What do you do when you experience strong emotions? Do you react and regret it later? Or do you try to downplay it and hope it goes away? These are two common reaction to intense emotions. The first reaction is an attempt to get relief from the from the emotion, which often results in negative consequences or the need to apologize. The second reaction is an attempt to repress or deny the emotion. In this article I want to give you an option that enables you to process the emotion, that is to feel the full intensity of the emotion and process it in a manner that that avoids acting out while fully acknowledging it.
Processing emotion involves three steps; identify the emotion, verbalize it, and understand it. This process is often too hard to do on our own. We need another person to listen and understand, in order to tame the emotion. I have broken down this process into a three-step sequence, however in reality these steps may happen seamlessly.
The first step is to identify the emotion that we are experiencing. This step is straight forward, label the emotion that is being experienced. It is also helpful to use labels that fit the intensity. For example, a strong emotion of anger may be labeled as angry or enraged, as opposed to frustrated. This is important as we want to be fully engaged in the emotion and not downplay it.
The second step is to begin verbalizing the intense emotion with words that express your experience of it. This step may take some time, when you initially find the words for the emotion, it may temporarily intensify. This means that you are fully engaging with the emotion and that you need to continue to verbalize it until it begins to subside.
The third step is the most important. The emotion must be understood, and it must be understood by both you and by another person who is engaged with you. When we try this process alone, we are likely to end up blaming others, or ourselves, rather than understanding why we are experiencing the feeling so strongly. Experiencing intense emotions alone, is often what makes it intolerable. Sharing in a supportive relationship, allows someone to be in the well with us. This experience is not only containing but it is often healing as well (as many who have been through our process groups would attest to). Sharing the emotion with another also gives us a perspective outside of ourselves.
Identifying the emotion, verbalizing it and having it understood in the context of a supportive relationship allows us to process through it. When we process the emotion, we are less likely to become overwhelmed, flooded, unable to function, or act it out. We are also able to deal with it in a manner that allows us to move on and not be encumbered with the repressed emotion.
I hope and pray that you will find “safe people” that you can share your strong emotions with and experience the containment and healing that God has for you.