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When Emotions Explode - Part 2

Last week, we dove into what emotions are and the importance of feeling feelings all the way through in Part 1 of When Emotions Explode. If you haven’t read it, you might want to pause and go do that now. Or just jump in!


Emotions are a coordinated mind-body response to significant events in one’s life. There’s four parts to the experience:

Trigger: My husband says, “I cooked. Can you do the dishes?”

Sensations: Tired, irritated, breath and heartrate getting faster, tightness in my throat, tension in my shoulders and arms.

Thoughts: 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 everytime after I cook? Why is the woman of the house always the one doing the housework? Injustice!

Feelings: Angry, resentful, stressed, exhausted.

I didn’t handle that trigger well. Jason and I had a two hour fight where we said and did things we regret. We’re fine now. I could have managed that situation better by regulating my emotions. A single wave of true emotion only lasts a few minutes, usually 90 seconds or less. Moods can last longer, a few hours or at most a few days, but lack a trigger.

The cool thing is, emotions don’t happen to you. A given trigger doesn’t mean a certain emotional response must happen. It’s not like emotions are an unwanted guest at the door. Emotions are malleable and constructed 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.

In Part 1, we explored changing the nature of the visit by allowing emotions to flow through rather than resist, suppress, ignore or distract ourselves from them. This week, we’ll consider how you might shape the nature of the visitor on the other side of the door.

Can you really control which emotion shows up?

Yes, indeed, you can.

Three ways to shift which emotion you feel

Consider this work situation. I had told the staff that we’d be doing a curriculum room clean up as part of the upcoming parent work day. What I hadn’t told the staff is that I’d been feeling dumped on a lot lately. Aides and teachers were sending more and more minor behavior issues to my doorstep. Why weren’t they able to take care of it themselves? I’d ask folks to do something in staff meeting. Somehow it wouldn’t get done, and I’d end up doing it. Or I would be packing up to go home for the day and get caught on the way out the door, “Irene, do you have a minute?” It would never take a minute. At dusk my to do list was longer than it was at dawn, and never was there time for my own projects.

So on that fateful day I had just spent an hour repacking the storage shed and pulling tools for the parent workday. I come back to the classroom building to find…

  • Trigger: Three boxes of unlabelled books showed up in the hallway.

  • Sensation: Body hot and sweaty, face flushed, heart racing, lungs breathing fast, eyebrows knitted, jaw clenched.

  • Thoughts: What the hell!?! Where did these come from! Everyone’s dumping on me! Why am I always the clean up crew? Why can’t people take responsibility for their own messes? ARGH!

  • Feelings: Angry, resentful, frustrated, and exhausted

The result was not pretty. I stormed into my office and shot off a very snarky, frustrated email to the team. While my email did elicit a heartfelt apology from the leaver-of-boxes, it also hurt a lot of feelings and morale suffered greatly for a week.

The boxes in the hallway incident exploded because I hadn’t found a way to facilitate a direct, honest, open conversation with the staff about feeling dumped on. There were three ways I could have changed my attitude and mindset so that someone besides Anger showed up.

  1. First, and foremost, I could have had a conversation with the team about how I was feeling and done some preemptive problem solving. Like many people, I shy away from conflict and, as Susan Scott says, “As a leader, you get what you tolerate.” Because I hadn’t been brave enough to address the underlying conflict, my mild annoyance accumulated into simmering frustration and ultimately boiling resentment, which exploded in a very unattractive, unprofessional way. Had I simply addressed the problems head on at the annoyance or frustration phase, I never would have erupted. (For tips on having hard conversations, check out this blog post.)

  1. Second, I could have noticed that my bodily sensations actually started well before I saw the boxes of books. After all, I had been working for an hour pulling equipment, moving furniture, and dragging tools around. My racing heart, flushed face, and clenched muscles were congruent with both healthy physical exertion and anger. Which one was actually going on?

Several collections of bodily sensations are shared by multiple emotions, one positive, one negative. For instance, anxiety and excitement are both characterized by a racing heart, butterflies in the stomach, tension in the neck and shoulders, and bodily jitters. Skilled public speakers harness this anxiety-excitement duality to their advantage. A frightful scare and delighted surprise share a full body startle, breath caught in the throat, open mouth, and wide eyes. Consider how it feels to visit a haunted house at Halloween.

Looking at those three boxes, I could have recognized that much of what might be anger was actually exertion. I could have reframed the sensations (something real and tangible) with a more open, generous interpretation (something I have control over).

  1. Third, I could have noticed what kinds of stories my mind was telling and what kinds of sensations my body was feeding back. Remember, emotions are actively constructed in a real-time mind-body conversation. And emotions don’t last long, just a few minutes, usually 90 seconds or less. If an emotion lasts longer than that, or if the waves of emotion just keep coming and coming and coming, it’s often because the mind is egging the body on, or vice versa.

My body: I’m feeling hot, flushed, heart pounding.

My mind: Everyone always dumps on me. I always end up cleaning up other people’s messes.

My body: Yeah! You’re so right! I’m seeing red now. Vision narrows.

My mind: So true! They’re all such lazy bums. Remember when… How about that time… Jerks! No appreciation!

My body: Fists clench. A flush of heat courses throughout my body. Bring it on! Fight! Rage!

