I strongly believe that everybody needs a coach or a mentor as leverage to faster personal development and progress in different areas of life. Currently I am working hard with a fitness trainer to improve my posture, strengthen my core muscles and improve my general fitness.
Before that, I had a coach for more than a year that helped me identify my main cognitive distortions and destructive relationship patterns. He was of tremendous help to me, a wise and calm man who could always show you a new, more positive perspective on life and where to make a move forward.
The first time I met him, it was immediately obvious that he had gone through a lot in life, but somehow found his inner peace. In the span of the coaching, we had many heated discussions, but he always stayed calm and positive. I was the one who was mad that he didn’t always agree with me or who became more aggressive in communication.
But then one time, the discussion got really heated. I could see that he almost lost his temper. He took a deep breath and respectfully asked me if we can end the session and continue next time.
I agreed, of course, half-surprised about what happened and half-satisfied because I felt like I won the power struggle by realizing that he is also only human.
I couldn’t wait for the next session to see how things would evolve. We started with small talk. Then he apologized for last time, and suggested we continue the discussion on the same topic if I wanted. But honestly I was more curious about what really happened and so I directly asked him.
What he said changed my perspective on relationships forever. He explained to me that he had had a bad day. And then he shared something eye-opening:
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You know, I can’t guarantee you that I won’t get angry, sad or envious or feel any other negative emotions in our relationship and interaction. But what I can 100 % guarantee you is that my negative feelings won’t do any damage to you or to our relationship.
Stop and think for a moment how powerful that is. The goal in relationships isn’t to completely eliminate negative feelings, since they are a completely normal human thing. That goal is to make sure negative feelings don’t do any damage to a relationship. That's the trick.
It’s normal to feel negative emotions, the problem is when they cause damage
Every single person on the planet has to deal with negative emotions. Your goal is neither to suppress them nor to completely wipe them out.
Your ultimate goal is to learn to properly manage your emotions and make sure they aren’t doing the damage – that means (1) becoming aware of the negative emotions before reacting, (2) controlling your reactions and then (3) expressing them in the healthiest way possible.
But here’s the trick. Even though everyone must deal with negative emotions, some people (including me) have a much tougher job managing them. The greater emotional challenge is experienced or seen in one (or several) of the following ways:
- You get upset by the smallest things other people don’t even notice and you have no idea why
- Your emotional reaction spikes out of any reasonable proportion, even if you don’t want it to
- The emotional explosion just happens, it’s like somebody else is controlling you at the moment
- You aren’t even aware that you are hurting the other person while expressing your emotions
- You don’t really care if other people are hurting because of your words and actions
- You learned to suppress your emotions until they pile up and explode
- You have no idea what to do with all the negative energy that takes control of you
- You easily feel threatened or humiliated in relationships
These are all the symptoms that show a big gap between the intensity of negative emotions and a complex set of skills that you need for managing such strong emotions. Nevertheless, if we go further, a lack of emotional control gets expressed in four general ways, based on one of the 4F responses to danger:
|Aggressiveness||Being busy||Running away||Slavery|
|Gossiping, lying, manipulating, cheating, betraying, hypocrisy etc.|
Now we know how the experience looks like and how negative emotions are expressed. Another thing that we are interested in is the cause. The emotional abuse itself is the cause behind the uncontrollable and disproportional response or, in other words, being emotionally abusive towards others.
You act abusive towards others because you were abused in one way or another in the past.
You have a corrupt blueprint for emotional attachment in relationships that you inherited and learned. Instead of a healthy secure attachment style, you follow an abusive attachment style.
It can be an ambivalent (fight, flight) or avoidant (freeze, fawn) attachment style or even a disorganized attachment style which is the combination of both.
It’s a vicious cycle of abuse that goes like this:
- You were abused in one way or another when growing up (or even later in life)
- You became abusive towards yourself
- Simultaneously, you also learned that being abusive is the safest way to deal with other people in relationships
- Other people are abusive back in return (usually just in a different way)
- You are even more abusive to others and yourself
It’s a never-ending cycle that can be triggered hundreds of times a day. A situation that happens in the present reminds you of an abusive situation that you experienced in the past (or even a series of them). Naturally you want to protect yourself.
