Understanding and Dealing with Guilt. Part 1: A Comprehensive Overview

This is my first post of 2021 and, in the spirit of getting off to a new start and moving beyond your past, I want to talk about one of the feelings that you might experience after you’ve done something that turns out bad and yields an unwanted result.

This is part 1 of a 2 part series of posts.

Part 1 will give you an overview of the emotions which might be elicited (NOT caused!)  by some action you took in the past and will introduce you to the Basic Relationship Rule.

Part 2 will discuss the actual steps you need to take to deal with, dissolve your guilt and move on.

Part 1

Actions taken and the feelings these actions might elicit.

If you feel guilty, you are focusing on the “bad” thing that you did.

If you shame, you are focusing on yourself as a horrible person for having done it.

If you feel regret, you are wishing that you had not done it.

If you are angry, you view the results as representing some sort of threat to your expectations, your goals, your values, and so forth.

You can feel any, all, or none of these feelings following what you did.

Past articles

The last article in which I discussed guilt and shame was posted in September 2017. I discussed regret in July 2016. You can view these posts by going to the Archives to the right of this page and clicking on the specific month of the post you want to read.

The Index Tab: A reminder.

By the way, you can access all of my posts by clicking on the Index tab in the upper right hand corner of this page and opening up the PDF.  To make your access easier, I have listed all of my posts by category, title and date.

The Emotion of Guilt

In this post, I will revisit the emotion of guilt and the message it conveys, discuss how to strategically deploy this emotion, and talk about how you can get rid of the feeling by applying the Basic Relationship Rule (BRR) to yourself and deploying I.W.B.N.I’s once you have validated and strategically deployed the emotion.

Guilt is a powerful emotion the message of which is “I did something wrong.”

Guilt is a backward oriented feeling.  Its focus is on the past.

In other words, you do not feel guilty when you are engaged in the action, you later feel guilty about.

Rather, you feel guilty when you reflect back on what you did in light of the consequences that resulted from the action you took.

The downside of guilt is that, if not handled appropriately, it can weigh on you, negatively impact your effectiveness in life by eliciting feelings of worthlessness (shame or depression), and impact your relationships with others.

It is this downside that probably leads some writers to advocate that you get rid of, or eliminate, guilt.

Unless you are talking about guilt that is persistent, intrusive and not connected to a specific set of actions, I do not agree that you should eliminate the feeling.  This approach to guilt implies that there may be something wrong with the emotion, per se.

I maintain that ALL emotions are adaptive and need to be viewed as tools that inform us about situations which require our attention.  This is the upside of an emotion.

Using this emotion as a tool, the upside of guilt is that it alerts you to an action you took which needs to be examined, perhaps corrected and learned from. This alert is the message of guilt.

Put another way, you strategically deploy your guilt as  a tool when you validate it, use its  power as a motivator to critically revisit your actions and examine the circumstances that existed at the time, the decisions you made, and the actions you took from the perspective of what you did, the results you experienced and what you intended to happen.  Once you do this, you can use the power of the emotion as a motivator to “make it right” and resolve to learn from your mistakes and move forward.

So, how do you resolve and dissolve  guilt once you have strategically deployed it as discussed above?

The process of resolving guilt involves applying the principles of the Basic Relationship Rule (BRR) to yourself.

The BRR states: Everyone, in every situation, does the best they can given their Model of the World (as it applies to the situation in which they find themselves) and their Skill Sets.

Usually applied to others..

Typically, the BRR is used to understand the behavior of another person with the goal of developing, maintaining, or correcting the relationship you have with that person.

Equally as valid when applied to you…

As it applies to you and the behavior about which you are feeling guilty, the BRR tells you that the “offensive” behavior was the BEST you could do, in the situation, given how you viewed that situation (your MODEL) and the SKILL SETS (your interpersonal abilities) you had, at the time, for dealing with what was happening between you and those you interacted with.

Here are the steps to deal with guilt.

  1. Assess the situation.
  2. Accept responsibility for your actions.
  3. Make it right with the other person (if possible and appropriate).
  4. Understand your actions.
  5. Forgive yourself.
  6. Let the guilt dissolve.

I’ll discuss the specific steps in detail in the next post.

 

 

 

Happy 2021

Tomorrow is New Year’s Eve.

We are on the verge of a brand new year.

While we have all experienced many challenges in 2020, my hope for you is that you will have HOPE in 2021.

Your thoughts are critical!

As readers of this blog, you know that it is not the events that we encounter that determine what we experience. These events are filtered through our perceptions and how we choose to interpret these events determines what we experience and the emotions that are elicited by the event.

In other words, while “shit” happens, its impact on us is totally up to us.

If I step in dog poop, it is upsetting.  If I change my grandson’s poopy diaper, it is what it is.

So, it 2021, my hope is that you will…

  • deploy mindfulness to keep you focussed in the moment
  •  master your emotions so that you control your life and it continues to move you closer to your goals.

Your Relationships Connect You!

How you interact with others can have a critical impact on how you live your life.

The Basic Relationship Rule is your guide to better relationships: Everyone in every situation does the best they can given their Model of the World and their Skill Sets.

