Let me know if this sounds familiar: You made a plan to do something during the day, but very quickly the plan falls apart. Maybe it’s due to external influences, or perhaps it’s due to your own internal distractions, but either way your attitude also falls apart and you find yourself in a foul mood.
This happens to me a lot and I’m finding it’s a source of frustration and emotional suffering. When circumstances change and things fall apart, I tend to fall apart too. I quickly go from winning to losing. I go from thoughtfully resilient to dramatically defeated in a matter of minutes. Why?? Why would I do this to myself?
The short answer is I’ve been practicing emotional rigidity for a long time. Over the course of my life I’ve developed a mental model that’s based on predictability, routine, and an element of control over my environment. I won’t go into the backstory of this here, but you can dive into that in my blog post “Why We Push Our Wiggles Away” if you’d like.
The problem is I get struck on things looking a certain way or playing out with certain results such that when situations don’t go as planned I experience restlessness, anxiety, and feelings of failure, which in turn leads to suffering.
When we’re emotionally rigid we allow external circumstances to dictate how we feel. We rely on things going a certain way to feel good and when they don’t go the way we want we feel bad. Imagine your kids leaving spilled milk on the floor all day or your spouse forgetting your birthday. How would you feel? When we allow how we feel to be an automatic reaction to what happens to us, we hand over all our power and happiness to forces beyond our control.
Rigid things don’t bend, they break, which causes pain. But flexible things bend and shift and regain their shape easily. Embracing emotional flexibility allows us to maintain our emotional balance when circumstances try to knock us over. By learning to sit with the discomfort of unfortunate daily events without allowing them to dictate our emotions, we can dramatically reduce or eliminate our suffering resulting in more pleasant experiences.
Here are three impactful practices that can help you shift toward being more emotionally flexible:
1. Identify Your Triggers
Begin to notice each time you’re reacting to a situation with negative emotion and then walk it back to identify what has triggered the emotion. You’ll begin to notice patterns. The events that trigger emotional reactions are going to be different for everyone. Here are some of mine:
Cooking—It’s hard for me to juggle multiple instructions and tasks in the kitchen at the same time. Things often don’t go as planned.
Mechanical Projects—I like to have a vision of how things are going to play out ahead of time, but that’s impossible when learning to do things I’ve never done before. To use the colloquialism… shit happens.
Being disorganized and running late—Admittedly this is completely self-inflicted and happens often.
2. Practice sitting with discomfort
Many of our reactions to discomfort are so automatic there’s no time between stimulus and response. Eating is an example of one of the ways many of us are on autopilot. The moment we feel a twinge of hunger we go in search of food—we immediately seek to eliminate the uncomfortable sensation.
I’ve learned that I can practice sitting with discomfort and not reacting through intermittent fasting (allowing between 16 to 36 hours between eating). Intermittent fasting has many health benefits, but it also helps me practice emotional flexibility. I can practice being aware of the sensation of hunger without reacting to it.
Most of the time, feeling hungry isn’t nearly as unpleasant as my brain has convinced me it is. After sitting with it for a period of time, I realize hunger is just a sensation—not positive, not negative, just present. I know I’m not going to starve, I’m safe, and in the end I’m fine with the sensation.
You can also practice sitting with discomfort in this way. If intermittent fasting is too unpleasant then try pushing your meal back an hour or two and allowing yourself to feel a little hungry for a period of time. Then, the next time you experience an emotional trigger, try sitting with that emotional discomfort for a period of time and ask yourself if it’s really worth reacting.
3. Manage your expectations
Once you’ve identified your triggers and practiced sitting with discomfort, you can plan for triggering moments by managing your expectations for how things will play out. Think about the challenges you may face today and plan how you’d like to respond to them.
When embarking on a new recipe in the kitchen or a new project in the garage, I can remind myself that I might experience uncomfortable emotions and that’s okay because I’m human and I feel things. I can also make sure I give myself extra time for the tasks at hand, knowing things may not go as planned. In the moments when I begin to feel stressed and anxious, I can remind myself that in the grand scheme of things, it’s really not that big a deal.
Many of us have spent a lifetime allowing our circumstances to dictate our moods. But when we embrace flexibility, we become agile during challenging moments. With practice, we can allow unpleasant moments to pass by easily so we’re receptive and ready for the opportunities and joy that may be just around the corner.
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