How do I manage my emotions?
July 21, 2012 7:54 PM   Subscribe

I am a highly educated 27 year-old female, and I am at a loss as to what to do with my extreme emotions. How does one manage a burst of emotions so as to deal with the situation in an effective and calm manner? Specifically, I need advices on redirecting or channeling my anger and sadness in a way fast enough that I can still remain in the scenario (even more specifically, when in conflict with my mother)... but one that does not involve self-mutilation.

I have known for several years that my feelings are a lot more intense than what most folks appear to feel. My highs and lows are both very extreme.

So far, I have been able to manage my emotions in everyday life. I don't scream and dance and jump off the building when I am excited, even though I want to, and I don't cry and cause severe pain upon myself, even though I always feel the urge to do so.

But I still have trouble when dealing with my mother. I have to disclaim first that she is the best mother in the world, and I could not asked for more. But Mum and I have a history of communication where our messages and emotions are misaligned. We are not on the same page, in terms of our modes of speaking and listening.

When I am in conflict with her, usually over very small things, all of my normal techniques of delaying emotions and resolving them fail. I am so filled with both anger and sadness I feel sick. I shake. What I really want to do is calmly and rationally discuss the small thing that set us off, but I often couldn't.

I usually withdraw from the scenario and return later when I am calm, but it doesn't always work and isn't always possible. When I do get 20 minutes alone time, I find that I have to just let all of it out, or else it would take me days to calm down, and I would still be angry when reminded later. This usually means screaming into a pillow until I lose my voice, and cause sharp, physical pain by pinching or slapping myself. And I cry uncontrollably.

When it's impossible to withdraw, in the past I have resorted to inconspicuously cutting. Now I try as hard as I can to hold it in, but I end up either puking, or I blow up-- I scream, say mean things, bawl. Or I pinch and slap, but that always confuses people. One time I thought I would scratch myself lightly with a key, but I ended up making a deep cut with the key. It hurt for days.

In the past couple of years, I have tried everything I can to improve my relationship with my mother, and I have made some progress. I am hoping to break this cycle where we both push each other's button. To do so, I had to first break the habit of screaming to each other, so I have had to swallow my anger whole. This means a lot more cuts and bruises from pinching, and my mum just told me that she is very irritated when I say I will return in 10 minutes and go punch a pillow. She finds that very passive aggressive, even though I swear I was hoping to do that secretly and entirely so that I can calm down.

I need advice on better ways to quickly disperse these super intense emotions-- I've read all the things telling me to do yoga and run, but I can't just pull a downward facing dog in the middle of a gone-sour conversation with my mum.

Outside of interactions with her (or thinking about those interactions), I am generally a happy person, and am rarely angry, and can generally manage irritating or saddening situations very well-- most of the people who's known me after my teens say that I seem to deal with my emotions quite well. I have worked hard to get here, but it seems like all of my efforts are useless when I interact with my mum.

I suspect that I don't know how to cope when emotions are extreme. And based on how extreme I feel when I interact with mum, I suspect that I feel hurt, but I don't know for sure and don't know why. Sometimes I don't even know why I experience the emotions I do when around her.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (23 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
You're not asking a simple question at all. This is something people often seek therapy for. Are you open to that idea? Do you have to be around your mother? It seems like you are just aggravating an open wound by dealing with her. I guess what I mean is, if you haven't yet reached the point where you know why you're upset when you're around her, trying to deal with the symptoms probably isn't going to work. It's going to keep eating at you, and the pain is going to continue to build. I would try to find someone very smart and very trustworthy to talk to, whether they're a therapist or not. You've got some work to do.
posted by facetious at 8:03 PM on July 21, 2012 [3 favorites]

Therapy and support groups for people with self-injury issues are what you need. This isn't a cop-out any more than it would be a cop-out for us to tell someone who came here saying they were vomiting blood to see a doctor.

