Problem: Feelings are faster than thought.

You are angry (or anxious or sexually aroused) before you know it. In the split second before thinking can register what is happening, an emotional reaction has already developed. We are always one step behind our emotions. Emotions are triggered by a set of reactions that is older and faster than thinking. Imagine a band of humans walking across the plains of Africa when, suddenly, a lion jumps out from behind a bush. Who got eaten? Those who reacted immediately or those who gave the situation some thought?

Suggestion: The best we can do is to become aware of an emerging reaction as soon as possible and decide what to do about it from the reality-based perspective provided by thinking. Sometimes, however, it can take minutes, or even days, to realize that you have been caught up in an emotional reaction which, by then, may have affected others and generated consequences which have reinforced the runaway feelings in yourself and others.

When you have finally cooled off emotionally and become able to think, you can stop and take responsibility for the consequences of your reaction, especially its effect on others. It is the “lion” in you that simply got out of hand!

Problem: Feelings can “take over” our thinking.

An evolving emotional reaction can “take over” our thinking. Anger may generate angry thoughts, which then feed the anger with all sorts of “reasons,” thought patterns, memories and fantasies. Instead of double-checking our initial response, our thinking gets hijacked. Our feelings are in the driver’s seat and we can end up careening down the road.

Suggestion: Try to identity the moment when you “decided” to let the feeling take over. This may be difficult, because it wasn’t a thoughtful or deliberate decision. But something flashed through your mind just before you hit the emotional accelerator. Such behavior is usually linked to some sort of memory. For example, you may harbor the memory of having to deal with an angry parent who wouldn’t tolerate your anger. When provoked, you may feel that old anger well up within you and “decide” to express it now rather than “stuffing it” like you did as a child. If you can identify the memory, you can recognize more options for yourself than the memory may contain; in this case, more options for managing anger other than “rage” or “stuffing it.”

Problem: Feelings can trigger “secondary” feelings that heighten the emotional reaction.

Imagine being anxious about being anxious, or being afraid of being afraid, or being angry about being angry. Can you see how your feelings would escalate out of control? The original feelings are amplified by how you feel about them. We can get caught in these emotional chain reactions, taken over by a self-reinforcing “vicious circle” of feelings.

Suggestion: The original feeling probably isn’t as big and hard to manage as the secondary feeling makes it seem. You can practice distinguishing the original feeling and the feeling that you have about that feeling. You might then be able to imagine changing the secondary feeling: What if I weren’t scared of being scared? How else could I feel about being angry? This can be a very liberating process, full of new options and happier possibilities. You can practice new reactions in your imagination and then in “real life.” And if you can change the secondary feeling, might this suggest that you could possibly change the original feeling? What if I were excited rather than scared? What if “anger” was really “hurt?”

When the original feelings are given a chance to be themselves, we can begin to feel the deeper emotional movement and empowerment of a life in which feelings are experienced.