Don’t swim against emotional rips

tropical seaExperts tell us that if we get caught in a rip when swimming in the ocean, we should not waste energy trying to swim against it. Instead, we should raise an arm to attract attention, try to stay calm and go with the current until we are out of its pull. Once free of the rip, it’s easier to swim back into shore. Let me use this analogy to address what to do when we’re caught up in an emotional rip.

If we are suddenly thrown into turmoil by circumstance, fighting the emotions can be just as counterproductive and exhausting as swimming against a rip.

Here’s what happened when a client of mine lost her temper with her boss. She’d told him where to stick his job and stormed out of the office. Minutes after that incident, she rang me in a panic. Through hysterical sobs, she explained what she’d done and was wondering where she was going to live now that she would be evicted for not being able to pay the rent after being sacked. Sacked? Evicted? She was whipping herself into a frenzy. Much to her annoyance, I simply kept asking her to focus on her breathing and on her physical symptoms. She wanted to fight me. She wanted me to debate the possibility of getting fired and being evicted. But when she gave in to her emotions and stopped trying to think her way out of her situation while the emotions were still too intense, she began to calm down. As soon as she stopped fighting and stopped trying to solve problems that hadn’t arisen, she was able to slow her breathing and she no longer felt panicky. By allowing the emotions to peak and then start to decrease, she began to see things more clearly. She then decided to go home and email an apology to her boss.

When our emotions are high, we can’t think properly. Our thoughts become irrational and we’re in danger of behaving in a way that could have serious consequences. The decisions we make in a highly emotional state may not be the same decisions we’d make in a calmer state. But it’s impossible to simply calm down. That’s why it’s infuriating when we’re told by another person to calm down or not panic.

Instead, it’s good to recognise that we are caught in an emotional rip and go with the current until the intensity eases off. Then we can find our way back to firmer ground – back to reality and back to safety.

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