Your brain isn't functioning properly when it tells you that self-injury is an appropriate response to emotional stress. You need to deal with that directly, not get little hacks from people on the Internet.

Best of luck to you. It sounds like this is terribly challenging. I hope you can find the help you need to work through it.
posted by Sidhedevil at 8:03 PM on July 21, 2012 [2 favorites]

Tell your mother exactly what you have said here and tell her that you need to find new ways to interact and she needs to as well. I think this is something you have to do as you become an adult and deal with your parents differently. Sometimes it's organic and sometimes it's not.

My Dad has a terrible habit of guilting and cheerfully nagging people into doing things, which works because he's a lovely man and people generally want to please him (also he tends to be right, which just makes it more annoying). When I was about 22 I had to sit him down and tell him I hated it and it made me feel stressed and unhappy and fighty and, to his credit, he took me seriously and stopped doing it mostly. He was obviously a bit upset and sad that I had started to see spending time with him as unpleasant but he took it to heart and we have gotten along much better for years.

In general my family can be a pushy and insensitive lot, especially when they want someone they care about to do something and since I'm a bit more sensitive I have had to establish clear boundaries with all of them. This has occasionally involved not talking to people for a while and then re-introducing them in small doses. It's also involved me recognizing that I'm a grownup now with my own life and not letting stuff get to me they way it did when I was a teen and stuck in a house with them all. I maintain a distance (they are not always super helpful in a crisis so for example I don't look to them for general emotional support and back patting and I only approach them when I have specific requests which they are usually champs about helping me with) and it works for us all better.
posted by fshgrl at 8:09 PM on July 21, 2012 [3 favorites]

I cannot stress this enough, but please book an appointment with a psychologist in the area on Monday. Print the information that you have posted here and when the psychologist asks you "why are you here?" or any other variant of this question give them the paper with these very important questions.

The psychologist will be able to provide you with tools for how to interact with your mom and how to deal with what appears to be very extreme levels of happiness and the lower levels related to your self injury.

posted by livinglearning at 8:09 PM on July 21, 2012 [4 favorites]

To answer your question, some people deal with this by not having a relationship with the person that they cannot communicate with, or at the very least minimizing contact.

If you cannot interact with your mum without this level of emotion, then maybe you need to just take a break from interacting with her at all until you can work with a therapist on this issue. If you're worried about what she will think - well, it's YOUR sanity and health that you need to worry about. Stop worrying about hers for now.
posted by cabingirl at 8:23 PM on July 21, 2012 [6 favorites]

To answer your question, some people deal with this by not having a relationship with the person that they cannot communicate with, or at the very least minimizing contact.

This. At the very least, time away from people causes all sorts of things to reboot and recalibrate in a way that's not possible when you're around/in contact with each other all the time. A little distance gives you breathing room to actually work out ways of coping and communicating better. That intense feeling dissipates a great deal.
posted by heyjude at 8:32 PM on July 21, 2012 [4 favorites]

There was a time when I had an equally intense emotional response to my mom, although it wasn't cutting, it was depression - I'd sink into major episodes after talking to her, because she would tell me all her problems and I react by unconsciously absorbing them. They were deep, brutal episodes.

When I figured out the link, I told her that she could no longer tell me her problems, because I couldn't handle it, and that the alternative would be to not talk at all. She's mostly abided by the rule; and if she occasionally slips and starts into it, I remind her and she stops.

It worked because she was more scared of me cutting her out of my life than she was invested in using me as her therapist. Is the same true of your mom - i.e., would she modify her behavior if the alternative was you cutting her off? Because for many parents, this is their deepest fear, that their kids won't need them, won't want them, will go into the world and forget them.

I'd give it a shot... demand whatever change you need her to make.

I've also heard of therapies that are specifically for developing tools to deal with stress management and triggering situations and so forth, and it sounds like you could benefit from that as well.

