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  • Writer's pictureNathalie Cordell

Mastering Your Emotional Tigers: How to Regulate Difficult Feelings

 
Close up of a tiger's face, orange eyes looking straight into the camera
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We've all been there - overwhelmed by powerful emotions like anger, sadness, or anxiety. While these feelings are natural and innate parts of being human, we often struggle with how to relate to them skillfully. Intense negative emotions can lead us to act in ways we later regret. So we often take the typical approach of repressing, or trying to make difficult emotions go away.


But wisdom traditions, psychology and modern neuroscience agree - this tendency to bottle up our emotional "tigers" can have serious negative consequences on our physical and psychological health.


So instead of trying to avoid, stifle or otherwise control our emotions, the key to physical and psychological well-being is to learn how to regulate difficult emotions effectively.



 

Understanding the Nature of Emotions


According to neuroscientist Lisa Feldman Barrett[1], emotions are not inherently good or bad - they are neutral physiological states. It's our perception and judgement that leads us to view certain emotions as positive or negative.

At their core, emotions arise from combinations of physical sensations that we interpret as comfortable or uncomfortable based on our past experiences. We label these sensations with emotion words like "anger," "fear," or "joy." However, the physiological experience itself is value-neutral.


The Problem with Repressing Emotions


When we're gripped by an intense "negative" emotion like rage or despair, the instinct may be to fight it, repress it, or make it go away. However, whilst attempting to stop or repress emotions can seem like a good idea in the moment, it is not a solution in the long-run. often backfires.

Woman lying on a bed, looking flat
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Research shows that repressing or intentionally inhibiting the outward expression of emotions can endanger our physical health[2],[3]. A review by Pennebaker and colleagues in 1997 demonstrated that individuals who repress their emotions also suppress their body's immune function, making them more vulnerable to a variety of illnesses ranging from common colds to cancer.

Another key consequence of repressing emotions is increased stress levels. Recently, researchers have looked into the effects of continual suppression of emotion in the workplace. Cote (2005) found that ongoing repression leads to elevated stress for employees using this strategy. Stress from repressing emotions can cause increased heart rate, anxiety, low job commitment and other effects detrimental to workplace productivity and well-being.


The Demand for Expression


Emotions are forms of energy - by resisting them, we only stifle their natural flow and they end up expressing themselves in unhealthy, unregulated ways.

In his book ‘The act of will’[4], Psychosynthesis pioneer Roberto Assagioli describes the ten non-negotiable laws that govern the relationships between our various psychological functions (sensations, emotions, impulses or desires, thoughts, imagination and intuition). Whilst we can regulate these functions through the power of our will, we are still subject to the laws. And one of these laws is that “urges, drives, desires and emotions tend and demand to be expressed”.

Man screaming
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When we try to resist or repress these core psychological energies through one function (say our emotions), they find their way out through other functions. We may find ourselves replaying imaginary conversations, fantasizing about alternative endings to vent our emotions, or having emotionally loaded dreams. Or we may engage in unconsciously compulsive behaviour such as nail biting, over eating or drinking, mindless scrolling, overworking or other distraction strategies.


In ‘What we may be’[5], Piero Ferrucci dedicates a whole chapter to the notoriously powerful emotion of anger, or ‘aggressive energy’ as he calls it. He named the chapter "tigers of wrath", a befitting title to describe intense emotions as that demand to be felt and find an outlet. By bottling them up, we're essentially caging a tiger, and only cause them to re-emerge in unregulated, destructive ways.

Instead of bottling emotions up, the healthier approach is to allow them to move through us while consciously relating to them in a more skillful way. This is where proven techniques for emotional regulation can help. Assagioli outlined three key methods for allowing psychological energies like difficult emotions to find expression:

  • Catharsis - Directly expressing and releasing the energy (in a non-harmful way) e.g. punching a boxing bag for anger.

  • Symbolic action - Expressing the energy indirectly through metaphor e.g. writing, art, physical activity.

  • Transmutation - Transforming the raw energy into a higher form e.g. sadness into creativity, anger into constructive service.


