Hidden Emotional Traps including: “As-if”, Castastrophising, and others


  • I’ve been doing a lot of podcasts recently in which I discuss the Emotions Cycle, Emotions as Tools and other relevant topics.
  • You can check out my podcast guest appearances by clicking this Google link…      Ed Daube podcasts.

In this post, I will discuss the topic of the emotional traps that exist as a direct result of the way the emotional cycle works and the often maladaptive way people react to the emotions they experience.

In the subconcious phase of the emotions cycle, including a constant scanning of one’s surroundings for threat and preparing your body to deal with that threat, the Amydala acts quickly and outside of your awareness. While this is by evolutionary design, the unintended consequences of this fast acting process is that you may be tempted to think that your emotions control you and the actions you take.

And, if you believe that your emotions dictate what you do, you do not assess the nature of the threat and you create a self-fulfilling prophesy in which the original perception of the event is incorrect, the actions elicited by that perception do not fit the situation, and you act as-if the emotion is, indeed, causing the behavior which is viewed as inappropriate .

When you act as-if your emotions control you and your behavior, you become vulnerable and leave yourself open to several emotional traps and the unwanted results of those traps including:

  • inappropriate behavior,
  • avoidable awkward interactions,
  • unneccary misunderstandings, and
  • escalating emotional whirlpools which can engulf you and isolate you from others.

Underlying Factors (all oof which are discussed in other posts)

The underlying factors which give rise to emotional traps include:

  • Part of the emotional cycle is unconscious.
  • Most of us don’t understand what emotions are, their purpose, or how they work.
  • We feel inadequate in dealing with our emotions. This inadequacy is experienced as being helpless.
  • Societal display rules seem to dictate what emotions are appropriate and which are unacceptable.
  • Accepting responsibility for our emotions and our actions is more difficult than avoiding that responsibility.

Emotional Traps.

Definition of an emotional trap

An emotional trap is a situation in which the poor handling of one’s emotions or feelings leads to  a worsening situation, escalating feelings, and a sense that there is no effective way to exit what is happening.

The emotional traps

While not an inclusive list, I will discuss 6 emotional traps  in this post.

  1. acting “as-if”. (This happened. It has to be the only explanation.)
  2. catastrophising (Worst case as the only case.)
  3. you vs I (Denying responsibility.)
  4. If only (This happened. Something else would have been better.)
  5. Shoulds (You failed to act in a certain way.)
  6. emotional whirlpools (Attempts to avoid uncomfortable feelings.)

Acting “as-if”. (This happened. It has to be the only explanation.)

All emotions originate as a perception which gives rise to a feeling which elicits a reaction which is strengthened by an explanation which might become a response.

To put it another way, you find yourself experiencing an emotion. In order to make sense of your situation, you “justify” the emotion with an explanation of what is happening to you. This is part of the emotions cycle.

The trap develops when you act as if that explanation is both correct and absolute in that it is the only explanation possible for your situation.

Road rage is an example.

You are driving and get cut off by another driver.  You instantly get angry, chase after the driver and give them a one-finger salute. As you are following them, you notice that they pull into the parking lot in front of a Hospital Emergency Room.

What happened is that you concluded that they intentionally cut you off and you reacted to the threat with an act of behavioral aggression. You never considered that there might be a reason for their erratic driving that had nothing to do with you.  You acted as-if the other driver was trying to kill you.

Catastrophising (Worst case as the only case.)

Catastrophising is a version of “as if” and happens when you follow one logical implication of your original explanation to the worst case possibility  and act “as-if” that possibility is the only possible outcome.

The trap happens because each logical step is the worst outcome possible and there is no attempt to consider other possible options.

As an example…

When I was in college, a med student jumped off of a building.  He survived and offered this explanation for his attempting suicide.

I failed my test in Organic Chemistry (fact).  Because I failed the test, I will get a bad grade in the class (a possibility). A bad grade in Chemistry will keep me out of med school (A very distant possibility). If I can’t get into med school, I will be complete failure and won’t be able to care for a family. (This is the ultimate catastrophe.) Being a failure in life is not acceptable so I will try to kill myself.(This is the as-if )

You vs I (Denying responsibility.)

This trap is an offshoot of the belief that our emotions control us.  The twist here is that you blame someone else for what you feel.

Examples include:

  • You made me angry.
  • If you hadn’t done (a, b, c), I would not have done (x, y, z).
  • I am (You name the emotion.) because everyone else is.

While the last point may be somewhat true because emotions can be contagious, the trap is that when we place the cause of our own emotions outside ourselves, we not only give away our own power but we also deny our responsibility both for the emotion and our own actions.

And, the truth is…

  • Your emotions originate with you.
  • You are always responsible for your actions.
  • If only (This happened.

If only  and “Shoulds” 

While both of these are offshoots of wishful thinking, if only’s (as in “If only I had..”) .if used as a possible learning exercise, can be effective.  If, however, an if-only becomes self-criticism or wishful thinking, it will likely be destructive.

The trap is that, while some other outcome might have been more acceptable, you did what you did.  Instead of validating the emotion, as it is, assessing its appropriateness to what is actually happening learning from your actions and setting yourself up to choose a more adaptive response next time, you get caught up in emotions such as anxiety, guilt or regret which can be disempowering and distracting if not mastered.

Shoulds (as in “I should have done (x, y, z).”) can be particularly insidious because they may imply blame and irresponsibility but offer no solutions. To the extent that a “should” becomes an IWBNI (It Would Have Been Nice If), you can learn from your past and change your behavior.

Emotional Whirlpools

This trap happens when you attempt to avoid a feeling that is either uncomfortable for you or culturally unsanctioned because of display rules.

The process is that you experience an emotion such as sadness (for a man) or anger (for a woman) and display a secondary emotion such as anger (for men) and sadness (for women).  This secondary emotion may lead you to do something you later regret or fail to do something that would resolve the situation.

The initial result is, perhaps  feeling guilt (I did something wrong.) or shame (There is something wrong with me.). These emotions are very uncomfortable and elicit more avoidance through secondary emotions.

The final result is an emotional whirlpool in which one  emotion leads to another which elicits a third and so forth. The process, because it starts with an appropriate emotion and moves to an inappropriate emotion, feeds on itself and is difficult to stop.

The Antidote

The roadmap to avoiding emotional traps is emotional mastery.

Emotional mastery involves accepting both that all emotions are adaptive and that you are the ultimate cause of your emotions all of which are elicited by how you perceive the situation in which you find yourself.

Once you acknowledge and validate the emotion you feel, you begin to master that emotion when you take a deep breath and a step from the o situation.  This creates psychological and physical safety.

You then assess the situation to determine the degree to which your initial perception matches what is actually going on.

The final step in mastering the emotion is to choose an adaptive response to the situation and either let the emotion pass or use the energy of the emotion as a motivator to resolve whatever needs to be corrected.

