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When Emotions Explode - Part 1

My husband, Jason, and I have had the same fight for 18 years. Who’s doing more dishes? I know. Dishes. Not a big deal and such a big deal at the same time. Anyone else with me?

A few weeks ago it started with me feeling exhausted and finally laying down on the couch to zone out on my phone for a few minutes after dinner. Jason says, “I cooked, can you do the dishes?”

My mind is saying: “I literally just laid down! Why does he get to lie on the couch with his phone after dinner? Why doesn’t he do the dishes every time after I cook? Why is the woman of the house always the one doing the housework? Injustice!”

Tired and now triggered, I snipe back, “You know, it bugs me when you say that because you don’t always clean up after I cook.”

And it begins.

We spiral into a two hour fight featuring a recounting of who did what over the past 18 years and both of us saying things we regret. It’d make great sitcom material if we weren’t both so hurt and angry.

This doesn’t just happen at home. The tiniest spark can initiate a raging wildfire in the workplace too. I recall a moment when three boxes of books set in the school hallway sent me into a two day rampage about the fact that I’m always the one cleaning up after everyone else. Or that time when a single comment I made to a parent in distress alienated an entire group of families at the school I led.

How can something so small explode in such ginormous, disastrous ways?

This two part blog post explores what’s going on.

Crazy spots and being human

I’m human. (Really. It’s true.) Which means that I am not the perfectly logical, rational, unemotional Dr. Spock from Star Trek. I’ve got emotions, sometimes really big ones. I have a mind and a heart, and the two aren’t always on the same page.

I also have what Brené Brown affectionately terms “crazy spots”. They’re quirks in our personality. Bruised, sore spots. Buttons that siblings innately know exactly how to push to drive us crazy. I have several: dishes, comparisons between me and my mom, and micromanagers.

It’s because we are human with crazy spots that the little things explode. What’s going on psychologically is that most of us modern day humans aren’t very good at emotional self-regulation. We tend to suppress, ignore, or distract ourselves from emotions and conflict.

Most crazy spots exist because we’ve suppressed, ignored, or distracted ourselves from emotions and/or conflict for too long. The explosion is like the pressure that builds underneath a volcano until Mount Vesuvius erupts and Pompei is destroyed.

What the heck are emotions anyway?

Perhaps I should back up and explain what emotions actually are. It sometimes feels like emotions simply happen to you, like an unexpected visitor ringing your doorbell. It feels like your only options are to answer the door and let Fear, Anger, or Grief in to wreck havoc upon your house OR pretend you aren’t home so that hopefully they go away.

What behavioral neuroscientists like Lisa Feldman Barrett, Joseph LeDoux, and Michael Faneslow have worked out is that emotions are a coordinated mind-body response to significant events in one’s life. There’s a triggering event (you experience, imagine, or remember something like, “Can you do the dishes?”) which leads to thoughts in your mind + sensations in your body + a global feeling (like feeling afraid, angry, happy, sad). Together, these triggered thoughts, sensations, and feelings are what we call emotion.

The cool thing is, emotions don’t happen to you. A given trigger doesn’t mean a certain emotional response must happen. The outcome is not predestined. Emotions are malleable and shaped in the moment. What that means in practice is that when the doorbell rings, you can both shape the emotion you find on the other side of the door AND you can change the nature of the visit once you let the emotion in.

Pause a moment. This is important. With practice you’ll find that you can both shape your emotional experience intentionally (your emotions don’t happen to you, they’re constructed) AND can visit with your emotions with curiosity, compassion, and transcendence (yes, even the big bad scary ones).

Now before you discount this blog post entirely as too fluffy or woo woo (I thought this was a leadership blog, not therapy!), consider that in the workplace, 90 percent of what sets high performers apart from peers with similar technical skills and knowledge is emotional intelligence. 90 percent.

Feeling feelings all the way through

Let’s go back to the situation with that parent in distress. I too was in distress; a dynamic single parent and active school volunteer had just passed away. It was the first time I’d had to shepherd my school community through such a loss. Did I pause to acknowledge my own distress and grief? Did I slow down to think or ask other more experienced school administrators about best practices? Nope. I was triggered.

  • Trigger: A member of the community died.

  • Sensation: Heart ache, hard to breathe, tears, body alternating between frozen like a deer in headlights and swirling like a tornado.

  • Thoughts: I can’t believe this is happening. I don’t have time for emotions right now. I need to do something. I will be an action hero. I will go way over and above the line of duty to lead everyone through this tragedy.

  • Feeling: Didn’t you hear? I don’t have time to feel right now. I’m sad, sure, and a bunch of other stuff besides, but that’s uncomfortable. I don’t want to feel. Suppress. Ignore. Distract.

  • Result: Because I was suppressing my emotions, not thinking clearly, and overcompensating, words came out of my mouth before I could catch them. With that parent in distress, I watched my words drift out into the world like a cartoon character text bubble while a wiser, adult part of me shook her head and said, “That was exactly the wrong thing to say.”

When I look back on that day, it was clear that I kept the door locked to my emotions and pretended that I wasn’t home, hoping that these unwanted bodily sensations of heart ache, tears welling up, and frozen/swirling emotions would just go away. They didn’t. Of course not.

