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Coping with Difficult Emotions

by Dona Witten with
Akong Tulku Rinpoche

The First Steps

Many people cope with working with difficult emotions or emotional patterns by repressing them. Emotions cause trouble or create feelings of discomfort, so they are hidden by the business persona. But now is the time to find ways to work with emotions constructively, especially those that cause the most trouble. It is time to begin the process of taming the tiger.

One of the greatest obstacles to working with emotions is fear; fear of the unknown and fear of the unexpected. When beginning to work with emotions it is natural to feel afraid. It has been hard work caging that tiger, keeping her under control. There is so much to lose if all those efforts fail. But, ironically, the tiger has been breaking free and raising mayhem in the community on a regular basis. There is no cage that can ever be constructed strong enough or thick enough to keep her always locked up. It is time to negotiate.

One of our greatest fears is that of intense, uncontrolled emotion. Because we have not learned to work with emotions effectively, when we experience them, they tend to explode. Remember the last time there was an explosion of "he said", "she said"? Even with happy emotions, we tend to inadvertently step on the feelings of others as we revel in our successes. The sheer intensity of emotions becomes so self-absorbing that we lose touch with our surroundings and stop paying attention -- and when that happens we make mistakes. So we need to find a way to work with these intense emotional outbursts when they occur. Don't be swept away by anger, greed, jealousy, passion. Learn how to minimize their impact. Then you can learn how to express your feelings constructively.

Of course many people will think, "But I'm already doing that! I keep myself under control almost all of the time." Repressing emotions is not the same, however, as learning to work with them. Even if emotions are kept under control there will always be times when they come rushing to the front, say during times of trauma -- losing a job, experiencing a death, or dealing with the break-up of a marriage.

When strong emotions occur it is essential first to pay attention to them. Take time to work with your emotions; don't ignore them. When strong emotions occur, more needs to be done in the way of giving yourself space and time to experience what is happening. This may mean getting away from what you are doing; taking an hour or so away from work; going for long walks. Don't ignore your feelings or pretend they don't exist. It may be particularly difficult to acknowledge extremely painful emotions such as grief or anger constructively,. Above all, don't ignore your emotions because you are fearful of them.

Contemplating the Past, Present, and Future

In working with intense emotions, it is very important to pay attention to this next step: dealing with the reactions to intense emotions. Intense emotions tend to progress in something like an emotional chain reaction. Someone hurts you -- perhaps betrays a confidence, or refuses to give you credit for your work. So you react, and to prevent more hurt, look for a way to protect yourself. Never again will you trust or even like that person. You build a wall to prevent the possibility of being hurt again. Then comes the chance to get back at that person, or someone similar. We retaliate: hurting someone in our turn. And then that person goes on to hurt someone else. And on and on it goes...

Fear of emotional outbursts conditions behavior more than is thought. In general, people and situations associated with intense emotional outbreaks are deliberately avoided. Much of the fear is a direct result of the fear of losing self-control. Even when it is someone else who is losing control, their reactions remind us of our tiger just barely caged and ready to escape. As a result, we tend to avoid emotion-prone experiences, even when it is more important to work with these experiences.

When working with intense emotions, especially those that are repeated as a pattern -- rage and impatience, for instance -- we need to find ways to break the cycle of cause and effect, and to avoid passing hurt on to others. There are two approaches to take. The first is to look at the past to see how your behavior or attitude may have contributed to the pain you are feeling and the pain you are distributing to everyone in sight. This will help you to understand and forgive. It also helps you to recognize emotional patterns and so enables you to work with their root causes. The second approach is to observe your attitude and behavior now and in the future. This helps break the cycle of suffering -- an act of true compassion.

As you continue your sessions working with intense emotions, examine the past and the future with regard to the turmoil that you might be feeling. Looking at the past, examine the situation to see if there is something that you did out of foolishness or ignorance that contributed to the emotions that you are now experiencing. If there is, decide if it is worth continuing with the behavior that resulted in your unhappiness. Looking at the future, it is especially important to determine how you can use your experience in a positive way to help both yourself and others.

