Both self-control and effectively interacting with others require you to master your emotions as strategic tools.
This is a bold statement that you might find odd for at least two reasons:
- While everyone talks about managing emotions, few authors talk about mastering emotions. (Mastering one’s emotions includes and goes beyond managing one’s emotions.)
- Emotions are critical components in successfully dealing with issues that primarily involve you (self-control) and with issues that involve others (relationships).
Anger as an example
Many articles have been written about managing the emotion of anger. In these articles, the authors tend to view anger as a “negative” emotion which must be controlled so that it doesn’t explode in unwanted, often destructive, behavior. Managing anger involves calming down (lowering your level of arousal), forcefully controlling your anger, or preventing it from being expressed by distracting yourself in some fashion.
There are at least three problems with this approach to anger.
The first that anger is labelled as a “negative” feeling. There is no such thing as a negative emotion as all emotions are adaptive and have evolved to provide you with actionable information about the world around you.
Secondly, in spite of the questionable practice of misrepresenting inappropriate behavior as an “anger problem”, anger is never the main issue. Anger is just a feeling. How one chooses to deal with his anger is always the “problem”. This choice places responsibility on the person not the emotion.
Thirdly, managing one’s anger is implied as the only (or best) way to deal with this often very strong emotion. From an anger mastery perspective, managing one’s anger is only the beginning of the process of adaptively dealing with anger.
Teaching someone who has an “anger problem” to manage his (or her) anger is one goal of treatment. It is not the ultimate measure of success.
Few articles talk about managing or mastering all emotions (including anger). It seems a bit ridiculous to think about managing your excitement or mastering your guilt or your anxiety.
But, this is exactly what I am suggesting!
Mastering your emotions involves five steps.
- manage your own arousal
- understand the message of each emotion
- assess the match between your emotion and the situation in which you find yourself
- choose an adaptive response
Step 1: Self-awareness
In order to master your emotions, it is important for you to be aware of how that emotion physically presents itself in your body. In other words, where and how do you experience each emotion. What part of your body tenses, feels warm, or begins to churn when you feel angry, anxious, upset, guilty, ashamed, and so forth?
You may not be aware at this point of how your body reacts to each emotion but you can become familiar with your body by observing what you feel the next time you experience the emotion you want to learn to master.
In Chapter 4 of my Amazon best selling book Emotions as Tools: Control Your Life not Your Feelings, I have included checklists to help you identify how your body specifically reacts. Choose an emotion and use the tables to monitor your body.
Step 2: Managing Your Own Arousal
Once you become aware of your initial emotional reaction, it is important to lower your physical arousal so that you don’t immediately take an action (react) following the emotion.
Ultimately, you want to respond to your situation.
Lowering your arousal level does not “come naturally” and must be learned. You do this by teaching yourself to take a step back from the situation and taking a deep breath. The step-back gives you some physical distance and the deep breath gives you some psychological distance from the situation.
Think about the last time you got excited and “caught up in the moment”. You might have purchased something you later realized you didn’t need or said (or did) something you later regretted.
Whether the emotion is excitement about a new adventure or “shiny object” or anger regarding the violation of an important value, stepping back from the situation and taking a breath will give you an opportunity to adaptively deal with what comes next.
Step 3: Understanding the message of each emotion
Each emotion communicates a different message to you based on how you initially perceive your situation. Understanding this message enables you to assess your initial evaluation of what is happening. Your emotions are always valid as they represent your initial (often unconscious) evaluation of your situation. However, the emotion may not be accurate as you might have misinterpreted another person’s actions or intent. Or, you might have reacted to what is going on based on your own past experiences, current levels of stress, wishful thinking, and so forth.
Step 4: Assessing the match between your emotion and the situation in which you find yourself.
Once you have tuned into the emotion you are experiencing and understand what that emotion communicates to you about how you are viewing your situation, you can take a physical and psychological step back from the situation and attempt to assess the degree to which your reality matches your perception.
You do this by asking yourself questions such as:
*Have I misunderstood what is going on here?
*Is there another point of view that I am missing?
*What evidence is there to support my perceptions?
Based on your assessment, you are ready to move on to the next step.
Step 5: Choose an adaptive response.
The fifth step is to choose an adaptive response to the situation. An adaptive response is an intervention which helps you improve your situation.
If you believe your emotion matches the situation than you will choose a response that utilizes the energy of the emotion as motivation to manage the situation.
This is mastering your emotion.
If you believe that your emotion does not match the situation, than you might choose to change your perception by asking for clarification or additional input from others with whom you are interacting. When you change your perception, you change your emotion.
This response is also mastering your emotion.
Mastering your emotions opens up opportunities to be more effective in your relationships with others. Emotional mastery can also help you improve your own life by helping you become more effective in meeting the goals you set.
In addition, you can apply the same principles of emotion mastery to dealing with the emotions of others.