Emotions evolved biologically in order to shape our responses to triggering events, and in a social setting, give others cues about what we’re likely to do so they can better move around us, and we can better move around them. There are universal patterns in how emotions show up that cut across cultures, ages, and people. Lisa Barrett says: “In a sense, you can think about emotions as tools, born of the social reality we create, to influence and regulate one another’s nervous systems.”

When I suppressed my emotions, I prevented myself from accessing my own emotional intelligence AND prevented others from accurately being able to read my internal state AND did a crappy job reading and influencing others. The sensations I felt weren’t a problem, inconvenience, or obstacle. They’re my body’s perfectly normal, natural, biological response to something important, something that matters. Of course I’m feeling sad and tumultuous–someone I cared about died unexpectedly leaving a huge hole for her family, friends, our school, and in my own heart. While my mind is often afraid to allow my body to feel, in fact, the feelings in my body are wonderfully wise, if only my mind can slow down enough to listen.

A single wave of true emotion only lasts a few minutes, usually 90 seconds or less. Yes, there may be multiple waves, and sometimes the waves can be really huge like a tsunami, but however big they are, emotions will pass. There will be breaks between the waves. And there’s a lot to learn from the emotion if you take the time to listen.

Emotions are different than moods which last longer, a few hours and at most a few days. The American Psychological Association defines a mood as “any short-lived emotional state, usually of low intensity.” Moods have no clear trigger.

Emotions, when they come to visit, have so much to teach us if only we let them in. Consider this alternate way of handling the same situation.

  • Trigger: A member of the community died.

  • Sensation: Heart ache, hard to breathe, tears, body alternating between frozen like a deer in headlights and swirling like a tornado. (Same as before)

  • Thoughts: Of course this is how I’m feeling. I’m human and grief is not easy. I’m not thinking clearly. I going to slow down and give myself a few minutes to feel this feeling through. A good cry will feel good. Then I can talk to the school counselor and another principal or two before I call the family, offer support to the community, or make an announcement. Grief isn’t scary, and it’ll help me be more compassionate so I don’t say or do something stupid.

  • Feeling: Under the veneer of sadness was a whole lot of grief with undercurrents of stress, shock, fear and anxiety. But the riverbed was love. Powerful and solid, there was love for that parent, that family, my community, my family, and myself underneath it all. When I distracted myself from the sadness, I distanced myself from love.

  • Result: Wouldn’t you know, within a year, another parent passed away. This time, before I did anything, I went into my house, found my husband, told him, and we shared a huge hug while we cried together. Eventually, when I did take action, it was compassionate and considered action, not the first thing that came to a frozen, tumultuous mind.

That’s what I mean by changing the nature of the visit once I let an emotion in. I allowed myself to feel my feelings all the way through.

The Freedom Letter

If you’re open to experimenting with what feeling feelings all the way through might feel like and how it can change the nature of a visit, try this Freedom Letter technique. There is a saying, “Resentment is like taking poison and waiting for the other person to die.” What might be possible if you could feel your anger, resentment, hurt, and disappointment all the way through? What if that anger melted away into into something else like compassion instead? It’s important to note that finding compassion does not mean “forgive and forget” nor are you condoning another person’s actions or words. Compassion means recognizing and accepting your shared humanity, the light and the dark, in order to treat ourselves and others with loving-kindness.

The Freedom letter technique was originally described by Barbara De Angelis. With these letters, there is an opportunity to heal six levels of emotion in sequence: anger, hurt, fear, regret, intention and compassion.

Knock knock. Who’s there?

I left the most tantalizing bit untouched. It’s all well and good to know how to change the nature of the visit once you let the emotion in by allowing oneself to feel one’s feelings all the way through. But how might you shape the nature of the visitor on the other side of the door. Can you really change which emotion shows up? Can you really control your emotions intentionally? Yes. You can.

But this missive has gotten long enough. Intentionally changing who comes to visit is the subject of the next blog post.

Read More

For now, get to know your emotions. If you want some practice simply naming and identifying the emotions that come to your door, check out the Feelings Wheel from

The best guidebook to our emotional landscape is Atlas of the Heart by Brené Brown. Some people like to read it cover to cover. I haven’t done that. Instead, I like to dip into a chapter when a client or I am feeling a certain way. The chapter structure is fascinating and wonderful with titles like “Places we go when things are uncertain or too much” or “Places we go when the heart is open”.

If you prefer a more interactive approach, check out Paul Ekman and the Dalai Lama’s Atlas of Emotions, an interactive website to explore our emotional triggers, sensations, thoughts, and feelings.

Going Further

Here’s the Freedom Letter. Try it and see what happens. BONUS! If you get all the way through the letters for all 6 emotions, sign up for a 30 minute session with me, completely complimentary, so that I can guide you through a burn ritual. We’ll rip up and burn your letter with a fire ritual. I promise that this isn’t a sacrifice-a-virgin kind of ritual! We’ll use tapping and words to feel your feelings all the way through.

Freedom Letter
Download PDF • 108KB

If you or someone you know might enjoy this article, please feel free to forward it to them. And do please subscribe to this blog if you haven’t already so that you receive Part 2 as soon as it appears.

Finally, emotional intelligence will be one of many leadership skills taught at the Heroine’s Journey Women’s Leadership Retreat that I’ll be facilitating alongside my best friend and fellow executive coach, Tutti Taygerly, among the towering trees and pounding surf of the glorious Mendocino Coast from September 29 to October 2, 2023. Enrollment is now open and you can save $400 if you register before April 28th. Apply today or reach out for more information.

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