So, it 2021, my hope is that you will…

  • deploy the Basic Relationship Rule so that your relationships with others continue to grow and bring you pleasure.

Be safe and Happy New Year to you and yours.

Chanukah, Christmas and Kwanza.

As I am publishing this post, many are you are almost to the end of celebrating Chanukah.  I hope yours was a joyous celebration.

Christmas is next week.

I would like to wish you and yours a safe, happy, and very Merry Christmas.

And Kwanza is also next week.

Google says the appropriate greeting for Kwanza is Habari Gani.

If this is wrong, I apologize.

Whichever Holiday you celebrate, we live in stressful times so make your Holiday a joyous one.

And, while you still need to be cautious about covid, you can still celebrate and enjoy the moment.

A Gift to Others and You: Strategically Deploy the emotions of anticipation and surprise this holiday season.

In my 11/4 post, I discussed the emotion of surprise.

In my 11/18 post, I addressed the emotion of gratitude.

As I write this, it is the beginning of December.  We have just finished with Thanksgiving and are about to enter the “Holiday Season”.  While covid-19 may change the way we experience this Holiday Season, I’d like to suggest that you thoroughly engage and experience two emotions you probably don’t think too much about.  Specifically: Anticipation and Surprise.

Some basic concepts:

The emotion of Anticipation

Anticipation is the flip side of the emotion of anxiety.

Anxiety is a future based emotion the message of which is that there may be a threat in the future that may “kill” me.  When we get anxious, we often act as if the possible threat is an actual threat and react by being unable to take any effective action.  This is anxiety as distress.  Anxiety as eustress takes the energy of the emotion and uses it to prepare for the possibility that the threat may occur.

Note: The Index Tab above will take you to a PDF which lists all of my previous posts, including those on Anxiety, by category, title and date.  Click on the tab and look for the specific post which interests you.

The emotion of anticipation is also a future based emotion.  For anticipation, however, the message is that there is a possible event in the future that I want to experience.

Anticipation both sets up an expectation regarding and prepares you for something good.

The emotion of surprise.

Surprise, as an emotion, grabs your attention and focuses it on an event. The message of Surprise is that an unexpected event has occurred and you need to assess it to see if it is beneficial or detrimental.

The issue of perceptual sets.

Did it ever occur to you that you might not see your surroundings as they actually are?

Huh, you say, what does that mean?

Well, the psychological fact is that, while you may see something, like a fast food restaurant, you may not notice it because it has little value to you unless you are hungry.

The concept of perceptual set says that your emotions and your expectations will impact how you interpret what you see.  In other words, you will “see” what you expect to see.

We see what we look for…..

A rather interesting experience was conducted several years ago in which groups of subjects were asked to watch a video of two teams playing basketball. One group was asked to count the number of times the red team dribbled the ball and the other group was asked to do the same thing with the blue team.

Each group did as they were instructed to do.

However, in the middle of the video, an actor dressed as a gorilla was shown dancing on the screen.

Each group was asked if they noticed the gorilla and a significant number of subjects indicated that no gorilla appeared on screen.

The subjects were so focussed on counting, they failed to notice the gorilla.

In previous posts, I’ve written about driving down a  street and not really seeing any of the fast food restaurants and driving down the same street when hungry and “seeing” all of the restaurants.

How does all this fit together and what does it have to do with the Holiday Season?.

Typically, the Holiday Season is upbeat and a time when we engage with others in a feel good way.  Yes, I know that there is downside to the Holidays as well including the stress we may experience having too much to do and too little time to do it, thinking about past Holidays and so forth.

Surprise

But, this Holiday Season, try setting yourself up to look for, and find, things that surprise you. This is strategically deploying the emotion of surprise so that it works for you.

You want to be surprised!

When surprised, you will be motivated to engage with the object/issue of your surprise.

You will see things about others and yourself you haven’t noticed before.

Here is what you are going for…

A gift to others...

The “gift” you give others will involve seeing them in a new light and, perhaps, improving your relationship with them.

Look for something new in a friend that you can compliment them about or something interesting that you haven’t really paid attention to before that you can engage with them about.

Look for something new in your kids or your spouse that is surprising to you because you haven’t really paid attention to it before.

A “gift” to yourself...

Look for something new about yourself that’s either always been there or that is something you’d like to do, build upon, or engage in as in “Wow, I never realized that about me!”

Anticipation

I don’t know about you but I suspect that you, like me, remember Christmas morning waking up experiencing the emotion of Anticipation of what might be under the tree when I went downstairs. I was all excited.  I didn’t know what I would find but I was anticipating that it would be good.

This is the emotion I want you to experience but I want you to expect that you will be pleasantly surprised by what you observe in and  learn about those who are close to you and yourself.

Putting It All Together

If you set out to do this as I’ve suggested, you will be looking for new “positive” ways to view yourself and others which will surprise you and you will anticipate or expect to find what you are looking for.

The Emotion of Gratitude

In my last post, I addressed the emotion of surprise both because I was surprised (pun intended) that not a whole lot is written about it and because I wanted to bring it to your attention.

