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Dealing with high emotion

Emotions are running high in public life this week. MPs have been shouting at each other over the floor of the House of Commons, using words like ‘cowardly’, ‘disgrace’ and ‘horror’. And world leaders at the United Nations were excoriated by an emotional Greta Thunberg who told them her generation would ‘never forgive’ them if they failed to act on climate change. 

How do we deal with strong emotions in ourselves and in others? How do we feel when others get upset and angry? Emotion is triggered when something is really important to us. Some of us express it and some of us suppress it but it is natural for humans to feel passion, distress, rage, joy and a multitude of feelings in between. Emotions, like those on display in public this week, can make us feel defensive or awkward. But imagine a world where everything was dealt with by logic and reason only. 

Therapy is all about tuning into our emotions and listening to them, even the apparently negative ones. Yes, anger can be destructive, but it can also be informative, telling us, as in Greta Thunberg’s case, that something is wrong and something must be done about it. The great wash of passion and frustration around Brexit is hard to tolerate but it tells us that people care – whether about national identity, political allegiance or economic wellbeing. 

We are an emotional species. It is natural to respond emotionally to uncertainty, challenge and change. In counselling we try to embrace and accept what we feel, knowing that feelings themselves cannot blow us away. Once we’re not scared of our feelings we can start to trust them. Emotion can then be our guide, showing us what is right for us and what is wrong. 

So how do we start? When feelings are running high try this three step process:

  1. Notice what you’re feeling and name it: “I am feeling anger/disappointment/anxiety…”
  2. Allow the feeling to be there and comfort it: offer yourself an inner smile or hug as you would to a small, distressed child.
  3. Listen. Be curious about what the feeling is trying to tell you. Maybe something is wrong. Maybe something needs to change. Take time to let this message bubble to the surface.

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