When Emotions Kick In

It isn’t pretty.

Friday evening before 4th of July week-end. Chicago O’Hare Airport. Travelers in holiday-week-fever. And then my flight to Florida is delayed for 5 hours.

I won’t recount a war story. You have your own. But as I sit in the waiting area at Gate H-14 in Terminal 3 I marvel at the reactions of folks around me to this unpleasant turn of events. A masterclass in what NOT to do when circumstances suddenly change. Fellow passengers yelling at the airline counter staff. A rapidly accelerated consumption of alcohol. Intense flirtations with strangers. Ceaseless and repetitive venting with other stranded travelers.

Emotions run high.

I think of all the other situations in our lives, in and out of work, when circumstances suddenly change. A tough business meeting. Unwelcome news in our personal lives. Yes, emotions will kick in. What we do with those emotions is often our first order of business. The choice we make in the moment an emotion runs high determines how every moment that follows unfolds.

There is no perfect playbook for such moments, but knowing what to do when an intense emotion kicks in helps. Let’s take a look:

1. Notice your emotion. This may sound oh so obvious but strong emotions have a way of running away with us. They can also feel terribly uncomfortable. It is tempting to simply pretend they’re not there. No, I’m not really angry. Darn it, I won’t let this upset me! All while you are seething inside.

Don’t wish your emotions away – they will come out sideways if you do. Notice them and do not judge them. And it can be helpful to name them. I’m frustrated. I’m pissed as hell. I’m enraged. I’m disappointed. When we acknowledge what is, we gain an unexpected sense of control. And wevmove faster beyond the initial response.

2. Decide what to do with it. Emotional resilience always boils down to the same two choices. We may decide to express our emotion to another person, or we may decide to “manage” our emotional reaction on our own. That’s it. Those are the choices. Make them with deliberate intent. And don’t belabor your decision.

3. When We Choose To Express. A few quick questions will help you figure this one out. Is it safe to express my strong emotion in this setting, to these folks? Will expressing my emotion be helpful to me or this situation? Does naming my emotion publicly move us toward a better outcome? Will I later regret having expressed my emotion?

The beauty of expressing a strong emotion? It tends to lessen the hold the emotion has over us. Expressing works best when we express it without “the charge.” No raised voice, no flailing of the arms, no accusatory tone. A calm declaration to another person of an emotion we’re experiencing will do just fine. It ensures that our expression will actually be heard.

4. When We Choose to Self-Manage. Self-managing will usually take one of two forms. We find a way to release the emotion in the absence of other people or we simply let it be. Either form lessons the impact of the emotion has one us because we’re making an intentional choice.

Expressing may mean we go for a run. Have a work-out in the gym. Scream in an empty room where no one can hear us. Letting it be means we continue to observe our emotion as we engage with folks around us. We know that we’re “just fine” with feeling this way for now and have faith that this emotion, as all emotions do, will soon change.

These steps work best if we move quickly. A 3-hour contemplation of what to do with a tough emotion means we’re wallowing in our tough emotion. We stay stuck.

Luck was on my side at O’Hare. I spotted a woman sitting catti-corner from me who was clearly self-managing. She pulled a little metaphysical book out of her tote bag and flipped through its pages. When the couple sitting next to me vacated their seats the woman scooted over and claimed the seat on my right.

Are you on the Ft. Lauderdale flight? she asked me.

Yep, I answered.

I’m gonna take a nap, she announced. Will you wake me up when they board?

Nice. Very nice.