You don’t know how to protect yourself in a healthy way, and thus you resort to an unhealthy 4F abusive response. It’s called an emotional flashback. In everyday life, you encounter small and big triggers that constantly kick you out of the center.
Uday Hussein was one of the cruelest men who ever lived on this planet. He was abusive in the most disgusting ways possible. His psychological issues were far beyond the simple advice that an article like this can offer.
But he was born to Saddam Hussein, how unluckier can you get in life? Think about that (not as an excuse, but as a never-ending vicious circle). He was born and died in the vicious cycle of abuse.
Now, this is a very extreme case. But the point I am trying to make is that you were put in a vicious cycle of abuse (even if you are only verbally abusive or passive-aggressive in relationships) and that’s a very unlucky situation. Luckily, the things that you have learned, you can also unlearn.
With hard work, you can step out of the vicious cycle and guarantee a better life to yourself and other people around you.
Stepping out of the vicious cycle of abuse
Stepping out of the vicious cycle of abuse is not an easy job. If you have serious and severe problems, I suggest that you work things out with a professional therapist. In this blog post, I will only share a few pieces of advice that helped me become less controlling and verbally aggressive.
As we discussed, there are three stages of processing feelings – awareness, control, expression. These are the three building blocks you can work on to develop emotional intelligence and consequently stop being so abusive in relationships. So let’s look at these three stages and what you can do about them to better control your emotions.
It all starts with emotional awareness
It all starts with awareness. Awareness means being consciously aware of what kind of mental and emotional processes are going on in you.
It’s the capacity that enables you to say to yourself “Oh, I’m becoming angry, sad, depressed etc.” and “These are all the negative thoughts and emotions that this situation is triggering …” before you react to the situation in any way.
There are two benefits to emotional and mental awareness:
- It’s a kind of alert that enables you to prepare and mobilize rational intervention as part of emotional control.
- It prevents you from suppressing emotions, which could later backfire.
Let’s first focus on suppression. Before I started practicing emotional awareness, I would have said even to the best psychologist in the whole world that he is crazy if he told me that things like somebody being late, not replying to my email or looking at the phone several times when talking to me etc. upset me.
On a conscious level, I was pretty sure that I don’t care, especially not about such small irrelevant “normal” behaviors. But that’s because I suppressed negative emotions. For me, they didn’t exist when these things happened. But they still got me angry on the unconscious level.
They piled up and consequently I could be moody later that day, or lose temper the next time somebody did something I didn’t like. On the unconscious level, things were piling up, while on the conscious level, an anger burst seemed to come out of nowhere, time and time again.
A unique perspective that will help you be more aware of your negative emotions
So I developed a new perspective on my emoting process that helps me have much greater emotional awareness. My old perspective was that small things simply can’t get me out of the center, since I’m a sharp strong man.
Now in my new perspective, I assume that every small discomfort in a relationship causes some negative emotional process in me, and then I try to identify it. That will help you raise mental and emotional awareness.
When you intentionally stop for a moment and listen to yourself, you become aware. And then there are only two possible outcomes: Oh, there’s nothing, I’m calm and happy. OR. Well, maybe it does irritate me …
If I can 100 % confirm that it doesn’t bother me, life goes on. If I detect negative internal impulses, I gently express the negative feelings while the monster (negative feeling) is still small.
And the second benefit of awareness is an increased buffer before you react to a situation. Awareness gives you an opportunity to be more proactive, to mobilize all your rational resources to make sure negative emotions are not being expressed in a toxic way.
You can’t have control when you only react to a situation. You can only have control when you are aware of what is about to come.
You are in control, not your emotions
The control part of managing emotions leads us back to the wisdom that my mentor said. You can’t guarantee people that you won’t feel negative emotions and that things won’t upset you, but you absolutely can guarantee that you will not do any damage.
Awareness gives you a great head start in this scenario. When you become aware that things are going in the wrong direction, you can:
- Take the conversation in a new more positive direction
- You can express your frustrations before the negativity escalates
- You can take a timeout to calm down
- You can explain your perspective
- You can try to identify why you are experiencing an emotional flashback etc.