Overcoming the Past

By learning to work with emotional intensity, you can overcome your fear of losing control. By working with the innate emptiness of emotions, even strong emotions, their manifestations, especially in colleagues, feel less threatening. Emotions are something to be transformed and clarified and harmoniously integrated into the quest for happiness. This is the key to understanding how to work with other people.

All intense emotions, good or bad, eventually fade from the forefront of consciousness. They do not, however, go away but change, even after their initial causes have long disappeared. All past experiences are carried around in some form or another. This emotional baggage continues to affect everything we think and do.

Everyone has more than a few skeletons in their past together with a set of memories that, when recalled, cause winces of pain, embarrassment, or anger. As your contemplations and journal entries progress, you may find these memories resurfacing, especially when encountering repeating emotional patterns.

When this happens, most people's first tendency is either to rush into the feeling again -- reliving, say, the self-righteous anger or the sheer joy of the moment -- or to flee from the memory as quickly as possible. The remedy is somewhere between these two extremes. Most painful memories have some sort of blame associated with them, either blame directed toward yourself or blame directed toward someone else. Probably both.

Working with the Future

As you do your evening contemplations, you will most likely spend some time examining your feelings toward other people and the events of the day. If you are paying attention you will notice the beginnings of feelings, good or bad, arising out of relationships and out of the work that you are doing. While at the time these may have seemed like only minor irritations or emotional flirtations, in actuality, in many cases they were the seeds of emotional crises. Emotional obsessions such as intense likes or dislikes for another person, for instance, rarely arise full-blown in a moment. They develop over time. Little irritations fester and stew until they become international incidents. Miscommunications go unresolved until they become causes for glacial silence. Differences of opinion build and build until they become life-and-death struggles for dominance. This is not a pleasant way to live. It would be beneficial, especially from the perspective of our colleagues, if we could find a way to calm these emotional thunderstorms before they reach hurricane force.

Working with Emotional Patterns

That truly wonderful thing that started when first learning to pay attention continues to expand and grow when successfully working with emotions. The world becomes increasingly alive. This is the reward for all your hard work. It is a gift shared between you and all those around you.

There are two major realizations that result from working with emotional patterns. The first involves the true nature of emotions and emotional patterns and the discovery that there is no one who hasn't suffered some kind of emotional pain. It is a natural part of our experience. We can't avoid experiencing the events that usually give rise to pain, but we can choose how we react to them. By working with our emotional upheavals we can accept the positive and negative events of our lives as a natural part of who we are. We can develop a sense of harmony with our world.

The second realization is of the true importance of other people in helping us reach emotional maturity. It is abundantly clear that it would not be possible to have the energy, courage, or insight to work through so many emotional patterns were it not for work colleagues. Interestingly, it is the people who are most difficult to work with -- the mortal enemies in the War of The Realms -- who teach us the most. Once you recognize this you will appreciate these people more, and even feel some warmth and empathy toward them. With this comes the ability to treat them more kindly. And when people are treated in this way, they return the feelings... and on and on it goes. There is a new emotional chain reaction.

This article was excerpted from the book Enlightened Management: Bringing Buddhist Principles to Work, 1999, by Dona Witten and Akong Tulku Rinpoche. Reprinted with permission of the publisher, Park Street Press, a division of Inner Traditions International. http://innertraditions.com

For more info or to order this book.

More books by Akong Tulku Rinpoche.


About The Authors

DONA WITTEN is a management consultant for Ernst and Young and has served in similar roles for major companies such as IBM and Cadbury.

AKONG TULKU RINPOCHE is the president of ROKPA, an international relief organization. Visit ROKPA's website at http://rokpa.org. The author of Taming the Tiger, he is the founder and director of Samye Ling in Scotland, the oldest Tibetan Buddhist center in the West. Visit the Center's website at http://www.samyeling.org.



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