How often have you snapped at someone for something trivial? Or felt uneasy while travelling, until you finally realise you have left the stove on?
Sometimes we feel unsettled, or grumpy, or anxious, or stressed, and don’t know why. That’s when we need to look a little deeper. We need to uncover the hidden concerns behind the emotion.
This morning I became testy with someone who chose to visit me unannounced. I thought about why I was testy and realised I had done nothing important that morning, and was worrying about being unproductive. All morning, thoughts about being unproductive had been clamouring to be heard and I hadn’t listened to them. The anxiety that resulted from having those thoughts was there, and it was that anxiety that prompted me to flare up.
When I became aware of my concerns about being unproductive I felt better. The concerns clamouring for my attention had finally been heard. I relaxed, and made the person feel welcome.
Occasionally I toss and turn in bed, unable to get to sleep. I make a list in my head of each and every one of my concerns: my health, the odd jobs to be done, the project I keep putting off . . . Those little concerns have been clamouring for my attention, and after I have noted each and every one of them I fall asleep.
Simply, the strategy is to ask myself, ‘What precisely is unsettling me?’ and then list the answers. When we listen to our deeper concerns we can relax a little, and there is a good chance the unsettled feeling will fade away. (Not always. When we are a hundred kilometres from home and figure out that we have left the stove on, we won’t feel better!)
When I thought about why I was testy I gave myself the opportunity to go deeper. I could ask myself, ‘Why do I feel anxious about being unproductive? What do I fear?’
My answer might be, for example: ‘My self worth might depend partly on me accomplishing the task I have set myself, and when I procrastinate, the further I am from earning that self worth.’ If that answer is correct I could go even deeper.
You get the idea.
‘Not really. I still don’t know why it is important to list our concerns if we feel unsettled.’
Once we observe and listen to those concerns they can cease nagging us, and become less intense.
‘Unless you’ve left the stove on.’
Unless we have left the stove on, yes. Plus, we increase our chances of addressing those concerns.
In short, when we are grumpy for no particular reason, or feeling stressed for no particular reason, or feeling any dark emotion for no particular reason, let’s figure out the reason. Let’s look for the concerns behind the emotion.
‘When you are feeling negative towards your mate, it’s not a great time to tell him/her. It’s time to pick up the mirror instead of the magnifying glass and get to the truth of why you are upset. By being truthful to yourself, you can get to the heart – and hurt – of the matter. And you can proceed to talk to your mate in a much more loving and responsible voice.’
Susan Jeffers, in her book, Embracing Uncertainty.
Reveal those deeper concerns:
Step 1. When you feel unsettled, and can identify the feeling, label it.
‘I feel resentful.’
‘I am grumpy today.’
‘I’m worrying about something.’
‘I feel angry.’
‘I feel intense and earnest.’
Step 2. Search for the concerns behind the emotion, and label them.
‘I feel resentful. What is behind that resentment? What’s on my mind asking to be heard?’
Your answer might be: ‘Ah, envy!’
Can you go a little deeper?
‘Why do I envy her? What do I fear that prompts me to envy her?’
‘I am grumpy today. What am I concerned about? What thought asking to be heard?’
Your answer might be: ‘Ah! I’m angry with Kevin and I’m afraid to tell him so.’
‘I can’t get to sleep. I’m worrying about something. What would it be?’
Your answer might be: ‘I’m worried about my test result.’
Identify your other concerns as well.
‘Why did I get angry after Paula criticised me? Do I tend to get upset when I am criticised?
Your answer might be: ‘Yes, I have that tendency. What does that say about me? Do I feel insecure when criticised? Do I crave approval? If so, why?’
You might decide that answer is incorrect. Then try again:
‘Ah! I’m frightened of being seen as stupid, because I might be rejected. Being rejected would lead to me feeling abandoned and isolated.’
Can you go even deeper?
‘Why do I fear being isolated?
‘Why am I so intense, so earnest? Why do I fight so hard to win an argument? Why do I need to be right? What is the thought, or fear, that drives me to prove that I’m right?’
Your answer might be: ‘Ah, in life I feel unimportant, and I am trying to avoid feeling that way.’
‘I feel irritated with my partner for no real reason. What are my deeper concerns? What is the real source of my annoyance?’
Your answer might be: ‘I resent her because she is more popular than me.’ If that rings true, go a little deeper. Why would it matter if she is more popular than you?
‘I feel unimportant and I’m frightened of being left behind and feeling isolated.’
The deeper we search, the better we understand ourselves, and the more likely we are to become gentle with ourselves, and of others. We become more accepting of our flaws, and of Life’s vagaries. As a result, we add to our resilience.
Exercise: List in your mind all the minor and major concerns you have right now.