I will address the emotion of surprise again in my next post when I talk about applying this feeling this year.

In this post, I will address the emotion of gratitude.

There are two reasons for this..

  1. Next week, in the US, we will be celebrating the Holiday of Thanksgiving.
  2. While there are articles out there which address gratitude, you may not be all that familiar with this emotion.

For me growing up, Thanksgiving was a holiday marked by eating too much good food. We knew of the Pilgrims and the origin story of the Holiday.  And, maybe, we even gave some verbal homage to what we might be thankful for.  We didn’t spend any time thinking about the emotion of gratitude.

But, then, in my family of origin, we didn’t spend much time talking about any emotions. That is another story.

With my kids, I would always ask them, during Thanksgiving, to mention something they were thankful for, which they did.

Probably just to humor me.

You may have experienced something similar in your family.

So, I went searching for some information on the emotion of gratitude and I found an article which covers just about everything I was going to put in my post.

Here is the link to the Harvard Mental Health Letter from June 5, 2019.

Enjoy.

And, Happy Thanksgiving.

In Praise of Gtatitude

 

 

The Emotion of Surprise: Positive or Negative? Neither…and much more!

This post originated with a question I received on Quora.com which asked if surprise was a positive or negative emotion.

The question intrigued me because surprise isn’t often a topic of interest.

This post covers my answer to this question and more.

The Answer:

Surprise is neither positive nor negative.  It is just a tool.

  • But, how you experience the emotion, whether you are comfortable or uncomfortable with the emotion (it’s hedonic quality), may, however, be either p0sitive or negative.
  • And, whether it “works” for you (is adaptive or maladaptive), may also be important.

The Answer Explained:

There are, in fact, three parts to this question.

The first part addresses the emotion of surprise, the second addresses a myth that there are positive and negative emotions and the third part discusses an alternative way to label an emotion.

I. Surprise: the emotion

Surprise is one of the universal emotions and arises when we encounter sudden and unexpected sounds or movements. As the briefest of the universal emotions, its function is to focus our attention on determining what is happening and whether or not it is dangerous.  Paul Ekman.com

Surprise is one of 6 primary emotions that humans and some other species are born with. The other 5 are mad, sad, glad, fear and disgust.

Each emotion has a specific function of, as I noted above, alerting us to our surroundings and preparing us to engage with those surroundings.

 Surprise signals something unexpected that we need to give more attention to, engage productively with, or avoid.

Other words for “surprise” include:

  • startled (shocked and dismayed),
  • confused (disillusioned and perplexed),
  • amazed (astonished and awe) and
  • excited (eager and energetic).

These words are from an article Embracing Emotions in the Workplace by the Industrial Relations Centre of Queens University (irc.queensu.ca)

NOTE: I have written about these emotions and others in previous posts.  You can access all of my posts by category, title and date by clicking on the INDEX tab in the upper right hand corner of the home page.  This will take you to a PDF which, when opened, will tell where you need to go in the archives to access the post you want.

II. The Myth:

It is widely believed and often repeated that there are positive and negative emotions.

The Facts:

As I have discussed in my Amazon bestselling book: Emotions as Tools Control your Life not your Feelings, and and other posts on this Blog, there is no such thing as positive or negative emotions.

  • There are emotions that feel good and emotions that feel bad.  This is the hedonic quality of the emotion and is not a descriptor of the emotion.

In other words, good vs bad refers to how you experience the emotion and does not reflect the value of the emotion.

  • All emotions are just tools that you can learn to strategically deploy to improve your life and your relationships.

Emotions inform you about how you perceive your surroundings and prepare you to engage with what is happening to you.

You are familiar with many tools in your life including your TV remote, your cell phone, your car and maybe the cordless drill in your garage.

You do not think of these tools as positive or negative. They are just tools you need to learn how to use.

It is the same with emotions.

Four reasons why the myth persists:

1: How some emotions feel.

There are some emotions which are experienced as pleasant such as happy and others that are experienced as unpleasant such as sadness. This is their hedonic quality. This hedonic quality is frequently inappropriately applied to the emotion giving rise to the misconception that there are positive and negative emotions.

2: How some people behave when feeling a specific emotion.

Some people behave inappropriately when they experience some emotions.  One example is the abuser who beats up his significant other and blames his anger. “If you hadn’t done XYZ, I wouldn’t have gotten angry. And, if I weren’t so angry, I wouldn’t have (abused you).” While it may be true that he wouldn’t have gotten angry had she not done XYZ and it may also be true that he wouldn’t have abused her if he weren’t  angry, it definitely is FALSE that his anger made him do what he did.  His behavior was his choice and his responsibility.

Anger got the blame and the bad reputation.

3: Barbara Fredrickson wrote about positive and negative emotions.  She clearly noted, however, that positive emotions were those feelings which motivated people to engage with their surroundings in a satisfying way.  When you are happy, you want to do more of whatever it is that elicits happiness.  As I noted above, happy is a feel good emotion.

4. Many people still do not understand what emotions are, why they evolved over time and the functions they serve.

The “problem” with the myth:

The problem with labelling  an emotion as “negative” or “bad” is the message these words imply when applied to an emotion.

