“Handle the emotion first, then talk…”

Part of an occasional series about phrases that this therapist finds himself repeating, often.
Photo by Torsten Dederichs on Unsplash

As a clinician in private practice, one of the phrases that I hear myself saying sometimes is this: “Handle the emotion first, then talk.” This is another of those multi-purpose phrases, having applications with couples and other relationships, but maybe most clearly with children and adolescents.

For example, your child has hit one of those “HALT” moments. If you are not familiar with this acronym, it refers to

  • Hungry
  • Angry
  • Lonely
  • Tired.

At that moment, your lovely child is throwing an even lovelier tantrum, the full-on screaming, snorting, throwing, hitting, crying type of tantrum. There is a lot of emotion coming forward, a lot of expression happening … although most of it could look like anger and threat.

Remember that the sympathetic nervous system and their fight/flight system is engaged! They may be feeling scared, but it looks like “fight”. And better than that, at that moment if you ask them “why” they are upset, they will come up with a reason, but that explanation is being filtered through the storm of the emotion.

While either/or explanations are often unhelpful, it can be helpful to think about whether you are dealing with a non-rational emotion or a rational thought.

If you were dealing with a rational thought, then you talk to it. That would be the perfect situation to sit back and think about the natural consequences of a behavior. You could explore other options that you could have taken and how those other options might have worked out.

If you are dealing with a non-rational emotion, talking to it is the absolute wrong way to handle the situation. Emotion most often comes out of fear. If you are hungry, then that primitive body fear is one of starvation. If you are angry, then you may be perceiving a bodily threat and feel the need to retaliate in kind. If you are lonely, then there is the deep fear of isolation, of abandonment. And if you are tired, then that fear may be one of exhaustion, of the thought that you will never be able to rest or stop.

Those non-rational emotions do have a rationality to them, but it is a rationale that places survival first, that often trades in either/or, all/nothing decisions.

So let’s consider the wrong way first.

Your child (or substitute loved one or boss or client as you need to) is full of emotion, anger, threatening, frustrated, upset. Perhaps you try to tell them that they are being “unreasonable” or “silly” or (gasp) “emotional”. They feel entirely justified in their emotion in that moment; for now, you will be the one who is wrong. And through the fog of that emotion, they will think of every possible reason (justified or not) to prove the emotion right.

Remember, this is not rational, but there is a rationale.

Your loved one is experiencing fear. To get into the brain of it, their amygdala and sympathetic nervous system are prioritizing survival over their prefrontal cortex and slow, rational, deliberative thinking. It is a heuristic, a thinking shortcut, that is good for survival but can be tough on relationships.

So what can we do?

“Handle the emotion first, then talk.”

Photo by Jordan Whitt on Unsplash
  • Get yourself as centered and calm as you can. This can be tough in the face of a toddler or adult in the midst of a tantrum, but take your own deep breath then think in terms of what would be soothing and calming.
  • Your next step could be moving closer to the person (especially if it is a loved one) and giving them a hug.
  • Your next step may be reducing the stressor/trigger by calmly saying, “You know, I know I’m feeling a bit upset right now. I’m going to take a walk for a few minutes, then come back.” In other words, leave for a little while because you might be the stressor/trigger. But do come back! And reassure them that you are coming back.
  • Then once the storm is past or the fog has lifted, then you can talk about it.

In my practice I find myself saying a lot of things over and over, but many of them come down to how we are body and brain together. They are not separate. And this particular phrase, “Handle the emotion first, then talk,” has a lot to do with approaching our selves and the selves of those we love as whole beings, not disembodied brains.

Then we can get back to enjoying being with our children, our loved ones, and maybe even our co-workers!

Originally published on Medium.com on February 11, 2019.