There is usually an established process or pattern that leads to the point where you lose control. After that, you have zero chance of managing your emotions with pure willpower. When things explode, it’s too late for control.
When you are one step ahead of your emotions, you can express them in a healthy way.
But before that there are only two options. Either you control the process and the situation or the process and situation control and lead you towards the explosion.
So take control of the process. When you start to sense negative emotions and see that things are escalating fast in the wrong direction, say to yourself:
My job is to prevent hurting the other person and the relationship while dealing with my negative emotions. What is the best way to make sure my negative emotions don't escalate?
Then you must find a way to be one step ahead of your emotions. And when you are one step ahead of your emotions, you can express them in a healthy way.
Finally, express your negative emotions in a healthy way
Staying quiet about the things that upset you is not a healthy way to express emotions. That’s not what we are trying to achieve. Everything that you suppress escalates and backfires.
Much like you don’t want to over-aggressively express your emotions, so you don’t want to suppress them either. Thus you have to find ways how to express your emotions in a healthy way.
You have to experiment a little bit (use the search mode) and discover how you can express negative emotions in a healthier way. Here are a few suggestions:
- Take a timeout, calm down and then reopen the discussion again
- Explain to the other person why a certain behavior upsets you so much
- Write down in a self-reflective journal why things are so hard
- You are often only one exercise session away from a good mood, so visit a gym
- You can also simply go for a walk or change your environment in any way
- Take some time alone and scream in the pillow or just lay down and cry
- Do emotional accounting or cognitive reframing
- Get a massage, read jokes or watch a comedy
- Take 10 deep breaths and then respond
Usually, improving your communication skills and having courage to open up greatly helps with expressing your negative emotions. The important thing is that you reopen the conversation with the person after things calm down, and that you sort things out.
The right solution might be explaining your point of view or how you are experiencing the situation, maybe asserting healthier boundaries or deciding on more productive relationship patterns. The key is to express your frustrations without hurting the relationship.
If you take a timeout, don’t let your mind take you to dark places
The most common way to deal with negative feelings while not hurting the relationship is to take a timeout. The timeout doesn’t mean holding a grudge, punishing each other with silence or creating distance and enforcing isolation.
Timeout is an agreement to take some time for things to calm down and then reopen the discussion with more positive energies.
You agree upfront when to continue the discussion. That means both parties have to confirm and agree that they want to solve the problem and constructively continue the relationship when things calm down.
Timeout is a great tool for regaining control over your negative emotions, but there is one problematic thing that I’ve noticed over and over again – it adds a feeling of abandonment to the situation and accelerates cognitive distortions.
Your mind can always hurt you much worse than your strongest enemy. In the timeout period, there are two options your mind and thoughts can take.
- One is towards self-reflection, understanding why your feelings are so strong and finding a creative solution to the problem, making sure that the negative energy doesn’t escalate and the toxic relationship pattern don’t repeat.
- The other path is the dark one. Your negative emotions can escalate, your negative thoughts can pile up, you can find many new arguments why you are justifiably upset, and you might come back with even more negative energies, deeply caught in one of the 4F responses.
So when taking a timeout, you must make sure you don’t let your mind wander in the negative direction. There are many ways to properly manage your mind. The main point is that on the emotional level, you mustn’t confuse a timeout with additional abandonment.
The permanent solution to stop being emotionally abusive and express negative emotions in a mature way
The biggest problem with all the approaches we talked about that deal with negative emotions is that they are never-ending work.
Many small things constantly upset you in relationships, you have to pay attention to every detail and small process that erupts in you, and then manage your responses properly. It’s exhausting and it takes tons of willpower and discipline.
The other, much more rewarding path and permanent solution is to develop a greater capacity for love, better self-esteem and self-confidence, and a healthier attachment style in relationships. Unfortunately, that’s not possible without a long period of therapy, which can which can be a rather big investment.
But in the end, it is absolutely an investment that pays off great dividends in the form of a more quality life and healthier relationships.
Thus, my final recommendation would be: if you have too many issues with expressing your emotions and you act abusively in relationships, get professional help. Going to therapy is not a sign of weakness, it's a sign of a really strong character.