The bottom line is that emotional mastery facilitates being open to and honest about you emotions. This short-circuits all of above emotional traps and sets you up to more effectively deal with negative situations and improve your relationships with others.





Anger Mastery Techniques – 2 Actions and 3 Questions to Ask When Angry to Use Your Anger as a Strategic Tool

We all get angry sometimes.  But, most of us are poorly educated regarding what anger is or how to deploy it as a strategic tool to improve our lives and our relationships.

When you Google “anger management”, you will find a ton of links and lots of suggestions.  The “experts” will tell you that you have two basic choices with many different options within each choice.

The choices suggested by the “experts” are:

  1. Controlling your anger.
  2. Ignoring your anger by distracting yourself through telling jokes, yoga, or relaxation.

The vast majority of these “experts”, however, miss the point when it comes to understanding what anger, as an emotion, is.

They speak of anger as if it is a runaway car or a menacing dog that must be chained up rather than as an important tool that you need to learn how to master..

Or, they minimize anger as an emotion and label it as secondary emotion (as in a substitute for other emotions).

What most “anger” experts FAIL to recognize is that:

a. Anger is a basic emotion that communicates important information.

b. Sometimes, anger IS a secondary emotion that (men mostly) use to avoid experiencing emotions such as anxiety, guilt or sadness.

c. There are times when being angry is both necessary and appropriate.

d. It is the behavior of the angry individual that is always the issue, not the anger itself.

d. The real issue is learning how to master your anger as a tool rather than to control it, reduce it or avoid it.

It may surprise you to know that… You do not “get” angry!

Rather, you experience yourself getting angry.

“Wait a minute, now,” you say “what does that mean?”

Anger originates as a perception which gives rise to a feeling which elicits a reaction which is strengthened by an explanation which might become a response.

So, when you get into a situation which might be a threat to you, your brain unconsciously prepares your body to fight the threat or flee from it. This is a survival mechanism that humans have had from the beginning of time to help us survive.

Anger is a reaction to the perception of a threat that you, subconsciously, believe you can overpower.  Anger prepares you for war.

When you notice the changes in your body that relates to your perceiving this type of threat, you label the emotion you are experiencing as “anger”.

In other words, you experience yourself becoming angry and you label this experience as anger.

“Anger” explained.

  • Anger is one of 6 primary emotions we are born with and which have existed in humans since we lived in caves.
  • Anger evolved to alert us to and prepare us to deal with a threat by going to war.
  • Anger is primarily a threat detector.

There is a better way to approach anger:

Use your anger as a strategic tool to improve your life and your relationships.

Note: A strategic tool is one that is applied in a specific situation to accomplish a specific task unique to that situation.

Two actions to take and three questions to ask when you experience anger.

Taking these actions and asking (and answering ) these questions will help you respond  rather than react to your the situation and doing something you may later regret.

The two actions

  1. Create physical safety by taking a physical step back from the situation.
  2. Create psychological safety by takeing a deep breath (or two).

The three questions.

I. What is at risk?

What does this question do?

When you look at “risk”, you are assessing the nature of the threat. “Survival” threats are unambiguous and involve your life, your primary finances, or your values. “Psychological” threats are ambiguous and easily misunderstood and involve your ego, your goals, your beliefs or your dreams.

The nature of the threat will determine your response and takes you to the next question.

II.  What do I need to protect or accomplish in this situation?

What does this question do?

This question begins to match the situation you face with the actions you will take to deal with it.

Protection involves a “survival” risk. You need to do whatever it takes to protect your assets.

Accomplish addresses “psychological” threats and tells you that you have many options including:

  • Doing nothing if there is no threat.
  • Calming down the situation so you can seek a win-win solution or a compromise,
  • Clearing up any misunderstanding that is being seen as a threat and generating anger,
  • Deciding what actions are needed to insure that…

a. your opinions are heard,

b. your beliefs are expressed,

c. your needs are met,

d .your relationships are maintained or healed,

e. your disagreements are resolved.

III. What is my most effective response?

What does this question do?

This question directs your attention to the RESPONSE you will choose based on reason and away from a REACTION which is an unconscious behavioral outburst.

This question looks at your options and seeks to match your response to the situation and threat you face.

Examples of a response include:

  • Taking physical action against a perpetrator,
  • Talking to a supervisor or filing a formal complaint at work,
  • Engaging in conflict resolution strategies to clear up misunderstandings or disagreements,
  • Walking away so you do not hurt yourself or someone else so thatbboth of you can cool down and come back later to reach a win-win resolution or a compromise.

In learning to master your emotions as tools…

  • taking a physical step back from the situation gives you physical space or safety,
  • taking a deep breath creates psychological space, and
  • asking the right questions informs you about how you can strategically respond to the situation which elicited (did not cause) your anger.

Once you understand what anger, as an emotion, is (a strategic tool that detects threat and prepares you to deal with that threat) and the strategies you need to engage to master it (two actions to take and three questions to ask and answer), you are in a position to deploy your anger strategically to improve your life and your relationships.

Mastering emotions as tools: Anger, and your car’s “smart cruise control”.

There is a widely held belief that our emotions control us and make us do things we may later regret.

The problem is that this is an  emotional myth!

I have attempted to address this myth in my blog posts, my responses to questions on and in my podcast appearances because belief in the myth prevents people from taking control of their lives by utilizing their emotions as strategic tools.

In this post I will address this myth in a different way.

I will use your car’s cruise control as a metaphor for mastering your emotions.

Some definitions...

  • Classic or “dumb” cruise control: The traditional mechanism in your car that keeps you traveling at a set speed.
  • Smart cruise control: Technology which both allows you to set a specific speed and gives you additional options by automatically adapting to the surrounding situation and kicking in when an obstacle is present.
  • Set point: This is a specific number or limit which tells the device with a feedback loop that a specific designated action needs to be initiated.  It could involve a thermostat turning on the furnace or air conditioner or the cruise control speeding up the car.
  • Emotional set point:  The degree to which you perceive a specific situation as a threat which initiates an emotional reaction.
  • Your perception: The meaning you give to any situation you observe.
  • Emotional reaction: The subconscious physical changes which your brain (amygdala) initiates in your body when a threat is subconsciously recognized.
  • Emotional response: The action you choose to take to allow you to effectively interact with the perceived threat.

The “Tools” We Use

There are many tools  which you use on a regular basis.

“Task oriented” Tools

Task oriented tools are designed to complete a specific task.

Sometimes this “task” is simple. A screwdriver is just a screwdriver unless you don’t know the difference between a flathead and a Phillips.

At other times the “task” is very complicated. Your cell phone can do many things very well but it won’t replace a screw in your cabinet.

Examples of task oriented tools include your cell phone, your computer, your car, your TV remote, your sewing machine and a screwdriver.

While you may not think of your cell phone and computer as “devices”, they are also “tools”.

“Set point” tools.

Devises with set points make your life easier by automatically maintaining whatever “status quo” or set point you choose.