Good luck. Moms are hard.
posted by fingersandtoes at 8:41 PM on July 21, 2012 [4 favorites]

What a difficult place to be in. I'm sorry that you are struggling with this and I really encourage you to get some help from others who can really understand the intensity of such emotions.

DBT is a form of cognitive therapy that you might want to look into. The techniques were developed by Marsha Linehan, who struggled with powerful emotions herself. This site has lots of the components available online, including techniques for emotion regulation.

You sound like an incredibly strong person who has done a tremendous job of handling your intense emotions for a long time. These techniques may give you the tools to manage your emotions so that self-harm won't be necessary to numb the pain. Best of luck.
posted by ajr at 8:42 PM on July 21, 2012 [8 favorites]

This is almost exactly what Dialectical Behavior Therapy was invented for. I also vote for seeing a psychologist of some sort - but Google "DBT" for advice you can start using tonight.
posted by SMPA at 8:42 PM on July 21, 2012

First, you sound insightful and very very brave. I agree with fingersandtoes. Moms are hard.

I came in to suggest Dialectical Behavior Therapy, which has helped me immensely in interpersonal skills, as well as in identifying and managing my emotions (they refer to it as emotion regulation). The biggest emotional tool it gave me is recognizing that anger is often a secondary emotion. This, coupled with figured out what the primary emotion usually is for me, allows me to step back and address the primary emotion. This takes a lot of practice, because often that primary emotion is replaced very very quickly. But I promise you, it is worth it to stop a conversation and say "I'm feeling embarassed right now that I didn't explain this well the first time. Can I try again so that I'm sure we're talking about the same thing?"

DBT does the very best thing, I think, in starting with learning to identify what is actually happening in the present moment, without dwelling on what happened in the past, or what might happen in the future. Sure, keeping realistic consequences in mind is good, but telling yourself that your mother is going to stop loving you if you express your anger (or the preceding disappointment/fear/guilt/whatever emotion) is not helping in the short or long term. Be aware that DBT was developed for people with a specific diagnosis, but turns out to be helpful for nearly everybody because it focuses on building skills that many people never are explicitly (or implicitly!) taught. Things like telling people "No" when they request something you don't want to do, or even asking others for help when you need or want it.

Next, I'd like to suggest some mother/daughter books. Learning how to be a woman is hard work, and it's usually our mothers who teach us the most. Our relationships with our mothers are the very first ones we form! They have huge impacts on us, and teach us how we should expect other people to treat us. No wonder you want to get a handle on your reaction to this relationship! I particularly like My Mother, Myself by Nancy Friday. Then, from a sociolinguist, a book from Deborah Tannen, You're Wearing That: a book about mothers and daughters in conversation. It will help you understand that the patterns of mother daughter conversation are just that, patterns. Identifying them before things get super heated will help you a lot. Finally, her book I only say this because I love you is great to discuss with your therapist for actually building the skills to have conversations with the adult family members in your life.

I strongly advise you not to tell your mother (or other family members) that you are reading books about improving communication with your mom. What moms will usually hear is this:

Mom, you suck at communicating and I'm going to teach you how to stop sucking at it. Here, let me tell you how you suck at communication!"

A great therapist once said to me, "people usually tell folks in relationships to talk it out. But they don't realize you've been talking to this person for years. What people need to do is learn how to talk better, because the way they've been talking their whole lives (actually, she said marriage, but same thing) isn't working.
posted by bilabial at 9:01 PM on July 21, 2012 [13 favorites]

Do you feel like you have all the tools but can't seem to use them? Perhaps there's room for discussion of meds with therapy. Not really an,in-the-moment solution, but I wante to throw it out there. My experience (with anxiety, not cutting) was that as much knowledge & tools as I gained inyears of therapy, I couldn't effectively apply situationally until I acquiesced to meds. The meds let me actually use the tools, and once I'd gotten comfortable with the new ways, I could function off meds. mind, Mom's still a hotspot...
posted by Ys at 10:43 PM on July 21, 2012

I guess I should say this upfront: I'm a mom (23 yr old daughter, 20 yr old son) and I'm distressed by how often and how quickly mefites recommend distancing oneself from family (including DTMFA) before exploring all the options. I'm glad that fingerandtoes and fshgrl have presented an alternative here.

