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Do You Qualify with Your Emotions?—Part 1
By Caterina Spinaris
Published: 05/23/2011

Emotion This is the first in a series of three articles on the subject of dealing with emotions.

You go to the firing range every year to qualify with your weapon. And that is necessary and good. Do you realize though that you daily carry with you a different kind of weapon that goes neglected and unacknowledged for the most part until you “fire?” That hidden yet powerful weapon is your emotions.

Please consider how many times a year you have to shoot at offenders. Compare that with how many times weekly or even daily you may engage in tense verbal interactions with offenders, fellow staff or family members, and how many times these result in fierce arguments or other types of conflict.

What if these exchanges could be prevented or at least minimized in intensity? Even better, what if emotions could be used to bring about desirable, positive outcomes?

For such results to occur we need to be able to understand and handle emotions—our own and others’—wisely. Doing so puts us at an advantage in our relationships with others and also in managing our own peace of mind.

Being emotionally literate—adept at regulating the intensity of our emotional reactions and able to help deescalate others—is akin to being a skillful marksman or carrying a superior weapon. Qualifying with your emotions can keep you from excessive use of force and other retaliatory behaviors, giving up after disappointments or failures, or avoiding necessary confrontations.

Wait a minute, you might say. My emotions ARE under my control. I have no problems with them. In fact, oftentimes I don’t even think I have any. I can’t feel a thing most of the time. That kind of emotional numbing is like seismic activity in the depths of the earth. It is happening, but it is not yet evident on the surface.

Some may “pooh pooh” this whole discussion about emotions, maintaining that emotions are what little girls or hysterical women do. This kind of attitude leaves people walking into situations blind, ill-equipped as to how they may react or how to deal with other people’s feelings. They will inevitably make things worse by fighting fire with fire, causing everything to burn down, missing out on opportunities to solve interpersonal problems smoothly.

Emotions (other than anger) tend to get a bad rap in law enforcement environments where the “stiff upper lip” and John Wayne are glamorized as emblems of strength. (By the way, the expression “stiff upper lip,” which originated in the 1800s, refers to blocking the emotion of intense sadness. Sadness causes us to want to cry, which starts our lips trembling. Forcing our lips not to tremble—making them “stiff”—hides our sadness. Why the upper lip? Apparently most men in the 1800s had mustaches. The upper lip would quiver more visibly if a person was about to cry.)

In this article I’ll put in some good words about emotions and their necessity for wellness and health. The first point is that emotions are not good or bad, useful or useless. Emotions simply ARE reactions to incoming information. It is like feeling thirst. Thirst is not good or bad, it just is. More specifically, the sensation of thirst signals to us that we are getting dehydrated and that we need to take in more fluids to keep a healthy balance of electrolytes, etc., in our bodies. It is the same with emotions. They are sources of information that tell us how we perceive our world— pleasant or unpleasant, safe or unsafe, welcoming or rejecting. It is what we choose to DO as a result of experiencing emotions that can be constructive or destructive, good or bad.

There are several clues that give us information about our emotions: physiological signs (flushed face, dry mouth, sweating), behavioral signs (yelling, pacing, weeping), indirect actions (overeating, kicking something in our way, cleaning house furiously).

Do you know that we process incoming information at an emotional level (safe/threatening; pleasant/unpleasant; welcoming/rejecting) faster than it takes for our reasoning brain centers to comprehend logically? We have an emotional reaction prior to thinking consciously and rationally about what may be happening. We feel before we think. The fact that we react emotionally before we respond rationally puts us at risk of being “emotionally hijacked” when we misread cues as dangerous and react with fear or hostility when in fact there is no danger or not to that degree. We may overreact and put our foot in our mouth at times (or worse), before we analyze facts carefully.

Some key emotions are joy, love, fear, anger, sadness and shame. To practice your emotional dexterity, ask yourself:
  • How do you know when you’re experiencing anger, sadness, fear, joy, love or shame?
  • Where/how in your body do you notice each of these emotions?
  • Which emotions are easier for you to notice / identify?
  • Which emotions are more difficult for you to discern or describe?
  • Which emotions are a no-no to you, that you will not allow yourself to experience them consciously?

Having the emotion of fear or sadness does not mean we are weak. It means that we are human, alive and aware of how life events are impacting us. It is what we do after we have these emotions that will determine our mettle. Do we run, avoid, block, rationalize or deny? Or do we face reality head on and deal with it, living life on life’s terms? A correctional worker who seeks professional help for anxiety or depression is a lot more courageous than one who denies they have an issue and instead crawls in the bottle or zones out in front of the computer.

How can we learn to qualify with our emotions, to manage them appropriately? Qualifying with our emotions requires awareness of our inner world—feelings, sensations, thoughts, urges, motives.

Qualifying with our emotions also requires willingness to review emotional discomfort and pain, willingness to be vulnerable with select trusted others, and in some cases willingness to revisit the past in order to heal and move on.

One way to do so is to learn to “process” what happens to us so we do not build a storehouse packed with the emotional intensity of past hurts. Emotional processing refers to the way in which one can assimilate, “digest,” get past and even grow from stressful life events. Emotional processing converts events and their emotional impact to “filed” memories that are no longer acutely disturbing.

Emotional processing can be done verbally, through language—by talking or writing, or nonverbally, such as through drawing, painting or playing music.

Research backs the claim that emotional processing is good for your health. Studies demonstrate that practicing expressive writing (writing down how you feel) is often associated with fewer health problems, decreased depression, an improved immune system and improved college grades. For best results, write for 15-30 minutes at a time.1

Another study found that eating disorders and “psychosomatic” symptoms (such as gastro-intestinal problems, headaches and migraines) increased with increases in difficulty identifying and describing emotions.2

Having anger outbursts is like driving a vehicle with faulty brakes. Qualifying with our emotions amounts to fixing the brakes and learning to apply them appropriately. Or it is like learning to ride and direct a powerful stallion in the way you want it to go, instead of having it explode, buck and take off, galloping while you hang on for dear life. Anger out of control is like such an explosive stallion that needs to be brought under the authority of the rider.

In the next two issues we shall discuss ways to prevent or put the brakes on, calm ourselves down when we get angry, and ways to help deescalate others during heated verbal interactions.

  1. Karen A. Baikie and Kay Wilhelm. Emotional and physical health benefits of expressive writing. Advances in Psychiatric Treatment, 2005, 11: 338-346
  2. Mutsuhiro Nakao, M.D., Arthur J. Barsky, M.D., Hiroaki Kumano, M.D., and Tomifusa Kuboki, M.D. Relationship Between Somatosensory Amplification and Alexithymia in a Japanese Psychosomatic Clinic. Psychosomatics, 2002, 43:55-60
Click here for Part II

Reprinted with permission from "CORRECTIONAL OASIS" A Publication of "Desert Waters Correctional Outreach"

Visit the Caterina Tudor page

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  1. Raymond on 05/25/2011:

    I look forward to the rest of this series. As one who has dealt at length with my own demons I find that as I grow older and my reaction time slows, I seem to deal with outrage and baiting offenses better than in my past experiences and duties.

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