Think about anything you have labelled as as “negative” or “bad”..

  • The milk has gone “bad”.
  • You received a “negative” evaluation at work.
  • You got a “bad” deal.
  • You have a “negative” balance” in your checkbook.
  • The market is in “negative” territory.

The defining characteristic that all of these examples have in common is that they are undesirable and to be avoided if at all possible.

When we label some emotions as “negative” and others as “positive”, the  implication is that there are some emotions we should keep and others that should be eliminated or avoided.

Yes, I know that this is not how the words are used in the literature.  But, what we say and what others hear are often not the same thing.  You, as a reader of my blog, probably would not misinterpret what emotions are.

But..

  • The author of the question on Quora lacks this sophistication.

And, because the myth is so widespread…

  • I do not think it is beneficial to refer to emotions as “positive” or “negative” without providing a context.

III. Adaptive vs Maladaptive.

  • This is an alternative way to label an emotion.
  • The main focus here is on whether the emotion benefits you in some way or is problematic?

Have you ever heard someone say: “I hate surprises.”?

While all emotions are valid in that they are real for you in the moment and reflect how you interpret what is happening to you, some emotions may not be working for you to improve your life or your relationships because how you react to them elicits results you do not want.

Maladaptive

  • Mal:  “not” or in a faulty manner
  • Adaptive: helps you deal with or adjust to (the situation)

Labelling an emotion as maladaptive for you tells you that you need to examine:

  • how you react to, experience and relate to the emotion when you experience it
  • are the issues with the emotion, per se,
  • are there issues related to a specific context in which you experience the emotion and
  • what it is about the emotion that isn’t working for you.

The bottom line: until you learn how to master these emotions, they may be, for you, maladaptive.

Preview of coming attractions:

On 12/2/2020, my annual Holiday Post will revisit the emotion of surprise. 

Keeping with the Holiday theme, I will suggest that you give a gift to yourself and others by deploying the emotions of surprise and anticipation this Holiday season. 

Yes, I realize that this is a months out and, in today’s environment, it is often difficult to plan for tomorrow.

But, if this sounds interesting to you, I can guarantee that you can anticipate being pleasantly surprised by what you will read.

So, mark your calendar and check it out.

 

 

 

Mindfulness-The Overlooked Key to Emotional Mastery

I have written extensively about mastering emotions in both of my Amazon bestselling books and in multiple blog posts but I have not previously linked mindfulness with mastery.

To be honest, I have always known about, and discussed, the concept of mindfulness and I have written extensively about the unconscious aspect of the emotional mastery and  the process of choosing an effective response..

It did not, however, occur to me, until recently, that mindfulness would have a direct impact on both the unconscious perception of threat and the conscious choice of how to adaptively respond to the situation you might be facing.

Hense, the title of this post in which I refer to mindfulness as the “overlooked” key to emotional mastery.

First, some basic “definitions”.

Mindfulness

While there is a whole lot more to it, the basic underlying concept of mindfulness involves “being in the moment”. This means that your attention is focussed on what is happening to you now.

Most of us do not practice mindfulness.  

You have to consciously work at it.

Emotional Mastery

Again, while there is a lot more to it, the basic underlying concept of emotional mastery involves:

  • acknowledging, and accepting, the “message” of the emotion,
  • assessing the validity of the emotion
  • choosing an adaptive response to the situation and using the “energy” of the emotion to carry out your chosen response

In my last post, I explained, in detail, the Anger Mastery Cycle (AMC).

While the AMC specifically deals with the emotion of anger, the three part process discussed in the AMC applies to all emotions. Rather than focus specifically on a given emotion, I will generalize the emotional process as the Emotional Mastery Cycle (EMC).

Mindfulness impacts every aspect of the EMC.

The EMC starts with the unconscious scanning of your surroundings for any  “threat”.  Once a threat is perceived, the brain puts the body on alert and prepares it to deal with the “threat”.

While the process is, indeed, unconscious..

  • where you focus your attention and
  • what you perceive as a threat

will often be influenced by what you are concerned about in the moment.

While not an exact fit, this example is illustrative of how your “focus” can change.

Think about the last time you were driving around in your car and didn’t really notice most of the fast food restaurants.  The next time, however, when you were driving in that same area,  you noticed almost every one of the restaurants.  The only difference was that, in the first case, you had just eaten and now, you were hungry.

Your “inner state” of hunger influenced what you saw even though all the restaurants were always there.

To put it another way, you are primed by your hunger to notice all the stimuli (restaurants) which were now significant, or relevant, to you.

An analogous situation exists with the scans you constantly make for threats.

Because most of the threats that modern man faces are psychological in nature and not survival based, the filters through which you subconsciously perceive your interactions with others will significantly impact how you interpret the situations in which you find yourself.

As an example, let’s say you have a history of being ignored, passed over, humiliated or taken advantage of by co-workers, superiors, siblings, significant others or friends.  Based on this history, you may be psychologically primed to perceive the actions of others as rejection.

