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How to Manage Your Feelings Successfully

Grow a strong emotional mind.

In my last post, I explored the ways in which we try to manage painful and distressing feelings by getting rid of them. I tried to show how that strategy tends to make things worse rather than better and promised some guidance about how to manage our feelings well.

To fulfill that promise, I offer this basic yet crucial idea: We can grow our emotional mind only by being in a lively relationship with someone who has an emotional mind more developed than our own. As we seek to grow the capacity to manage our feelings successfully, we need someone who can receive the feelings that we first try to get rid of—and gently but firmly return them to us. The prototype for that someone is a mother or a therapist, but it could be a father, sibling, friend, partner, or spiritual guide. I hope you have or have had such a someone in your life.

I think of that someone as being like a catcher in baseball, receiving unwanted feelings that we throw at them. Their task is to catch those feelings and then return them to their rightful owner. By doing so, they say, “These feelings belong to you. Take them back. I’ll help you learn to hold onto them yourself.”

Source: Gratisography

But we know it’s not that easy. We must factor in the confusion and pressure that are felt by the one throwing the ball (that’s us, the child or the patient). We are throwing away feelings that are distressing, upsetting, even frightening. That is why we are trying to get rid of them in the first place. We don’t actually want them back. In that moment, we don’t view this as pitching practice or a friendly game of catch. It is more like a game of hot-potato or, at worst, a game of war.

To the undeveloped mind, the players in the feelings-game are believed to be on opposing teams, not the same team. The toss is forceful, designed to be final. It is thrown with a clear message, “I don’t want it; you take it.” In that state of mind, we believe that no one wants to receive the ball. And if someone has the audacity to catch it—look out!—because it’s coming right back with the same kind of force with which it was delivered.

So if the ball of feelings is to be handled well, then someone needs to change the terms of the game. If the catcher returns the ball of feelings in the same way it was delivered—i.e., with pressure, as something unwanted and too difficult to handle—then the ball remains dangerous and will be resisted. Nothing changes. But if the catcher can receive the ball in a more open way—as something that can be dealt with safely and capably—then she can return it without such distress and aggression. If she can do that, she can redefine the game.

But this is difficult to do. It is difficult for any of us to openly receive a ball of feelings when it has been thrown at us aggressively. When someone dumps on us, yells at us, blames us, or humiliates us, we can’t help but experience it as a personal attack and respond in kind.

CC0 Public Domain
Source: CC0 Public Domain

Think about this in real life. You observe a mother trying to deal with her child who is throwing a tantrum in the grocery store. She initially may respond calmly and with gentle firmness, but under the pressure of her child’s attacks, the mother can lose control. She raises her voice, begins to throw back her own threats, barbs, and accusations. We all know intuitively that the mother’s escalating distress only makes the situation worse. We feel for both mother and child. We know that they both will lose this game. By retaliating rather than containing, the mother reinforces the idea that feelings are too hot to handle because she cannot handle them well herself.

Perhaps now you can see how crucial it is to be in a relationship with someone who has the maturity to resist the urge to become defensive or retaliate under the pressure of our attacks. We cannot learn to manage our feelings without a mature someone like that in our lives. We all need someone who can receive our unwanted, castaway feelings with understanding and concern. We need someone who is not intimidated or frightened by our feelings. Their unexpected openness sends an important message to us. It communicates to us that our feelings are not too dangerous or too much to bear.

CC0 Public Domain
Source: CC0 Public Domain

As you can imagine, the extended training of psychotherapists of all kinds, and psychoanalysts in particular, is dedicated to becoming this kind of open, receptive, nonjudgmental, nonretaliating, and disciplined emotional container. The psychoanalyst, Wilfred Bion, coined a term for this process: “Container/Contained.” Patients need a therapist to be that kind of container for them when they can’t be it for themselves. Such a containing therapist receives the difficult feelings of the patient, thinks about them, and returns them to the patient in a digested, more manageable form. Over time, patients can develop a relationship with their feelings in which they view them as less dangerous and more manageable. As they gain experience in successfully managing their feelings with a therapist’s help, they grow the capacity to be that kind of container for themselves.

The key to managing our feelings is to be able to hold onto them, think about them, and use them to guide us into a more rich and meaningful life. We are most fortunate if we have someone who is capable of doing this for us and willing to help us learn to do it for ourselves.

Copyright 2015 Jennifer Kunst, Ph.D.

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This post is an excerpt from Jennifer's new book, Wisdom from the Couch: Knowing and Growing Yourself from the Inside Out. Check it out!

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