Mindfulness can dampen strong emotion and reduce snap judgments

Woman staring uncertainly at the camera

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

Mindfulness helps you observe emotional reactions stirred up by others without judging their motives. Notice and be interested in emotions you feel in social situations, without acting on them or jumping to conclusions. Mindfulness and managing emotions are two vital skills to learn. Learn how mindfulness can dampen strong emotion and reduce snap judgments.

Mindfulness helps calmness

Recently you’ve begun observing others mindfully. (This article assumes you are following any COVID-19 restrictions currently in force.)

You began by discreetly observing people you didn’t know. In those situations you were less likely to be emotionally involved. You may have noticed your thoughts and feelings more easily.

Did you notice and name the emotions you felt when observing others? Were any reactions unexpected or quite intense? These reactions may relate to issues important to you.

Mindfulness dampens strong emotions

Can you link these strong reactions to what you saw or heard? Or to some past event in your life?

Take note of these reactions; notice when they come up again. You may start to see a pattern in your reactions. You can use this to find what your emotional triggers are. Then you can work out how to manage your emotions in future.

You may decide to let your emotions go while you mindfully focus on other things. Or you may decide these reactions are affecting your quality of life.

You may need more practice in maintaining a neutral observer stance. You may also learn to challenge any negative thoughts you are having, and reduce snap judgments.

Either way, you’ll learn what situations pose difficulties for you, and see how mindfulness dampens strong emotion.

Mindfully observing people you know

For the time being, avoid people who are somewhat difficult to deal with. Start with people you don’t know terribly well. That is, people you don’t have a deep connection with, or those you meet occasionally.

It’s often harder to maintain neutrality with people you know well. They’ll want you to join in with conversations or activities. You may also be reminded of past situations that made you uncomfortable.

Practice repeatedly with acquaintances before tackling the challenging people in your life.

1 Start in easy situations

Choose a few people you feel comfortable with. An activity-based club is ideal, such as a walking, painting, or pottery group. There’s less pressure to interact when others are doing a task. This means you can observe others more easily.

Start observing for short periods of time, and slowly increase the length of time.

2 Notice interactions between others

Step back mentally; pretend you’ve never seen these people before. Observe speech patterns, facial expressions, and postures of these “strangers.” Be interested but not involved in what is said and done (as far as possible!)

3 Phrase observations in factual terms

You can only see outward behaviour and appearances. You’re not interpreting what other people are thinking or feeling. State what you observe in neutral terms:

James stares at Tim for five seconds with no expression on his face, and then turns his back to Tim.

You’re merely reporting what a camera would see. A camera makes no judgment about what it records. Your aim is to reduce snap judgments you may normally have made.

4 Notice emotion in others

State emotions you see in others in terms of their behaviour, facial expression or tone of voice. Any conclusions you make about mood or motives is guesswork.

You may have strong suspicions, especially if you know the person well. But unless you ask them, you can’t be sure. Even then they may not tell you the truth.

So you could describe Tim’s emotions in terms of his behaviour after James walks away from him. For example, Tim frowns as James walks away. He opens his mouth but doesn’t speak. Then he shrugs his shoulders and slowly turns away as well.

You may guess Tim is somewhat surprised or annoyed by James’ behaviour. But you can’t know for sure unless you check it out.

5 People you don’t like or agree with:

Observe others you don’t like as interesting examples of humanity. Notice your reactions to them with neutral interest.

Try to avoid making snap judgments about their appearance or behaviour, even if you are annoyed. Simply note you’re annoyed, and note you want to make negative comments about them. Then let these urges go and return to mindful observing of these people. Note their mannerisms; posture; ways of interacting with others.

Use these less difficult situations to see how mindfulness dampens strong emotion.

Practise remaining neutral

Notice the urge to react emotionally when difficult issues are discussed. Remind yourself that for this short time, you are only observing. Your job is not to react to what is said or done; it is to act like a camera.

Let the observer part of you watch as you respond in anger, fear, annoyance, sadness or any other emotion. This observer part of you can remind you to breathe slowly and stay neutral.

You don’t have to get even more angry or sad or jealous. You can choose to stay in the neutral state of low emotional arousal. Use mindful breathing to help you remain neutral.

Take a few minutes here and there to mindfully observe several others. You don’t have to do this for the whole time you are together. Practice observing when they’re busy, and not wanting you to interact.

See others in a new light

For example, you may have believed someone was lazy and unhelpful. However, you now observe them going about their work in a quiet and unobtrusive manner, without drawing attention to themselves.

Or you may have thought someone was always bad-tempered, but now notice them smiling and chatting with others.

Mindfulness reduces snap judgments of others

Observing others neutrally may bring new insights. Practice stripping away your preconceived ideas about people. Accept them as they are right now, and not as they were last week.

For example, say to yourself: “I notice John didn’t pay his fees this morning”, rather than “He’s a cheat and crook, and tries to weasel out of paying every week”.

You may be correct in that he doesn’t pay very often. However, he may have made arrangements you don’t know about. Or perhaps he’s paid in one lump sum.

Or he may indeed try to avoid paying. But you don’t have any evidence on way or another.

Use mindfulness to test assumptions

So it’s sensible to resist jumping to conclusions until you have further evidence either way. Mindfulness and managing emotions are two skills that will move you towards a life of peace and serenity. Mindfulness dampens strong emotion and helps reduce snap judgments.

Further your skills and learn how to use mindfulness when others push your buttons.

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