Sometimes, being a person is like piloting a sailboat on a huge ocean of emotions. Sometimes, the wind and water are calm enough that we hardly notice they’re there. Sometimes they’re even so quiet it’s hard for the boat to get anywhere. Other times, there are storms and hurricanes that seem like they might capsize the boat completely. But if you can adjust the sails and steer the boat carefully, you can make it through.
One powerful technique for doing that is called shifting emotions. The basic steps—adapted from Dr. Julia Colwell—for doing that are laid out below.
Part One: Being with the Sensation
The first step is to observe what’s happening in your body. Scan through your body, checking in with each part, and try to identify whether you’re experiencing any particular tightness, looseness, difference in temperature, or pain. Some people find this easier to do while standing or moving, while for others it’s easier sitting or lying down.
This first step may be challenging for people with gender dysphoria or chronic pain issues, as checking in with some parts of the body may create extra distress. Try to skip over those parts if you can, and focus on the parts that don’t necessarily trigger that distress.
Once you’ve assessed your sensations, try to identify the sensation that stands out the most. Accept that that sensation exists, and just breathe and observe it for a little while, without trying to change or judge it. You are likely to find that you have automatically tried to contain the sensation; instead, let it expand to whatever size it “wants” to be. Don’t worry; it won’t explode or take over!
Part Two: Communicating the Emotion
Try to label the sensation with one or more basic emotions: anger, sadness, fear, happiness, or desire. The Basic Emotions Cheat Sheet might help you connect those feelings to specific sensations.
Next, try to identify what message the emotion is carrying. Remember, every emotion is a sort of alarm—a signal to yourself about your current situation (or a past situation you’re being reminded of). What about the current situation triggered that signal? What is it trying to tell you? For example, anger might be trying to tell you that you’re being treated unfairly or that you’ve encountered an obstacle. Again, the Basic Emotions Cheat Sheet covers the kinds of situation that most commonly trigger each emotion.
Remember, the emotion might be telling you something about the current situation, or it might be telling you it reminds you of a past situation. You might be getting angry because you’re being treated unfairly, or you might be getting angry because you’re reminded of a time in the past you were treated unfairly. Try to identify whether your emotion is accurate to the present situation or rooted in a past one.
Be specific! Don’t stop with “I’m angry because I’m perceiving something unfair.” What is happening that’s unfair?
Part Three: Moving the Emotion
Once you’ve identified what the emotion is trying to tell you, resume observing the sensation. Breathe into it, and watch it until it moves away or changes into something else. This will often happen fairly quickly after you identify the message: the emotion has done its job and can move on.
The final step is to take a moment to appreciate your body for communicating the information to you. It’s possible that the message was something you already know, and that’s okay. It’s still evidence the emotion is doing its job, and will be there when you need it. Accept the message and thank the emotion for its work. And if it was something you hadn’t realized consciously, that’s great! That’s what emotions are there for.
Try practicing this technique next time you’re experiencing strong or difficult to identify emotions. It takes a little time at first, but with practice it can become a quick and effective way to deal with emotions in the moment.