This week, a new client wrote me this question:

How do I learn to check my emotional reactions when I’m super frustrated, hurt, etc.? I ramp up so quickly that it becomes a very physical reaction. My whole body gets rigid, including my brain, and I struggle to relax and be rational or flexible in the moment. 

Once I step away, I gain perspective, but I also have a hard time doing that. I feel like I need more concrete tools here.  Any suggestions?

Sound familiar?

When we’re frustrated, hurt, irritated, anxious, or overwhelmed, it can feel like our bodies are hijacked by an urge to react.

We can launch into fight mode (or freeze mode or flight mode) faster than we can think through our response.

Then, we react in a way that, with hindsight, we regret. We wish we’d responded with a different perspective.

If you, too, would like to develop the ability to check your emotional reactions and choose a different response, in this love letter, I’ll share with you the three steps I shared with my client.

Over many years, I’ve found that these three practices are the first steps to resolving any conflict or making any decision, whether tiny or huge.

I’ve come to rely on these practices to help my coaching clients successfully rise to the challenges they face, and I rely on them personally, especially in my roles as a city councilor and mother.

Granted, I’m still not perfect, and I still sometimes react to my teenage son in ways I quickly apologize for. But I can confidently say that these practices are the backbone that helps me maintain composure when I feel vexed at city council meetings and enjoy such a genuinely secure relationship with my son.

I hope you enjoy it. As you read about these suggestions, I invite you to notice how your body responds to them.

One: Pause

At the end of each six-month coaching engagement, I ask clients to tell me three things they’re celebrating having learned over the past six months that they want to remind themselves of if they forget them in the future. By far, the number one response is this: Pause.

Although I still sometimes feel an urge to skip over talking about the pause because it seems so inconsequential, this tiny step is not to be underestimated.

The pause is truly the lever, the pivot, the most crucial turning point from less-than-helpful reactions to more-helpful responses.

As Viktor Frankl, an Austrian psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor, is often quoted as saying—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.

The pause is the space of freedom.

So, the first step to checking your emotional reactions is to practice pausing.

Lest you worry that I’m demanding you go on retreat or meditate for hours, I’m not. Rather, I’m talking about the briefest of micro-pauses. While a longer break is sometimes needed when you feel really frustrated or pissed off, often, even ten seconds can make a huge difference.

Now, without a regular practice of micro-pausing, it is unrealistic to expect yourself to be able to pause when things get heated. If you practice pausing in the lower-stakes moments, it can be far easier to access a habit of pausing in the higher-stakes moments.

With that, I challenge you to commit to pausing for at least ten seconds multiple times per day.

This can be much easier with reminders.

With that in mind, I challenge you to pause now and create reminders with sticky notes or other pieces of paper that say “pause.” Then, put them where you’ll see them frequently, such as above your sink, by your computer, on your car dashboard, or beside your bed. You might also have fun wearing a bracelet that reminds you to pause.

Two: Acknowledge Your Feelings

Again, this is one of those steps that, before really engaging with it, can seem too simple to be important. And yet, just like pausing, the effects can be profound.

Awareness is the prerequisite for conscious choice. One of the main reasons we react in certain ways and later regret them is that we lack awareness at the time we react. The more awareness we have, the better our choices.

Now, there’s all sorts of information that can be helpful when trying to make a good choice (history, power dynamics, what others are experiencing, what really happened, etc.).

But to choose a response that honors our needs—and to settle our nervous systems enough to respond in a way we don’t regret, we need first to become aware of what we feel and need.

Although most people do not believe that naming feelings helps them feel better, fMRI imaging shows that when people find a word to match their sensations and emotions, the amygdala—the emotional center of the brain—becomes less active, and their nervous systems settle.

Three: Acknowledge Your Needs

When we react in ways we later regret or get trapped in a conflict, it’s often because we’re clinging to a strategy that doesn’t quite serve the situation.

I use the definition of needs from the Nonviolent Communication lineage—needs are the universal, primary qualities necessary to be fully alive, such as rest, efficacy, and belonging. In contrast, strategies are what we do to meet our needs. Every single human action is a strategy to meet a need. Our wants are our preferred strategies.

Just like naming our feelings settles our nervous systems, so does naming our needs.

When our nervous systems settle, we become far more capable of shifting out of less-than-helpful reactions and into more helpful responses.

Becoming aware of our unmet needs is a powerful first step toward choosing a strategy that honors them.

Of course, it is far easier to become aware of what we feel and need during the more challenging moments if we practice paying attention during the less challenging moments. So, I encourage you to dedicate a few minutes each day to a discernment pause—pausing to notice what you feel and need and then choosing your next step.

I’ve created an Emotions Wheel / Feelings List and Needs List to help you name your feelings and needs. I invite you to print them out, put them on your bedside table or kitchen table, and use them to name your feelings and needs once a day.

The more you practice pausing and noticing, the easier it will be to pause and settle your nervous systems when you start to feel emotionally reactive.

Any questions or thoughts? I’d love to hear how this lands for you!

Please feel free to send me an email to let me know.

Sending you wishes for soothing, aliveness, and conscious choice.

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