I agree with those recommending therapy for you to deal with your extreme emotions in general and for some help dealing with your mother.

If you haven't already done so, I think that you should tell your mother what you have told us—perhaps show her this page. Choose your time carefully, i.e., not during or after a blow-up, preferably when you are feeling especially close. Having communication issues with those we love isn't unusual (in fact, it's probably the norm); not addressing the issues to the point that the relationship suffers is a loss for all involved.

Re bilabial's advice: I strongly advise you not to tell your mother (or other family members) that you are reading books about improving communication with your mom. What moms will usually hear is this: "Mom, you suck at communicating and I'm going to teach you how to stop sucking at it. Here, let me tell you how you suck at communication!"

I think this is a delivery issue. Perhaps some moms hear "you suck at communicating" because that's what the speaker really means when she says "I'm reading books about improving communication with Mom." Sometimes mom isn't being defensive or stupid when she reacts negatively to "innocent" remarks—sometimes she's just perceptive and knows bs when she hears it.

Good luck to you and your mom.
posted by she's not there at 10:52 PM on July 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

Sometimes people think their parents are the best in the world, but that's not entirely the case, and something else is going on that they'd rather not fully acknowledge or think about, or it's a really complex situation where the parent is awesome in many ways but hasn't acted in the child's best interest in other ways. Not dealing with this can cause all sorts of reactions.

Even if your mother really is the best ever, a therapist is a great way to start. You can "fire" them if you're not compatible. If your education is ongoing (i.e., you're in grad school), you may have access to excellent, MD-overseen, free therapy.

Best wishes!
posted by wintersweet at 10:56 PM on July 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

Two point I forgot to include 1) perhaps your therapist could recommend some books regarding communication that you and your mom could both read 2) mom might also want to see a therapist because it's not just mothers who are hard.
posted by she's not there at 10:58 PM on July 21, 2012

This sounds like it truly is a job for a therapist. Others have made great suggestions so I won't add to them.

I think you're working very hard to intellectualize the problem, if it is one, of your intense emotions. You're "highly educated", decorous, certainly not the type of person who would end up on Jerry Springer. Your intense emotions are all coming from you and it just unfortunately happens that your mother's communication style is at cross-purposes with yours in ways that make you feel in danger of being unable to contain yourself, and she is critical of everything you try to do to handle your unfortunate problem of self-regulation.

This has left you looking for destructive solutions in secret which are the only effective, and permitted, forms of relief you've found, but you want a better way.

I am not totally convinced that the problem is all yours. Your mother could be terrific in general, as you think she is, but could still have patterns of letting you down that are justly distressing to you and which come from failings in her rather than some kind of unfortunate miscommunication of her virtues. I think this is not as black and white as you are trying to make it. It would be easier if the problem were all yours, because then it would be 100% in your power to solve it without any input from your mother.

People here say DTMFA a lot (on skimming, I don't think anyone has quite said that yet) which can make the cure seem worse than the disease. If the choice is between cutting your mother out and cutting yourself, I can see why the latter would be the more attractive alternative, but I suspect that your perception that there must be a middle way, is right. I just don't agree that turning this into 100% your fault is that middle way. This is the kind of thing a professional can work through with you because they will have seen it before. Good luck.
posted by tel3path at 3:40 AM on July 22, 2012 [2 favorites]

I suspect that I don't know how to cope when emotions are extreme.

Your reactions are suitable for extreme emotions - death of a parent, spouse, or child; winning the lottery; catastrophic fire. The issue is that you should not be experiencing emotions this extreme over routine conflict. And unless your mother is subjecting you to a barrage of constant criticism to "help" or whatever, you've made this sound pretty routine.