Examples of set point tools include:

  • The thermostat in your home or car that controls the temperature.
  • The spell checker on your word processor that monitors your document as you type.
  • The cruise control on your car that keeps you going on the freeway.
  • Your brain which encourages you to keep doing the same habits in the same way.

Everything is fine…Until it isn’t!

In most cases, our tools work fine and there is no problem.

  • (Thermostat)…The house/car stays warm (or cool) and comfy.
  • (Spell Checker)…The correction that is made is appropriate.
  • (Cruise Control)…We merrily move along on the road at a chosen speed and get to our destination.
  • (Brain)… The actions we take fit the situation, are appropriate, and lead to a desirable outcome.

The tool does what it is programmed to do.

It is not able to make adjustments for unique situations. In other words, it does not typically think about or take into consideration “exceptions” to the norm.

It is these “exceptions” that are often problematic.

The spell checker that changes the name of an important client in an email or changes a word that gives the sentence a totally different focus than what you intended.  You missed the changes in the overview before you hit “send”.

Your brain elicits an angry outburst which is hurtful, inappropriate and    unnecessary  because you misread the situation.

You get the idea.

Emotions as Tools

Emotions are hardwired tools..

  • Your emotions  unconsciously perceive threats
  • They unconsciously prepare your body to react and insure your survival.

You are hardwired to perceive threat in your surroundings.  This has been the case since humans lived in caves and this “ability” helped us survive as a species.

This is the first part of the emotions cycle and is mitigated by the Amygdala in our brain.

Each emotion has a set point at which it recognizes a significant event such as a “threat”.  This is the message of the emotion.

Your definition of threat is your set point and when that set point is reached, your emotional “cruise control” kicks in.

Below this set point, or threshold, there is no experienced emotion.

The characteristics of this process are that it is automatic, out of our awareness, and quick. This is our emotional reaction.

The characteristics which comprise your emotional reaction are critical if your survival is at stake. But, they are also the foundation for the myth that our emotions control us.

The critical difference is that when the emotional process “originally” appeared in our cave  dwelling ancestors, all threats were survival based and this fast emotional reaction saved lives. Today, most threats are psychological and our brains have evolved so that we now can evaluate the threat and choose our emotional response.

When the emotion is compelling, uncomfortable, or debilitating, this automatic process is viewed as undesirable.

Let me break it down….


The emotion seems to “take over” and “compel” one to act in a particular way.  Examples include anger (aggression) and jealousy (driven to take back what you believe is yours).


The emotion just doesn’t feel good.  We call this its hedonic quality.  Examples include sadness, anxiety, guilt, and  jealousy.


The emotion seems to sap us of energy and leave us feeling unable to take effective action.  Examples include anxiety (an inability to take action) and guilt (a sense of unworthiness).

But, this automatic process is only part of the story and this is where the concept of a smart cruise control becomes important.

So, you may ask:

“What does the concept of cruise control have to do with emotions?”

The short answer is that people believe their emotions function the same way their classic (dumb) cruise control operates.

  • They get into a situation in which the emotion is automatically triggered.

(Set point is reached.)

  • The emotion engages and elicits physical and psychological events

(The brain and body are engaged just like the car speeds up.)

  • The emotion is experienced as acting autonomously and without conscious  input.

(The cruise control, once set, functions without additional input.)

The implication is that the emotion reaches some set point after which it takes over and the individual has no choice but to give in to the feeling and either act out or do nothing.

This is the Myth…but, there is more to the story.

Most people relate to their emotions from a classical (or dumb) cruise control model.

I am suggesting that it is much more adapative to adopt a smart cruise control approach.

Your Cruise Control

Classic, or “dumb”, cruise control

This technology enables you so you to set a desired speed.  This is the “set point” for speed. The tech monitors your speed and, if the car falls below this set point, the automatic system engages and you speed up.

I call this accessory “dumb” not because I want to put down the technology but because it is blind to changing road conditions.   Once set, it does its job and maintains a certain speed.

As long as you are in an unchanging situation such as a stretch of road with limited or consistent traffic, you are golden.  The car stays at speed.

But, if traffic should slow and you are not alert, the car in front of you may have slowed or stopped, you remain at speed and plow into the stopped car in front of you!

Your “tool” is happy to keep you going at 69 mph. It is doing its job.

In order to avoid an accident, however, you will need to remain constantly vigilant, continue to assess your driving environment, and override or disconnect the cruise control as needed.

Smart Cruise Control

Your smart cruise control has a set point which it maintains. This tech, however, is designed to monitor your surroundings and when there is a car stopped in front of you, it slows you down. Once the obstruction is removed, you go back to your set point.

Our emotions CAN function the same way.

Indeed, the second part of the emotions cycle involves the cerebral cortex and gives us the option to assess our situation and choose our response.

Just like your smart cruise control monitors your speed and your surroundings, kicks in to both slow you down and give you a choice about what you want to do, and then defaults to your set point once the obstruction is dealt with, your cerebral cortex can automatically kick it and give you choices about how you want to deal with a threat.

Emotional mastery involves experiencing the emotion, slowing down, assessing the situation and choosing a response.

Emotional mastery is NOT automatic and must be learned!

Anger as a Tool and an Example.

Your anger is a tool that is designed to help you survive.

Your anger cruise control kicks in when you experience a threat that you believe you can handle if you throw enough power at it.

When you get angry:

  • You have perceived a threat to your life, your goals, your ego, your values.
  • Your brain has sent chemicals all through your body telling it to prepare for battle.
  • You are ready to go to war with the threat.

When all threats were survival based, your emotional cruise control worked perfectly.

The problem is that nearly all of the threats we face today are psychological and not survival based.

Consequently, what may seem to be a threat may, in fact, only be a misunderstanding.

Unfortunately, your anger does not know the difference between a survival based and a psychological threat and you automatically go into self-protection or go-to-war mode.

If you lash out and say, or do, something you later regret, it is just like plowing into the car in front of you at high speed.

This is where the smart cruise control metaphor, the Emotions as Tools model and anger mastery come in.

Just as you should constantly monitor the traffic when your cruise control is on, you should constantly monitor your surroundings when you become aware that your anger (or any other emotion) has been engaged.

Once you become aware that you are angry, you should manage your anger by lowering your arousal and master your anger by assessing the threat and deciding whether to let your anger move you forward to take action (if the threat is real) or override the anger and shut it down.

The same idea works for other human emotions such as anxiety, sadness, guilt and shame.

The point, here, is that your smart emotional “cruise control” should always be set on automatic. This will let your emotions alert you to possible threats. When a threat is perceived, your “smart tech” will kick in and, before you react, you can evaluate what is going on  and decide what you want to do.

This is called mastering your emotions:

  • You accept and validate the automatic nature of your emotions.
  • You monitor your emotions and assess the situation.
  • You choose an adaptive response and initiate it.

The bottom line is that you want to approach your emotions from a smart cruise control model to get the most out of them as strategic tools.



