“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.

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