Have you ever felt so upset by an argument with your loved one or friend it made your work-day suffer? You felt distracted, exhausted, and totally preoccupied with what you said or wished you said. When you went to bed that night, thoughts of the day bounced around in your head keeping you awake, starting a cycle that would continue to haunt you the next day.
Our emotions can overwhelm us in many scenarios throughout the day. In the moment, it can feel so urgent and important that you resolve these feelings somehow or you just can’t focus on anything else.
We’ve all been there.
If we aren’t too busy being taken down by our intense emotions, we may learn to see them for what they are – passing exclamations of our experience, secrets telling us how we see the world and what we want or don’t want.
We all have powerful emotional responses to particular triggers, but we don’t want them to keep us from creating and loving life. To learn to let go in the moment and accept what is with a sense of peace, we need to expand our self-awareness and the space between intention and action.
Why Is It So Hard to Change Emotional Patterns?
Emotional reactions are automated by our brain. It’s like riding a bike. Once we learn how to ride, it becomes automatic. We don’t need to focus as much attention on that particular process. We see situations that seem familiar, a chemical release is triggered in our amygdala, and the automatic response is set into motion.
We’ve got to throw a stick in the spokes to get our brains to respond in a new way. This requires us to intentionally examine those automatic reactions, becoming aware of how we’re feeling and creating a space where we can objectively choose how to respond. This is what neuroplasticity is – changing the structure of the brain, or neural patterns, through objective observation and intentional actions.
The Magic Happens Between Intention and Action
The gap between intention and action is where you meet yourself deeply. The wider we can make this gap, the more time you have to consider how to respond to a trigger that sets off your emotional patterns.
Our automated responses are fueled by our stories. Fear, pain, and unmet needs burn in this space. When we don’t look at these painful feelings and treat them with love and compassion, we continue to react to triggers in defensive and protective modes. This space between intention and action also contains vast beauty, meaning, and the opportunity to be vulnerable and open to yourself and others deeply.
We will often do anything to avoid looking at our true pain. It may be because it’s too much to hold, and we have other things on our plate. We might be fighting for survival. You will heal when you are ready. Practice these exercises with a gentle, loving heart. Take it easy, and trust in yourself.
The process of changing any habit is awkward until it becomes second nature. The first step is setting your intention and committing, and recommitting, to the process. By practicing new ways of seeing and being, your growing awareness will open up a new world of understanding. Hang in there! It’s worth it! You’ll be able to use these skills throughout your life. We never stop growing.
The Goal is to Respond Rather than React
There are constant opportunities to change how we react to stimulus throughout the day. When someone judges us, we may react with defensiveness or turn inward and judge ourselves. A person might be obnoxious on the phone when we call customer service. It is possible to choose to take a deep breath, let go, and even laugh. We don’t have to hold on to what pains us by reacting negatively.
When we welcome whatever happens into our experience as if it was meant to be there, we make space for life and possibility – even when it’s not expected or preferred. Pushing experiences away only makes the pain more powerful. Accepting things we can’t control, and letting go of control, with a relaxed, compassionate heart will completely change your perspective.
This doesn’t mean all strong responses are inappropriate. Fighting for justice requires us to have fierce compassion. As Jack Kornfield tells us in his blog post Responding with Love and Courage, when we are working towards saving our own lives, or the lives of others, we stand up with strength and vigor. Anger is an appropriate response to certain situations, but it’s not a self-righteous anger. To work in this way requires just as much work on our self-awareness, practice in letting go, and developing keen clarity of purpose and action.
How Exactly Does One Become More Self-Aware and Intentional?
Self-awareness is the key to making that space between our triggers and how we choose to respond wider and more peaceful. There are many things we can observe about ourselves and how we interact with the world around us. When we illuminate our self-knowledge, we also expand our awareness of our connection to all other things and people.
I’ve created a journaling worksheet based on multiple exercises from the book Emotional Alchemy by Tara Bennett-Goleman, and from insights collected from live talks by Tara Brach. It can be downloaded here.
The worksheet will take you through steps to practice to create more space around your emotions and understand why you do what you do. Doing these exercises will help you choose actions and responses that bring you closer to your values and goals.
Do You Want Your Emotions to Control You or Inform You?
Emotions play a part in everything we do. If we’re not intentional, emotions can run our lives for us. They can take us on a wild ride in a fictional reality, keeping us from being truly present in the moment. Taking a look into our darkness, exposing our faults and vulnerabilities, can be terrifying, not to mention exhausting. It’s a lifetime process, and it begins right now.
Meet yourself deeply, and you’ll be able to see others with the same depth and compassion. Give yourself the love and respect you need and want. Slow down, respond to emotional triggers with intention, and have power over what you spend time and energy thinking about and doing.
“We can notice our patterns and choose to pause, bring tenderness to the parts of us that feel ashamed, and remind ourselves that love is always loving us. There is a tenderness can hold us. We can pause and make fresh choices. It’s not the self that is getting out of a bad habit – it’s the waking up of our awareness. The hungry ghost begins to lose its power when its met with compassion. Pause, deepen your attention, sense what fresh possibilities might be available.” Tara Brach
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