Manage your emotions by slowing things down

by | Jul 20, 2021 | Managing emotions


It may not be possible to choose how we feel, but we can choose how we respond.

Over the years, I’ve come to appreciate taking things slowly. There’s nothing quite like the depth of flavour of a slow-cooked casserole, the intense sweetness of a tomato plucked from an autumn vine. It’s surprising how slowing down a favourite song can imbue it with pathos. ‘First Time Ever I Saw Your Face’, by Ewan MacColl was sung at a brisk allegro by his lover Peggy Seeger in the 1960s, but later became a soul classic in 1972 when Roberta Flack slowed the tempo to a lento (admittedly, MacColl didn’t like this version).

And while it might seem counter-intuitive in a world of relentless acceleration of everything from broadband to food, we can be at our most creative and productive when we hit the brakes.

Just lately, I’ve tried slowing down when reacting to my emotions and I’ve discovered all sorts of unexpected benefits, from more cordial relationships to feeling a little calmer, less overwhelmed.

What are your feelings telling you?

We tend to think of ourselves as being at the whim of our emotions. We struggle to keep feelings ‘under control’ and largely view our ‘passions’ as things that enslave us. One marker of maturity in my own upbringing was the ability to restrain feelings. I was told to ‘bite your lip’, ‘get a grip’. Estranging me from my feelings in this way paradoxically gave them greater power over me and made me disavow a massive part of how I experienced myself and the world.

Therapy has helped me to take a less judgemental stance towards my emotions by working with a belief that before you master something you need to understand it. So, I started with noticing how I feel a feeling in my body. Emotions ‘move’, signalling preparation for a response in the form of a behaviour. For me, anger rises from my chest to my head like a prickly wave that reddens my neck and face as it progresses through my body. I can feel my jaw setting, my hands tightening, my throat constricting. I’m getting ready to snap, shout, throw something – or worse.

My angry self demands justice, now. It can also feel a lot like anxiety which starts with palpitations in my chest, like the fluttering of bird wings, I sense my breathing becoming shallow. I’m getting ready for fight or flight, a preparation that sometimes makes me mistake anxiety for anger. Being able to pinpoint the emotion is, for me, a vital skill few of us learn. When I feel shame, I reflexively bow my head, making myself smaller in an act of submission. Guilt comes as a pang in my gut, jealousy (the feeling I’m most ashamed of) a stabbing pain in my heart.

What are emotions anyway?

Emotions are the result of our brain processing vast data about our environment that we take in through our senses, from pain and hunger, sounds or smells. They provide a bridge between the world and the self. They’re data that can shift a mood, drive an action. They can take me by surprise, revealing something about myself I might have exiled as ‘unacceptable’. They can be enduring and leaden like the sadness I feel at losing a loved one. And, it seems, we really, really can’t help them.

We confer on them a special status since they are, for us, an indisputable truth, albeit it a subjective one, about how we experience ourselves in the world and in our relationships. Our willingness to elevate our emotions (‘sorry, that’s just how I feel’ is a phrase typically used to shut down an argument) is something ad people and political campaigners exploit with images and slogans that arouse tenderness and nostalgia, anger or hate all rounded off with a call to buy or vote accordingly.

Can we choose how we feel?

It might not seem like it when we’re hit by a wave of emotion, but we do choose how we respond. We might snap at someone if we’re experiencing anger or feel compelled to hide away if we feel shame. Such responses might not seem like choices because a behaviour appears to be so outside our conscious thought. That’s where my strategy for ‘slowing down’ comes in…

Austrian psychologist and Holocaust survivor Victor Frankl described a fleeting opportunity for us to engage our agency: “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 more we learn about how we ‘feel’ emotions, the more we recognise them when they occur and, in time, even come to welcome them (hello anger my old friend). Our self-awareness might even extend to predicting the kinds of situations that give rise to them, for example, when we’re feeling tired, hungry, or hormonal. And when they do, we have a choice to slow down our reflexive behaviours and instead, consider what the feeling is telling us about how we’re seeing ourselves, what we need. In this way, we give ourselves a little more time to respond in ways that are, potentially, healthier for ourselves and our relationships.

Learning how to respond rather than react

When my partner is accusing me of something, my automatic response might be to defend myself and hurl back some blame, a tactic almost guaranteed to end in a volley of insults. But, having heard the accusation, I might slow things down and give myself time to notice how it has landed, what feeling it has prompted in me. Sometimes, when it hurts disproportionately, it’s because it’s excavated something painful from the past. If I slow down my reaction, I can acknowledge the ancient hurt without it becoming the cause of me lashing out in my present.

By choosing not to rush to judgement – or to action – I’m able to connect with my own perceptions and ask myself how accurate they are. There’s something else at work in this process – kindness that enables me to listen in an accepting way to all of me including the sad, peevish, ungenerous parts. By giving myself ‘permission’ to listen to myself, I become predisposed to listening more intently to the feeling behind my partner’s accusation. Is it fear I’m sensing? Hurt? Exhaustion? Is his annoyance a clumsily communicated need?

Treating your emotions with respect and scepticism

So, what has this ‘slowing down’ taught me? Well, being in charge rather than overwhelmed by feelings is a life skill well worth investing time and effort in, but don’t expect easy returns. It takes practice, conscious effort, a willingness to be fully present in the here and now. With the help of counselling, I’ve recognised how important it is to validate feelings without judging them. I no longer see them as good or bad, they just are. As a moral, thinking, conscious being, I get to choose what ‘to do’ with those feelings without denying their existence or otherwise suppressing them. I treat my emotions with respect but also with a dollop of scepticism. Most of all, they need attending to, but not necessarily acting upon.

When I rush, I’m conscious of something urging me to ‘get a move on will you?’. Maybe it’s the pressure of an impatient, time-is-money-world.

But when you take your time, you sometimes get to take charge.


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