we would be lifeless. It’s both impossible and undesirable to get rid of them completely. But being with them doesn’t mean we have to suffer like martyrs. Pay attention and be kind to them. Your emotions deserve this kind of respect and affection.