Reactive emotions may feel justified in the moment, but they’re as destructive to your inner landscape as the tangle of a tumbleweed.
It’s not usually difficult to recognize when we are upset. But sometimes knowing WHY we’re upset (much less the emotion we think we’re experiencing) can prove to be a far more difficult task.
This is because our emotions can be a bit like a tumbleweed—a tangled mess of all sorts of reactions, as well as the ongoing worry and stress—that has grown together and broken free to blow across our inner landscape.
When the tumbleweed first comes up in Spring, it masquerades as a welcome, green groundcover. The leaves are even tender enough for livestock to graze on.
But don’t be fooled, because the plant soon grows spiny and inedible! By late summer, the branches have dried up in the heat, and its tens of thousands of seeds are poised to germinate.
With the first heavy wind, the plant breaks off its thin stalk and is sent cartwheeling across the plains or desert, depositing seeds along the way. Eventually, the tumbleweed falls into a ditch where the wind cannot reach it, or snags against a fence or some other obstruction.1
In the Western United States, tumbleweeds can be an absolute menace. They cause car accidents, damage property2 and even become traveling fireballs that spread flames across the dry landscape.3 This is the reason tumbleweeds need to be eradicated the moment they appear.
The same is true in life with our reactive emotions. These are emotions that feel justified when they first appear, yet they actually twist the “truth” into a tangled mess.
Blame appears to protect us from putting trust in the wrong things.
Outrage medicates the deep hurt of betrayal.
Shame promises to prevent us from making the same mistake again.
Guilt ensures we do the “right” thing next time.
Or so we think.
The toxic power of these reactive emotions takes root when we fail to recognize them as distortions. Before we’re even aware they’re a problem, they’ve broken free to germinate in our emotional landscape, keeping us stuck in a perpetual loop of suffering.
But keeping our reactive emotions in check is doable if we learn to recognize them when they first come up. Fortunately, this task is straightforward when you know what to look for.
Reactive emotions spin stories about your painful experiences.
When we replay a hurt over and over again, we tell ourselves we are attempting to understand—so the churning emotions and rumination feel productive.
The dilemma here is that when we obsess over what happened, we start spinning a narrative to (falsely) explain the few slivers of fact we may actually know about what happened and why. Then we link this made-up storyline to all the times something like this happened in the past.When your brain interprets something as threatening, it’s priority is to keep your senses on high alert and keep the adrenaline pumping. Click To Tweet
When you feed this narrative, you probably won’t realize that this behavior is driven by your Stone age brain. When your brain interprets something as threatening, it’s priority is to keep your senses on high alert and keep the adrenaline pumping. After all, when a bear is chasing you, you don’t need to understand WHY the bear is chasing you. You just need to run like hell!
But we can’t run away from heartache like we can a bear, and because our brains don’t understand this, we can get caught in a perpetual loop of panic and alarm as our brain keeps urging us to react to what it perceives as a threat.
To end this cycle, you have to intervene and override your brain.
While this may sound impossible, I can assure you it’s as easy as breathing—literally! Simply by taking a deep breath in and exhaling slowly, you’re sending a loud and clear message to your brain: “It’s okay. I’ve got this. You don’t need to keep reminding me of the danger.”
Putting your attention on your breath, notice where you’re holding tension. Then focus on releasing that tension as you exhale. Spending just a few moments focusing on your breath and releasing physical tension interrupts the reactive feedback loop in your brain. This automatically relaxes your body, quiets your mind and calms your emotions.
Stay Rooted in Your Inner Wisdom
Calm down: This is your first priority. Once your emotional reaction is launched, you only have one viable option, and that is to wait it out. You can really help yourself during the turbulence by breathing and releasing tension.
Slow down: When you’re reacting, you won’t see anything but the illusion of escape. So don’t rush to judge, speak or act. Wait until you’re able to see your best options clearly.
Resist making a premature decision: Acknowledge that you don’t have to respond immediately to any situation. Wait to make a good decision rather than letting yourself be pressured into making a bad one.
Expose the lie your emotions are telling you: Give yourself time to process your reality by asking yourself the following questions:
- What are the facts? (You may not be able to know all of them right now.) These are the basic details of a situation, and indisputable.
- What am I making up about the other person’s thoughts, motives and intentions? These are any details that are disputable.
- What am I making up about what will happen in the future based on #2 and whatever else I am imagining about the situation?
- How are my long-standing issues and fears magnifying this present-time threat and projecting it into the future?
If you can wait long enough to be clear about the answers, your choices are guaranteed to be wiser than the ones you would make while your emotions are roiling.
If you want to learn more about reactive emotions, head over to my podcast. I’ll share my own journey working with blame, shame and guilt, and the tools I use to interrupt old habits and redirect my attention towards more constructive, authentic emotions.