I have never flown a plane. I haven’t a clue what any of those thousands of switches in the cockpit actually do. Despite this, there is a little control freak part of me that would rather I was up the pointy end of the plane pulling on the controls, rather than sitting in cattle class listening to instructions on how to inflate my life-jacket.
Whenever I am on a plane, I am forced to deal with all sorts of uncomfortable emotions. There’s the disappointment of only getting six cashews in my bag of nuts, there’s the annoyance of having the child behind me confuse my seat with a soccer ball and then there is that gnawing fear of death.
When an emotion like fear appears in a situation which is outside our sphere of influence, our minds can easily become extremely reactive. I find all sorts of thoughts popping in to my head. What if the pilot has a heart attack? What if the engines stop working? What if someone has to identify my body and I am wearing these awful track pants?
Rationally, I understand that flying is far safer than driving a car and that the pilots are highly trained professionals and some super-brainy aeronautical engineers have done all the sums and figured out how to keep a 500-ton tin can airborne for 16 hours. But does my reactive mind want to hear any of that? Nope. It wants to grab hold of the controls.
Given that the cockpit is very well barricaded, I must however explore alternate options. The simplest one is to keep buying into my reactive mind, which by now is recounting every plane disaster movie I have ever seen from Con Air to Snakes on a Plane to that one where the rugby team crash on a mountain and end up having to eat each other. This however is a fairly dark path and as much as the chair-kicking kid behind me is annoying, I’m quite anti-cannibalism.
Another convenient way to ease my emotional discomfort would be to order lots of those tiny little bottles of liquor from the drinks trolley. This however is not a great go-to. In fact, using alcohol to avoid uncomfortable emotions is a strategy which has an incredibly horrible track record.
Alternatively, I could tell my reactive mind to shut-up, tell myself to stop being such a wuss and then try to distract myself with movies for the next 15 hours. Unfortunately, this approach falls down on a number of levels. Firstly, my reactive mind doesn’t tend to comply when I tell it to shut up. Secondly, harsh self-talk won’t make me feel any better. Thirdly, there seems to be an awful lot of movies with Adam Sandler in them and I am just not going to do that to myself.
Thankfully, there is an alternative to all these ineffective avoidance strategies. I could do something radically different and actually feel the feeling. I could start by exploring it, working out what it really is and putting a name to it. What am I feeling? It’s not just fear, it’s also a certain impotence at not having control and an unease at being locked up in such an unnatural environment, hurtling through the air at 1000 kph.
For a human who doesn’t like being couped up and didn’t pay any attention in physics class, these seem like pretty natural emotions to be having. I then explore further, examining the values connected with these emotions. I value life and freedom and joy. My emotions are telling me “you should be out running around on a mountain top, not inside this contraption, which could run into a mountain top and leave you with an uncomfortable decision about cannibalism.”
The thing we must all understand about emotions is that they are messengers. They want their message heard. If we keep trying to avoid their message, they will keep trying increasingly hard to deliver it. When we actually explore our emotions and work out what they are saying, we honour, process and integrate our experience. This can calm the reactive mind and make such emotions far less overwhelming, dangerous or persistent.
Rather than try to instantly get rid of these emotions, I can allow myself to sit with them, while offering myself a little self-compassion. After all, none of these emotions are bad (no matter how uncomfortable they may feel). They are telling me things about myself which are quite normal. I am a human being. There are thing I truly care about. I value life. I like my freedom. I don’t want to chomp on my fellow passengers.
I don’t have to try to ignore these emotions, get rid of them or douse them in alcohol. Instead I can practise some simple mindfulness, focusing on my breathing and bringing kindness to the areas in my body where those uncomfortable emotions sit. Gradually, I can release these areas of tension and return to a more relaxed and centred state.
Eventually, I can flick through the movies and find one which doesn’t involve Adam Sandler. And if we hit a patch of turbulence, I can welcome back those emotions and treat them to a little more mindfulness.
Grabbing control to get away from uncomfortable emotions
Emotions such as apprehension and fear are not comfortable. Any course of action that allows us to avoid such emotions may seem very attractive. If we are apprehensive about a junior colleague making a mistake, we might step in and do the job for them. If we are fearful of something happening to a child on the walk to school, we may drive them instead.
Of course, when we care greatly about someone or something, these emotions can be much more intense. We become more apprehensive, more fearful and more likely to try to step in and take control.
But just because we can take control, it doesn’t always mean we should. If we spend all our time rushing around trying to problem-solve the world and avoid uncomfortable emotions, it becomes an extremely tiresome, demanding and mind-wreckingly boring way to live. If we are always stepping in, we might also earn a label that no one really likes: control freak.
Control freaks take all forms. There are micro-managers, helicopter parents, tennis dads, pageant mums, frequent texters, back-seat drivers, bridezillas, groomzillas, perfectionistic party hosts and those who completely over-plan their holidays. For all of us, there are moments where we might become a bit of a control freak. With our reactive minds running the show, we will go to great lengths to make sure nothing goes wrong and that there are no uncomfortable emotions to deal with.
Learn life’s most useful skill
Learning to manage uncomfortable emotions is a life skill that comes in even more handy than knot-tying, juggling or being able to put together a really flash PowerPoint presentation. Learn this life skill and you may experience a number of incredibly impressive benefits:
1. You break the cycle of stress and worry
When we try to avoid uncomfortable emotions, we go around and around in circles. While we may be successful in avoiding emotions such as fear or unease for a short while, very soon they come back around, more determined to pass on their message. As a result, we end up experiencing ever-growing amounts of stress and worry.
As we seek to avoid these emotions, we may also resort to unhealthy coping strategies which only add to our problems. Avoidance strategies never work in the long term and tend to result in greater distress and suffering. They may lead to a drinking problem, a gaming addiction or the acquisition of an entirely useless collection of dolphin figurines from eBay.
2. You unburden yourself of excessive responsibility.
Overstretched? Time-poor? Struggling to keep on top of it all? In the ridiculously fast-paced lives we lead, trying to control that extra thing can come at a significant cost. It’s a simple equation: the more we try to control, the more exhausted we will be.
Perhaps that school run will eat up an hour. Not delegating that job could mean staying back late. So, what do you really want to devote your limited resources to? While giving up control may mean you encounter some uncomfortable emotions, it can also free you to pursue your values and do more of those things that really enrich your life.
3. You build better relationships
Maybe someone you know is sick of walking on eggshells, tired of responding to endless worried texts, or simply not sure how to tell their dad that they don’t share his dream of winning Wimbledon. Being around a control freak is hard work.
People who struggle to manage difficult emotions easily find themselves caught up in a highly reactive state, doing things which are not in line with their personal values. They may broadcast their stress, amplify it and pass it on to all those around them.
Often their attempts to exert control backfire. Others may respond by feeling untrusted, resentful or like their own judgement is being questioned. The simple fact is that most of us desire friends, colleagues, partners and parents who are kind, understanding and accepting. Very few of us want to be around highly stressed, control freaks who are in constant conflict with their emotions.
4. You expand your world beyond the comfort zone
It is entirely possible to spend your life fortifying your comfort zone, surrounding it with thick walls and a crocodile-filled moat. But as cosy as it may be, this comfort zone is a rather small and uninspiring place.
To make the most of this one precious life, we need to step outside the comfort zone, experience vulnerability and contend with challenging emotions. It is only by doing so that we can learn, grow, create and become resilient.
When we stop being scared of uncomfortable emotions, we actually experience far more freedom. We can bravely explore new opportunities, live life more authentically and know that we are very well-equipped to bounce back from any hardships that may befall us.