Hesitate to ask for what you want? Why and what you can do.

Have you ever wanted to ask someone for something but hesitated?

Examples include:

  • Asking someone out on a date
  • Asking someone to help you on a project
  • Asking a co-worker for some needed information or for a report
  • Asking a boss for a raise

We all have.  But, have you ever thought about why you hesitated?

While there could be many reasons, concerns, justifications, or ways in which you rationalized your not taking action, the underlying barriers to your not asking can be boiled down to two issues.

Before I lay these barriers out to you, however, let me give you some insight into the process of rationalization.  Rationalizing is a psychological defense mechanism which allows us to justify whatever action we take with “reasons” which, while we may accept them as sufficient to back up what we want to do, might not carry much weight or significance to a third, unbiased, observer.

Why is this? Well, while the correct spelling of the word is R-A-T-I-O-N-A-L-I-Z-E, the psychological spelling, or underlying process is R-A-T-I-O-N-A-L    L-I-E-S.

When you rationalize, or justify, an action you are taking, or something you are not doing, you may be manufacturing excuses or “lies” which appear to support the position you are taking.

Now, I am not saying that you are intentionally telling an untruth (a “real” lie), although you could be.  I am saying that the reasons you are giving yourself, when seriously analyzed, probably won’t hold up to examination.  Hence. I am calling them “lies”.

So, what are the two underlying barriers which result in your hesitation to ask for what you want and how do you get around them?

The first barrier to your asking for what you want is emotional.

The anxiety that you are feeling and experiencing as distress will stop you in your tracks.  Remember that anxiety is a future based emotion, the message of which is: There MAY be a threat out there and it MAY  “kill” me.  The word kill is in quotes because with anxiety, we aren’t talking about physical death but some outcome which we believe could be “disastrous”, unwelcome, or significantly damaging in some way.

The question that elicits anxiety as distress is: What if  A, B, and/or C happens? where “A”, “B”, and “C” are worst case scenarios. This is called “catastrophising”.  Inaction happens when we accept A, B, and/or C and the answer to this question as inevitable  and back-off to avoid the unwanted outcome.

The second underlying barrier to your not asking for what you want has to do with your self-image and is experienced as a sense of your own unworthiness.  You do not believe that you are either justified in asking for what you want or that you are worthy enough to have your request granted.

There are 4 questions which, when asked and answered by you, will enable you to overcome these barriers.

  1. What is the worst that can happen if I do ask for what I want?
  2.  If the worst happens, can I survive it?
  3.  How will I benefit if the outcome I want happens?
  4. Is the request I am making (or question I am asking) a valid, reasonable (given the situation), and appropriate (again, given the situation) request to make?

Questions 1 and 2 are designed to address the anxiety.  If you can identify the worst case scenario that underlies your anxiety and you can survive (however you define this word) the disaster you are envisioning, then you no longer need to be bullied by your anxiety. You may still feel some anxiety but it will not be overwhelming.

In the case of requesting something from someone, the unwanted “disaster” usually involves some form of rejection, either of you, personally, or of the issue you are raising.

And, the answer to the survival question should, in nearly all cases, be “yes”.

Following these questions, you can use your anxiety as a tool to motivate you to get the facts you need, do whatever preparation you might have to do, and think through your request, prior to approaching the person and making your request.

This is using anxiety as “eustress”.

Question 3 turns anxiety into its mirror emotion…  anticipation.  Anticipation is also a future oriented emotion and elicits the same energy as anxiety. Anticipation, however, looks ahead and envisions a desirable outcome. Since you want the outcome to occur, you are more motivated to make the request and ask for what you want.

Question 4 indirectly addresses the question of worthiness.  If the request you are making is valid, reasonable, and appropriate, then the request is its own justification for being asked.  You, as the “requester” become worthy by implication because the request is worthy.

Yes, I know that the question of self-worth is far more complicated than this, can impact your life in a multitude of ways, and could require professional help if it becomes a clinical issue but, in the case of hesitation as we are discussing, this usually is not what is taking place.

So, to wrap up, Questions 1 and 2 directly address the distress of the anxiety which may be a barrier to your asking for what you want and uses anxiety as a tool (eustress) to motivate you to prepare for action.

