How To Stop Reacting Emotionally

Have you ever reacted emotionally to something someone said or did and regretted it later?  You knew you were right!  The other person was wrong and inconsiderate!  You were just expressing your feelings! 

But then a relationship was damaged.  Drama was started.  All from one little emotional reaction. 

The fact that we respond emotionally to people and events isn’t the problem.  It’s when we *automatically react* to someone’s words or actions  that conflict and pain enter our lives.  We often rationalize our emotional reaction by saying things like:

“I have to be true to myself.”

“I have to teach them a lesson so they never do that again.”

(or my favorite) “If you can’t handle me at my worst, you don’t deserve me at my best.”

Unfortunately, these rationalizations are only half true.  You can be “true to yourself” without expressing every thought or feeling that comes into your head.  You can “teach the other person a lesson,” but it won’t be the lesson you’re intending.  And finally, that Marilyn Monroe quote is a justification to avoid taking responsibility for the impact your actions have on other people. 

In some cases, emotional reactions may help you achieve your immediate goal.  But they usually damage the relationships that would otherwise support your long-term goals. 

So how do we stop reacting emotionally?  Isn’t it just a part of being human?

Actually, you can build a slight delay into your reaction time.  That delay takes the form of a question:  “What is the ultimate outcome I want from this situation?”

Whenever someone says something that offends, annoys, or angers me, I take a deep breath and ask myself, “What is my desired outcome in this situation?”  I usually answer with something like:

“Maintain a constructive and positive relationship.” 

“Put on a successful event.”

“Be a professional at my work.” 

“Keep my team focused on producing a powerful outcome.”

“Give this person space and patience to express their pain.” 

By choosing my response, I stay focused on the bigger picture and achieve many more of my long-term goals.  If you have a larger goal or outcome that you want to achieve, it’s easier not to get wrapped up in minor emotional setbacks along the way.  But if you don’t have a longer-term goal, then all you can see are the emotions immediately in front of your face. 

Basketball provides a great example of this lesson.  Basketball players who are committed to winning the game (their long-term outcome) don’t react emotionally when they are fouled because they know that getting ejected won’t help them or their team win the game. 

Players who react violently are so focused on the immediate situation that they can’t see the foul in the context of the bigger picture: winning the game.  When they get ejected, they hurt themselves, their team, and their fans—not their opponents. 

The next time you are faced with an emotionally challenging situation, try asking yourself, “What is my ultimate desired outcome in this situation?”  It may just give your brain time to catch up with your emotions!

Do you have any strategies you use for avoiding reflexive emotional reactions?  I’d love to hear about them in the comments. 

Posted on August 14, 2014 .