How to Get Through an Emotional Minefield
De-mining Your LifeIn real life, de-mining can be horrifically dangerous, costing limbs and lives. But these days, a small army of particularly effective de-miners is helping get the job done more safely. I mean an extremely small army. As in, each soldier weighs only a couple of pounds. They are giant African pouched rats, and please stop making that face; they're way cuter than they sound. Wearing jaunty little zip-line harnesses, paid only in bananas, they sniff out mines without detonating them. They're called HeroRATs, which is convenient for our purposes: RAT is an acronym that will help you remember how to defuse your own emotional land mines.
R is for RecognizeWe often mistake our emotional triggers for something that's wrong with the world, not with our own thinking. But you can't fix an error if you don't recognize it for what it is. If Mary had never seen how unreasonable her pessimism really was, she would have continued believing her future was utterly bleak. If Angie hadn't realized she was being dictatorial, she'd probably be blaming her family for their hypersensitivity. If Shauna had never identified her conversational awkwardness as an acquired behavior she could modify, she'd never have learned to relax and relate.
Fortunately, even though we rarely understand what's really happening in our minefields, we often have some awareness that they exist. If you find yourself wondering, "Why do I always [talk too much at parties/snap at my sister/scream at other drivers even though it never helps and often gets me arrested]?" you've probably got psychological explosives hidden just below conscious awareness. Recognizing this, you can get down to dealing with dangerous emotional triggers.
A if for AnalyzeAnalyzing unwanted behavior uncovers the emotion that triggers it in certain situations or relationships. Therapy is a great way to get help understanding your triggers, but you can help yourself in a pinch. First, remember the last time you found yourself doing that thing, that stupid or cruel or embarrassing thing you always do. Then, slowing the memory way, way down, ask yourself these questions:
1. What was I feeling right before I began acting badly?
Give this some time, and be honest. You were probably experiencing an emotion you devalue, such as anger or fear. Be kind to yourself, and let the emotion surface.
2. What thoughts do I associate with that feeling?
For Mary, feeling hopeful brought on waves of anxiety, and thoughts like "Don't get a big head!" and "Look at Miss Too-Big-for-Her-Britches!" Angie felt a rigid anger at home, along with thoughts like "Harden up, dammit! Don't be so weak!" When Shauna thought about engaging in conversation, she felt despair and thought, "Nobody likes me" and "People think I'm weird."
3. When did these thoughts begin?
You may remember a specific trauma-drama, or you may have so many painful memories that they all blend together. But you'll remember the general social context—what was happening, who was there, and how you got hurt.
4. Do I want to keep re-creating that trauma?
Honestly, do you really want the meanest, ickiest people in your history to keep dominating your life? Your narcissistic mother, your pompous father, the mean girls at your high school? I didn't think so.