Most people reckon they know how to handle their emotions. It’s easy, right? You control them, you manage them (lest they manage you), and you get on top of them. This is all advice that’s been touted loudly and long about how to ‘best’ your emotions. Well, guess what? It’s all wrong. There are only 3 approaches to emotions, and none of them is about “management”. David Rock has written the brilliant Your Brain at Work. It’s not pop psychology and it’s not a theoretical tome that’s heavy in all respects. It’s thought leadership at its most profound and simple. He says you only have 3 choices once emotions kick in: You can express, suppress or transform the emotions. Here’s how.

1. Express the emotions.

This is what kids do. If they’re upset or frightened, they cry. If they’re happy, they laugh and run around. I’d landed at the Brisbane international airport and everyone was a bit grouchy and stiff from the long flight. A boy aged about 8 was running around the baggage carousel, laughing. First, I was a bit irritated (my grouchometer was pretty high at that point). Then I imagined what would happen if an adult was doing the exact same thing this boy was doing, and it made me laugh out loud. There we all were, stifling our emotions (and our knee joints). And there this young lad expressing himself. Who was the smart one?

WARNING: This is a context-specific strategy! There are some situations (such as social scenes, or when you’re in public) when this option isn’t available at all, or is only partially available. Hitting a pillow with a cricket bat may not be an appropriate way to express strong emotions when you’re sitting in a cafe. But laughing or crying may be.

2. Suppress the emotions.

This requires holding the emotions down and attempting to keep them from being visible to others. This is the strategy that many people use, particularly in cubicle land. Don’t feel it – manage it! Don’t express it – control it!

THE FACTS: Experiments in controlled circumstances on the effectiveness of suppressing emotions found this to be grossly ineffective – people just could not hold strong emotions in. Even if they thought that they looked ok on the outside, on the inside, their internal state was affected. But we didn’t need a study to tell us that, right?

Trying not to feel something is ineffective and can be harmful. Suppressing strong emotions affect what you are able to pay attention to and therefore what you remember. So much energy is spent trying to suppress the strong emotions that your sensory acuity is diminished — you are paying less quality attention to what is actually happening. This can be dangerous; for example, if you are angry while driving, you are not paying full attention. Not paying attention greatly increases your odds of being in an accident.

3. Transform the emotions.

Rock calls this cognitive change. “Even after you have gotten yourself into a bad situation, you can still, at this late stage, think about it differently”. There are two ways you can transform emotions:

(a) Labelling — putting a label on the emotion. This works best when you are succinct — if you talk too much about or enter into a dialogue with your emotions, it tends to increase the level of painful emotions you experience. So short is better – sit with the emotion for a moment, give it a label, let it go. I was a conference call the other day and found myself getting agitated by what someone was saying. Instead of pushing that emotion down or trying to ignore it, I gave it a few seconds of attention, asking myself what is this emotion? When I found it – annoyed – I did a quick label “I’m feeling annoyed” then let it go – so much easier to do after I’d quickly labelled it. The other thing that works well with labelling is using a metaphor – “this emotion is like….” I’ve used this approach in corporate workshops for years and I can tell you it works. We did an exercise where we used metaphor cards to help identify emotions. This emotion is like a herd of zebras – there’s dark and light here. Or this emotion is like a garden path – it’s taking me somewhere. It doesn’t have to make logical sense (metaphors often don’t); your unconscious knows how it folds together. This is not a process you need to share – it is largely an internal process.

(b) Reframing — putting a different interpretation onto the same set of circumstances (or “facts”). This is an effective “braking” mechanism – it puts the kybosh on your strong emotional pain in smart order. It’s a version of Shakespeare’s tenet that “there is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so”. How you sort and ‘file’ the event makes all the difference in the world to how you feel about it and how it affects you. You can label it horrible, bad, terrible….. Or you can print out a different label like “useful” or “I learned something important” or “the upside to this was…”. Even if you’re not sure if this possible or that there’ll be a single answer to those questions, try it. You’ll be amazed at how your unconscious will deliver an answer to you, if you only ask, be still, don’t judge and listen.

WARNING: Reframing painful events takes effort! Rock calls it “metabolically expensive”. That means you have to effectively delete the original scene and re-direct/script it into a better-serving scene. This is akin to a director re-shooting, re-editing (maybe even re-casting) and re-shaping the scene in a movie. Reframing takes time and energy but it is worth it because it is so powerful. The good news? The more you practice, the better you get at it and the easier it becomes. And the quicker you muscle in those poorly filed memories, the easier it is to reframe them in a way that helps you more effectively deal with that crazy thing called life.

What’s your choice?

Emotions are a part of what make life rich and fascinating. They are also part of what makes life challenging at times. Rock says there are only three options for dealing with emotions. Understanding these choices is vital as they can profoundly affect your health and well-being. Suppressing your emotions is nearly always the worst choice. Expressing your emotions is often the best thing to do, but that isn’t always possible (picture a 43 year old running and shouting through cubicle land!). Transforming emotions is the most powerful of the choices and is worth learning and practicing.