All the feels.
We all have them.
Many are wonderful. Others, not so much. And some are quite painful.
As adults, we have the benefit of life experience to guide us through the murky waters of powerful emotions. Children do not. They look to us as parents, teachers, and role models to guide them.
Most of us do not notice when we tackle tough situations without fanfare. Life runs smoothly, and we are simply along for the ride.
But what about the instances when we do not conquer our challenges with tact and grace?
What do we do when our feelings are too big?
Feelings Just Are
Raw moments. Real moments. Human moments.
In these human moments, we lose our objectivity. We judge ourselves and others.
We label the big feelings that preceded our unwanted actions as right or wrong. We try to avoid, deny, or even wrestle with them.
We want to be in control of how we feel because it makes us feel safe.
And when it comes to our children’s feelings? We want the same.
To be a parent means to know what it feels like to have your heart walking around outside of your body.
When our children hurt, we hurt. When they struggle or suffer, we struggle and suffer right along with them. It is our parenting instinct to nurture. To protect.
We dash to distract, rush to redirect, or scramble to soothe.
Anything to assuage the ache.
In truth, feelings are neither good nor bad.
Feelings just are.
The Function of Feelings
We feel the ache in our hearts, but it is an area of our brain known as the limbic system that houses the seat of emotion. This network of neurons located in the upper part of the brain stem just below the cortex influences our moods, which in turn impacts our behavior.
Emotions have a purpose. In fact, they have several.
The amygdala (an almond-shaped cluster of cells located near the base of the brain) is responsible for emotion, memory, and protection. Sensory information from the world around us (sights and sounds) is interpreted by the amygdala. When presented with a threat, your amygdala relays a warning signal to your hippocampus. This process triggers a release of energy known as the fight or flight response, and your body begins preparations to defend itself against attack. In truly dangerous situations, we can be thankful our amygdala does its job!
Emotions connect us with those closest to us. You smile at your baby, and your heart bursts with joy as your baby smiles back. Your team scores the winning touchdown, and you excitedly high-five a fellow fan. You grieve for the loss of a loved one and seek solace in the reassuring hug of a friend.
Emotions help us communicate our needs to others. Eighty percent of our communication is achieved through body language. These non-verbal cues give others clues as to how we are feeling. If someone approaches our personal space and we are uncomfortable, we take a few steps back. Conversely, if we are excited to see this person, we move closer.
Facial expressions are connected to our emotional experience. If we are feeling sad, we may frown or cry, communicating to others our need for comfort.
Angry? Our eyebrows may knit close together, our lips pucker into a scowl, and our arms fold across our chest in a defensive posture. The message? Back off!
Both sending and reading these cues are an important part of communicating with one another.
Emotions can also help us make decisions. The knot in your stomach before a test can motivate you to study. The lump in your throat before a big presentation can encourage you to rehearse your speech. Feelings influence our choices.
If we recognize that our emotions have a purpose to keep us safe, promote our bond with loved ones, help us communicate with others, and influence our choices, we can free ourselves to feel. Once we give ourselves permission to experience emotions (even the uncomfortable ones) without judgment, we can learn how to manage our responses to them. That is emotional regulation.
Once we accept that feelings are not harmful and, in fact, have a purpose, we can learn how to manage them.
Notice I said manage, not control.
Emotions can only be managed. Actions, on the other hand, can be controlled.
So, how exactly do we regulate our responses?
Do we need a barometer? A thermometer? An emomometer?
(Okay, I made that last one up.)
Not quite. We use a gauge of sorts. While not as precise a tool as the first two meters, it is as powerful.
The Feeling-Thought-Behavior Connection
In between our feelings, our thoughts, and our actions, there are brief windows of opportunity.
Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.Viktor Frankl
It is in THESE moments that we hold all the POWER. We call it the Power of the Pause.
Emotional Regulation and The Power of the Pause
Like anything we want to do well, learning how to pause in between experiencing a strong feeling and then acting on that feeling takes practice. It begins with self-awareness.
Imagine your brain as your control center. Reactions are often perceived as entirely automatic. Many are, as they ensure self-preservation. (Remember the amygdala’s protective role?) But while most seem instantaneous, many are not. There is a brief span of time between us experiencing a feeling and us choosing (yes, choosing) how to act on that feeling.
With these choices, we take command of our control center. With a little practice, we can learn how to gauge our feelings, evaluate the thoughts attached to those feelings, and then choose what behavior we want to exhibit based on those thoughts.
How do we accomplish this?
We learn our P.L.A.C.E.
When we practice the Power of the Pause with our children, we teach them how to help themselves self-regulate. Emotional regulation is a vital lifelong skill that bolsters self-esteem and fosters healthy relationships with others. Self-empowerment is a gift that carries us through the struggles we all encounter throughout our lives.