Question 3 turns anxiety into anticipation so you are motivated to take the action you have prepared yourself for.

Question 4 indirectly addresses the question of worthiness AND (as a bonus) can give you additional motivation to ask for what you want.

Thanks for reading and I welcome your comments.

 

 

Anger Mastery: Respond, do not react when using your emotions as tools

Think about the last time you got angry.

Maybe, you were driving and another driver cut in front of you.

If you immediately got angry, gave him, or her, the one-finger salute, or used language you would not want your five year old to repeat, it is safe to say that you reacted to the situation.

The emotions as tools model teaches you to use your emotions to gain control over your life. In other words, your emotions are tools that inform you about your world and help you to become more effective in the actions
you choose to take.

The critical word here is “choose”.

When you choose what you want to do, you respond to what is happening.

There is personal power in responding.

When you act without thinking, you are reacting.

Reacting often leads to regret for having done something you later wish you had avoided.

As tools, each emotion communicates a message about how you perceive the situation you are in.

The message of anger, according to the emotions as tools model, is that you have perceived a threat that you believe you can remove, defeat, or eliminate by throwing enough energy at it to overpower it. You viewed the actions of the other driver as a threat and you IMMEDIATELY threw your energy into overpowering the threat. In other words, you reacted.

So, what was the threat you perceived? Was it to your safety, your sense of driving etiquette, your ego?

Even if there was a genuine threat, how much did the action(s) you took help to improve the situation?

A second example..

I was at the airport recently and there were long lines at the counter. I observed a man who was loudly complaining and becoming increasingly more angry every time he looked up at the screen announcing the flight information. When it was his turn, he focused all of his energy on the clerk. She apologized to him for his inconvenience and said that
there was nothing she could do about his cancelled flight.

This was an emotional reaction that reflected the degree of energy behind the anger but was totally ineffective in resolving the “threat” to his travel plans.

A few minutes later, this same clerk was approached by a passenger who effectively utilized her anger and responded to the situation. She acknowledged that the situation was not the clerk’s fault, stated her need to get home as soon as possible, and noted that she would appreciate anything the clerk could do. The clerk responded in kind by making
a few phone calls and securing a flight out of the airport.

This passenger responded to her anger and chose a course of action that was appropriate to the situation.

Responding-Not Reacting

Reacting
* is acting impulsively
* does not involve any reflection upon or thinking about your situation
* is usually ineffective in eliminating the threat
* typically results in your doing something you later regret or need to correct (as in offer an apology)
* may often make the situation worse

Responding
* is acting effectively
* always involves thinking about your situation
* requires weighing your options
* allows you to choose the best action to take
* results in the threat being eliminated or at least weakened

The three important functions anger, as an emotional tool, performs for you:
1. Anger informs you that you face a threat.
2. Anger alerts you to the need to think about what action you can take to eliminate the threat.
3. Anger gives you an opportunity to choose the best response to handle the threat.

When you respond to your anger, you empower yourself and you effectively utilize your emotions.

I welcome your comments.

The Atomic Power of Words: Learn to Harness It Part 2

In my last post, I introduced you to the atomic power of words to elicit feelings.  Feelings, in turn lead to behavior.  It is the connection between words feelings and actions which give words their power.

The downside of this relationship between words and actions is that the words we use can be misunderstood by others. Misunderstandings can elicit behavior we may not want.  Consequently, it is critical that we use words that are less likely to be misunderstood and, therefore, are more likely to generate the responses (behavior) we would like.

In this post, I want to address what I call “stop” words and replacing them with “go” words.

Stop words are words which when used tend to leave others feeling deflated, unmotivated and stuck. The same end result occurs when we use these words and direct them toward ourselves.

Go words are motivating.

It is important to note that the specific word you use is less important than how that word is interpreted on a feeling level.

Specific stop words are: “can’t” as in “I can’t…”, “problem” as in “We’ve got a problem.”, “should” as in “You (or I) should …” and so forth.

