Can recognizing emotions really help you handle the troubling ones more effectively? Fortunately, or not, I recently had a chance to put this theory to the test.
A Taxing Moment
When I checked the mail a return address triggered tightening in my face, shoulders, jaw, and chest: the crude outline of an eagle with a scale of justice for claws above the letters IRS. It was addressed to my partner, but because I had prepared her taxes and she was out of town visiting her family, I opened it to see if it contained something urgent.
The IRS and I had come to different conclusions about the tax owed. And they hadn’t written to say, “You accidentally overpaid.”
My knee-jerk remedy for feeling bad is to find someone or something to blame.
My partner works with a financial advisor. Maybe she should hire a tax professional, too.
It’s Turbo Tax’s fault for designing software that requires an operating system that their QuickBooks accounting software won’t run on!
Turbo Tax touts free online tax preparation, but they tried to up-sell me by over $100 when I entered a deduction for internet service that I use for my small business (and more than their small business software). As a former advertising professional, I have a visceral negative reaction to bait and switch.
That tax law that made the form easier for most Americans? I had to download and fill in more forms than I’ve ever used before.
Those IRS instructions (if line 13 is greater than line 12, add line 7 to line 14 and subtract line 11) are written for computers not humans.
Blaming my partner, or Turbo Tax, or Congress, or the IRS made me feel wronged, but it didn’t make me feel better.
Blaming others for my feelings may restore self-esteem, but empowering others to make me feel bad robs me of agency.
Besides, I had offered to do the taxes.
I had chosen not to buy another computer or install and reinstall operating systems to use Turbo Tax software.
I had chosen not to pay the up-sell to use online Turbo Tax.
Some of the people I voted into office have contributed to the tax code being what it is today.
Taking responsibility for my decisions made me responsible for my feelings, but it didn’t make me feel better. Good thing I remembered something else I could try.
What’s in a Name?
Here’s the most exciting paragraph I read in Elisha Goldstein’s Uncovering Happiness: Overcoming Depression with Mindfulness and Self-Compassion:
The amygdala’s job is to interpret the data we gather through our senses. When subjects label an emotion, brain activity shifts from the amygdala to the prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for analyzing data and making decisions based on that analysis.
Okay, the words amygdala and prefrontal cortex don’t excite many people the way they excite me. So, let’s watch them in action.
I hear a loud bang.
The amygdala interprets the sense data as unpleasant and energizes the body.
How I respond depends on what happens in the next moment.
To cognize means to perceive, know, or become aware of. The prefix re- means once more, afresh, or anew.
By perceiving; knowing; or becoming aware of emotion once more; afresh; or anew, we give ourselves the opportunity to analyze what is actually happening.
In response to the bang, deciding what to do next depends on whether I label the sensation as fear (based on the concept gunshot) or surprise (based on the concept firecracker).
The label helps determine what happens next. Fear: get the hell out of there or lay low. Surprise: get back to what I was doing.
Labeling the Emotion
I tried labeling the unpleasant physical sensations that arose from the tax letter as feeling incompetent (this label may also apply to the thought I am incompetent, but experience tells me that’s not always true). In one way or another, I have always been able to cope with taxes, mostly getting the numbers to work. The feeling of not being able to figure them out, of ceding independence to tax preparation software or a service is a blow to self-esteem.
Another label might be feeling untrustworthy. I have taken on the responsibility of doing taxes within the relationship. My partner trusts me with the job. I know that I have a strong identification with being trustworthy. It’s a blow to feel that I can’t be trusted.
While my experiential history with taxes played a role in activating my physical response, it didn’t apply to my current situation.
I wasn’t afraid of dealing with my partner wailing and breaking down in tears of frustration. I wasn’t afraid of being thrown in prison for tax evasion or slapped with massive back taxes: things I associate with audits (though my own audit didn’t result in either). I wasn’t concerned about losing all my computer data while shuffling back and forth between operating systems.
I only needed to respond to this situation.
Once I had labeled my emotion, I could analyze the situation and decide what to do. I apologized to my partner for the error and returned to the worksheets to see whether I could determine the discrepancy.
Was it something I had missed? I could learn from my mistake.
Was it something they had missed? I could draft a letter explaining their error.
Was it something I couldn’t figure out? I could acknowledge that I needed help preparing taxes without beating myself up about it.
In the end, I realized where I’d slipped up on the tax calculation.
I also realized how recognizing emotions can prove beneficial.
The negative physical sensations had mostly subsided by the time I revisited the taxes. I was fairly clear-headed about something that had initially been emotionally charged.
Ten Minute Exercise
The original mindfulness manual advocates setting time aside to simply recognize whether a mood is present or not.
Elisha Goldstein applies that practice to depression treatment. Just as various roads lead you into a traffic circle, the depression loop has four entrance points: thoughts, feelings, sensations, and behaviors. Any one of these can lead you into the depression loop…
The first step in uncovering happiness and experiencing freedom from the depression loop is learning how to objectively see this loop in action instead of getting lost in it.
1. Take three minutes to identify emotions that coincide with the onset of a depressive episode.
Goldstein offers some ideas: anxiety, sadness, irritability, impatience, moodiness, fear, emptiness, hopelessness, pessimism, guilt, shame, grief, anger, despair.
In my tax situation, I might label my initial physical sensations as anxiety (initial response), irritability (initial response), pessimism (incompetence at handling taxes going forward), shame (of being untrustworthy), anger (blaming others, then myself).
2. Take three minutes during the day, when you’re not engaged in activity that requires your full attention (either at intervals or all at once) to check in with your bodily sensations and notice whether they’re generally:
Pleasant and calm.
Pleasant and aroused.
Unpleasant and calm.
Unpleasant and aroused.
Note whether the emotions on your list are present or absent.
I’d classify my initial sensations when noticing the IRS logo as unpleasant and aroused.
3. Take three minutes to review your day (evening) or previous day (morning) and note which emotions (on the list or otherwise) you experienced.
4. Use the final minute to place your hand on your heart out of gratitude for the absence of troubling emotions or out of resolve to take self-compassionate action when they are present. You can then choose a well-being practice that seems appropriate to try.