My mind was feeding my body with more and more frustrated, resentful stories, encouraging the flame of anger to burn hotter and brighter. My mind kept the emotion going, but did it have to? Of course not. I have a choice over which stories to tell myself. When I catch my mind feeding the fires of emotion, I can decide whether I might want to tell a different story instead.

Similarly, my body doesn’t have to go along with the mind’s stories of hurt and frustration. My body can shift using a brain break like box breathing or a sensory focus. When I catch my body egging the mind on, I have a choice whether to increase the intensity of the sensations or not. I can actively release those sensations and cultivate the opposite. When muscles are tight, I can relax them. When my breathing rate increases, I can slow my breathing down. When my shoulders slump forward, I can straighten up.

In short, if a roiling fireball of Anger shows up at my door, I can make Anger shapeshift into a nice friendly campfire by intentionally shifting the conversation my mind and body have with one another, especially when either mind or body is intentionally feeding the flames and making the emotion burning hotter and hotter.

Getting curious

These skills are a core part of emotional intelligence, a key to exceptional leadership, and unfortunately, one that is rarely taught formally. (Irene to the rescue!) Emotional intelligence can be defined as the ability to recognize and manage emotions in oneself and others. Research studies continue to reveal just how important emotional intelligence can be in distinguishing the best leaders from all the rest.

Fortunately, just like all skills, emotional intelligence is something one can learn and get better at. It takes practice, just like learning a new instrument or new language. Here’s my favorite method to practice.

It’s called the RAIN meditation, and consists of four parts:

  • Recognize: When an emotion arises, name it. Bring your attention to the bodily sensations – tingling in my arms, tension in my back, aching in my heart, etc. Put labels on the feelings – angry, thrilled, heartbroken, scared, etc. There’s often multiple layers of sensation and feelings, so take your time to see what lies beneath the surface.

  • Allow: We often suppress, ignore or distract ourselves from feeling our feelings. Instead, gently allow yourself to feel all the way through (see Part 1). Emotions are completely normal, natural, evolutionarily advantageous occurrences. If it feels safe, allow your body to make sounds or movements that align with that emotion. Cry. Ball your fists. Laugh out loud. Change your posture. Move your arms and legs. Do this for one to two minutes (remember a wave of emotion lasts 90 seconds or less), then consciously release those bodily sensations. See how you feel now.

  • Inquire: Emotions have deep wisdom if only we choose to listen. What can we learn from our emotions if we get really curious? What if our own emotions were a wise teacher or coach, there to teach us precisely the life lesson we most need in the moment. Often, sadness is telling us about something or someone we need to let go of. Anger is often pointing us towards something that needs to be changed or eliminated. Fear may teach us what’s most important to us. That might sound obvious but the inquiry can be really profound.

Remember my fight with Jason over dishes. The next morning, I did a RAIN meditation and came to a huge realization during the inquiry phase. I was feeling really underappreciated for the contributions I was making. Jason was feeling really dumped on, as if I wasn’t willing to do my share.

Well, there’s research on the different ways different people give and receive love, what psychologists and sociologists call “relational maintenance”. One of the most practical tools in this area is called The Five Love Languages by Gary Chapman. My love language is Words of Affirmation. Jason’s is Acts of Service. (The other three love languages are Receiving Gifts, Quality Time, and Physical Touch.)

With one of those lightning bolt flashes of insight, I realized that this fight about dishes for the past 18+ years of our marriage and 23 years of dating came down to cross-wired love languages. When it came to sharing housework, I was giving Jason Words of Affirmation (my love language) when what he needed was Acts of Service (his love language). And he was giving me Acts of Service when what I needed was Words of Affirmation. OMG. How did I not realize this before?

The inquiry phase of RAIN can be an utterly life changing thing.

  • Non-identify: You are not your emotions. I love the analogy of emotions as dark clouds and storms passing through. You are the earth, centered, grounded, solid. Your mind is the sky stretching infinitely up towards the heavens. You and your mind are what’s actually real and permanent. The storms and clouds will pass. The rain will soak into the earth, and plants will grow from the water. The sky will clear, and the sun will come out again. And there you’ll be, the earth, soaking in the RAIN.

Read More

The Five Love Languages is great. I’ve tried both the standard free quiz to learn about myself in the context of personal relationships and also in the workplace as a team development activity to better understand how to Motivate by Appreciation.

Daniel Goleman’s book Emotional Intelligence is an absolute classic and a must read. Or try Lisa Feldman Barrett’s brilliant book How Emotions are Made.

The RAIN meditation really is my favorite meditation of all time. I’ve written about it before on my blog, it’s featured in the book I’m writing, and will probably continue to show up for decades to come. Try it. Really. It could change your life.

Going Further

If you haven’t already, please subscribe to this blog. And if you or someone you know might enjoy this article, please feel free to forward it to them.

Registration is now open for the Heroine’s Journey Women’s Leadership Retreat in stunning Mendocino, CA. Yes, we’ll dive into emotional intelligence but so much more – create clarity of vision, work through self-critical voices, empower new leaders around you, build a support network. Join me and Tutti Taygerly, my best friend/amazing executive coach, this September 29 to October 2, 2023 for leadership training like you’ve never experienced before. Early bird pricing ends April 28th.

Finally, if you or your team is looking for personalized support to grow your emotional intelligence so that you can thrive, not just survive, I only have two open seats remaining in my practice. Reach out today.

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