Let’s take the word “can’t”.  What we mean when we say we “can’t do something” is usually that we may see obstacles in the way of our accomplishing the task.  While there may be obstacles, the issue with the word “can’t” is that your brain may interpret the word as “impossible”.  If you say “I can’t do this.”, what you may feel is that it is impossible for you to do it.  If you truly were facing an impossible task that you felt compelled to overcome, you might get depressed, feel overwhelmed, stop trying, lose motivation and so forth.  When you tell yourself you “can’t” do something, you react as if the task facing you is, indeed impossible.

Another way around the word “can’t” which both acknowledges the difficulties the event you are facing represents and elicits a feeling of motivation is to say, “This situation is admittedly difficult but it is doable.”  “Doable” is a go word. Emotionally, your brain is satisfied that the situation has been correctly labelled as requiring great effort and you remain motivated because you believe you have the ability to persevere and overcome.

If you tell someone else they “can’t” do something or you are told that “you can’t do something”, the reaction you may get is defiance or resistance.  In this case, the word “can’t” is perceived as an unfair imposition of power and might elicit the emotion of anger.  The message of anger is that a threat is perceived that can be overpowered.  In trying to deal with a threat you view as “unfair”, you, or someone else such as your kid, may be motivated to rebel, look for ways to get around the imposition and so forth.

In both cases, the word “can’t” is a stop word because it impedes forward progress and weakens motivation.

I am not saying you can never use the word “can’t”.

I am saying that if you do use it, explain what you mean by looking at the obstacles that exist or the issues which prohibit another from taking a specific action.  You might say, “You can’t do this because…”

You get a similar reaction when you use the stop word “should” as in “I should go on a diet.” or “You should be more….”.  The initial reaction is resistance as in “Why?”, “Who is gonna make me?”, or “Who says.”  Think about your own reaction when someone like your doctor or your spouse tells you that you “should” do something like lose weight, stop smoking or exercise more you tell yourself that you should do something like your New Year’s Resolutions.

Another stop word is “problem” as in “We have a problem.”

I don’t know if you remember the movie Apollo 13 but it is a true story about an American crew whose space ship explodes.  While the crew is alright, their ship is severely disabled and there is a real possibility that they might not be able to get back to earth.  The captain of the mission, played by Tom Hanks, radios the command center back on earth and says,
“Houston, we have a problem.” In this case, the problem was a life threatening, potential disaster with no immediately obvious solution. The word “problem” implied potential catastrophe.

It is the emotional connotation of catastrophe that makes the word “problem” a  potential stop word.  Someone tells you that they have a “problem” or you tell yourself you “have a problem” and the emotional reaction is anxiety, disbelief, or, possibly, inadequacy.  The message of anxiety is that the situation you are facing might be a threat that might “kill” you.  The emotional behavior elicited by anxiety is stress or withdrawal.

Instead of labeling an event as a “problem”, you can call it a challenge or even a very difficult challenge. The word “challenge” is a go word. When facing a challenge, the emotion elicited might be excitement or enthusiasm, or motivated.  The ensuing behavior is solution focused activity designed to meet and beat the challenge.

When you are aware of the strong emotional impact that words can have on the behavior of others and on your own actions, you can begin to master the atomic power of words to motivate yourself and others. Stop words can result in inhibition, withdrawal, or resistance. You might want to avoid using stop words, replace them with go words or, when you do use them, provide a context in which the word you use makes sense and doesn’t elicit emotions and reactions you do not want.

I welcome your comments

The Atomic Power of Words: Learn to Harness it. Part 1

The word emotion comes from a Latin word meaning to move.  Emotions have, over time, evolved to move us to action. As I discussed in the emotional cycle, the primary emotions of mad, sad, fear and disgust are primitive threat detectors which subconsciously alert us to and prepare our bodies to react to a threat which could have a negative impact on us if not addressed.  We manage an emotion when we validate it, adjust our arousal level and stop the initial emotional reaction before we act on it.

We go beyond emotional management to emotional mastery when we assess the nature of the emotion, decide if the emotion does, indeed, match the situation in which we find ourselves, and choose how we want to respond to that situation.  If the emotion matches the situation, we choose to let the emotion motivate us to take effective action.  If we have misperceived the situation and the emotion does not match what is happening, we can choose to change our perception of the situation and let the emotion subside.

With this in mind, I want to make you aware of what I call the atomic power of the words you use to generate feelings (same as emotions) which in turn motivate you to take specific actions. We master the power of words when we are aware of the emotions specific words can elicit and choose the words we use to match the situation we wish to create.

