Master Your Emotions as Strategic Tools: Why bother?

Three examples of not mastering one’s emotions.

  1. Recently, a very close friend of mine died. As we later found out, he skipped getting a blood test which would have discovered the raging infection which killed him.
  2. The daughter of a good friend complained at a recent gathering of our two families that her boss was taking credit for work she had done by publishing that work in an email and not crediting our friend’s daughter as the author of the report. My friend’s daughter felt agitated, angry, and stressed out.  She felt she was powerless in that situation, was aware that she had to avoid doing something she clearly wanted to do and knew she would regret and, later, got physically ill.
  3. My students tend to procrastinate and wait until the last minute to prepare a paper or study for an exam. While this sometimes works out okay, the work produced with this strategy is often of lesser quality than if it had been thought about, planned out, and completed absent the stress of an impending deadline.

In each of the above cases, not understanding what an emotion is and how to both master and strategically deploy the energy associated with that emotion led to unwanted results which most likely could have been avoided.

There is a myth that says “What I don’t know can’t hurt me.”  A myth is a statement that, while it may have some truth to it in some situations, is largely false.  The modicum of truth in the myth allows the myth to persist.  Thus, while some might argue that not knowing about a spouse’s one-time indiscretion which the spouse regrets and will never repeat might be better than having the marriage be threatened, not knowing about tainted drinking water, identity theft on the internet, toxic gases being released into the air, or your body’s response to pain could be a disaster waiting to happen.

Why bother to master your emotions?

Well, the short answer is that if you don’t master your emotions, they will control you and lead you to take action.  In today’s world that is usually something you may later regret.

In fact, from a psychoevolutionary point of view, leading you to take action is exactly what emotions evolved to do, have done since we lived in caves and, absent mastery on our part, continue to do today. Our cave ancestors did not have sharp teeth or claws for survival.  What they did have were emotions which functioned as primitive threat detectors.  These emotional tools (4 of the 5 primary emotions of mad, sad, glad, fear and disgust), subconsciously alerted them to a threat and prepared their bodies to deal with that threat.

I discuss the Emotions as Tools Model  and the emotional myths in my books  Emotions as Tools: A Self Help Guide to Controlling Your Life not Your Feelings and  Beyond Anger Management: Master Your Anger as a Strategic Tool

For our ancestors, all threats were survival based and would kill them if not dealt with.  Today, most of the threats we face are psychological threats which may result in unwanted consequences but are not fatal. Traffic jams and rude clerks in stores are inconvenient but they are not the same as a saber toothed tiger that wants to eat us.

Please note that while some people may use their emotions as excuses, what I am saying does not, in any way, absolve them of responsibility for their actions.  While one’s emotions may push them to react in certain ways, the actions they take are always the result of decisions they made.

All emotions are tools.  Some emotions like mad, sad, anxiety, fear, disgust, guilt alert us to, and prepare us to deal with, situations (threats), which need to be addressed.  Other emotions such as happy alert us to a situation which is pleasurable and push us to to keep our attention focused on and ourselves engaged in that task.  The “message” of the emotion is  the action we feel “compelled” to take and the nature of the specific task we are facing.

Mastering an emotion involves three main steps:

  1. Learning how to identify, through your body’s physical reaction, and correctly label which emotion you are experiencing and the thoughts/perceptions which maintain that emotion.
  2. Managing, in the case of a threat, that emotion and your reaction to it by lowering your immediate arousal and preventing yourself from REACTING and doing something you later regret
  3. Going beyond emotional management to emotional mastery. This involves analyzing the nature of the threat, adjusting your thoughts/perceptions of the situation if necessary, and choosing how to appropriately RESPOND to that threat.

In example A above, it is entirely possible that had my friend allowed himself to feel anxious about his health instead of rationalizing how “strong” and “resilient” he was in order to avoid the reality of his situation and had he mastered his anxiety, he would have gotten the medical attention he needed.  And, he might be alive today.

In example B, my friend’s daughter, after discussing her situation, mastered her anger and its energy and developed a strategy which was designed both to deal with the supervisor, without using direct confrontation, and successfully eliminate the threat to her professional integrity.

In example C, once my students began to understand both how procrastination was masking anxiety and how to master that anxiety, they approached upcoming assignments from a different and more adaptive point of view.

To conclude, “bothering” to master one’s emotions is important because to do so…

  • gives you back control of your life,
  • prevents you from feeling, or being, victimized by others
  • allows you to take advantage of the information your emotions provide,
  • sets you up to make more adaptive decisions about how best to interact with your environment, and
  • improves your life and your relationships.

I welcome your comments,

Dealing with Procrastination as Anxiety

We have been talking about anxiety and how to deal with it.  While you may not think about it in terms of anxiety, procrastination may be linked to anxiety about some future unwanted outcome.

