“I’m on the edge all the time and then something will throw me over. I get cut off in traffic, my kid talks back to me, my wife makes a snarky comment, and I lose it. I’ve punched holes in walls. I’m not as bad as I used to be. I totalled a car when I was in my 20’s… I’d been drinking that time. Sometimes I just want to drive into oncoming traffic.” *
“My family won’t speak to me. My boyfriend and I have been fighting constantly. Sometimes I hurt myself on purpose – I just can’t stand the pain anymore. I took a bunch of pills last month, but ended up just sleeping it off. I don’t know what to do with myself.”*
*Please Note: These scenarios are not intended to represent any particular person or situation.
Sometimes, in the midst of high stress situations, we lose our cool. We feel out of control and say and do things we regret. This is all part of life. But for some of us, we are just on the edge of ‘losing it’ a lot of the time, and we find ourselves in conflict with others on a regular basis. We feel overwhelmed by life. We might consider ourselves ‘sensitive people.’
Sometimes we get to a point where we risk losing relationships and potentially our own health, freedom, or life, as a result of things that we’ve said or done.
If this is you, you should know that things can get better. There are many reasons why people feel like they are overwhelmed, much of the time, and find themselves in conflict with others, a lot of the time. For some people, previous experiences of abuse or trauma can leave you prone to high sensitivity and emotional reactivity. (See “A Good Time To Panic”)
For others, feeling constantly undermined emotionally or psychologically, due to cultural or societal norms, biases, prejudices, or expectations, can result in ‘being on edge’ a lot of the time.
Some people observed their parents responding to stressors around them in volatile ways, and never learned how to respond in any other way.
If you are experiencing regular, intense emotional responses and reactivity, and/or have ongoing interpersonal conflict, you may benefit from counselling. Here are a few things you can start working on right now:
1. Notice your feelings.
Maybe even write them down. Notice how long they last and when they change. You will see that no feeling lasts forever. Check out the Emotions Wheel below, to be clearer on what exactly, you are feeling.
You might think that you are always angry. If you check the wheel, you may find that sometimes you are ‘irritable’ and other times you are ‘resentful’. These are two different feelings. Note the intensity of your feelings on a scale of 1-10. Sometimes people feel all things, intensely, all the time. Pay attention to what triggered that feeling and determine the intensity of the event compared to other events you felt the same level of intensity over.
For example, if you are at a 10 out of 10 on your level of rage when your son forgets to take out the garbage, and are also at a 10 out of 10 in your level of rage when you encounter the person who assaulted your friend, you may need to consider which situation is worth that amount of emotional energy.
2. Note the difference between facts and feelings.
Feelings do not tell you facts about a situation. Feelings tell you how you feel about a situation. Check out cognitive distortions which trick you into thinking you are responding to facts.
For example, If you walk into the lunch room at work, and your boss neglects to acknowledge your greeting, you might think, “They are so rude to me. They hate me. I’m going to get fired. I’ll show them. I’ll quit before they can do it.” You are turning your feelings into facts. You might have felt offended at their lack of response, but you assumed that you knew what your boss’s intentions were. This was a cognitive distortion.
No one…. I repeat, no one, can know another person’s intentions. No exceptions.
You can guess, but you are just as likely to be right as you are to be wrong. If you assume the worst, you will feel bad. If you assume the best, for example, “My boss was so absorbed in her magazine, she didn’t hear me.” You will feel better. Both assumptions are possibly true, but you cannot know unless you ask, and, if you ask, you have to decide if you will believe the response you get. It’s your choice.
3. Pay attention to your 5 senses.
Note what you see, feel, taste, touch, and smell in a room, in order to ground yourself and remind yourself that you are safe. Your senses may also tell you that you are tired, hungry or in pain. Take care of these things; they will impact your emotions.
4. Note the things you can change.
This may take some work. You may not be able to control how you feel from moment to moment, but you can control what you do with those feelings. In fact, you, and you alone, are responsible for what you do with those feelings. Take responsibility for things that you have done, and need to do, to restore positive relationships. Respect boundaries that others set for you, as a part of this restoration.
For example: You cannot change how another persons feels about you, but you can change how you respond to them.
5. Acknowledge the things you cannot change.
There’s a concept in Dialogical Behavioural Therapy called “Radical Acceptance.” This is about knowing what is outside of your control and living with that reality. Again, you may need to check any cognitive distortions, to ensure that you are clear on what is your responsibility and what is not. When you try to act on things that you have no control over, you may experience further anxiety and stress. You also risk trespassing on other peoples boundaries, which can result in more conflict.
6. Distract yourself.
Work on an Emotional First Aid Kit (See Part II for more) on this. Find ways to soothe your body, in order to send messages to your brain that you are not in danger, and do not require the adrenalin running through your system.
7. Work on your communication skills.
There is a middle ground between explosions and avoiding conflict altogether (also see Responding to Passive Aggressive Communication). Learning how to communicate your needs, desires, and thoughts, clearly and respectfully, is important to your own emotional and relationship health. Here are a few tips:
- Be clear on what you are asking for. Describe the situation using facts, and take responsibility for the feelings you have about it.
- Consider how strongly you need the thing you are asking for. This will determine how much you are willing to compromise on the request.
- Consider what the results of obtaining or not obtaining what you are asking for, and communicate these possibilities, not as threats, but as information.
- Plan ahead to ensure the best time to talk (See “We’re Talking Big Changes”)
- Consider whether what you are asking is within the other person’s control.
- Consider if what you are asking is something you have a right to ask for.
- Prepare for an undesired response (be sure to have your Emotional First Aid Kit Ready) and plan for alternative solutions to your problem. Consider if you need to set boundaries (see Check out “Where Do I Draw the Line” for setting boundaries. Check out “When Boundaries Aren’t Respected” for further planning).
- Check to see if your request is clearly defined, and note how you will know that your request has been granted.
- Practice with a friend before talking to the person you need to talk to.
NOTE: If you are feeling at risk of harming yourself or someone else, contact your local crisis line (In Manitoba click here), go to a crisis centre, or hospital or call 911. If you would like further help in managing intense emotions and/or relationship conflict, and live in or near Winnipeg, feel free to contact me for an appointment. If you don’t live in this area, find a counsellor or someone you trust to talk to. You can also check out this workbook on Dialectical Behavioural Therapy that uses many of the skills I’ve described above.
For more on anxiety see “A Good Time to Panic”
For more on setting relationship conflict see “When Boundaries Aren’t Respected”
For more on communication skills see “Where do I Draw the Line?”
For more on substance abuse see “Addictions – Your Best Frenemy?”
For more on trauma see “Men & Trauma”
For information about Borderline Personality Disorder See “Borderline Personality Disorder – the New Hysteria?