Emotional Mastery, a Matter of Time

Dr. Joan Rosenberg is a psychologist and author whose TEDx talk “Emotional Mastery: The Gifted Wisdom of Unpleasant Feelings” (15:17) is available via YouTube. For people who read faster than they listen, there is also a transcript of the talk.

When a person feels an emotional upset, it might resemble what Dr. Rosenberg describes as a “gut punch” (like when someone said she was boring). It may not be quite so painful, but any one of the eight basic unpleasant feelings — sadness, shame, helplessness, anger, vulnerability, embarrassment, disappointment, or frustration — can interrupt the flow of a day and make us feel bad in a way that the primitive core interprets as a threat.

Whether it is the office manager saying, “We have to let you go,” or a stranger delivering a shove on the sidewalk, or even a child sassing back, on some level we feel it as an existential threat, even if only for brief moment. Fighting is probably out of the question, and so is running away. But we need something to make us feel better right now. This is where displacement activity comes into play.

How do these relate?

All too often, the attempt at an immediate fix turns out to involve grabbing the nearest food and stuffing it into our wounded selves — which is why any of this is discussed in a space devoted to obesity prevention. Recently an article titled “Treatment of the sensory and motor components of urges to eat (eating addiction?): a mobile-health pilot study for obesity in young people” appeared in the journal Eating and Weight Disorders.

Written by Dr. Pretlow, Carol M. Stock, Leigh Roeger, and Stephen Allison, it describes addictive-like behaviors that…

[…] might include repetitive biting, chewing, crunching, licking, sucking, tongue action, swallowing, and hand-to-mouth motion. These behaviors have previously been described as “nervous eating” and appear to represent displacement of stress, tension, and anxiety.

Previous versions of the “Rosenberg Reset”

Many of us grew up with the maxim, “Just count to 10.” It has been widely recommended as a response to anger. Various spiritual teachings emphasize the usefulness of taking a deep breath and allowing time for the insulted ego to recede. Taking a few seconds to regain composure, even without any other type of applied mindfulness, can keep a person out of serious trouble. Back in the day when pills known as “mother’s little helpers” were popular, it was said of meprobamate that it would provide that crucial pause between stimulus and reaction — enough time to decide not to make a situation worse.

Rebranding the emotions

Dr. Rosenberg suggests thinking of those eight emotions as not bad or negative, but as merely unpleasant or uncomfortable, and allowing them a relatively generous 90 seconds to wash through the body and then dissipate. The ability to do that is the winning key to self-esteem and self-confidence. That ability is gained and strengthened by refusing to utilize the numerous substitutes we have available to distract us — otherwise known as displacement activities.

Displacement behaviors are tricks. And sure, tricks can work, but they are a form of resistance. A famous saying from a popular 1970s self-help program is “Resistance causes persistence.” While tricks might make an uncomfortable feeling go away 1,000 times, it will come back 1,001 times.

Tricks, like feeding yourself or someone else as a way to escape from a fraught moment, are cheap and unworthy. When someone says, “I’ll just put the kettle on, shall I?” it may break the tension, but it doesn’t solve the problem.

Instead, Dr. Rosenberg recommends staying in the moment, which requires “a willingness, a formula, and a decision.” She writes:

So, the thing again here for you to do is to stay present to the experience, surf those ninety-second waves, surf them any way you want, and just let them ride out their course. In the moment, you’ll feel centered, you’ll feel calm and you’ll feel relief. Insights will follow.

Make the choice to stay present, fully present. Be aware of and in touch with your moment-to-moment experience. It’s about awareness, not avoidance.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Emotional Mastery: The Gifted Wisdom of Unpleasant Feelings,” YouTube.com, 09/21/16
Source: “Treatment of the sensory and motor components of urges to eat (eating addiction?): a mobile-health pilot study for obesity in young people,” Springer.com, 01/14/20
Image: Public Domain

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About Dr. Robert A. Pretlow

Dr. Robert A. Pretlow is a pediatrician and childhood obesity specialist. He has been researching and spreading awareness on the childhood obesity epidemic in the US for more than a decade.
You can contact Dr. Pretlow at:


Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the American Society of Animal Science 2020 Conference
What’s Causing Obesity in Companion Animals and What Can We Do About It

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the World Obesity Federation 2019 Conference:
Food/Eating Addiction and the Displacement Mechanism

Dr. Pretlow’s Multi-Center Clinical Trial Kick-off Speech 2018:
Obesity: Tackling the Root Cause

Dr. Pretlow’s 2017 Workshop on
Treatment of Obesity Using the Addiction Model

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation for
TEC and UNC 2016

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the 2015 Obesity Summit in London, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s invited keynote at the 2014 European Childhood Obesity Group Congress in Salzburg, Austria.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2013 European Congress on Obesity in Liverpool, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2011 International Conference on Childhood Obesity in Lisbon, Portugal.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2010 Uniting Against Childhood Obesity Conference in Houston, TX.

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