Rejection is the filter through which you interpret any ambiguous interaction. Sometimes, others will be rejecting you and, at other times, you may just have misunderstood what others were saying, or doing, to you.

So, you go into work one day and you are sitting at your desk when your boss walks by you and says says nothing. Usually, he or she, acknowledges you in some way.

You find yourself getting both anxious and angry.

The message of anxiety is that you perceive a possible threat.  This might be the worry that you did something wrong, although you don’t know what, and your boss is upset with you.

The message of anger is that you perceive an immediate threat you need to fight.  In this case, your thinking might be that your boss has a lot of nerve ignoring you given all you’ve done for the company.  You’d really like to show him (or her)!

While either of these motivations on the part of your boss could be true, they are reactions which you are primed to conclude based on your past experiences either with your boss or with others in your sphere of influence.

The reality might very well be that he is preoccupied with some important issue that is consuming him and his actions have absolutely nothing to do with you.

Your interactions with others can be adversely impacted by:

  • the filters through which you view your world, if based on previous maladaptive experiences,
  • the conclusions you drew from those experiences, and
  • the overly broad and automatic application of those conclusions to your current world.

And, the impact of these factors on your interpersonal interactions may be completely outside your immediate awareness.

This is where mindfulness comes in.

Acknowledging the emotion

The process of mastering an emotion starts with acknowledging the message of the emotion.  This is relatively easy if you are tuned into what your body is telling you.

You experience an emotion physically and you acknowledge it by noting:

  • I’m angry.
  • I’m pissed off.
  • I’m annoyed.
  • I’m worried.
  • I’m embarrassed.

You get the idea.

Assess the emotion.

The next step is to assess the validity of the emotion.

This is where you compare what is going on in your interaction with others and how you are perceiving what they are doing.

This step requires you to consciously look at any of the filters which might exist and objectively (as much as you can) question what is actually taking place as opposed to how you are interpreting what is going on.

The questions you can ask include:

  • Is my interpretation of what they are doing/saying the only possible explanation or could something else be going on?
  • Could I be viewing their actions through an old (and outdated) filter?
  • Is my interpretation consistent with their past actions?
  • Could they (or I have misinterpreted) something that was said/done?

Notice how the questions are worded to raise doubt about your interpretation.

Spending time with and practicing both asking and answering these questions will help you to remain mindful in your interactions with others.

An important disclaimer:

Being mindful and “in the moment” is much easier said than done.

But, and this is CRITICAL…

It is doable.

Before you experience the emotion you are targeting as connected to your filter, remind yourself to be both keenly aware of the emotion and TO TAKE A DEEP BREATH as soon as you experience this emotion.

The deep breath will give you the time and the psychological distance to ask the above questions.

Mindfulness keeps you focused so that you will both ask the questions and listen to the answers.

 

 

 

The Anger Mastery Cycle Explained

This is a detailed explanation of the Anger Mastery Cycle.  If you just want a quick overview, click here for the “Cliff Notes” version.

In my Amazon bestselling book Beyond Anger Management: Master Your Anger as a Strategic Tool, I published a chart titled The Anger Mastery Cycle (AMC) which visually lays out the process by which anger is initially experienced and adaptively mastered.

You can download a PDF of the Anger Mastery Cycle by going to the “Pages” section on the right hand side of this page and clicking on The Anger Mastery Cycle PDF.

The Anger Mastery Cycle (AMC).

The AMC can be  broken down into three parts:

I: Subconscious Reaction.

II: Conscious Assessment.

III: Choosing a Response

I: Subconscious Reaction.

The first part  of the AMC involves the “built-in” process of scanning your surroundings and reacting to what you perceive.  This process happens automatically and continuously without you having to initiate or think about it.

Because this initial reaction happens both quickly and “subconsciously” as we would want it to if we were facing an actual life-endangering threat, it is experienced as beyond our control. Problems arise when people overgeneralize the experience and incorrectly  assume that anger controls them.

Yes, the initial emotional reaction is beyond our control.

And, no, anger does not control us as the most important aspects of the AMC are definitely within our control.  Indeed, the ability to strategically deploy our anger to improve our lives and our relationships is the essence of the AMC.

All humans are hardwired to continuously scan their surroundings for any perceived threat.  This unconscious process helped Mr. and Mrs. Caveman survive in a world which was populated by “threats” including animals and other humans that would kill them.  Most primitive emotions were, and are, primitive threat detectors the purpose of which was to both alert us to and prepare us to deal with a threat before it could kill us.

Early humans evolved 6 primary emotions which we experience today just as our cave dwelling ancestors did.  In other words, while humans have continued to evolve, as reflected in parts 2 and 3 of the AMC, the primary emotions, per se, have not.

These emotions are mad, sad, fear, disgust, surprise and glad.  The function of all of these emotions is to facilitate our engagement with our surroundings. Each primary emotion, working through the Amygdala in the brain, reacts to a different environmental stimulus and elicits an physical correlate in our bodies.  This is the initial emotional reaction which, if you are to become effective in mastering your emotions, you will need to learn to recognize.

It is also the “message” of the emotion.

