So for the past couple of weeks, I have just been so irritable. Then I got really bad allergies and got even more irritable (feeling sick is never a good place to operate from). What I realised though, is that because I was aware of my general irritability, I was able to not lash out as much at other people around me. I would feel the irritability rising and say to myself, “Is this person irritating me or am I more irritable than usual inside?’ The answer most of the time is that it was me, not the other person. By asking this question I was giving myself the opportunity to monitor my reactions and change them to responses instead.
Thinking this through I realised that having a greater self-awareness can really help in the way I react and respond to people around me. It can make coexisting with others more peaceful and it would definitely stop me from hurting people I care about because of my unstable moods and emotions. For example, if I am in a low mood and my housemate cheerily greets me in the morning I don’t need to grumble or ignore her I can acknowledge to myself that I am feeling low but respond appropriately with a good morning back. I don’t have to lie and put on a fake smile but by being self-aware I stop myself from snapping at her instead. I am sure she appreciates this and it helps me not push people away.
So, in theory, this sounds really simple but anyone who has tried to control their responses and actions can tell you it is not easy and becoming more self-aware is even harder. I have learned that many of my reactions and actions are very much linked to how I am feeling inside. If I am irritable my responses will be short and harsh, if I am feeling low my responses will be almost non-existent and if I am anxious my responses will be redirects and often not make sense. The trick for becoming more self-aware is to start to listen to and understand your body and emotions.
This takes time, I had to figure out what my body was telling me and try to connect it to various emotions. It took years of trial and error and talking to others, even today I don’t recognise everything perfectly and I will probably never be completely self-aware but I am better at knowing more and understanding more in my body. Being open to listening to my body and emotions opens me up to becoming more self-aware and gives me more control over my responses.
I am by no means an expert but here are some of the things I did to help me:
- Learn the various emotions – So here I made a list of emotions. I categorised them into six primary ones and then populated the list underneath each of these. My 6 primary emotions were; love; joy; anger; sadness; fear; and shame. Once I had these I put emotions like irritation and frustration under anger, hurt and depressed under sadness and anxiety and panic under fear. This gave me a list of emotions to start with.
- Name your emotions – If you are anything like me then you have probably struggled to put names to your emotions as well. This step took quite a bit of research. I asked other people how they knew what they were feeling, I looked up different emotions and situations that brought on those emotions for other people. I also put an hourly timer on my phone and every time it went off I would try to name the emotion I was currently feeling. This gave me information and practice to name my own emotions.
- Learn how your body responds – I thought this would be simple but sometimes my body’s reaction to a specific emotion is so subtly different I had to start taking numerous things into account. When I felt an intense emotion I would stop and do a quick grounding exercise. Starting at my toes I would move up my body just noticing how each part of my body felt. Was my stomach rumbling, were my fists closed, did I feel nauseous, was I clenching my teeth, did my face look redder, had my temperature increased or decreased. I would then take into consideration the circumstance that had triggered the emotion and try to connect the likely emotion to my body’s reaction
- Put it all together – Here is the final part, once you have made your lists and figured out how your body reacts to certain feelings you can start looking at your body even when you are unsure what you are feeling, once you can figure out what you are feeling you can work it backwards and realise maybe what bought up the emotion for you. Then you can decide if you are feeling something internally like anger because of something else that is happening or if the current situation is making you angry and respond appropriately. Now you can work up and down your information slide and become more self-aware. This helps us to respond instead of react.
So, the final thing I’m going to throw out there before I leave is about responding versus reacting. I never knew there was even a difference before a mentor of mine sat me down and explained. She said to me, when I react I am not thinking, I am not pausing and taking a moment, I am simply coming back with a reaction before my brain has caught up. Responding, on the other hand, is when my brain leads. It has stopped, thought about everything and decided on the most appropriate response instead of just a quick reaction. This has saved me from getting into a lot of hot water at times and has helped me become more self-aware in the moment instead of just making apologies to people later.
I know it’s hard when you have a mental illness that makes your moods swing from one side of the spectrum to the other but everything I wrote is something that has helped me keep the peace in my friendships and not push people away as quickly. In the end, it comes down to thinking before we speak and sometimes that is really hard. Good luck and please share any other tips you might have in the comments.