Your Brain VERSES Your Feelings? Nope! Your Brain AND Your Feelings.

How do I train my brain to be stronger than my feelings?

This is a question Barbara asked me to address on  I wanted to share my answer here because the question contains a common (but incorrect) assumption that there is a competition between what one thinks and what one feels.


While I am not exactly sure what you are asking, I will do my best to address what I think you want to know.

Your question seems to address a common misconception and the two emotion myths that are implied by this misconception..

The misconception in that there is a competition between LOGIC (the brain) and EMOTION (feelings).

Note: the terms emotions and feelings, while different in the scientific literature, are basically the same in every day usage.

The two emotion myths are:

1. that your emotions control you and cause you to take actions you don’t want to do.

2. that you must control your emotions using your brain.

I will explain the above in some detail below.

But first, I need to add that there is some “training” you will need to do. It isn’t, however, what you expect.

The emotions cycle delineates how your emotions “work”.

The emotions cycle has 5 components.  The first two operate subconsciously and the last 3 operate consciously.

This is the emotions cycle:

The Subconscious Components:

I. You are constantly (and subconsciously) scanning your surroundings for any threat.

Humans have done this since we lived in caves.

II. When you perceive a threat, your body (through the Amygdala in your brain) automatically prepares you to deal with the threat. The message of the emotion communicates the nature of the perceived threat.

This process is subconscious, automatic, and very fast as it should be if every threat you faced would kill you. As a caveman, every threat would kill you so having this process happen automatically was a life saver for you and all of  our ancestors.

The physical changes in your body are related to the threat you perceive. This is the physical message of the emotion. Anger: your muscles tense, your heart rate increases, your eyesight narrows. Your are prepared for war. Sadness: your energy seems to drain, you are prepared to withdraw. Fear: you find it hard to focus your thoughts, you need to decide to freeze or flee.

Note: The subconscious component of the emotion cycle is the basis for the emotion myth that our feelings control us because this process happens automatically.

The Conscious Components:

III. Once you become aware that you are experiencing an emotion, you need to control your emotional reaction to create “safety” and lower your emotional arousal.

This is where your “control” comes in.

You are not controlling the emotion. Rather, you are controlling your emotional reaction.

Control consists of two actions…

  1. You do take a physical step away from the situation. This creates a physical safe space.
  2. You take a deep breath (or two). this lowers your emotional arousal and creates a psychological safe space.

Note: This is where you need to train yourself.

You do this by thinking about emotional situations you might encounter and visualizing yourself taking a step back and a deep breath. Remember that you are developing a new habit and that it will take time and practice.

IV. You now use your logic to assess the nature of the threat and whether the threat is actually a threat.

It is here that your cerebral cortex kicks in and you can use your logic. The cerebral cortex evolved to give us an advantage our ancestors did not have. We can move beyond our instincts and built-in reactions and choose how we want to respond to our situations.

V. Based on your Assessment of the situation, you choose an adaptive response that matches and resolves the “threat”. Your response can involve having a conversation, withdrawing, going on the attack, or doing nothing and everything in-between.

So, Barbara, it is not an matter of strengthening your logic or your emotional “abilities” as your logic and your feelings are not in opposition to one another but need to work together. The goal is to learn to master your emotions as strategic tools to improve your life and your relationships.

While mastering your emotions as tools is not easy, it is doable and I have provided you with a free resource you can use to educate yourself about your emotions.


Emotional Empowerment: Focus on “reclaiming” your emotions.

In my last post, I discussed the concept that our emotions are always valid but might not be appropriate.  If they are not appropriate, we should choose not to express them.

Another reason why someone might choose not to express an emotion is that they feel estranged from that emotion based on…

  • a set of “rules”,
  • their upbringing,
  • issues surrounding how they might be perceived should they directly express the emotion,
  • inadequate skill sets for dealing with that emotion, or
  • situational risk.

When a person believes they can’t express the emotion they are e I am suggesting that when you do this, you include some emotions in your “tool kit” and eliminate others.

The cost is that you cut yourself off from many emotions that you could strategically deploy to improve your life and your relationships.

It’s like saying you will only include one type of screwdriver in your tool drawer. That’s great if every screw required a flat head driver. But, if you come across a Phillips head screw, you are “screwed”.   Sorry for the pun!

You reclaim your emotions when you validate all the emotions you experience and learn to “express” those emotions to improve your life and your relationships.

Let’s dive in.

A secondary emotion is one that is expressed instead of the primary emotion which is what the individual man or woman is actually feeling but chooses not to express.

A secondary emotion is expressed because it is more “comfortable” or “acceptable” than the primary which is more accurately matched to the situation.

For men, the secondary emotion is often anger which is expressed to avoid emotions such as hurt, sadness, embarrassment, anxiety and guilt.

For women, the secondary emotion is often sadness which is expressed because women get “punished” by being marginalized, demeaned or negatively labelled when expressing anger.

More on this below.

As we grow up, both sexes may learn that there are rules which dictate that we might need to “distance” themselves from certain emotions. This is true in many cultures across the world.

There are at least 3 types of rules:

  1. There are cultural display rules which dictate which emotions are acceptable in that culture.  These rules could be  based on gender, custom, religion, etc.
  2. There might be family rules that you learned growing up.
  3. Finally, these rules could be self-generated as in “The last time I expressed that feeling, I (You fill in the unwanted consequence.) so I’ll avoid that feeling going forward.”

The bottom line is that while you may become estranged from one or more emotions in terms of whether you express them or not, these emotions still exist “within you”.  They have, however,  been sent to the proverbial attic and archived.

In addition to various sets of rules which may cut you off from some of your emotions, you may label some emotions as good (or positive) and others as bad (or negative) based on the kinds of experiences we have with emotions,

I should point out that in the scientific literature the terms “positive” and “negative” have a specific meaning when applied to emotions.

A positive emotion is one that is experienced as pleasurable.  It feels good.

A negative emotion is one that is experienced as uncomfortable.  It feels bad.

In both cases, it is the hedonic quality of the emotion that is being labelled.

For years, now, I have advocated that the terms “positive” and “negative”(as applied to emotions) be eliminated or, at least minimized, because I believe these terms take on a different meaning than just the pleasurable nature of that feeling.  Indeed, the terms positive and negative  are taken to imply that some emotions should be “kept” (the positive ones) and others (the negative one) should be eliminated.

The basis for my concern is the meaning that we associate with the terms positive and negative.

We tend to label those emotions we feel competent to express as positive and those we do not feel competent with as negative.

Think about it for a moment.  Do you want a negative review at work or a negative balance in your checkbook?  Of course not.

An emotion may be negative because..

  • we do not feel very competent in expressing
  • we don’t like how it makes us appear to others  (weak)
  • it leads to actions that we would like to avoid.

The end result is that you keep the emotions you label as positive in your behavioral repertoire and and archive those emotions you label as negative.

Avoiding primary emotions…

Here is how it works in real life.