I have discussed the message of all of the primary emotions in other posts.

The message of anger is that your initial perception of the threat is that you are more powerful than it is and that you can eliminate it if you throw enough force at it.  This is your initial thought about the threat.

Anger physically prepares you for war.

Your muscles tighten and your vision narrows and focuses on the threat.  This is the fight part of the fight, flight, or freeze reaction you have probably heard about.

As soon as you become aware of your physical reactions to the perceived threat, you are ready to enter the second part of the AMC.

II: Conscious Assessment.

Now that you’ve become aware of the threat that you have subconsciously perceived and you are “prepared” to engage with the threat, emotional mastery calls for you to consciously assess the threat to determine whether or not a threat actually exists.

As an example of how this process works, think about your smoke detector.

You are sitting at your kitchen table and the smoke detector blares.  It constantly scans your house and is alerting you to a possible threat.

Do you jump up and call the fire department? Of course not. No, you assess the situation and notice that the toast is burning and you pop it out of the toaster.

The blaring of the smoke detector is equivalent to the unconscious reaction of your anger and your conscious decision about the nature of the threat is what the second part of the AMC is all about.

Following your awareness of a physical emotional reaction, you begin to clarify the emotion you are experiencing by giving it a label.  If you are tuned into your body, you know what the initial reaction indicative of anger feels like and you can now apply the label of anger as in “I’m angry.”

Once you have labelled, or acknowledged, your emotion as anger, the next step is Anger Management.

The term “anger management” is generically used to describe any treatment for issues involving anger.

The concern I have with the term “anger management” is that it perpetuates the misconception that all that is needed to effectively deal with anger, as an emotion, is to control, or manage, it.

Two points are important here…

The first is that one of the biggest myths about anger is that it is a dangerous emotion that causes people to do inappropriate things and must be tightly controlled or it will take over. This widely believed conceptualization of anger is not correct, misrepresents anger, and misleads people whose involvement with anger is problematic.

Anger is just a tool.

Which is the second point I want to make.

You don’t control your cell phone, the tv remote, or a sewing machine.  You learn to master these tools in order to get the most out of them.  It is the same with anger, as a tool.

You need to learn to master it in order to get it to work for you.

That being said, anger mastery does begin with anger management (or control).

As I noted above, the function of anger, as a tool, is to both alert you and prepare you to deal with a perceived threat.

When we lived in caves, this unconscious process worked flawlessly, reliably and consistently because all threats were survival based and would kill us if not eliminated.  War was what was needed to insure our survival. The only assessments that were required were how many of us were needed and what weapons would we use.

While the emotion of anger has not changed, the environment in which you live, and get angry, has changed significantly!

Indeed, most of the threats you face are psychological and do not require you to go to war.

So, in order for you to get the most out of your anger as a threat detector and engage the thinking part of your brain, you need to lower the initial arousal of your primitive anger cycle. If your involvement/arousal level is too high, it will be difficult to think clearly and objectively.

Managing your anger by lowering your arousal level is what you need to do.

In the AMC, the process represented by S.T.O.P. enables you to do this.

S stands for stopping the unconscious anger process by creating both a physical and a psychological safe place.

T involves taking a step back physically and taking a deep breath.

The step back is physical.

The deep breath both relaxes you a bit and shifts  your focus. This is the psychological space. Your goal is to associate a deep breath with the initial experience of anger.  You are still angry but less aroused.

This shift in focus gives you the space to both observe what is actually going on and practice emotional intelligence which involves engaging the thinking part of your brain.

The process of anger mastery involves assessing the nature of the threat so you can decide what actions are needed to effectively deal with the threat.

In the world you live in, your anger, as a tool, alerts you to the possibility  of a threat and gives you the energy to deal with a threat, if it exists.

But, for you, it is necessary to determine whether there is a genuine threat or something else (other in the AMC) is going on.

As you can see in the AMC, there are three possibilities that could explain one’s anger when no real threat exists.

  • There is no actual threat and you have misunderstood or misinterpreted the situation you are facing.
  • You are using your anger as a secondary emotion to cover over other feelings such as shame, hurt or anxiety.  Anger is a powerful energizing emotion while these other feelings may sap your energy or leave you feeling somewhat helpless.
  • You are using your anger as an instrumental emotion to manipulate others into doing what you want because they are intimidated by your anger.

Once you have assessed the nature of the threat, you enter the third part of the AMC which involves choosing a response.

III: Choose a Response

There are two basic possibilities here.

The threat is genuine or it isn’t.

If the threat is genuine, you stay with your original thoughts about the threat, you remain angry and you use the energy of your anger to execute whatever is needed to eliminate the threat.

If there is no threat, you need to change your thoughts about the situation you are facing and how you are responding to it.  You have many options here but it boils down to doing nothing or choosing a more effective method of resolving whatever is going on.

Summary

To summarize, the AMC begins with anger functioning as it has always done as a primitive threat detector and motivator. The emotion alerts you to a possible threat  by eliciting an unconscious physical response.