Writing Your Story Again

Photo by Andrew Neel on Unsplash

My wife and I have been DEEP into the editing process with our publisher. Much of this entire process of publishing has been new to us. We received a book contract, signed it, and sent our manuscript to the publisher. Then we received a “developmental edit”, which was more about style and larger issues. For example, our editor wanted us to better connect some of the scripture we had cited to our proposed exercises or to clarify some of our thoughts or stories.

There is a sort of pause that many of us take when receiving criticism. It can dig down into some old beliefs about “what if we can’t do this” or “are we good enough”.

And although we did have a sort of pride in our work, we did need the editing.

As we worked through what our editor had proposed, again and again we could see the places where our wording was vague … or that ideas that seemed clear to us needed to be fleshed out for the reader.

We had started writing this work five years ago. Yet this process of working through the manuscript alerted me to the ways in which my own thinking and feelings about anxiety had changed. We had grown and changed through these years, with experience and with knowledge.

Yet to learn and grow through this process, we had to stop ourselves from wincing at some errors and problems in wording; instead, we needed to look for the lessons along the way.

We all can use some “revision” and “rethinking”.

Photo by hannah grace 
on Unsplash

Any of us can get very stuck in our thinking. Try talking to someone about their opinions on any sort of political or religious issue and you will quickly find where people are very reluctant to revise or rethink a deeply held opinion. The same is true for feelings about ourselves, about our worth or value or competence in the world.

The challenge is to allow just enough flexibility in our “vision” and our “thinking” for change to be possible. It only takes a bit of space, a breath, to imagine a world where our fear or sadness is relieved, even just for the space of that breath.

For me, as a therapist, I know that part of the work of therapy is talking about some of the events that have led us to have fearful and negative narratives about ourselves. Then, with the help of a guide, we can rethink, revise, and rewrite what those events mean to us.

Remember to approach any work on yourself with grace and understanding.

As my wife and I continued through the edits, we found ourselves, again and again, erring on the side of grace. There were multiple places where we remembered that whoever may be reading this book would often be blaming themselves for the times when they felt panicky and fearful. The best approach is one of grace and understanding, not criticism or judgment. The same is true for any of us that are doing some new work with ourselves.

Be gentle as you look at yourself; treat yourself with the sort of kindness with which this God of love sees you.

Once you are able to see that vision of God’s love for everyone, even you, then consider what “revisions” that you need to make in your own life and relationships.

We all have to let go of some control.

As my wife and I have moved through this process of writing, submitting, editing, and submitting again, of choosing a title, and all these next steps with a cover and marketing … we are learning to let go of control … of the book.

Yes, of course, there was a bit of a sigh for both of us as we hit the [send] button that submitted our initial manuscript to the publisher. As we have edited and revised, there was another [send] moment as we sent our editor our revisions and comments and concerns.

We practice letting go … of our control.

This practice of letting go is as easy as taking a deep breath, then having a long, slow exhale. The more challenging parts of letting go are about our work or our parenting. Or perhaps the difficult piece to let go has to do with past hurts and wrongs. Whatever it is we use to define ourselves, there is a gift to receive in our giving it away, of opening our hands instead of holding a closed fist.

Reach out to others. Work with them.

Working with others and trusting their expertise can feel scary, but it is worth it. All along this path, from working with an agent to our interactions with our publisher, this journey has been one of reaching out and trusting.

For some of us, reaching out and opening our hands to others for help and support can be frightening. We have been hurt before. It is hard to trust that someone else will be there for us. Sometimes our own thoughts about what is “right” will conflict with others.

This work is not just about you; it is for all of us.

We are all in some sense a “work in progress”. One point we return to again and again in the book is how much the “journey of faith” is just that … a journey. Yes, there is a beginning, but there are many points of struggle and resolution, of “revision” and “rewriting” along the way.

Photo by Vlad Bagacian on Unsplash

My hope is that as we move along this way, and as many of you journey with us, that we do so with openness to God and each other.

If you are interested in following along on this journey, go to my “books” page, enter your email, and receive updates as we make our way toward publishing.