Most of us spend too little time thinking about the words we use both in our conversations with others and in our “conversations” with ourselves. All communication starts with an idea that you may have which you attempt to put into words. The challenge is that we try to compress the multifaceted picture we have into a static, often oversimplified word. The person to whom we are speaking has to decode the word using his, or her, own set of filters hoping to recreate the same “picture” we originally encoded in the words we use.  Use the word “breakfast” as an example. Maybe you are thinking of an American meal steak and eggs and someone else is thinking about a continental meal of yogurt and pastries.  Same word… different pictures.

Oftentimes, the other person does not accurately decode our message.  This leads to a misunderstanding which can elicit emotions we did not intend and would rather avoid.

By the way, because words can be misunderstood, you need to be careful when you send a text, a letter, or an email to another person like a boss. You may know what you want to say but what that other person “hears” is very different.  The emotions your words elicit in that other person may be very different, and sometimes detrimental, than what you intended to convey.

There are words which leave you, or someone else, feeling excited, energized, and ready to act.  These words are motivating and move us forward.  I call these “go” words.

There are other words which leave you feeling turned off, overwhelmed, unexcited and stuck.  I call these “stop” words.

There are other words which can have unintended effects.  One example is when a parent tells a child, “You should be ashamed of yourself.” We will talk about this is a future post.

Because we often only “see” what we intend to communicate, we may miss other ways our words can be interpreted. When this happens, the atomic power of the word can backfire.

We will talk more about “stop” words in the next post.

Dealing with regret.

Regret is an emotion that can increase your stress level, consume your energy, and lead you into a proverbial emotional maze from which there is no escape. Regrets can haunt you.

All emotions have a message. Mastering an emotion involves understanding the message that the emotion communicates to you about how you perceive your world, taking a breath and assessing the validity of the message, and choosing an appropriate response. You can master emotions such as anger, sadness, anxiety, jealousy and even envy. In fact, I wrote a book entitled Beyond Anger Management: Master Your Anger as a Strategic Tool. If you haven’t done so already, go back to the home page of this blog and download the first chapter of Beyond Anger Management.

Regret can also be mastered if you change your approach to it as I will show you below.

If regret is a troubling emotion for you or someone you know, then you, or they, may have allowed your regret to overwhelm you. When this happens, mastering regret becomes impossible and regret becomes emotionally draining and psychologically intrusive.

Let me explain.

The message of regret is that, based on some future outcome, you either did something you later wish you had not done or you did not do something you later wish you had done. By itself, this can be a healthy message. And we will use this aspect of regret below.

The darker side of regret which is the source of all the emotional pain associated with the feeling is the self-recrimination and blame that people engage in when they feel regret. This can be expressed as: “I was such an idiot when I (did or did not do) X!” or “How could I be so stupid to (have done or not done) X?” or “I lost so much when I (did or did not do) X.” The insidious face of regret is the message that not only was an opportunity ruined by my action or inaction but that opportunity was both important and, now, irretrievable and I am both blameworthy and incompetent for blowing the opportunity.

Put another way, regret continually beats you over the head with the message that you can’t change what you did and you can’t recover from the action or inaction you displayed. This is the emotional box canyon I mentioned above. Not only did you screw up but you are incompetent and must suffer forever because you can’t change what you did and the outcome you created.

While it may be true that the opportunity is lost and that you are responsible for your actions, there usually is no justification for remaining stuck in the past.

So how do you master the emotion of regret and use it to move you forward?

The key to mastering regret is the acronym IWBNI (Ih-whib-knee). The letters stand for ItWould Be Nice If.

Here is how and why this approach works.

When you change the message from “I should (or should not) have done X.” to “It would have been nice if I had (done or not done) X.”, you acknowledge the importance of the specific opportunity that was lost or ruined, you accept responsibility for what you did or did not do, you remove the self-recrimination element, and you give yourself a chance to learn from the past and move forward.

Using the IWBNI approach focuses your attention on what is true. This is why the approach is so powerful.

In every case, it is totally true that It Would Be Nice If the situation had been handled differently.