You find yourself in a situation which elicits an emotional reaction.  The situation represents some kind of threat and the primary emotion you experience automatically alerts you to the nature of that threat and prepares you to deal with it.

This alert is the “message” of the emotion and is unique to the emotion…

  • Anger: You are prepared to go to war to deal with a threat.
  • Sadness: You are prepared to withdraw to deal with a loss.
  • Guilt: You are prepared to address, atone for, and make right something you have done.
  • Anxiety: You are facing a possible threat and must choose what actions you want to take.
  • Hate: You are prepared to eliminate an evil threat.
  • Shame: You become self-critical and view yourself as damaged, dumb or worthless.

In responding to the situation, you acknowledge the emotion and consider how you want to respond.

As a man, you might view the emotions of anxiety, sadness, and guilt as messy and uncomfortable. As you are not really “prepared” to deal with this discomfort or you do not want to appear weak based on the actions these emotions are pushing you to take, you might label these emotions as undesirable or negative and decide to avoid them by expressing anger instead because anger “feels” good, powerful and in control.

But, in avoiding those emotions, you create additional “problems” for yourself.

Here’s how it might work.

You do something dumb and feel guilty.  This is an appropriate emotion. Instead of mastering your guilt and righting the wrong, you “get on your own case” and experience shame which  feels even worse. To avoid the “pain” of shame, you decide to express anger as a secondary emotion  and direct your anger at someone else.  Since the anger probably is not appropriate for the situation, it might elicit an unwanted reaction and you are back to guilt.  This could create an emotional chain reaction.

As a woman, you might view the emotion of anger as dangerous because it elicits aggression from those to whom it is directed. You get negatively labeled, demeaned, or marginalized.  The same behavior that in a man is viewed as demonstrating power, leadership and initiative is viewed as “hormonal” or “bitchy” in you. As you might not want to take the risk involved in expressing your anger when you have been wronged or taken advantage of, you might decide to do nothing and default to sadness as a secondary emotion. As sadness is not appropriate to dealing with a real threat, you feel inadequate, unappreciated, and weak. You might also continue to feel angry which, if unvalidated, might lead to rage and uncontrolled lashing out.

The 5 steps to reclaim your emotions.

You reclaim your emotions when you acknowledge and accept your emotions as an authentic part of you and utilize the energy of your emotion, when appropriate to adaptively master the situation in which you find yourself.

Step 1: Acknowledge, or validate the emotion.

Step 2: Assess your situation and determine, as objectively as you can, whether the emotion accurately reflects your situation and is. therefore, appropriate.

Step 3: Decide what needs to be done (under the best of circumstances).

Step 4: Determine whether it is “safe” to outwardly express the emotion.

Step 5: Make a plan to express the emotion and deal with the situation.

A note on expressing an emotion

Keep in mind that expressing the emotion can be direct in which case you assertively inform the other person about what you feel and what you believe needs to be done in your situation.  Examples include: “I believe you published my report under your name.  I wrote it and this needs to be corrected.”  Or, “I appreciate what you are doing but I am feeling really sad and just need some alone time to sort things out.?”

Expressing your emotion can also be indirect in which case you might choose to keep the emotion such as anger, anxiety, or sadness to yourself and utilize the energy of the emotion to facilitate a change in your surroundings which validates the emotion but does include informing others about what you are feeling.

The bottom line is that you empower yourself when you reclaim all of your emotions.

  • You become more honest with yourself and, maybe, others.
  • You are more in touch with your surroundings.
  • You have additional choices about how you want to interact with your surroundings and improve your life and your relationships.

Again, let me say that you may need to educate yourself about your emotions and I have written numerous, easy to understand, posts in this blog to help you do that.  You can access all of these posts directly through the Index tab above.



Emotional Empowerment. Your Emotions are always Valid. But, They May Not be Appropriate! Anger as an example.

This is the first of two posts designed to help you own your emotions so that you can use them to empower yourself in your interactions with others.

This post looks at the issue of owning your emotions by validating them and whether you should express or discard an emotion based on how appropriate it is.

The bottom line is that all emotions are always valid but might not be appropriate.

I will use anger as an example.

Let’s look at some definitions. (from…

valid: having force, weight, or cogency; authoritative.

appropriate: suitable or fitting for a particular purpose, person, occasion, etc.:

In the Emotions as Tools Model, all emotions are adaptive and, therefore, valid.

The reason all emotions are valid is that your emotions reflect and are a direct result of how you (subconsciously, at first) perceive your situation.  Because they are a reflection of you, your emotions have cogency and are authoritative in that they reflect your initial “analysis” of your situation.

Your brain constantly scans your surroundings for any possible threat and, when a threat is detected it subconsciously and quickly formulates a fast analysis of the threat. The function of your emotions is to alert you to the threat prepare your body to act quickly to help you survive.

The words threat and survive are italicized because they are highly subjective and are based on you, your current situation, your past, and so forth.

Your emotions inform you about a possible threat based on this initial, very quick, scan of your situation. This means that your emotions start out being highly idiosyncratic (or unique to you).

The emotion, per se, is the same for everyone.

My anger is the same as yours and conveys the same message that there is a perceived threat and that this threat can be eliminated or overpowered.

How the emotion reflects your perception of threat, however, is unique to you.

In other words, there are three “reasons” why there is a distinct possibility that your initial assessment could be inaccurate…

  • your emotions reflect your initial assessment
  • your initial assessment is based both your past and present experiences and
  • the actions of another person may be ambiguous,

Your perception may not be accurate to the extent that you have…

  • misunderstood your situation (the other person’s actions are ambiguous)


  • misinterpreted your situation (you have viewed their actions through a filter clouded by  your idiosyncrasies).

Therefore, your emotion, which reflects that perception, may not fit the situation and may not be appropriate to what is going on.

The emotion of anger informs you that you perceive a threat that you can eliminate if you throw enough force at it.  Anger prepares you for war.  The threat can be physical and involve your personal safety or it can be psychological in that it reflects an “attack” on your ego, your values, your sense of right and wrong and so forth.

The perception of a psychological threat can be very subjective.

It is, however, important to note that just because your perception is subjective does not mean it is inaccurate, incorrect, or inappropriate.

You may be very subjective and you might be very accurate in that you are being “attacked”.

The task, then, is to acknowledge your emotion as real  and valid and then to assess each emotion as soon as you become aware that you are experiencing it and determine the extent to which that emotion accurately reflects the situation in which you find yourself.

In other words, the appropriateness of the emotion.

A visit to the Index tab, above, will give you access to many posts which will help you learn to do this.

In my next post, I will address the issue of reclaiming your emotions.



Is it a good idea to hide negative emotions from your children? Part #2

This is post #2 addressing the issue of what, when and how a parent (or grandparent) should express an emotion in from of a child.

In my last post I discussed (regarding kids and expressing emotions)..

  • the topic of negative emotions (There are none!)
  • issue #1 (What emotions should a parent express in front of a child?and
  • issue #2 (When should a parent express their emotions in front of a child?

