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WHEN YOUR EMOTIONS HIJACK YOU

by Linda Abbott Trapp, Ph.D.


One of the best strategies for quickly regaining rational control when emotions threaten to carry us away is that of reframing, or re-interpreting what's going on. Redford Williams, in his Anger Kills, suggests writing down angry thoughts as they occur, then challenging them. You might ask, for instance, is there any other explanation for what you believe? Is there another way to interpret what the other person is doing?

Reframing has more facets to it than that useful exercise, though. It means to re-interpret, re-describe, the whole thing, to put it in a different category from the one you have been employing.

There was a time, shortly after our move to Mexico, when I was thoroughly fed up with the remodeling process. I grew weary of the late and even dishonest contractors, the lack of basic comforts, such as hot water in the mostly-finished house. In short, I loathed the endless daily frustrations of trying to make things happen in a culture more used to letting things happen.

One morning, after three days without hot water, to say nothing of potable water, I'd just had it. I stormed out of the house, intending to keep going until I got somewhere "civilized". Suddenly, a beautiful flock, gorgeous bright green parakeets flew right over my head, headed for the enormous ficus tree across the street. Ashamed of myself, I looked up and said "OK, God, I get it - it's not about the hot water, is it?" The experience had to be reframed from a miserable end result of our move to a challenging step along the way to a delightful new home in a beautiful place. Maybe both things were in some ways true, but I felt a lot better with my thoughts reframed.

Last summer, intimidated by a new digital camera, I signed up for a photo class. Our instructor patiently taught the importance of moving the camera around a bit, of moving the lens in and out, so that many possible views of the object in the viewfinder could be compared. We learned many ways to reframe- to get down lower to the ground to better photograph pets and children and garden flowers, to actually put the camera on the ground in some cases, to set the focus and then move the camera a bit to get a more interesting, off-center shot, to play with time and light, sharpness and blurriness, all in the service of capturing beauty and truth.

I couldn't help applying those bits of wisdom to the thought process. What we are focused on is so important, whether we are at the "right" level, whether the key subject is clear. I think I'll be learning about reframing for a very long time.

One final thought occurs to me about reframing as a means of regaining rational control over our emotions, and that has to do with priorities. Many times, at least it seems that way to me, something really trivial will hijack my intentions and emotions. If I let that happen, it will run away with my time and damage my purpose and productivity.

A simple and common example is the driver who pulls in front of me, cutting me off as I'm headed for an important meeting, nearly causing an accident. If I let it happen, I can bathe myself in rage for hours, complaining to everyone about the crazy drivers around here, worrying whether our insurance is adequate for the conditions, wishing I'd been quick enough to somehow get back at him. It's as if I'm bringing that rude driver along with me all day long, and letting him interfere with everything I had planned to do. Not only is such rage physically and psychologically damaging to me, it's of no consequence at all to the other driver, who hasn't even noticed my fury.

Further, it's an inappropriate use of my limited time and energy. We all have limited time and energy; it's just that with semi-retirement, I'm noticing it a bit more. So, the antidote to this childish behavior is to remind myself of my priorities for the day. They probably don't include a running debate with a poor driver. My passion fuels my legacy, as your does yours. Do I want to waste that passion on him? Or do I want to return to the priorities for the day, which I've carefully chosen, and sincerely want to pursue.

Adapted from: "Stopping Runaway Emotions". In L.A. Trapp, (2008). Intentional Living; Lessons from the Tree of Life. (pp.90-101). BookSurge.

References:

  • Horn, S. (1996). Tongue Fu! New York, St. Martin's Griffin.
  • Williams, R. & Williams, V. (1993). Anger Kills. New York, Times Books.

About the Author:

Dr. Linda Abbott Trapp writes from Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. A former Dean at the California School of Professional Psychology, Certified Speaking Professional, and owner of the consulting firm Abbott & Associates, she’s an internationally known speaker who has authored seven books and more than 250 articles, columns, and reviews. Her recent books can be previewed at: www.abbottpub.com.

05/04/08

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