The AMC then progresses through anger management, or S.T.O.P., which lowers the initial unconscious reaction just enough to allow you to engage in anger mastery which involves assessing the nature of the threat and choosing an effective response which either matches and  dispatches a genuine threat or moves beyond the emotion of anger which isn’t really appropriate.

 

 

Becoming aware of (so that you can master) Your Emotions: Three options.

The key to mastering your emotions as strategic tools is being aware of what emotion you are experiencing.

In several earlier posts and in my book Emotions as Tools A Self-Help Guide to Controlling Your Life not Your Feelings,  I’ve discussed in detail what emotions are and how to use them as strategic tools.  I’ve noted that each emotion informs us about how we are perceiving the situation in which we find ourselves and prepares us to take action.

The information that the emotion conveys is the message of the emotion.

Thus, if you are experiencing anger, the message is that you perceive a threat that you believe you can eliminate if you go to war with and overpower the perceived threat.

If you are experiencing anxiety, the message is that you perceive a threat that might, or might not,  exist.  Anxiety is a future based emotion.

You strategically deploy your emotion when you assess the message based on the situation in which you find yourself and choose an appropriate response.

The emotional mastery process involves:

  • recognizing the emotion,
  • managing your arousal so you can be objective,
  • assessing the message of the emotion and
  • choosing an adaptive response

A major assumption is that you are aware of what emotion you are experiencing.

There are 3 main options available to you to become aware of your feelings.

Option #1: Your body

The process of emotional mastery, as discussed in my Amazon best selling books Emotions as Tools and Beyond Anger Management and as illustrated in the Anger Mastery Cycle (PDF) which you can download here suggests that you determine what you are feeling by becoming aware of your body and how that particular emotion manifests itself physically.  Examples include muscle tension, headaches or an increased heart rate.

In other words, which specific muscle groups tense when you are angry (tightened muscles, a warming sensation) verses when you are anxious or stressed (hot and cold flushes, racing heart, tightening of the chest, quick breathing, restlessness, or feeling tense, wound up and edgy)?

If you experience a sensation of warmth or coldness with a specific feeling, what is that specific connection?

Each emotion usually manifests itself a bit differently in your body and you can learn to read these physical correlates.

The assumption is that you can learn to connect specific emotions with their physical correlates if you are tuned in to your body and how it changes with what you are feeling.

Option #2: Your actions (Self-perception theory)

If, however, you are one of those people who not seem to know where in their bodies they experience emotions, there is another option.

Indeed, you can learn to become aware of your own behavior. Examples include yelling, arguing, cursing and sarcasm or withdrawing.

And, this gives you another way to become aware of what you are feeling.

Let me give you an example of how this process works.

Have you ever finished eating a meal in which you consumed more than you thought you would and said to yourself: “I didn’t realize that I was so hungry.”

This is an example of self-perception theory in action.

What you have done is to view your external behavior (eating a lot) and inferred an internal state (being very hungry) based on that observation.

By the way, we all do this with other people when we observe their external actions and infer (or guess)  what might be going on inside them based on what they’ve done. So, you might observe your child or a co-worker and comment, “You look really angry to me.”.  Their response, which is less significant here, might acknowledge your observation “Yeh, I am upset.” or deny it, “NO, I’m not angry!”

Option #3: Your thoughts

But, if you are one of those who is more sensitive to your thoughts than to your body, monitoring those thoughts and the desire implied by those thoughts might be a more effective way to becoming aware of the presence of an emotion.

The Latin root of the word emotion (emovre) means to move.  Emotions motivate (move us toward) a specific action.

You can think of this as a desire as in “I want (desire) to attack you.”  Just like in the above example of eating too much, you can observe your desire (before you act on it) and say “I really want to go after this person. I didn’t realize I was so angry.

Once you do this, the next steps in the emotional process (after recognizing the emotion) is to create some physical and psychological distance between you and the “threat” (take a step back and a deep breath).  You can then assess the nature of the threat and choose a response.

Some examples include:

You experience anger and think about lashing out. You take a deep breath, take a step back from the situation, and choose how you want to respond (direct or indirect attack, do nothing because you might have misunderstood what was done, etc.)

You get anxious and think about escaping. You take a deep breath, take a step back from the situation, and choose how you want to respond (use the anxiety as eustress to prepare for the upcoming event, temporarily withdraw to further assess what is going on and how to deal with it)

You get excited during a sales presentation and think about signing up. You take a deep breath, take a step back from the situation, and choose how you want to respond (decide to do nothing and get more information through research, decide that the information you have is solid and sign the dotted line).

Ideally, you have access to all three options.

For now, take some time to reflect on how you relate to, experience, label and master your emotions.

Mastering “sensitivity” to criticism?

I don’t know of anyone who likes being criticized.  I certainly didn’t (and don’t). Indeed, I am still sensitive to criticism.

But, I welcome criticism now.

In other words, I have mastered my sensitivity.

Let me start with a story.

I am a Senior Adjunct Professor at an accredited University.  I have been for over 25 years.

While the feedback I get from my students now is that I am fairly good at what  I do, this wasn’t always the case.

Indeed, I started teaching because I was highly anxious about public speaking. And, as you might guess, I was terrible at it.

