Here’s a truth about me. I was very disconnected from my feelings growing up.

Later, my joke was that, when it came to emotions, I experienced a seven-second delay: just like live TV and radio. Something would happen, and I’d ask, “What would a normal person feel in this situation?” before reacting.

Expressing Feelings: Doesn’t Make Them Go Away

When I started doing personal development work (to become a better version of myself), the common exhortation was, “Stop intellectualizing: you need to feel your feelings.”

This is still a commonly held belief: you must express your emotions so you can release them, and they don’t build up.

Unfortunately, that’s not how your brain works.

Neuropsychologist Donald Hebb created a useful phrase: “Neurons that fire together wire together.”

Let’s say someone was supposed to deliver a report to you for a 2:00 call. Instead, he shows up with it at 3:00. And this isn’t the first time he’s been late. If you’re feeling your feeling—which is anger—you might yell at him.

Here’s the problem. You don’t feel better because you vented. Instead, your neurons just made a stronger connection between “that guy” and “mad.”

You start looking for ways that he is not performing as you think he should: because your brain is searching for patterns of behavior.

Each time he does something that even remotely resembles tardiness (such as coming to a meeting one minute late), you think, “He’s doing it again!” and get angry. This can lead you to act out of proportion to what’s going on. Soon, all you have to do is see him and you can feel your ire rising.

It doesn’t stop there. Now his neurons are connecting you with the fear of being hollered at. Every time he sees you, he gets anxious. And this may lead him to avoid you—or show up to meetings late so he spends the least amount of time around you.

Naming Feelings: Calms Your Brain

Dr. Dan Siegel, clinical professor of psychiatry at UCLA School of Medicine, came up with a great phrase for dealing with emotions: “Name it to tame it.”  

Emotions come from the limbic system in your brain, which is in your subconscious. How many times have you had a knee-jerk reaction (maybe it’s yelling at someone who cut you off in traffic) and later realized you were angry?

Siegel says that when you use your left brain—which is responsible for language—to name the emotion, something magical happens. Your brain secretes soothing neurotransmitters that calm the overactivity in your limbic system. In the case of always tardy guy, this would reduce your anger.

Having Feelings: Rather than Them Having You

Because you’ve been able to soothe yourself, you decrease the chances that you’ll unthinkingly lash out. Taking that deep breath in your brain does two important things:

  1. It gives you the time to come up with a better strategy for dealing with the situation than unleashing your rage (or hurt, sadness, fear)
  2. It means you’re not connecting this person with anger—and creating a lasting link in your brain that becomes hard to change

Choosing to be aware of my feelings and mindful of how I express them is a journey I’ll be on for the rest of my life. Some days I’m better at it than others. But it beats the crap out of the energy I lose by showing up and throwing up, or harboring resentments.

Need to expand your tools for dealing with people who push your buttons? Let’s talk.