Many people have written about procrastination and the suggestions they offer are directed at starting the project or overcoming inertia.  Breaking a task down into smaller components, setting S.M.A.R.T  (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, Time-bound), goals, and rewarding yourself for your accomplishments are very good techniques and can effectively help you to either get past the obstacles which seem to surround a new project or eliminate the distractions that lead you to focus on tasks that grab your immediate attention rather than go after the project you are avoiding.

Sometimes, however, inertia is not the issue underlying your procrastination. If the above techniques for overcoming procrastination do not get you back on track, the issue may involve the emotion of anxiety.

Anxiety can overwhelm you and prevent you from taking action.

As I discuss in my book  Emotions as Tools A Self Help Guide to Controlling Your Life not Your Feelings, anxiety is a future based emotion which alerts you to a possible undesirable future and leads you to avoid that future as if it is not only likely but also the only possible outcome.  Procrastination facilitates this avoidance.

Your anxiety will show up in the questions you ask yourself and the focus of the answers to those questions when you think about your project.

If  you find yourself asking questions such as: “What if (the project)  … Doesn’t turn out the way I want it to?,   Isn’t well received, or Is criticized by the team? and all of your answers focus on the worst possible outcomes, then you are experiencing anxiety as “distress” and you are acting as if the project will turn out bad, the team will not accept it, or the new client will reject you. You will rationalize and justify your procrastination in order to support and reinforce your view of the future and your anxiety.

There is a solution.

Three steps to utilize your anxiety as a strategic tool and move past procrastination.

Step 1: Accept and Validate  your Anxiety

These are the Validate and Examine steps, I mentioned in an earlier post.

The focus of this step is to both accept, rather than fight, and validate, or assess, your anxiety. The message of anxiety is that there MAY be a threat out there that MAY harm me. You strategically use your anxiety as a tool when you acknowledge the message of anxiety and assess it. So take a look at your concerns to see if maybe there is some real issue about the project that you need to address.

If there are issues, then address them. In many cases which involve procrastination, however, there probably is no real issue other than your unsubstantiated anxieties.

Step 2: Turn anxiety into anticipation and excitement.

Anxiety looks ahead to an undesirable future and acts “as if” the projected future is the only possibility.  The flip side of anxiety is anticipation which also looks forward to, but gets excited about, a possible desirable future.

You change your anxiety to anticipation by  asking a different “What if..” question.  Examples include: “What if the project works out successfully and everyone is pleased? or “What if I get the book done and it really helps (non-fiction) or entertains (fiction) the people who read it?  These “what-ifs” will elicit excitement.

Step 3: Let the excitement motivate you and move you past your procrastination.

This involves the Motivate and Act steps I noted in an earlier post.

While it may sound simple, it can work with practice and, once you do this, you can then set goals and complete the project.

If you find this post helpful, or you don’t, I welcome your comments.



Four Anti-anxiety techniques Part 2

FOUR anti-anxiety techniques for strategically using your anxiety. (V.E.M.A)

1.VALIDATE:  Validate (accept) your feeling.

“I am really anxious right now.”

The point here is that your anxiety is telling you that you are facing a big challenge and must prepare for it.  Accepting (validating) your feeling opens you up to the opportunity to examine your anxiety and benefit from its message.

2.EXAMINE:  Use your anxiety as a wake-up call to examine the “reality” of the threat.

Ask yourself these questions:

  • What is the “threat” that I’m facing?

In the above example, the threat is the slow internet connection which was preventing my colleague from uploading his information. The threat was real. It was not catastrophic.

You may discover that there you have misunderstood or misperceived the situation and there is no threat.

  • How important is for me to eliminate the threat and get the “job” done?

If the “job” is very important, then you will need to figure out a plan of action. If the “job” is not really that important, then choose to let the feeling go and move on.

  • What do I need now in terms of skills and knowledge, what resources do I have that I can call upon to move forward, or what do I need to do to get the resources I need?

My colleague needed a network connection. With his focus on solutions, he realized that he could borrow a network at a friend’s house or Starbucks.

The point is that you have knowledge and resources upon which you can draw to help you move forward.

Your anxiety, if not used as a tool, can distract you from identifying these resources.


Use your anxiety as a motivator or energizer to charge up your creative juices and push you to making plans to use the resources you have or will develop.

“I can use all this nervous energy as motivation to get this “project” back on track.”

4. ACT

Take action, NOW.

Answer these four questions, determine where you need to change, get the information you need, and move forward in strategically applying your anxiety. 

  1. I validate my feelings… Yes / No
  2. I examine the “reality” of the threat that might exist.. Yes / No
  3. I use my anxiety as a motivator.. Yes / No
  4. I am taking action on what I have learned… Yes / No

I look forward to your comments.

