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3 Positive Ways to Build Your Emotional Toolkit - and Why It's Important

Over the last several months, life hit me right smack-dab in the middle of the face. (You can say that again. #yikes). Anything you can imagine was thrown my way -- and although I wish I could report I've handled it perfectly, it's safe to say I have handled it less than perfectly.

But that's all our stories at some point, right? We have "life" situations, some of which we've experienced before and other we're handling for the first time. There's no perfect solution, only opportunities to grow and build our emotional tool-kits.

When reflecting on my life over the last several months during in my usual shower-sits (I sit in the shower every night) -- I thought to myself, "Wow... when life happens, there's no way to predict how to respond."

When life happens, we can do one of three things:

  1. Rely on our default survival skills.

  2. Do nothing at all.

  3. Change the way we think so our behaviors can change -- AKA, do something so that we can get a different outcome.

For the first two months, I combined the first two methods -- the combination of old default behaviors and doing nothing at all kept me in the emotional space I was trying to get out of. It was like being in the same cycle of emotions day after day with no real change... but expecting something to be different. (Can we say insanity?! Ugh).

However, I've recently focused my efforts on changing my perspective and building new skills that helped me overhaul my previous survival behaviors. Ultimately, this made a way for a more positive emotional infrastructure and helped me handle new situations differently.

Here's what I've been working on.

1. Rating Scales

When figuring out how to regulate our own emotions, it's important to recognize the intensity of the emotions we're feeling. Emotions are extremely important; they're indicators that a need isn't being met. Therefore, we should pay close attention to not only what we're feeling, but how deeply we're feeling it. An easy way to do that is through a simple rating scale.

When feeling an intense emotion (good, bad, indifferent), ask:

  • Where am I on a scale of 1-100 (1= less intense, 100= extremely intense)?

  • What would it take for me to lessen the intensity?

  • What is one step I can do now to re-balance my emotions?

This is a useful technique in virtually any relationship -- if we can gauge how intensely we're experiencing an emotion, this can help us decide how to rationally proceed. For example, if the emotion is too intense (for me, that's above a 70), I will table the conversation until I'm down to a more reasonable level where I can consider other people's emotions and different perspectives (aka rational decision making).

2. Re-Framing

In the psychology world, this is known as "re-appraisal." This cognitive re-framing allows us to wholly consider our emotional response in a different, more positive context. It requires us to be flexible in our thinking, ultimately allowing us to not only calm down, but apply a rational perspective in a potentially irrational moment.

Re-appraisal makes us ask:

  • What is another way I can view this situation?

  • What is the positive side to this?

  • What is my intention?

  • What are alternate explanations?

  • If I were in a better mood, how would I view this situation?

  • How important will this issue be tomorrow? What about next week?

Re-appraisal can look like:

  • I’m running late to the party, so I might as well enjoy the drive and listen to music.

  • Everyone is usually helpful. They must have had a bad day — it’s not about me.

  • I messed up this presentation, but I learned a lot about what to do next time. Thank goodness for that!

We can use re-appraisal with situations that seem very out-of-control or in situations where no change can occur immediately. The beauty of cognitive re-framing is that is helps us feel more emotionally balanced and creates a space where we can feed ourselves the truth about the situation. Moreover, re-appraisal is the necessary stop-gap for self-judgement -- when we re-frame, we are less likely to judge our actions and condemn ourselves (with shame and guilt).

3. Positive Experiences

According to The Gottman Institute, relationships require a 5:1 ratio -- relationships need 5 positive interactions for every 1 negative interaction. Although this research was situated in the context of marriage/romantic relationships, we can apply this to other relationships and emotional regulation as well.

When trying to navigate difficult emotions, we should seek out positive experiences, particularly experiences that meet our needs. For example, if I'm incredibly upset about something that happened at work ( maybe I don't think I was valued or noticed), I should seek out a positive experience that validates and reinforces my inherent value. This could be anything from talking to a close friend, to writing down positive affirmations. Regardless of the method, seeking out po