Taking Control of Your Emotions in a Relationship
First off, don’t let the force of the impression carry you away. Say to it, “Hold up a bit and let me see who you are and where you are from — let me put you to the test.” — Epictetus, Discourses, 2.18.24
We do love us a bit of Stoic guidance when we’re losing our cool. Whether we’re raging, hurt, jealous or anxious, the ancient philosophy of Stoicism teaches us to stand back, breathe and survey the emotional landscape. Once we’ve engaged our rational mind, we can then act without melting down or screaming blue murder.
In a nutshell, it teaches Emotional Intelligence.
Fast forward to the 21st century, and we have a more concise benefit to Emotional Intelligence which tells us:
Out of control emotions can make smart people stupid — Daniel Goleman, Working With Emotional Intelligence
So that being the case, it’s probably best we get up to speed about what Emotional Intelligence is, and how we can use it to have healthier relationships.
What is Emotional Intelligence?
Emotional Intelligence is sometimes known as EQ (Emotional Quotient), in the same way as we refer to mental Intelligence as IQ (Intelligence Quotient).
Emotional Intelligence is the ability for people to recognise their own emotions and those of others. It also includes being able to identify feelings, label them and discern between them. From there, EQ allows us to have more control over our behaviours and decision making.
Emotionally intelligent people can:
- Understand their own emotions. They are in touch with their vulnerability and can recognise emotions in themselves and others. That means they can identify negativity such as hurt, anxiety, shame, guilt, jealousy, envy, depression and fear. They are also aware of the positive emotions and feelings of joy and pleasure.
- Know all the nuances in these emotions, so they catch them as they arise and hold off believing their mind’s interpretations.
- Make better decisions, so theyhave stronger bonds, more love, more peace and better relationships with their loved ones (and everyone else).
- Tune into the emotions of others and be empathic. They don’t take the behaviour of others personally; they’re good detectives and use logic and reason to read a situation.
- Live more in the moment, so they don’t get caught up in their internal story and act out of fear. They’re very self-aware.
So, if we’re going to start taking back some control and have happy relationships, then in the first instance, raising self-awareness seems key.
The Core of Stoic Emotional Intelligence
It’s not what happens to you but how you react to it that matters. — Epictetus
So, let’s look at a demonstration of how that pans out in a simple relationship issue.
Take the case of a married couple, John and Josie. Josie is late home after going to a bar. In the early hours of the morning, John is sitting on the sofa fretting over Josie’s whereabouts. John might be thinking, ‘She’s probably missed the bus, or she’s forgotten the time’. On the other hand, he might be thinking, ‘She’s so disrespectful, she doesn’t care about me at all’. John’s different frames of reference will produce different outcomes. If he gives Josie the benefit of the doubt, he’ll likely be concerned, but calm. When Josie returns, he’ll negotiate the relationship terms, and their bond will remain intact.
Conversely, if he’s interpreting Josie’s behaviour as a slight on him, then he’s doomed to stew in his self-inflicted hurt. If that’s the case, he’s going to start messaging her and end up one text away from Crazy Town. When Josie comes home, John will blast her with a mouthful of abuse, and she’ll think her husband’s a potty-mouthed moron.
Now these surface frames of reference are just the beginning. Often underneath the initial interpretations, are deeper disturbance beliefs that are running the show.
For example, if John believes his wife doesn’t care about him, then whether or not that’s true, he would need to consider what that means for him. The question would be, ‘What is so hurtful about my wife not caring?’. It’s this value judgement that’s either going to fuel his distress or ease his emotional turmoil.
On the one hand, John could think, ‘She doesn’t care about me, and that makes me sad. But it doesn’t mean I’m a bad person or even a bad husband’. Now John will still likely feel pain or discomfort, which is natural. On the other hand, he could think, ‘There must be something wrong with me if my wife doesn’t care about me’.
