A little while ago, I was entering a Starbucks when I heard a woman screaming on the street. At first, I thought she needed help, or something terrible had happened. Tears exploded from her eyes, leaving a wet trail of black on her cheeks. Her voice was filled with anger as she spewed into the phone about how disrespected she felt. As people watched her public meltdown on east 74th Street in New York City, some stared or shook their heads. Others seemed unaffected, while some appeared concerned. I expected to see a camera crew trailing from behind, hoping to capture her high-voltage emotional performance, but none were present. This wasn’t a reality show, but rather plain old reality in, sadly, what has become a common occurrence.
Once, showing some public display of affection was considered eyebrow lifting. It wasn’t unheard of for a pre-Botox generation to be taken-aback if they spotted a passionate couple holding hands, lips permanently stuck together. But over the past few years, PDA has loudly, and offensively, morphed into PDE, public display of emotion.
“We’ve become inundated in what appears to be strong or big emotions. It seems there’s a baseline acceptance of these inappropriate expressive displays that people feel entitled to show publicly, whether their emotions match the situation or not,” says Amanda Itzkoff, MD, a psychopharmacologist and an assistant professor at Mount Sinai.
According to Marc Brackett, Ph.D., director at the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, the reason for many people’s lack of emotional intelligence is simple: We never learned the skills.
“There’s no formal education on how to handle our emotions,” he says. “We haven’t had the opportunity to learn about our emotional life in a systematic way. We’ve learned through happenstance and by watching our parents and people in public or on TV.”
Plus, we’ve never received feedback; so many of us don’t know what’s effective and what isn’t.
“If you see your parents yelling at each other, then that’s the example you have,” Brackett adds. “Unless you have outside information to compare it to, you can grow up thinking yelling is the norm.”
As a spew and purge nation, we are bombarded by examples of bad behavior, from confessional posts and tweets on the Internet, to the countless reality shows that exploit and reward tantrums and outbursts. These activities break our emotional barometer. They grant us permission by insisting poor conduct is OK.
“There’s a new lack of discretion,” agrees Charles Coletta, a lecturer of pop culture and media at Bowling Green College. “The media promotes these bad behaviors, while reality TV is turning civilians into cartoon characters. Our emotions are becoming entertainment to a lot of people. Emotionally reserved has been replaced with spilling your guts on the street, on a plane, or your office… to anyone, anywhere.”
The Internet is both friend and foe as it seduces our ‘click, snap, post’ everything compulsion. YouTube especially is littered with videos, many of which have garnered four or five million views of people screaming, hitting and raging at each other, sometimes over a wrongly filled fast food order or a snagged parking space. Not only have these situations occurred, and people filmed them, strangers who weren’t there want to watch.
The fallout from this outburst epidemic is two-fold. Because so many people’s emotional reactions don’t match their situation, onlookers, coworkers, even friends are having trouble identifying those who are truly upset, say by a death or an injury, with those who are crying over a bad haircut. As more people become inappropriately vocal, others are becoming emotionally anorexic, withdrawn and desensitized.
“The real problem is people are losing human connection,” Itzkoff says. “Because we’ve become immune to people’s tantrums and outbursts, people are just watching, instead of interacting.”
The other concern is our inability to emotionally manage our daily lives, and resolve basic problems.
Related: Working with Strong Emotions
“It’s not a mood disorder, but rather a displacement of someone’s mood that’s overriding their judgment,” Itzkoff continues. “We’ve lost self-soothing and coping mechanisms to effectively express what we’re upset about, and how we could use assistance.”
Everyone falls prey to this, myself included.
Last year, during Black Friday, I found myself at the Gap, lost in a mound of holiday shoppers with a line that went around the store. The second floor was void of sales associates and registers remained unattended. I’d already flagged down the manager on the first floor to suggest he send help upstairs. He agreed to. Ten minutes later, the registers remained deserted. Hot, sweaty, frustrated and now running late, I leaned over the balcony, like Norma Desmond bellowing for her Max, and called for the manager, demanding to know why no one was in charge, and didn’t they want to make the sale?
Many customers applauded, others nodded that I was correct; a few whispered to their friend—that I probably needed a Valium. And there’s the mixed message.
Clearly, I could have handled this better. I knew that seconds later when remorse and foolishness flooded my system. But rather than feel embarrassed, many feel justified and entitled in these situations to react and behave unbecomingly.
Specialists, who believe there is value to opening up and releasing pent up feelings, admit the mental and physical benefits in doing so are getting lost.
“Expressing and regulating your emotions in any relationship isn’t about squashing your emotions,” says Robin Stern, a psychoanalyst and Associate Director at the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence. “It’s about recognizing that you’re triggered, then pausing to calm down, so that you can choose the best way to say what you want to the person you’re talking to, in a way that they can receive it; beyond just hearing your anger.”
When we can’t regulate or control our moods and we don’t have helpful strategies, we often become irrational. Our capacity to problem solve diminishes. In this heightened state, we’re only focused on our feelings: anger, hurt, resentment, “and on illuminating the injustice we feel, rather than focusing on solving the problem,” Brackett adds. “In this emotional place, we tend to focus on what the target did to hurt our feelings, rather than on being our best possible selves.”
When you want to handle your emotions, and the situation, try these researched, proven-effective, cognitive strategies to keep you cool, calm and composed.
Become your personal best.
Whatever role you’re in—best friend, boss, daughter—visualize a positive, compassionate image of yourself. “Evoking an ideal self-image diverts your attention away from the negative and brings you to a healthier and more successful way of responding,” suggests Brackett.
Practice positive reappraisal.
Shift your thinking. If your first response is, “My coworker is being a brat,” try changing the storyline to “Perhaps she’s under a lot of pressure” or “I bet she’s scared of not getting this report in on time.” This allows you to build empathy instead of antipathy.
Tap your inner smooth operator.
If you become anxious or overwhelmed, talk yourself down by using affirming and encouraging statements like, “This is temporary. I’ll get through it. I’m resourceful.” This acknowledges your situation and your feelings without letting your emotions win.
Since breathing heavily through your mouth can activate the sympathetic nervous system—and ups your heart rate—try taking slow, deep breaths though your nose. This taps into your parasympathetic nervous system, instead, and naturally calms you down.