Secondly, acknowledging the importance of the lost opportunity and accepting responsibility satisfies the thinking, or logical, part of your brain and makes it possible for you to remove the self-recrimination, learn from the past and move forward.

You are now mastering your regret by acknowledging and validating the message of the emotion that something in the past led to undesirable outcomes, you are examining your past behavior and putting it into an emotionally acceptable context, and you are choosing how you want to respond to the emotion.

I welcome any comments on the above.

Effective Empathy- Step 2 and 3

In my last post, I talked about step 1 to establishing effective empathy and noted that you need to both be aware of and overcome the barriers to empathy which might exist between you and the person with whom you are trying to communicate.  These barriers act as filters through which what you say is interpreted and, often, misunderstood. Taking the time to interact with another person and find the common ground that you share begins to set up the foundation from which empathy is built.

Step 2 involves using your knowledge about emotions to provide you with a context for your interactions with the other person.  Step 3 involves showing the other person that you do understand their point of view.  You do this by communicating that you are aware of and acknowledge the barriers that exist between you. You also need to validate their feelings about the issue that both of you are trying to resolve.  This is what “understanding” is all about.

If the other person does not feel that they are being understood, you can’t establish that you care about them or that you understand them, both of which are critical to establishing empathy.

You demonstrate that you understand another person’s point of view when you address the message of the emotion they are showing you.  This is what emotional mastery is all about.

The emotion you see in the other person is based on their perception of the situation in which they find themselves.  This is the emotional process which I addressed in earlier posts. Each emotion communicates a different message.  When you understand the message of the emotion, you can address the concerns of the other person.

The message of the basic emotions are as follows:

  • Anger: I perceive a threat which I believe I can eliminate if I throw enough force at it.
  • Anxiety: I perceive a possible threat in the future that MAY hurt me.
  • Guilt: I have done something wrong that I need to make right.
  • Regret: I either did (or did not) do something that led to a negative outcome that I am powerless to correct.
  • Sad: I have lost something or someone who was very important to me.

I addressed anxiety and anger in earlier posts and I will address regret in a future post.

If a person is angry with you, you “master” their emotion and establish empathy by attempting to determine the threat they perceive.  Are you the threat?  Is a new policy the threat?  Has something changed in the work setting?  You might say, “I can see that you are angry.”  This is the beginning of empathy but does not establish effective empathy.

To be effective, you need to add, “Can you help me understand what it is that you are so angry about?”

When they tell you the object of their anger and you realize that this situation is perceived as a threat, you can then work with them to eliminate the perceived threat in such a way that both of you get what you want.

This is exactly the opposite of what happened when professional women expressed anger about a situation in their work settings and the men in that setting demeaned them and marginalized them. The men appeared to feel threatened by the women’s assertive behavior.

I have tried to give you a basic foundation for establishing effective empathy.  If you would like a more indepth discussion of this issue or a point I have made is not clear, let me know in the comments section.

Barriers to effective empathy

Remember that effective empathy involves being able to understand another person’s world from their point of view.

Recall also, that there are three steps to establishing effective empathy. The three steps are: 1. Establish that you genuinely care enough to want to understand how the other person sees the world, 2. Use your knowledge of emotional mastery as a basis for your empathic communications. and 3. Take the time to let them help you understand how they see their world (and you, as part of that world).

Barriers to effective empathy include differences between you and the other person which could act as filters which prohibit you from understanding how they see their world as well as any “language deficits” which might distort the messages (either from you to them or vice versa) being communicated.

You may experience barriers as you attempt to establish that you genuinely care in step 1 and in step 3 as you attempt to be empathic.

In my last post, I mentioned some of the barriers to empathy that I had to overcome with the young incarcerated women including history and gender, race, and language. All three were critical.  As a white middle class doctor with no history of incarceration, I was clearly different from my clients in appearance, language, and experience.

Given the correctional setting in which I worked, my client’s (correct based on their experience) view of men as abusive, untrustworthy and, often, dangerous, and my graduate school based language, any words I used which implied that I either cared about or understood these young women would come across as empty, insincere, and unlikely. I overcame these barriers by clearly stating that I could not know their world, clearly stating that I wanted to help them and needed their help in order to do this, being consistent in the boundaries I set and the statements I made, and learning to communicate in a manner (using emotional explanations and examples and asking lots of questions) that was non threatening and easy to understand.