Introducing the Saboteur and the Sage


One effective framework for emotional mastery comes from the work of Shirzad Chamine on Positive Intelligence (PQ)[6]. Chamine identifies inner "saboteurs" - harsh self-critics that tend to exacerbate and prolong negative emotional states. These are the voices in our head that tell us that we shouldn't feel that way or we should just get over it and move on. Though seemingly for our own good, these voices only amplify our inner turmoil. For example:

  • The Judge saboteur makes us feel guilty or ashamed about feeling angry.

  • The Controller saboteur leaves us feeling frustrated with our frustration.

  • The Victim saboteur has us ruminate endlessly on injustices, unable to let go.


Woman meditation by water in the lotus position
Photo by Le Minh Phuong on Unsplash


Through self-awareness, we can notice these saboteurs inflaming difficult emotions - judging them, trying to control or suppress them. We then have a choice - to let the saboteur take over and act impulsively, or to shift into the wise "Sage" perspective that allows us to respond more constructively.

The Sage recognizes the emotional energy (the inner "tiger") with acceptance and compassion. From this grounded presence, we can make a conscious choice - to let the tiger rage through catharsis, symbolic action or transmutation, or to breathe, relax our bodily tension, and let it loosen its grip.




Building Your Emotional Regulation Skillset


Here are some key practices for regulating difficult emotions in a healthier and harmless way[6],[7],[8]:

  1. Recognize and label the emotion without judgment. Let go of the storyline by pausing and noticing the physical sensations arising (e.g. tightness in chest, flushed face). Then simply name the emotion: "I'm feeling anger right now." This mindful awareness helps create separation between you and the emotional experience.

  2. Notice any saboteur voices like the Judge, Victim, or Controller inflaming the emotion with criticism and question their credibility and narratives. Ask yourself: Is the Judge's harsh criticism valid or just an old tape playing? Is the Victim's story of persecution truly serving me?

  3. Practice PQ "reps" to activate the Sage perspective. Take some calming breaths, relax your body, and choose how you'd like to respond to the situation from a place of wisdom.

  4. Choose a way to express the emotion's energy in a healthy way. Go for a walk or exercise, write in a journal, or talk it through with a supportive listener. Find safe outlets to process and release difficult emotions.

  5. Use positive self-talk. Replace negative internal monologues with reassuring thoughts: “This feeling is temporary. I have the wisdom to deal with this skillfully.”

 

 

Mastering our emotional "tigers" is an ongoing journey of self-awareness, self-compassion, and the wisdom to let difficult feelings arise and find expression through healthy outlets. As Canadian psychologist Greenberg discusses in his book on Emotion-Focused Therapy (EFT):

"People do not change their emotions simply by talking about them, by understanding their origins, or by changing beliefs. Instead, people change emotions by accepting and experiencing them, by juxtaposing them with different emotions to transform them, and by reflecting on them to create new narrative meaning."

With patience and practice, even the most turbulent emotions can be navigated with resilience and grace. Our inner tigers don't need to be caged - they just need to be given room to breathe and move.


 

To learn more about me or how I work, check out my website (cordellcoaching.com) and feel free to connect on LinkedIn or Facebook.

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[1] Feldman Barrett, L. (2017). How emotions are made: The secret life of the brain. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

[2] (2024). The Emotions Expert: The Lies You Believe About Emotions Are Destroying Your Relationships.  The Knowledge Project Podcast. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jORaNMIGiok

[3] Patel, Jainish & Patel, Prittesh. (2019). Consequences of Repression of Emotion: Physical Health, Mental Health and General Well Being. International Journal of Psychotherapy Practice and Research. 1. 16-21. 10.14302/issn.2574-612X.ijpr-18-2564. 

[4] Assagioli, R., (1973). The act of will. Harmondsworth: Penguin books

[5] Ferrucci, P. (2018). What we may be: Techniques for psychological and spiritual growth through psychosynthesis. Tarcher/Penguin.

[6] Chamine, S. (2012). Positive intelligence: Why only 20% of teams and individuals achieve their true potential and how you can achieve yours. Austin, TX: Greenleaf Book Group Press

[7] Linehan, M. M. (2014). DBT skills training manual. Guilford Publications.

[8] Greenberg, L. S. (2015). Emotion-focused therapy: Coaching clients to work through their feelings. American Psychological Association.

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