Being emotionally overwhelmed is similar to getting stuck in quicksand. If you accidentally walk into quicksand, you begin to sink. Your initial fear might give way to panic as you frantically try to climb out – but that would only pull you farther down. And so it is with powerful emotions – the more you fight against them, the further embroiled you become in them.
But it is possible to respond in a calmer way – and not be overtaken – when you see your intense emotions in context and remind yourself that they will fade again. This perspective enables you to think about how you want to respond, and it allows for choices that you don’t have when you're overtaken by emotions.
For example, Susan works long days as a single mother of two young boys. When she returns from work and cooks dinner, she is beyond exhausted, and her children’s antics – such as playing on their phones and bickering when they should be doing homework – infuriate her. Feeling an instantaneous spike of anger, she would snap and yell at them. But she has recently been working on getting some perspective on her situation by recognizing that her children were blowing off steam from their own long day and that they were not trying to upset her.
By feeling her emotions and having some distance from them, she was able to think about – and guide herself through – her situation in a healthier way. She decided to push off homework time until after dinner. She also let them play around before dinner, as long as they did not need much intervention from her. Otherwise, they were sent to their separate bedrooms until after dinner. This was not so much of a punishment as a practical way to solve the problem of her needing to cook without becoming overly stressed.
People can change their emotional reactions, as Susan did, by learning to relate to themselves and others with empathy and compassion.
Empathy is identifying with someone’s experiences, thoughts, and feelings. With empathy, you have a sense of what it is like for the person to walk through this world or to be in a particular situation.
You can gain this kind of insight through empathic listening. This means listening in an open and attentive way, asking questions, and observing the person’s gestures, expressions and actions until you can see and feel the world as they do. It can also help to imagine what might motivate the person – or any person – to act as they do.
Susan did this one night after she lost her temper with her sons. She tried to imagine what it was like for them to be released from school with all their energy and how hard it would have to be for them to then focus on schoolwork. This made her feel even worse about yelling at them so much, leaving her to feel compassionately toward them.
Compassion is being aware of someone’s suffering and wanting to relieve it, whether or not you can actually do this. After Susan felt this way toward her sons, she thought about her own stresses and realized that she also felt compassion for how hard it is to be a single mother. With the desire to help all of them, she devised her plan of giving them playtime followed by homework after dinner.
Everyone feels the powerful pull of intense emotion at least sometimes. When this happens to you, it’s important (just like if you were in quicksand) to take a breath and relax, and then think about how to proceed. By grabbing onto an empathic and compassionate perspective, you can pull yourself out of your emotional quicksand and continue on your way.