In this post, I discuss issue #3 and sum up the entire question.

Issue 3: How should a parent express their emotions in front of a child?

This is where matching and modeling come in.

As I noted above, unless you are very good at hiding your emotions (which most of us are not), you can deny, try to disguise, or attempt to cover up what you feel to your kids all you want.  Chances are, however, that they will see right through your subterfuge.

This is  potentially harmful for two reasons.

First of all, your credibility is at risk if they sense that you are not being truthful.

Secondly, you risk confusing and misleading the kid about emotions in that you may be saying that the expression of anger is actually sadness or the expression of anxiety is actually anger and so forth.

Imagine that your smoke detector beeps either because it is telling you it needs a battery or you burnt the toast.  You are in a hurry to do something so your kid sees you take the detector down, remove the battery, and put it on the table.  Instead of learning that the detector is a critical lifesaving tool which must be maintained, he learns that you eliminate the annoying messenger (the beep) and move on. Note: This is a real example you see in the news where the house burns down because the smoke detectors were not working.

So, that you need to express your emotions honestly is a given.  Let’s look at how you do this.


The idea here is that we attempt to match what we express, how we express it, and the explanations we give as much as we can  on what the kids can understand and absorb.

There is an old story about a child who goes up to her dad and says: “Daddy, how did I get here?”

The dad grimaces cause he doesn’t want to answer the question and sends her to her mom.

Mom doesn’t want to let dad avoid his responsibility and directs the child back to dad.

Dad takes a deep breath, swallows hard, and tells the whole reproduction story from soup to nuts.

The child listens politely and, when dad is done, innocently says, “Oh, now I remember, we flew on an airplane.”

The lesson here is that you have to match your explanations to the age and intellectual abilities of the child.

One of the respondents (Ali) in the Quora feed noted that she validates her emotions by expessing them. And, if she views her emotional expression as problematic for her kids, she apologizes for her outburst, explains the basis for her actions and provides a future focus on how to behave differently.

This is a good answer to the extent that you match your explanation to the age and intellectual abilities of the child.

The bottom line here is that you want to educate your children as to…

  1. what emotions are,
  2. the purpose they serve and
  3. the importance of learning to master their emotions as tools.

More on this below.


The concept behind modeling is that kids (and adults) learn (and draw conclusions from) what they see others do.

The mantra of my parents was “Do as I say not as I do”.

While this may sound promising, it never works.

First of all, as I noted above, you may risk your credibility if there is a discrepancy between your words and your actions.  As an example. If you are a smoker and tell your kids not to use drugs.

Secondly, your kids will “repeat” in their actions what they see you doing regardless of what you say.

So, think through what you model.

Oh, by the way, they will also model what you don’t show if they know you are, for example, angry, but say “I’m not angry, I’m just tired.” So, think about what you are “communicating” to your kids.

Not only do you want to think about what you are “communicating to your kids” but you also want to consider the three issues you want your kids to learn about their emotions:

  1. what emotions are,
  2. the purpose they serve and
  3. the importance of learning to master their emotions as tools.

I realize that this is a steep ask because most people do not know anything about 1, 2,and 3.

So, if you are reading this and you have kids, I strongly recommend that you click on over to my blog, click on the INDEX tab and educate yourself so that you can teach your kids about their emotions.

I have over 200 posts on my blog and the Index tab lists all my posts by Category and Title. You can access any specific post by clicking on the title you want.

The sole reason I maintain the blog is so that you can educate yourself about emotions. It is free and does not require a login.

Raising kids is always a challenge.

Keep in mind that you, as a parent, will make mistakes. But, second chances (and even third chances) are always available.

And, the process is always worth the effort.

Is it a good idea to hide negative emotions from your children? Part #1


In the next 2 posts, I will address the issue of what, where and how a parent (or grandparent) should express the emotions they feel in front of a child.

This is part #1 and part #2 will publish in 2 weeks.

The other day I was consoling a friend of mine  whose wife had recently passed away.  As we were discussing the grief he was feeling, he began to cry and his grandson questioned if he was “okay”.  My friend responded that he was trying to be “strong”.

I suggested that he tell his grandson that he was “feeling  sad and was missing your grandmother”.

The question about what emotions you want to share with your children has come up on the site and I think it calls attention to an important topic.

In this post, I have elaborated upon my Quora response.

This question focuses on the emotional interactions between a parent and a child and there are two parts to the question:

  • The idea of negative emotions.
  • When and how (or if) you should express emotions to your kids.

Regarding your kids and your (and their) emotions, the 3 specific issues involved are the following:

  1. What emotions should a parent express in front of a child?
  2. When should a parent express their emotions in front of a child?
  3. How should a parent express their emotions in front of a child?

There are three underlying principles here…

  • Your kids will know (or at least sense) that you are “emotional” regardless of whether you acknowledge, deny, or express those emotions.
  • You need to show your emotions to your kids so that they can learn what emotions are and how to appropriately express them. This is called modelling. It is also being open and honest.
  • When it comes to your kids, you need to tailor the message about emotions to your kid’s abilities to accept and understand the message so that you don’t give them more information than they can handle based on their age, intelligence, and experience. This is called matching. It is also being respectful and considerate.

But first, let me address the issue of negative emotions…

The original Quora question addressed the idea that a parent might want to hide “negative” emotions from their kids.

While it is true that you do want to monitor what and how you express emotions to your kids (as I will discuss below), the reason you want to do this is NOT (emphasis added) because some emotions are negative.

The basis for this myth is that some emotions do not feel good and, therefore, are labelled as negative. The danger of the myth is that it implies that some emotions should be eliminated (Think a negative eval at work or a negative balance in your checkbook.).

Indeed, there are no negative emotions.  All emotions are just tools that, when you learn to master them, can be strategically deployed to improve your life and your relationships!

When you eliminate an emotion, you deprive yourself of the information and power that emotion provides.

Back to my friend and expressing emotions.

Interestingly, I was visiting my friend because his grieving was eliciting tears, he was feeling physical pains, he really missed his wife, and he did not know whether all of this was normal or appropriate.

I assured him that all of it was part of normal grieving.

Now, my friend is a caring person and a good grandpa. He isn’t all that great with emotions.

So, when his grandson saw him crying and wondered if he was hurt, he told his son he was trying to be “strong”.

Now, while the idea that crying in men is a sign of weakness is a version of the myth of negative emotions, I don’t know if this was the basis for my friend’s comment.

The problem that I had was that the implied message to his grandson might have been that grieving needs to be avoided because it does not demonstrate “being strong”.

The bottom line for me is that the significant adults in a child’s life need to both teach these kids about emotions so that they have access to and can strategically benefit from all their emotions and honestly demonstrate how to appropriately express a wide range of emotions.

Which  takes us back to the 3 main issues noted above regarding the expression of emotions to kids.

Issue #1: What emotions should a parent express in front of a child?

