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
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
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
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
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
Working with Emotional
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.
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
more info or to order this book.
More books by Akong Tulku Rinpoche.
DONA WITTEN is a management
consultant for Ernst and Young and has served in similar roles for major
companies such as IBM and Cadbury.
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
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