“This is the best day ever,” said my daughter Sweet P, tears running down her cheek. She cried and smiled as she looked around her room.
We had updated it. New shelving, new comforter, a few other big-kid things — as part of a birthday surprise — and Sweet P was psyched.
But still she cried.
I do too at sappy commercials and videos of others doing good deeds. I cried when I held my baby for the first time, and my first book. When I saw J in his tux, moments before he’d become Mr. J. And I’ve cried at all the times in between.
“Sometimes you just need a good cry,” said Sweet P that night before bed.
Yep, you do.
Crying is the way we steady ourselves while drifting in a sea of big-time, intense feelings. Incongruous emotions like tears at happy times help people cope and process the experience, says Yale University researcher Oriana Aragon.
Tears seem to flow when people are overwhelmed by strong, positive emotions, she says, and people who shed happy tears, as Sweet P calls them, seem to manage those feelings better. Tears are part of regulating our experience so we can continue on.
Three Ways to Manage Emotions
Crying is just one way we regain emotional balance. Yet many people are more likely to suppress or hide, deny or ignore their feelings before they’ll cry in public or share them with others. Others dull painful emotions by drinking or shopping or eating so that they don’t have to feel anything at all.
Sharing emotions can feel vulnerable, sure, but they also provide us valuable information, clues into who we are, what we need and want, and the path we should take next. Good feelings show us what’s working, while stress, unhappiness, worry and discomfort can show us what isn’t. The discomfort can motivate us to move away from the trouble spots, inspire us to do something different.
This means that our bad feelings aren’t just there to keep us down, or stuck, or hurt, they are there to guide us. Nothing is wasted. When we pay attention to our feelings we glean insight that can help us in our lives.
But we still have to find a way to function. This is what I told my daughter the other night when she hurled herself on the floor because I wouldn’t allow her to wear flip-flops to school.
You can be unhappy or sad, or angry over flip-flops; you can be charged with joy and excitement but you still have to find a way to sit through the meeting, or pay the bills, or get yourself through the day. You must find a way to manage and experience your feelings and keep going.
Here are three ways to do it.
1. Keep a feelings journal.
Often we get fired up and we act on the emotion we think we are feeling, when really it’s something else altogether. Until we can accurately identify our emotion, we have a hard time soothing ourselves or easing the situation that may be fueling the feeling.
For example, you may react in anger to something your husband says. Anger can cause the conversation to veer off course and never get resolved, but if you can identify the hurt that is hiding behind the anger, then you have something to work with. Then you can find a way to resolve the pain or heal the relationship.
When you are feeling intense emotion, take a breath, and journal about it. Or, simply list all the emotions you are feeling in a notebook. You’ll gain greater clarity and also be able to see the patterns and triggers that drive those feelings.
2. Gain some distance.
It’s tough to manage our feelings when we are overwhelmed or flooded by them. When you experience this kind of intense emotion, a little distance can help, according to Ethan Kross, a researcher at the University of Michigan. He suggests taking a wider view of the situation. Look at the circumstances from a distance as though you were an outsider. Even referring to yourself by name or in third person can help. This kind of psychological distancing helps us to calm down and work through our feelings.
3. Become mindful.
With mindfulness, you give your attention to the moment. Become present. This takes us out of our heads. It keeps us from over-thinking and projecting and stewing about what might happen and helps us deal with what is happening.
Mindfulness requires that you feel the sensations in your body, notice your environment, observe your thoughts, all without judgment. This causes you to feel calmer, more centered and then you can experience your emotions rather than being run over by them.
Aragón, O.R., Clark, M.S., Dyer, R. L., & Bargh, J.A. (2015). Dimorphous Expressions of Positive Emotion: Displays of Both Care and Aggression in Response to Cute Stimuli. Psychological Science: 26 (3) 259-273.
Kross, E., & Grossmann, I. (2011). Boosting Wisdom: Distance From the Self Enhances Wise Reasoning, Attitudes, and Behavior. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/a0024158
Happy tears photo available from Shutterstock