A parent should attempt to express all emotion in front of their children with one major caveat:

The expression of every emotion should be within an “appropriate”range given the age and intellectual abilities of the child, the nature of the emotion, and the behavior elicited by the emotion.

I will address this in more detail below.

Issue #2:  When should a parent express their emotions in front of a child?

There are two concerns here.

The first involves the setting in which you express an emotion and the key element here is whether the setting is such that the child will connect what he or she witnesses in you with the emotion and the message that emotion conveys.  As an example, if the child has done something which appropriately elicits your anger, then get angry.  If the child is playing and doing nothing wrong, showing anger (from a previous incident) or even sadness might not be advised as the child might not be receptive to “dealing with” your emotion.

The second issue involves your feelings.  If you are “overcome” with an appropriate emotion (not connected to the kid), then you have a decision to make.

Can you express your feelings and include the kid if he or she questions it?

This is the situation in which my friend found himself.

If you can, then go with the feeling.

If not, then it is probably best if you excuse yourself and express your feelings privately.

As an example, if you are so angry (either at or independent of the child), that you are raging, you need to get out of rage before you interact with the kid.  If you are so overcome with anxiety or grief or sadness that thinking straight is difficult for you, again, stay away from the kid.


Regret: An emotion I misunderstood. Until Now.

Regret is an emotion that, like anger, has gotten a lot of bad press.

The image we often see is of a tattoo on a buffed arm that reads “No Regrets”.

Or, if you are into humor…”No Regerts”.

In a new book, Daniel Pink writes about the emotion of regret and notes that when you ask people if they have regrets, they will answer that they do not. If, however, you ask them if there are things they did (or failed to do) that they wish they had done differently, they will  say “yes”.

This is, in fact, the essence of regret.

The message of regret is, indeed, that you either did something, or failed to take some action, that led to an outcome that you strongly wish had progressed differently than it did.

This could involve an action you took such as

  • selling the stock just before it split and hit a new high
  • losing a bunch of money because you got scammed
  • “acting-out” and destroying an important relationship


It could be a missed opportunity to..

  • get an education
  • tell someone you loved them before they died
  • reestablish a relationship that ended badly
  • start a business
  • buy that house

You get the idea.

The emotion of regret is often labelled as a negative emotion because it hurts.

An example from my own life..

When I was in graduate school, I was home for vacation and my mom was taken to the hospital. I had visited her in the hospital and was going to visit her a second time.  I was outside the hospital in my car and decided that I would run an errand and then go and visit her.  She died while I was on my errand and I was both not there for her and unable to say my final good-byes.

It is important to note that the “errand” was not at all critical.

I, maladaptively, held on to my regret for many years.

I’ll explore my regret in this situation below.

My issue with regret stemmed from my belief that the emotion could only lead to a downward spiraling rabbit hole from which there was no escape.

My self-talk regarding my mom went like this…

  • I screwed up. I was not there for my mom in her moment of need.
  • My actions led to a bad situation which I can’t change.  She died and I will never be able to comfort her and tell her how much I loved her.
  • I should have  made a different decision. I knew that the errand was not significant but I “bought” my rationalization. I acted in a cowardly manner.
  • My actions will always haunt me because I can’t change what I did.
  • There must be something wrong with me that led me to screw up. I was in grad school and knew about rationalization.  I did not acknowledge my own inability to cope with my mom dying. I should have acted differently.
  • I screwed up because I was unable to deal with my anxiety.  I will always be haunted by my guilt because there is no way for me to make it  right.

Experiencing an emotional maelstrom involving self-criticism (guilt), self-denigration (shame) and being stuck (regret) was horrible. But, it is exactly this negative emotional soup that is associated with the emotion of regret and that gives it its bad reputation.

As a Psychologist with the Youth Authority, I had 5 young incarcerated women all of whom had killed their children.  I need to say upfront that while I always maintained that they were responsible for their actions, I needed to help them deal with their regret so that I could help them grow and develop into healthy adults once they left the institution.

In order to help them and deal with my own regret, I developed and embraced  the idea of IWBNI which allowed me and my clients to “eliminate” the emotion of regret by approaching the event as an IWBNI (It Would Be Nice If).

Viewing what I did through the lens of an IWBNI solved two issues which, to me, embodied the worst aspects of regret..

  1. We (My clients and I) screwed up.
  2. There was nothing that could be done to make it right.

How IWBNI works.

Noting that “It would be nice if” the (screw-up) had never happened…

  1. tacitly acknowledges and validates that it DID happen
  2. detaches the “screw-up” from any attached self-recrimination
  3. puts the undesired outcome both in perspective and in the past
  4. allows us to acknowledge and move past whatever was done and the negative outcome it elicited and
  5. allows us to learn from our actions.

While using IWBNI’s, per se, is still a viable and effective approach to events which elicit regret, I now believe that regret ought to be considered a valid emotion that can be mastered like any other emotion.

I’ll explain.

I paid too little attention to the learning potential of regret and it is this potential  that is the key to using regret as a strategic emotional tool.

It is important to note here that there are two categories of regrettable actions.

  1. Actions you have no opportunity to change.
  2. Actions you can do something to reverse the past and create a new outcome.

Category 2 was easy.  If I could change my future behavior, great, regret could be strategically deployed as motivating me to avoid future similar screw-ups.

I, however, had viewed the emotion of regret only in terms of the first category.

Indeed, if you could not do anything to change, or reverse, what happened, I reasoned that you were powerless regarding the focus of your regret and, therefore, your only choice was to validate the emotion, accept your actions, and move on.

To put it another way, the emotion of regret informed me that I screwed up.  Okay.  But, it also reminded me that there was nothing I could do to change what I’d done.  Therefore, there was nothing to learn. Consequently, regret could not be strategically deployed.

I was mistaken.

My epiphany about regret was that you could, indeed, learn from both categories of situations.

And, to the extent that you could learn from your actions, regret could become an emotion you could master.

To utilize regret as a strategic tool, there are 4 steps…

  • Acknowledgment— IWBNI
  •  Context —The BRR
  •  Compassion and Understanding—Self-forgiveness
  •  Consolidation and Moving on—List of what you learned

Step #1 Acknowledgment

As I discussed above, viewing what you regret through the IWBNI lens allows to acknowledge and validate the situation without judgement.  You may still judge yourself and I will address that below.  The IWBNI, per se, simply acknowledges what happened and the truth that you wish it had not happened without any inherent placement of blame.

Once you have acknowledged the situation and your actions, you are ready to progress to step #2 which involves understanding what you did.

Step #2 The Basic Relationship Rule (BRR)

As I have discussed in other posts, the BRR states that everyone in every situation does the best they can given their Model of the World and their skill sets.

While I don’t have room here to go into the BRR in depth, its relevance to the emotion of regret is that you now have a context to understand the actions you took that you now regret. What was your understanding about your situation, the perspective you took in the situation and the resources you had available to you to deal with that situation?