NOTE:  I did not say that I was “afraid” of public speaking as the correct emotion here is anxiety and not fear!

For several years, I did not seek out feedback from my students because I was both aware of my short-comings and I was “sensitive” to any comments (criticism) which brought attention to my lack of skill.

Any criticism only highlighted my sense of inadequacy.

My feeling inadequate led to my wanting to avoid being judged.

I was also fairly naive at the time about how emotions worked as tools.

Once I became a little more self-assured, I began to seek feedback from my students.

Seeking feedback is an effective way to deal with criticism and I’ll discuss this in more detail below.

When you talk about being sensitive to criticism, there are two issues.

  1. The first involves the nature of criticism.
  2. The second involves the nature of “sensitivity”.

Criticism

First, let me address the issue of criticism.

The root of the word criticism and critical is the same and involves passing judgment.

By its very nature, criticism involves a judgement or evaluation of your actions by another person.

When you are being criticized, someone else is telling you their opinion about what you have done. (Or, you are sharing with them your  opinion.)

Now, when you look at criticism from a psychological perspective, there are two categories and four possible actions involving criticism.

I. Giving Criticism:  (1) Constructive Giving  and  (2) Destructive Giving

II. Taking Criticism: (3) Constructive Taking and (4) Destructive Taking

Because I am addressing the idea of being sensitive to criticism, I will focus on the category of “taking” criticism.

Regardless of the focus of the criticism,  there are two elements to the message.

  1. One is the manner in which critical comments are delivered 
  2. The other is the validity (or truthfulness) of the critical comments.

However, when it comes to sensitivity, neither of these elements are critical.

Let me repeat that with emphasis added because it could be seen as a bit controversial…

Neither the way a critical message is delivered nor the degree to which the message is true have any connection to how you receive the criticism.

This is the reason that the message, per se, is of secondary importance to sensitivity.  (It is important for other reasons as I will discuss below.)

In addition, there are two ways to receive the critical message regardless of the focus of the message.

  1. One approach to receiving a critical message is constructive.
  2. The other approach to receiving the message is destructive.

How you receive a message, or your sensitivity, is totally under your control!

Sensitivity

As the person to whom the criticism is directed (the taker), if you wish to gain some mastery over your sensitivity, it is critical that you separate the content and the manner of delivery of the criticism from your response to the message.

Indeed, this is the key to mastering your sensitivity.

Typically, when one says that they are “sensitive” to criticism, it usually means that they are hypersensitive and their emotional reaction to the criticism involves anxiety, anger, or feelings of inadequacy.

And, hypersensitivity usually involves destructive taking of criticism.

“Sensitivity” might involve a desire to lash out at the person delivering the criticism.

There was a story in the news recently in which a customer of a well known consumer website published a critique of the website in an online blog.  Senior officers of the website were incensed, engaged in very offensive actions of revenge including sending live bugs to the authors of the blog, and ended up being fired by the website which was the focus of the criticism.

Clearly a case of “hypersensitivity” and destructive taking of criticism!

A prominent, and often overlooked aspect of destructive taking of criticism is that the message, or content, of the criticism is given too little consideration.

What do I mean by this?

Well, I mentioned above, that I now seek out feedback from my students. A few years ago, I had a student who did not like my class. Based on this information, I could have justifiably ignored any feedback from the student and assumed that he was biased. (Which, by the way, he was.)

However, when the quarter was over, I specifically reached out to this student for his feedback. 

While most of what he said involved his own issues and was not really relevant to me, he made one comment about how I approached the subject matter which was right on.  Attempting to adaptively deal with the criticism, I considered his whole message.  Had I not done this, I would have missed some useful information.  In other words, I would have thrown the baby out with the bathwater.

Put another way, I would have been guilty of giving too little consideration to the message.

So, in seeking to master your sensitivity to criticism, there are six issues:

  1. Do not attempt to eliminate your sensitivity.  While possible, this can be a difficult task and isn’t really necessary.
  2. Understand that the criticism is ONLY the opinion (judgement) of the individual directing the message at you. While the qualifications of this person might be a relevant question to consider in rating the value of the criticism, there could still be some value in what is said even if the person is less than qualified to deliver it.
  3. The message may contain some truth, little truth, or no truth.  Truth, here is the extent to which the information is applicable to you. The question to ask is: “What is the relevance of the criticism to me.”
  4. How you receive the message is ALWAYS a choice.  Attempt to constructively receive the message by considering and assessing all of the message.
  5. You can gain some insight into your sensitivity by looking at the emotions you feel when someone criticizes you and the message of those emotions. If,  for example, you get angry, then you are perceiving the criticism as a threat and you will want to identify the nature of the threat. A feeling of inadequacy indicates that you may have some doubt about your own abilities. And so forth. 
  6. Remember to take the time to respond and avoid reacting to the criticism.

For me, now, sensitivity means that I attempt to remain open to any important information that a critical message may have for me. While it also may mean that I still have a tendency to overreact to criticism, I am aware of this and master my emotions as tools to inform me of both how I view the criticism and how I choose a constructive response.