Four Anti-anxiety Techniques Part 1

Anxiety is a future based emotion. It is looking into the future with a sense of dread.

Examples of situations in which you might become anxious and catastrophise include:

  • Asking for a raise at work.
  • Needing to change jobs because of unacceptable circumstances at work.
  • Needing to talk to your spouse about finances, unacceptable habits, or other topic.
  • Needing to learn to give a speech in order to advance at work, hold a volunteer office, etc.
  • Wanting to ask someone out on a date (perhaps, you are post-divorce and back in the “market”)

Using anxiety as a tool:  The key is to RESPOND (not to react) to your anxiety. This is the EUSTRESS side of anxiety.

  1. View your anxiety as a messenger telling you that action may be needed.
  1. Use your anxiety as a motivator to take action.

You use your anxiety as a tool when …

  • That report is due at work, or at school, and you stay up all night to get it done.
  • You are going on vacation in two days and you manage to clear your desk and make arrangements so you can leave without worrying about what happens while you are gone.
  • You start a new business, buy a new car, or take out a loan on a house and you read all the documents a second time to make sure that “all the i’s are dotted and all the t’s are crossed”.

I welcome your comments on the above.


Fear and Anxiety

I noted in my last post that fear and anxiety were not the same emotion.

Too often, people confuse the two emotions.  An example is the saying, “I’m afraid I might not do well on the exam next week.” Now, I am not saying we need to change the way we talk.  I am saying that if you want to learn to master your emotions, you would benefit from knowing the actual feeling you are experiencing and even using the right word to discuss it. This is so you can choose the most adaptive response to the situation you are facing and to which your feeling is alerting you.

Fear is a present “here and now” feeling.  It is the hair on the back of the neck feeling of dread you might experience if you are facing a robber who is pointing a gun at you or if you are alone in an abandoned garage and you hear footsteps, or, and this one is important, you are looking at someone who is standing in an elevator appearing to be just fine but who just doesn’t feel “right” to you.

The best advice is to always listen to your fear.  This does not mean that the guy in the elevator is a danger to you. For people who have developed a prejudice toward others, fear may come up and be totally inappropriate. All I am saying is that if you feel fear, act on the side of caution and take the next elevator.  Gavin de Becker’s book The Gift of Fear is an excellent source for information on this emotion.

Anxiety is a future based emotion the message of which is that there MAY be a threat and it MIGHT “kill” me.  Anxiety is the “butterflies” in your stomach, the sweaty palms, the nervousness, or the uneasy sense of impending doom you might experience if you have an interview coming up for a new job, you get pulled over by a policeman, you want to meet a new someone, and so forth.

There are two types of anxiety.  Eustress is the enabling form of anxiety in which you use the nervous energy of your emotion as motivation to study for the exam, prepare for the interview etc.

Distress is the disabling form of anxiety which stops you in your tracks, prevents you from taking action on your own behalf, leads you to make an excuse why you shouldn’t approach your new someone and so forth.

Mastering your anxiety involves assessing the nature of the possible threat. What would happen if the threat actually took place? Could you survive it? If you could survive it, you can move to eustress.

Another “trick” for mastering anxiety is to turn it into anticipation (or enthusiasm).  Anticipation is the flip side of anxiety.  The energy of both emotions is the same.  The message of anticipation is that if I handle this situation, good things could possible take place that I might really like.

Think about how you approach your anxiety.

If you have questions or comments, please leave a comment.

The Emotional Process Part 3

In an earlier post I mentioned the 6 primary emotions of mad (anger), sad, glad (happy), fear, disgust, and surprise.  With the exception of glad and surprise, all the primary emotions are primitive threat detectors.

Each of the primary threat detectors focuses on a different threat.  The “message” of each emotion is an alert that you may be facing a specific threat. An important part of mastering your emotions and using them as strategic tools is the ability to recognize that your emotion is alerting you to and preparing you to deal with a possible threat so that you can choose how you want to respond to the situation in which you find yourself.

Remember that the fast track message from your senses to the amygdala sets you up to react to the threat as if it was a real and valid issue that would hurt you if not eliminated. Also, remember that your initial perception may not always be accurate. The slower track message to the cortex gives you the opportunity to master the emotion.

So, let’s look at the message of each primary emotion.

The message of mad (anger) is that you perceive a threat that you believe you can eliminate if you throw enough force at it.  When you get angry, your attention narrows onto the “enemy”, adrenaline is released into your body, and you are ready to go to war. We will focus more on the anger mastery cycle in a future post.

The message of sad is that you have experienced a significant loss in your life.  The emotion of sadness is experienced as a loss of energy and a desire to withdraw from the situation.  If you have experienced a significant loss, it is in your best interest to take some time and process the loss so that, when you are ready, you can return to “life” and begin to move on.