I was successful with these young women because I was able to establish that we shared a common interest or, at least, a common ground. The client wanted to get out and stay out of “jail” and I wanted to help them do this.  They needed my help and I needed them to help me be able to work with them.

Step 1 to overcoming barriers is to establish, over time, that you and the person with whom you are communicating either share common goals or share a common ground from which both of you can achieve your goals either as a “win-win” or through compromise and that you are interested in helping them achieve (as much as possible) their goals.

In a work setting, those goals might be to improve the office working environment, build a more successful business, improve worker satisfaction and productivity, be recognized for one’s contributions, and so forth.  Sharing common goals or a common ground does not mean that management and workers, or even co-workers, always agree or see goals in the same light. Indeed, the WSJ article notes the importance of “acknowledg(ing) emotions and hold(ing) employees accountable”. The implication is that a goal (perhaps improving accountability) might be obtained by empathizing with, finding out the concerns of, and ultimately helping the employee become more accountable. The manager wants more accountability and the employee wants to be heard and appreciated.  Accountability will follow being heard and appreciated.

If the goals of the employee are emotionally driven, you will need to understand what emotion, or emotions, are driving the individual and the message of the emotions being displayed.  This is the information of emotional mastery and it is this information that becomes the foundation of the empathic language you can use to overcome the emotional barriers that confront you. This is step 2.

I will continue this discussion in my next posting.

 

 

Effective empathy

An article recently published in the Wall Street Journal (6-22-16) caught my attention.  The article, entitled “Companies Try New Strategy: Empathy”, quotes a study by Development Dimensions International which concluded that “Individuals who master listening and responding to others are the most successful leaders, and this skill outranks all others.”

This article especially caught my attention because of a post I published in the Connect:  Professional Woman’s Network on LinkedIn.  I asked the members of the network what they experienced when they appropriately expressed anger in their work settings. The majority of the 2000+ responses indicated that when a woman showed anger to highlight an injustice, she was maligned, denigrated and demeaned by her co-workers. Workplace empathy was not reflected in how these professional women were treated.

Merriam-Webster online dictionary defines Empathy as: “the feeling that you understand and share (emphasis added) another person’s experiences and emotions.” I call this true empathy as opposed to effective empathy.

The article gives an example of an exercise which experientially, approaches true empathy.  Ford Motor Company puts its vehicle designers in pregnancy suits in order to help them feel what it is like for a pregnant woman to ergonomically interact with a car’s design.

This exercise was effective because it put the male designers in the role of a  pregnant woman and, thereby, eliminated the barriers to empathy including the inability of a man to experience the world of a pregnant woman.

While these kinds of exercises are important, dealing with another person’s feelings (the goal of empathic training in a business setting) is a whole different matter.

The reason for this is that, when it comes to another person’s feelings, true empathy is impossible. There are at least two reasons for this. First of all, we cannot actually share another’s experience. Each individual’s interactions with the world are often complex, multifaceted and interpreted through that person’s unique set of filters which we do not share. Secondly, the nature of language is such that even a very good communicator, which most of us are not, often lacks the words to completely describe their experiences.

That being said, while true empathy is not possible, effective empathy (my words) is very possible.  I believe that the WSJ article is talking about effective empathy.

Working therapeutically with the young women in the California Department of Corrections-Juvenile Division was challenging because there were many barriers to establishing empathy.

Here is a partial list of these potential barriers to empathy:

  • History + Gender: Most of these women had histories of multiple abuse by men. I was both a male and I did not have a history of abuse.
  • Race: I was white and many of my female clients were women of color.
  • Language: Not only was there an educational gap between us but these young women had very little experience dealing with feelings or using emotional words. in other words, asking “How do you feel?” often elicited single word, not very informative, answers.

Establishing effective empathy, as I see it, involves being able to understand another person’s world from their point of view.  This involves three major steps.  First, you have to establish that you genuinely care enough to want to understand how they view their world. If you are only using key phrases and are not sincerely interested in connecting with the other person, your words will be perceived as hollow, you will not connect, and effective empathy will elude you.  Secondly, you need to know what emotions are and the messages each emotion conveys.  This information will aid you in gaining the understanding and empathy you seek and is what emotional mastery is all about.  Thirdly, you need to take the time and make the effort to both let them and, if necessary, help them tell you how they see their world. This is where you use your empathic language as well as other communication skills and emotional words to help the other person paint a verbal picture of their world and their concerns.

