How to cope with toxic emotions

How capable are we of having a relationship? Author Vivian Dittmar looks at what makes people incapable of having relationships, why some people are incapable of having relationships, and how they can change that.
More and more people are asking themselves how capable they are of having a relationship. For many, an honest answer would have to be: not really. In the first part, author Vivian Dittmar discussed the ability to deal with conflict; the following second part is about dealing with difficult feelings.

Part 2: On dealing well with bad feelings

At some point it happens in every partnership: a little something catches us on the wrong foot. Before we know it, we are flooded with completely inappropriate and, above all, extremely unpleasant emotional waves. Such moments are dangerous, because we often say or do things in these emotional states of emergency that we later regret very much. But then it is usually too late to undo them. Unlike on a computer, spoken words or even deeds cannot simply be erased with control-Z. Sure, we can apologize, but even that usually only works the first or second time. But how can we deal well with such emotional waves? And where do they come from?

The emotional backpack

Everyone carries around a certain package of emotional baggage. I like to call this our emotional backpack. It’s where we store experiences that emotionally overwhelm us. These can be truly traumatic experiences. But they can also be experiences that would hardly have been a problem for someone else, but are very much a problem for us.

When an experience is emotionally overwhelming, we need the support of dear people to deal with it. As children, we instinctively sought out this support: we fled into mom’s arms or onto dad’s lap when the other kids were really mean to us again, the beloved pet died, or something else bad happened. There we could – if everything went well – simply cry a round or let off steam, and soon all was right with the world again.

If this form of loving attention is missing, the experience goes into our emotional backpack. There it waits for an opportunity to unload. This is actually a good thing, because if we carry bad feelings around for too long, sooner or later we will become sick, unhappy, or both. Unfortunately, however, these suppressed feelings release in a very vehement and even hurtful way to the very people we love the most. What could actually be a clarifying cleansing can lead to a serious relationship problem if we don’t find a good way to deal with it.

Feeling or emotion: the small but subtle difference

An important key to dealing with these emotional boiling points is to distinguish between feelings and emotions. Often used interchangeably, I use the terms deliberately to distinguish two very different emotional phenomena. I use the term emotion, as described earlier, to refer to emotional baggage. In other words, these are feelings that were an overload in the past, so that we were unable to cope with them on our own, and which then suddenly come over us in situations that more or less remind us of that time.

Feelings, on the other hand, I use for those movements that arise directly from the moment. Unlike an emotion, they have nothing to do with past experiences, but are generated by my interpretation of the situation.

Example: I have an appointment with my partner and he is late without telling me what is going on. This might annoy me because I think it is wrong. I want him to let me know if he’s going to be late. If the anger is actually a real feeling, without emotion, then I will have just as much of it as is appropriate for the situation. In that case, it means I’m angry enough to call my partner and ask what’s wrong. It doesn’t mean, however, that it’s going to ruin the rest of the evening for me to somehow snap at him or play the offended party. I’ll just clarify the situation, and that’s what anger is for in a positive sense.

However, if I carry around an emotional charge in my backpack when it comes to the subject of unpunctuality – and that was the case for me for a long time – the whole story will play out differently. The intensity of the triggered emotions is then so strong that we cannot deal with the situation appropriately. This intensity can manifest itself in an outburst of anger, but it doesn’t have to. Likewise, we may suddenly feel completely numb, depressed, worthless, or otherwise completely different. The fact is, we will have difficulty dealing with the situation well.

Learning to release consciously

An important key to handling these situations well is learning to release consciously. This involves developing strategies for not abusing your partner as an emotional garbage can, but rather creating a safe and healthy framework for disposing of our old baggage. Women often do this intuitively, without being aware of what they are actually doing. They do exactly what I do today in the event of an emotional activation: they call their best friend and get the grief off their chest.

If it’s a good best friend, she won’t confirm our exaggerated accusations, but will simply be there for us lovingly, just like our parents were for us as children. After a maximum of five minutes – well, maybe after ten if the load was particularly big – I come back to myself and can see the world clearly again. I can once again perceive my partner for what he actually is: a dear man who may occasionally be late, but who basically really means well with me.

After such a clarifying thunderstorm, in which I may have said everything possible and impossible that I no longer mean five minutes later, I can then clearly see what my actual need would have been and how I can communicate this to my partner calmly and clearly. I consciously released. My girlfriend knows that all this is not meant seriously, but just had to get out. My partner might know that too, but for him it will be much harder not to take it so seriously when I say unfair things.

Caution toxic waste

An unconscious handling of emotional charges is enormously dangerous for a partnership, and many relationships actually perish because a distinction between emotions and feelings is missing. It is quite natural that those people who are closest to us trigger very strong charges in us. It is all the more important that we are particularly mindful of this.

If we fail to do this, there is a very high probability that we will activate each other emotionally more and more often. Sooner or later, the relationship space is then so poisoned or mined that the simplest conversations become a gauntlet. In extreme cases, the only thing left to do is to separate.

To each his own

Whether it’s the ex, the current partner, the boss or my own child who pushes a button on me and causes a charge to go off, it is and remains my charge. To handle it well, it’s essential that I take responsibility for that charge – and leave the responsibility for others’ charges that I may set off with them. Both of these things are tremendously difficult in practice; at first they even seem impossible at times. But as is so often the case, practice makes perfect: each time I succeed in handling a charge responsibly, it gets a little easier, until at some point it becomes self-evident.

When that succeeds, an important milestone on the path to true relationship skills has been reached. Then really difficult emotions can also be triggered in a partnership without this being a problem. On the contrary! Once both have learned what emotional storms are all about and how to deal with them well, these situations even become opportunities for deeper contact and a new level of intimacy. We can show each other vulnerably, with our weaknesses, rough edges. And we know that everyone needs support at times to cope with certain situations.

Vivian Dittmar is founder of the Be The Change Foundation For Cultural  Change and author of several books on feelings, relationships and consciousness. Her childhood and adolescence on three continents in different social contexts allowed her to develop an early awareness of the global challenges of our time and are her drive to find and implement holistic solutions. Her book successes include The Power of Feelings, The Emotional Backpack and Your Inner GPS.

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