The holiday season is here, which means that we are constantly being bombarded by messages and reminders about how we should feel (i.e., no matter what your traditions, this is the time of year where we’re supposed to feel happy, thankful, jolly, and merry.) While we may feel joy during the stretch from Thanksgiving to the new year, it is also likely that we may feel frustrated, irritated, sad, and even angry.
It is no secret that balancing work and family demands is stressful. When holiday visits clash with work deadlines or year-end evaluations, it can lead to frayed nerves. To make matters worse, the days seem to be getting shorter. Yet, it’s the holiday season; we’re supposed to be happy, cheerful and joyous - all on top of the normal expectation to be productive and professional.
People tend to think of emotion as innate, but sociologists have known about the more social aspects of emotion for a long time. People feel stress because they see themselves as being overwhelmed. People feel anger because they perceive a slight in a face-to-face interaction. People feel embarrassment because they sense they have acted foolishly in front of a friend or colleague.
The good news for those who find themselves feeling anger or other potentially disruptive emotions during the upcoming season is that each experience provides opportunities for emotion management. Studies show that individuals can successfully manage their emotional responses in appropriate and effective ways by choosing one or more of the following strategies: 1) change your physiological state, 2) change your understanding of the situation (or the situation itself), 3) change the language that you’re using to describe your feelings, 4) change your emotional expression (e.g., smile).
It’s important to know that each of these four strategies are interdependent, meaning that a change in one will most likely trigger a change in the other. For instance, psychological studies of micro-expressions reveal that smiling actually releases feel good chemicals in the brain, which automatically changes your physiology. Similarly, sociologists and anthropologists routinely show how language shapes our reality. In his best selling book, Unleash the Power Within, Anthony Robbins tells the story of an executive who never got angry, instead, he got, “tinkled.” As weird as it may sound, try it: every time you find yourself getting angry, substitute the word “tinkled” in your inner and outer diatribes and see what happens to your mood!
Another common strategy that individuals use to manage their negative emotions is simply changing their environment. By simply taking a 10-minute walk or meditating, a person can escape from the situation causing the stress and also change their physiological state.
Individuals who can re-conceptualize the identity of the person who angered them as less powerful (like a child), and re-identify themselves as more powerful (like an adult or a parent), will feel less anger and more empathy, compassion, and cooperation. In addition, studies suggest that it may be easier to convince ourselves that we feel content or happy, instead of fearful and sad, if we first think of more powerful emotions, such as pride. Similarly, it may be easier to move from rage to tranquility if we first think of things (or memories) that bring us joy.
As we continue through the holiday season, we should expect the stressors that have the potential to frustrate and anger us and also messages about how we should feel. While some may see the difference between between what we actually feel and what we’re supposed to feel as simply more stress, it is possible to change our reactions by altering aspects of the emotional experience.
Managing our emotions can be done not only by suppressing negative emotions, but by turning them into feelings that will facilitate teamwork, cooperation, compassion, and most important of all, good will.