With my young female clients, my first step was to establish that I could not know how these young women experienced their world because I was clearly not one of them.  The second step was to apply the principles of emotional mastery as a context in which to begin to understand what these young women told me. Finally, the third step was to ask them to help me understand their world from their point of view.

While the actual training described in the Wall Street Journal article may address all three steps, the article, per se, only briefly touched upon step 3.

I will cover these three steps in more detail using different examples in future posts.

I welcome all of your questions and comments.

What is the best approach to dealing with “negative” emotions?

My approach, as a psychologist with 32 years of experience dealing with, and teaching others to deal with, emotions is a bit different than what you’ll get from most other sources.

First of all, I do not believe that there are any negative emotions.  To label something as “negative” is to imply that it should be eliminated.  As an example, you do not want a negative evaluation at work or a negative balance in your checkbook.

People label emotions such as anger as negative because they observe others who get angry, do bad things, and blame their anger for the bad behavior.  This is like blaming your smoke detector when it wakes you up in the middle of the night either because the battery is low or there is a fire.  The smoke detector is doing its job!

You have emotions because your emotions perform an important function for you which is to alert you to your surroundings and prepare you for action.  This function is the emotion’s job. From this point of view, all emotions are adaptive.  Your job is to learn what emotions are, what they do, and how you can master them to control your life.

Secondly, many writers talk about controlling your emotions.  While I do believe you need to control your actions, I do not talk about controlling your emotions. If you think about it, you do not control your computer (Yes, I know about programming the computer, but this is not what most of us do.), you learn how to master it so that it does what you want it to do.

That said, here are my recommendations:

I developed the Emotions as Tools Model (Emotions as Tools A Self Help Guide to Controlling Your Life not Your Feelings) to teach incarcerated young women (and others) how to adaptively interact with their emotions.

I suggest you master your emotions as tools to adaptively gain back control of your life.

Your emotions come from the way you  perceive the world around you and alert you to your perceptions.  This alert is the message of the emotion.

Once you learn to acknowledge the emotion and its message, you empower yourself to question the validity of the message and choose how you want to respond to it.

The message of anger is that you perceive a threat (to your goals, your values, your finances, your beliefs) that you can eliminate if you throw enough force at it.  Anger is a primitive emotion that exists in cultures around the world and in several non-human species.  When we get angry, the adrenalin flows and we are ready for action.  This is why a 5’5″ mom can lift a car off of her son.

The problem is that most people REACT instead of RESPOND to their anger and do dumb things. This is why anger is labelled a negative emotion. People blame the emotion for a person’s behavior rather than holding the person responsible.  While it is true that an emotion motivates an individual to act in a particular way, one always has a choice about what one does.

When you recognize that you are angry, stop and take a breath.  The purpose of the breath is to give you a second or two to take the next step. Taking a breath, reading a book, listening to music or any other distraction are not solutions to anger.

The next step is to question how valid (real) the threat is.

If the threat is to an important goal, asset, or value, take action.

If the threat is to your ego, your opinion, or some minor goal, then you can decide that there is no real threat and leave the situation, engage in conversation, or, at this point, try distraction.

This takes practice, but it is doable.

Next, let me address fear and anxiety as they are not the same.

Fear is a primitive, present based, emotion the message of which is that you are facing a threat that will kill you.  This is the “hair on the back of your neck” feeling.

When you experience fear, I recommend that you get away from the situation.  As an example, if you are about to enter an elevator and you get a creepy feeling about the guy standing there, take the next elevator regardless of whatever your logic tells you.  The best book on fear is Gavin deBecker’s book “The Gift of Fear”.

Anxiety is a future based emotion.  The message of anxiety is that there MAY be a threat and that the threat MAY “kill” me.

When you experience anxiety, assess the nature of the threat.  If the threat is something you need to take action on (my students studying for an exam, preparing for a job interview, or learning how to ask your boss for a raise), then ask yourself if you could survive the worst possible outcome.  If the answer is yes, take the action. This type of anxiety is called eustress and is motivating.