So, the ultimate disturbance is the gasoline John pours on the existing pain, and the meaning he uses to ignite suffering. Those who are emotionally intelligent understand that pain is unavoidable, but suffering is optional. Because even if your wife or husband doesn’t care about you, it’s not the end of the world as we know it; it’s just extremely sad and unfortunate. John doesn’t have to sacrifice his Stoic reason even if Josie is acting the fool. If John can keep his head on straight, he’ll acknowledge his wife’s perceived lack of care but prevent turning his relationship into a high-school drama.
Same situation. Different frames of reference. Different meaning. Different thoughts. Different emotions. Different behaviours. Different outcomes.
This isn’tpositive thinking; it’s reality thinking, and this is the key to improving our emotional Intelligence and Stoic perspective. If we’re to become more self-aware, which is the starting point of being emotionally smart, then we need tools to make it happen. Below is one way to start the process.
A powerful way to become emotionally smarter
A recent study was carried out at UCLA with spider phobics. Rather than using standard exposure therapy, they added a process called ‘Affect Labelling’, which involved some participants putting words to their feelings.
During this experiment, four groups of people who suffered from a spider phobia were asked to do different things while moving closer to a spider.
Each group were given the following distinct instructions:
Group 1 — Were told to label the feelings about the spider situation, e.g. I’m feeling terrified right now.
Group 2 — Were told to think differently about the spider so that it feels less threatening, e.g. The spider can’t hurt me.
Group 3 — Were told to distract from the anxiety about by the spider, e.g. Think about being on a lovely beach.
Group 4 — Were given no specific instruction, e.g. Just move towards the spider and see what happens.
When participants were brought back for second trials, they found that one of those groups had less physiological responses and emotional distress when re-exposed to the spider. And that was Group One; those who had labelled their emotions.
Now that’s an interesting experiment. Just the simple process of naming the fear, lessened the grip it had on the individuals using that process.
One of the authors of the experiment confirmed that…
This brain region that is involved in simply stating how we are feeling seems to mute our emotional responses, at least under certain circumstances.— Matthew Lieberman in ‘Expressing your emotions can reduce fear, UCLA psychologists report By Stuart Wolpert September 04, 2012’.
Now I suppose the question we all want to ask at this point is, how do we use this to manage our feelings and build healthier relationships?
Three labelling processes to raise your Emotional Intelligence
Below are three ways you can start to raise awareness of your emotions, thoughts and sensations. Once you are more self-aware, you remove some of the power from feelings that are unconsciously running the show.
- Name your thoughts, emotions and sensations out loud.
Often when you do this, you can see how wonky some of the thinking is.
For example, in the case of John from our earlier story, instead of mulling over his thoughts, he can say aloud, ‘I’m thinking right now my wife is cheating on me, and that’s terrifying’ or ‘I’m thinking right now my wife is selfish and I’m feeling angry’.
This psychological distancing allows us to separate ourselves from the automatic thinking and creates a space where reason can intervene.
2. Observe your bodily sensations
Name the symptoms out loud, so they are in your conscious awareness.
e.g. ‘My chest is constricted’, ‘My hands are shaking’, ‘My head is throbbing’, ‘I feel a sinking sensation in my stomach’.
3. Express your feelings specifically and out loud
That might sound something like this:
‘I’m feeling hurt right now’, ‘I’m feeling angry’, ‘I’m feeling terrified of this’.
Whatever it is, name it and bring it right out into the open.
Will you give it a try?
What we are unaware of continues to control us. So, raising awareness of our thoughts and feelings in the present moment can prevent them from being subconscious and destructive. Now, the question is, do you think this ‘labelling’ process will help when your emotions are provoked?
The only way to find out is to give it a shot. The next time you experience a negative event, see if the ‘name it to tame it’ mind- hack can help you ease the stress and pain. Instead of getting carried away by fear, depression or hurt, switch instead to labelling the emotion you’re experiencing, your bodily sensations and the thoughts you’re thinking.
And as an additional benefit, if you have a phobia of spiders …you now know what to do!Stoicism — Philosophy as a Way of Life