You need to see a therapist. Someone with a background in self-harm will be well equipped to help you develop a better set of tools for dealing with this kind of triggering conflict, for coping with your emotions and for better steering your part of the dynamic with your mother.

Are you in Canada? Ireland? The UK? We can help you with more immediate resources if you would like to let a moderator know; they can update the thread on your behalf.
posted by DarlingBri at 4:58 AM on July 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

Get yourself to a therapist to see if they can diagnoise you. My friend was exactly like this and turned out she was bi-polar with manic depression.
posted by InterestedInKnowing at 5:50 AM on July 22, 2012

I find that any form of extreme physical effort will burn adrenalin off more quickly than just letting my liver sort it out on its own. Doesn't have to be a specifically anger-expressing effort. If I don't have space for a good hard walk up a steep hill, press-ups will do.
posted by flabdablet at 10:23 AM on July 22, 2012

Recognizing the loyalty and affection you express for your mother, may I suggest that the idea of "the best mother in the world" isn't a really useful one, and may be getting in the way of you being able to consider all the aspects of your relationship with her? Parents are human beings, and like all human beings they have their own needs, desires, weaknesses, failings, and misperceptions, which sometimes (and without any malice or harm intended) can wind up causing great difficulty and pain for their children.

my mum just told me that she is very irritated when I say I will return in 10 minutes and go punch a pillow

This stood out to me as being a possible example. IMO, if one person in a disagreement tells the other that they're starting to feel overwhelmed by emotion and need to go work it out physically or take a little while to get re-centered so that when they return they can actually deal honestly and constructively with the disagreement, it's not a good sign if the other person gets upset or tries to block that. Mileage may vary, of course, and this presumes that the first person is doing what they're doing honestly and not as a way of manipulating the second person.

It's almost never the case that a problem is because one person is being completely reasonable and the other person is being completely unreasonable. Please consider that your mother is also contributing to the negative and unhelpful patterns in your relationship, regardless of whether she intends to or recognizes that she's doing so.
posted by Lexica at 10:29 AM on July 22, 2012 [4 favorites]

I suspect that I don't know how to cope when emotions are extreme

Mmmm I think it's more that you don't know how to cope when emotions are extreme and go unacknowledged by the person engaging them. Not to mention you don't know how to cope when the person engaging your emotions is your parent and ignores/guilts/shames your requests to stop. Have you ever tried telling your mom that this behavior is hurting you (and you need it to stop)?

If avoiding screaming match behavior is your goal, then your mother needs to be on the same page, OR or you need to stop engaging with your mother in these situations WITHOUT being guilted/shamed for choosing to disengage. No one owes it to their parent to stand there and take their verbal abuse AND kill themselves inside enough to feel NO natural response. That sounds toxic. Just like friendships and romantic relationships, in a parental relationship, even if it's good 95% of the time, it doesn't magically cancel out the effects of the 5% they're not good. That 5% can make or break your health. Your mom can still be wonderful 95% of the time, AND "toxic" 5% of the time in how she communicates with you (assumes scream boarding with daughter has no impact on health). Note that it's only 5%... a far cry from you being 100% bad and her being 100% good.

IANAT, but I would recommend working on these goals with a therapist. Asserting yourself in situations with family members from which you want to disengage. Learning how to listen and validate this extreme part of yourself so that it doesn't have to mutilate you in order to feel acknowledged. Learning how to validate your emotions without shame, guilt, or relying on your mom to recognize your efforts.

I have had to swallow my anger whole. This means a lot more cuts and bruises from pinching

IMO these bruises and cuts are a testament to the pain you feel inside when someone you love is not acknowledging your needs (for dignity, recognition, and compassion). FWIW I don't think your emotions themselves are extreme; just extremely ignored when they need to be acknowledged the most.

