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Two Tasks to Do When You’re Overwrought


When we’re emotionally overwrought, we have two tasks facing us. The first is to manage our feelings and the second is to solve a problem that our emotions have called to our attention. For effective mental health, we must do both tasks well. 

Here are examples of what we do wrong:

  1. Your 8-year-old daughter won’t do her homework. This has been happening a lot lately since her father moved out. You yell at her to get it done and tell her you’re taking away her TV privileges for a week if she doesn’t.
  2. Your mother keeps nagging you on the phone to see her beyond your weekly visit. Overwhelmed from having begun a new job, you coldly remind her how busy you are, that you have no time to visit her this week, then hang up.
  3. Your boss criticizes nearly everything you do. In response, you slack off whenever she criticizes you, which only causes her to come down harder on you.

You can’t problem-solve effectively when the thinking and planning part of your brain is offline which is what happens when you’re highly emotional. Your emotion is there to tell you that there is a problem, which is not the emotion itself which is only passing on information. So follow these steps: 

  • First, take a moment to identify what emotion you’re feeling and try to re-regulate.
  • Second, identify what the problem is (hint: it’s not what you’re feeling) 
  • Third, figure out how to solve the problem.  

For instance, in example #1, at that moment, the mother’s frustration with her daughter isn’t the problem. It’s getting her daughter to do her homework. In example #2, the problem in the moment isn’t that the daughter feels overwhelmed. It’s how to manage her relationship acknowledging her mother’s needs and her own. In example #3, the problem isn’t the worker’s annoyance at being criticized, but how to do his job and have an effective working relationship with his boss.

To often we’re reactive and think the problem is getting rid of the uncomfortable feeling we’re having. That’s where we go wrong. The emotion is only there to signal us that there is a problem. How we feel is simply information about what’s happening in our environment. Sulking or yelling or walking out in the middle of an argument is not solving the problem. Feeling hurt is not the problem that needs immediate attention.  The problem is outside of you. Try following the steps above and see if you become better at problem-solving.