Once while driving I reached down to turn on the radio for some music, only to discover the radio was already on. I had done this a few times before. Curious this time, I paused and backtracked what I had been thinking and feeling. I realized I was anxious and looking to be distracted from my own thoughts. We do this in ways big and small: When we feel depressed, sad, or bad in some way, we seek something that will make us feel different. The list of things that can do this for us are both varied and personal, healthy and unhealthy.
Feeling feelings is not the same as being more emotional. Instead it can be viewed as an important skill to build the emotional competence needed to live more fully. A starting point can be noticing the feelings that accompany boredom or the thoughts that preceded your anger. The next step would be to explore what is below the anger or what you might be trying to not feel when bored.
Unease—an uncomfortable feeling, a nagging thought that something is not right, maybe even some anxiety and depression—may be our friend. It may be a wise part of ourselves telling us a change is needed or a change is coming, a recognition that what used to work in our life no longer does. We might wrongly identify the bad feeling as the problem, rather than uncovering the true problem, that is, the act of trying not to feel bad.
There is a benefit in just pausing and acknowledging a disquieting thought or an uncomfortable emotion. For example, you get home from work and the first thing you want to do is have a drink. Or you have a conflict with a loved one and you have a strong urge to isolate and play video games for hours. Having a drink or playing video games is not necessarily bad. However, drinking to relax or playing games to avoid a difficult conversation could be.
When you find yourself doing something in order to feel different, the first step is to pause and take notice of it: not to deny yourself, but just stop and acknowledge that you might be trying to avoid an uncomfortable thought or emotion. Next, take a deep breath and quiet yourself. Then identify the feeling, if that helps. Follow this with feeling the feeling without judging it or trying to talk yourself out of it. Maybe it is a feeling of anxiety or fear or anger. Underneath that, maybe sadness or shame. Briefly pausing can do wonders, and then have your drink or obsessively play video games if you still want to.
Or perhaps you no longer need to and go on to something else. It can be transformative to insert a layer of self-reflection between the uncomfortable emotion and the action intended to avoid feeling it. The pause is a great first step and may well be enough to change your relationship with your inner self as you seek progress, not perfection.
Life progress comes with advancing our self-awareness. Fundamentally this means working from the inside out in order to feel better, by learning to both observe your own thinking and to feel your feelings. With practice, you recognize that you are the “thought creator,” and that emotions can be an indicator of the quality of those thoughts. Steven Hayes, a professor of psychology at the University of Nevada at Reno points out, “Your ability to tolerate uncomfortable emotions is probably the broadest single psychological concept we know how to change, and with the biggest impact.”1
Important “Pause Steps”:
1. Notice the disquieting thought or emotion;
2. Ask yourself, What am I feeling? or What am I trying to avoid feeling?;
3. Feel it/sit with it momentarily; and
4. Proceed or do something else that is uplifting.
The stoic cop, man or women, is neither good or bad—not better or worse than those who are more expressive. For all cops, mental and emotional progress is becoming more emotionally aware. We can have it both ways, a healthy emotional life where we recognize our feelings and express them in the settings of our choosing, and at the same time manage and control our emotions on the job and elsewhere. This can be achieved by practicing acknowledging emotions and managing your thinking.
Bottom line: The distress signals are designed to get your attention. They are your trusted partner.
1. Scott, Paul John. “The Male Mind: From Worrier to Warrior.” Men’s Health, Dec. 2011, pp. 108–113.