I say this as an also highly educated 29 year old female with "extreme emotions". Feel free to Mefi mail me if you want to chat.
posted by human ecologist at 10:47 AM on July 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

I know some people who behave like your mom in a conflict. They feel threatened or disrespected by the other person's need to take a break, and try to make it out that a break from unresolved conflict is unacceptable.

What I am saying is, if you need a break, and the other person does things to make you feel bad about that and yourself, their behavior is contributing to the situation. They are attempting to assert their needs over yours.

Through therapy, you can learn to assert your own needs in firm and, eventually, polite ways.

Saying 'no' to someone out of self-respect is ok, and it's learnable.
posted by zippy at 1:06 PM on July 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

I'm sorry that you have a difficult relationship with your mother. As one who was once in a similar situation, I agree that mothers are hard. My first defense was distancing myself, both geographically and personally. Since your strongly-felt emotions come from interacting with your mother, then it will help if you stop interacting. Can you get a job in another place and move there? I also recommend that you let go of the notions that she is is "the best mother in the world" (she doesn't sound like it to me) and that the problem is all yours (I'll bet she's a big part of this situation). Most of all, please keep in mind that you are the most important person to be looking after at this point. Do all you can to be with people you like and who like you, people you are comfortable with. Eat well, exercise, rest. And pursue therapy. My thoughts and best wishes are with you.
posted by exphysicist345 at 1:35 PM on July 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

Hi There, first time poster delurking because your post really resonated with me having been through similar mother dramas (we talk, we yell, we feel awful about it) I am nthing therapy as a way to give you a safe space to look at the pattern that keeps playing out in your relationship with your mum, to identify the specific triggers, and to model new ways of coping in this situation.

Hurt and fear are often the primary emotions involved with anger. Your strong emotions are not “wrong” per se - they are telling you that something is not working, but they also seem to be intrusive, which is a good cue to address them. You’ve already identified and worked on breaking the habit of screaming at your mum, which is excellent on your part. Now you need to look at how you can disrupt the pattern when (or before) it starts so that you don’t go down the slippery slope and end up at feeling awful.

Relationships with mums are fraught with difficulty, because they’re our primary attachment relationship; but as we grow older, the boundaries can be difficult to negotiate. You’re an adult, and you’re entitled to have a relationship with your mum that reflects the fact that you’re both adults. That’s an adjustment for both of you, and it’s something that you both have to take responsibility for. For example, you have a right to take a time out during a heated discussion. Your mum has a right to be irritated by it, but that doesn’t mean you have to feel bad or guilty for taking that break *if that’s what you need to do to de-escalate the situation*

INAT, but I wonder if you have certain needs/wants that are not being met in your relationship with your mother which causes pain and frustration which you take our on yourself by self-harming? Therapy can be a good place to investigate which of your needs/wants are valid and how to get them met in an acceptable way and set boundaries to protect yourself.

From a self-mutilation/harm perspective, I’d also suggest doing as much as you can to be nice to yourself and treat yourself well. Imagine the 4 year old you. Would you pinch and hit her when she was upset, or would you wrap her up in a warm hug and tell her gently that everything was going to be OK? Addressing underlying anxiety/depression issues helps too - you may not have these, but paying attention to all the little things like getting enough sleep, eating healthily, exercising, having quality human contact makes a world of difference to your baseline ability to cope with difficult emotions.

The good news if that you don’t have to cut your mother our of your life, but as a smart, self-aware adult, you can exercise some control over how you interact. Times that you know will be especially stressful and anytime you’re HALT (hungry, angry, lonely, tired) are definitely times to avoid a situation where you might be triggered.

Also, for what it’s worth, I found talking with my mother about her relationship with her mother was really useful, as well as just accepting that we could be very different people and our relationship was special in itself because we were mother and daughter - we didn’t have to be best friends as well. (What a relief!)

Good Luck with it all.
posted by rockpaperdynamite at 5:48 AM on July 23, 2012 [1 favorite]

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