If the threat is not critical, is beyond your ability to influence, or is based on the  way you think things should be, then decide to let go of the anxiety and move on. This type of stress is called distress and is disabling. The anxiety will not immediately go away so you will have to remind yourself over and over to let go of it.

So, the best approach to dealing with “negative” emotions is to accept that there are no “negative” emotions and to learn to master the emotions as tools.

I welcome your comments on the above.

From T.E.A. to T.E.D.: My emotional wake-up calls. What will be yours?

In an earlier post, I talked about why it is in your best interest to learn to master your emotions. In thinking about this post, I thought I would put it into perspective.

While I call myself The Emotions Doctor (T.E.D.), today, growing up, the best description of me would have been The Emotions Avoider (T.E.A.).  I had a major wake-up call which made me realize that I was not mastering my emotions and using all of the important information my feelings made available to me. I had to learn to master my emotions.

Without going into a whole lot of detail, emotions in my family were not dealt with well.

My dad came from a generation in which feelings, with the possible exception of anger, were not expressed and may have been associated with weakness.  When he heard of my mom’s death and was moved to tears, he apologized to me for his display of emotion. Even anger was not expressed all that much by my dad and, when it was, the expression tended to be excessive and out of proportion to the precipitating event. I should mention that he was never abusive.

Emotionally, my dad was bland and unavailable. I learned from my dad that feelings, and especially anger, were to be tightly controlled.

My mom, while emotionally present, tended to focus on organizing what needed to be done.  I learned from her that emotions were not really important and were to be kept at bay in order to facilitate accomplishing the task at hand.

I should add that I am not blaming my parents for what they “taught” me about feelings.  They were good parents and did the best they could. Emotionally, they did what they were “taught” and passed on what they knew to me.

My way of dealing with feelings was to suppress them, go inside my head, and deal with issues cognitively. When feelings came up, as they did, I withdrew, thought things out on my own, decided what needed to be done, and did what I had to do. I was not able to use the message of my anger to energize action, use the message of my anxiety to energize a possible threat and formulate an effective plan, or utilize my grief to step back and mourn the loss of my pets who died.  Anger left me feeling weak instead of powerful.  Anxiety left me feeling inadequate. And, grief just sucked. I tried to accept what was happening to the best of my ability and move on.

My becoming The Emotions Doctor happened over many years and was the result of having to adapt to situations involving emotions which required me to grow. These were my emotional wake-up calls.

As a psychology intern without a drug problem but a desire to learn about dealing with substance abusers, I volunteered as a “participant-observer” in a residential alcoholic treatment program.  It took the group 6 months to break through my cognitive defenses and show me the anger and hurt I kept inside.  They called me a non-drinking alcoholic as I avoided my feelings with my books and my mind while they did it by self-medicating.

Working with young women at the California Youth Authority, if I was to be an effective therapist, I had to learn how to help them understand the feelings they held in regarding their own abuse and the serious crimes they had committed.  As a staff trainer, I had to learn how to help jaded correctional officers and, as a professional speaker, overly emotionally protected law-enforcement personnel, to understand what emotions were and how to deal with them. Professional integrity forced me to master my own emotions so that I could then focus on helping others master theirs. I developed the Emotions as Tools Model as a teaching aide. This is the topic of my first book Emotions as Tools: A Self Help Guide to Controlling Your Life not Your Feelings.

My focus on anger and my second book Beyond Anger Management: Master Your Anger as a Strategic Tool came about because I realized that this emotion is highly misunderstood and, if you look at the news, widely and inappropriately expressed.  Not only do people need to learn how to master their own anger but people need to learn, for self-defense, how to master the anger of others directed at them.

I don’t know what your emotional wake-up calls will be.  Maybe, your emotions will  result in you making  some bad decisions.  Maybe, your lack of emotional mastery will result in others taking advantage of you.  Or, maybe, you are here just to get some information.

Whatever the case is for you, I am glad that you are here.  My goal in this blog is to give you information which is designed to help you master your emotions hopefully before you have an emotional wake-up call or after, if that is how it is for you.

I welcome your comments.