Now that you have acknowledged and gains some insight into what you did, you are ready for step #3 which involves compassion.

Step #3 Compassion

In step #3, you approach yourself as you would a good friend who did something you did not like.  You express compassion toward yourself and you forgive yourself for what you did.

Self-forgiveness, like forgiving others, does not mean justifying what you did  or letting yourself off the hook, per se, for the regrettable actions you took.  Self-forgiveness simply communicates that it did happen and self-blame is no longer needed.

You can let go of your judgement.

Now that your actions have been acknowledged, understood and removed from self-blame, you are ready for step #4.

Step 4  Consolidation and Moving on

The final step involves listing what you have learned about your actions and making a plan to act differently should a similar situation arise (if this is possible) or if a situation that resembles (in any way) what originally took place happens again.

This is you consolidating what regret has painfully reminded you that you to do.

Once you have consolidated what you have learned, you are ready to move on.

What did I learn from my regret?

Whenever I am in a situation in which I know I need to act but I do not or I rationalize, I will step back, take a deep breath, reassess what is actually going on and what I am trying to avoid, and do what I know needs to be done.

I have mastered my regret.

Indeed, I still regret not going up to my mom’s room to be with her in her last moments on earth but I do not feel guilt and, in several situations, I have taken action I might otherwise have avoided because it didn’t feel absolutely right.


Mastering Grief as a Strategic Emotion

Grief is an emotion that is well known but little understood.

Today’s post is designed to give you both insight into this important emotion and, should you find yourself in its “grip”, hopefully give you some suggestions for mastering your grief as a strategic tool.

Grief is an important emotion because its purpose is…

  • to focus our attention on what we have lost,
  • prepare us to effectively deal with that loss, and
  • allow us to grow beyond the loss and get on with our lives.


  • Grief is the emotion we experience when we experience a significant loss.
  • The message of grief is that we have sustained a significant loss and that we need to withdraw from others so that we can heal.
  • Grief, as an emotion, hurts.

Grief and Pain

The experience of grief can involve..

  • tears that seem to come on their own
  • a sense of emptiness inside
  • an inability to function normally because we are consumed by a sense of unresolvable loss

Other feelings which can go along with grief

  • sadness
  • anxiety
  • guilt

Two significant Grief myths

  • It is important to be “strong” (whatever this means) in the face of grief
  • Moving on with your life means forgetting about your loss

So, let’s dive in..

If you never experience grief, I hope it is because you have never experienced a significant (however, you define this) loss.  If so, I am thrilled for you.

It is, however, more likely that you will experience such a loss in your lifetime and you have at least two ways to approach the grief that accompanies the loss.

The unhealthy way…   suppress the feelings, power through it, and keep going.  This denial is equivalent to looking at the growing red spot on your skin, ignoring it because you don’t want to know more about it or don’t believe in skin cancer, and, down the road, having to deal with your cancer when it finally reaches a point where you can no longer avoid it.

The healthy way.. mastering the grief by validating it and working through it including experiencing the pain and the “symptoms” associated with the pain.

Pain explained.

A few years ago, a close family friend “lost” his wife after some 40 years of marriage.  They were high school sweethearts, got married and spent their whole adult life together as a couple.

When his wife died, he felt as if an important part of him had been wrenched away leaving a void which could not be filled.

He was right (almost).

An important part of him had been wrenched away and there was a void. However, while he would never be able to replace his wife of 40 years (nor would he want to), he would learn to heal the void.

While he expected to miss (grieve for) his wife, he was blindsided and totally (but intermittently) immobilized by  pain, tears and irreconcilable emotion.

There are at least two important elements to understanding the pain of grief.

I. The pain he experienced happened because of, and was a direct reflection of, his incredible 40 years of marriage.

In other words, the amount of pleasure he experienced in his marriage (however, he would define this term and what it included) was the “cause” of the pain he experienced when his wife died.

If the marriage had not been a source of pleasure, the ending, or loss, of that relationship would not have been that painful.

So, one important question he had to address (directly or indirectly) at some point was…

Do the benefits (love, companionship, etc) he gained from the marriage outweigh the cost (pain) he experienced when his wife died?

Or, to put it another way..

If he was given the choice to go back in time and not marry his future wife, would he do it in order to avoid the pain he felt when she died?

When he was ready, he acknowledged that the upside (benefits) of his marriage far outweighed the relatively minimal downside (his pain) and he wouldn’t change anything.

 Note: Some people do choose not to get involved in a serious relationship in order to avoid having to experience this pain. While it has consequences, this is a valid choice.

II. His ability to relive, revisit and relish the memories of his wife and the 40 years he considers himself both blessed and very fortunate to have been able to spend with her could not happen until he experienced and worked through his pain.

This is an often overlooked component of the pain of grief and, by the way, is an argument for listening to, validating, and mastering grief.

Denying the pain of one’s grief does not eliminate the pain.  It may mute the degree of discomfort you experience with your guilt.

What happens it this.

Every time he tried to revisit a fond memory, he would get a jolt of pain.  Our friend would cry uncontrollably when these memories came up.

And, they seemed to come up almost spontaneously and unconnected to anything that was going on with him in the moment.

Mastering grief as a strategic emotion…

The message of grief is that you have experienced a significant loss.  Grief prepares you to withdraw and begin healing.

You master your grief when you take all the time you need to validate the emotion and all the experiences that accompany the emotion.  You withdraw as much as you can from your regular activities so you can experience the pain.  You avoid judging yourself and your actions (like crying, feeling weak and vulnerable, etc) and treat yourself with the same compassion as you would a close friend going through his (or her) grief.

The process..

As I explained to our friend, when you allow yourself to experience both the pain and the memories, you validate the loss, the emotion, and your willingness to grow through it.

What happens, over time, is that the pain subsides and you are able to enjoy your memories.  The pain may be experienced as sadness at the loss but the happiness which accompanies the memories far outweighs the sadness.

In addition, over time, the emptiness gives way to an acknowledgement that the relationship was deep, satisfying and real and that the memories which retrieve that relationship can never be lost.  The person may be gone, the experiences are not.

As you master your grief and grow though it, you will find that you are increasingly ready to reengage with the world and maybe even consider new relationships.

I recall a story told to me by a deeply religious friend.

His wife contracted cancer.  She didn’t want to do radiation or chemo so he and his wife changed their diets and lifestyle together until the cancer eventually took her.

He grieved for his wife for several years and didn’t date.

One night he had a dream in which his wife appeared to him and told him that she was safe with God and it was time for him to move on and begin dating.

He took her advice, started dating and eventually remarried.

Now, whether you believe that his wife actually spoke to him in his dreams or his dreams reflected his own growth and he was “talking” to himself is not critical.  The focus of the dream was that he had reached a point in his growth where he was able to both enjoy fond memories of his deceased wife and begin to form new ones with his new wife.

He never forgot his first wife and is currently happily married.

Our friend followed a similar course of action and returned to a very fulfilling life.

This is mastering one’s grief.