If you’re someone who gets emotionally overwhelmed, relationship conflict can be difficult to manage. When you get upset with your partner, you don’t handle it well. You are too upset to think clearly. So you do the wrong thing way too often, and that only makes things worse. Your relationship problems spiral out of control right along with your emotions.
But it doesn’t need to be this way. As with any problem, the answer to this problem is to get to know it better. Though it may seem counterintuitive, this means that you need to get closer to your emotions, not distance yourself from them.
As I explain in the book Bouncing Back from Rejection, when your emotions are intense, they can be so strong that they overpower your thinking. Then you cannot just turn off the emotional part of your brain, as you would do with a light switch. However, “scientists have found something that can sometimes work like one -- or at least like a dimmer switch. Identifying and labeling your emotions can energize your prefrontal cortex, which is associated with decreasing activity in your amygdala [the part of the brain that controls emotions]. Put more simply, when you label your emotions, you often feel less emotionally reactive. Importantly, you can still acknowledge and feel your emotions, but they don’t overwhelm you or your thinking.”
As I explain in this brief video, you can develop your ability to label your emotions by practicing it. Consciously choose to pay attention to your feelings and think about what they are. If you have difficulty knowing what your feelings are (as many people do), you might want to read through a list of emotions, such as this one. Print and keep the list nearby so that you can review it at any time.
By learning to label your emotions, you are developing greater self-awareness of them. Then you can respond to this awareness by helping yourself and your relationship. You might offer yourself compassion for your struggles, and you might also work to resolve conflicts with your partner. Be sure to attend to both your positive and negative emotions. This way you can be sure to balance trying to fix problems in your relationship with appreciating your partner and enjoying time together. In fact, recent research highlights the importance of learning to attend to all emotions, not just the negative ones, because people who focus solely on painful emotions are then at risk for feeling more negatively.
As you identify and label your emotions, be sure to also connect with them. This means actually experiencing them rather than just naming them. For instance, you might cry or feel a heaviness in your heart rather than flatly noting that you are sad, much as you might comment on the weather. By naming, feel, and accepting your emotions -- rather than denying them, fighting against them, or feeling overtaken by them -- you will be well on your way to responding to them in a healthier way.
You will find that you can respond with self-compassion to your pain, just as you would do if someone you loved was in emotional pain. You will naturally talk to yourself and treat yourself in a more caring and supportive way. Feeling more emotionally grounded, you will also be more capable of responding to your partner with more understanding. The result is that you can work with your partner to continue to nurture a closer connection, even as you work through conflicts and difficult situations.
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