In is important to keep in  mind that emotions are not experienced as an “all or nothing” phenomenon. It is not the case that the feeling is either present or absent.  You can experience the feeling as a less intense sensation that something minor has happened or as an overwhelming sensation that some major has taken place. Think about being sad that your favorite TV show has been cancelled by the network verses losing an important family heirloom or experiencing the death of a relative.

The message of fear is that you are facing a threat that will kill you unless you escape.  Fear is a present “here and now” emotion and is not the same as anxiety which is a “future based” emotion.

The message of anxiety, by the way, is that you are facing a threat which MIGHT be harmful to you.  I will talk about anxiety in a future post.

The message of disgust is that you have encountered something unpleasant, repugnant, distasteful, or offensive.  Disgust is what you experience when you taste a food that is spoiled and you recoil with an anguished look on your face.  The emotion sets you up to recoil, and expel or get away from the threat.

I hope this has been informative and I look forward to your comments.

The Emotional Process Part 2

In my last post, I spoke about the emotional process and detecting threat.

While your emotions are designed to detect threat, this doesn’t mean that an actual threat exists.

When we were living in caves, all threats were real and would kill us.  There was no ambiguity.  If it looked like a threat, it was a threat.  This type of threat is called a survival threat. Our emotions evolved to protect us from survival threats. Survival threats exist today and include being confronted by someone who wants to physically harm you, seeing a loved one whose life is at risk unless you are able to rescue them and so forth.

Problems arise because, today, most of the threats we face are psychological threats.  Psychological threats may hurt us but are not fatal or they may not be threats at all.  Threats to your ego, your values or the way you think things “should” be are psychological threats.

The emotional process involves acknowledging your feelings and the possibility that a threat actually exists, taking a deep breath before you react to both physically calm yourself down and to give you some psychological distance between you and the threat, and assessing the nature of the threat before you choose a response.

The same process occurs when you are making breakfast and you burn the toast.  Your smoke detector goes off.  Rather than call the fire department, you assess the nature of the threat the detector is warning you about, realize that there is no threat and throw the burnt toast away.  If the smoke detector went off in the middle of the night, your assessment might be very different.

When I talk about each of the primary emotions, I will tell you what the threat is and the choices you have about responding to the threat.

The Emotional Process

In one sense, you are a threat detecting “machine”.  No offense, here, as I am not saying that you are not human.

When it comes to your emotions, however, your brain is hard-wired to scan, detect, prepare you to deal with, and warn you about a possible threat that may harm you.

You might find it interesting to know that the threat detectors (primary emotions) that exist in you today have been around in humans since we lived in caves.  These threat detectors are the primary emotions I mentioned in an earlier post and helped us survive as a species.

This is how the process works.

Your senses (eyes, ears, nose, mouth and skin) are constantly scanning your surroundings.  When a threat is detected, a fast track message goes to the amygdala in your brain and to the thalamus. This message is unconscious and very fast.  The function of this message is to prepare your body to fight, run, or freeze in place.  This is the fight/flight/freeze reaction Hans Selye wrote about.  It is automatic.  If you are a gazelle on the Savannah being chased by a cheetah or a caveman with an intruder outside your cave, you want this reaction to be fast and automatic.  Your  life may depend on it.

At the same time, a slower message goes to your cerebral cortex.  This is the thinking part of your brain that has developed over time as we evolved as a species.  The cerebral cortex enables you to assess the nature of the threat and choose a response to fit the situation.

Mastering your emotions involves being aware of the emotion and learning how to respond, rather than react, to the situation.

More on this later.

Thanks for reading and I encourage you to leave a comment.

The Emotions as Tools Model

If you ask people what feelings, or emotions, are, they probably will have difficulty answering your question.  The reason for this is that, while we all have feelings, we do not receive much information or training about what feelings are, why we have them, or how to strategically use them.

To start this conversation, let me point out the words “feeling” and “emotion” are basically the same and can be used interchangeably.

That being said, the best way to think of your feelings is to view them as tools.  While you may not realize it, you are surrounded by tools. The tweezers or needle you used to remove a splinter are both tools.  Your car is a tool as are the computer you may be using to read this post or your cell phone, or your TV remote.

A tool is something that has a specific function (or multiple functions) and can be used to perform a task. The nice thing about tools is that you can learn how to use them by getting some help, reading a manual, or just using it and learning by trial and error, although this may result in wasting  a lot of time, getting hurt by misusing the tool, or getting frustrated.

While you have many emotions, there are 6 primary emotions that humans have had since we lived in caves and which helped us survive as a species.  The 6 primary emotions are: mad (anger), sad, glad (happy), fear, disgust, and surprise. With the exception of glad and surprise, all the primary emotions are primitive threat detectors and work just like your smoke detector to alert you to a perceived threat and prepare you to deal with that threat.

In my next post, I will discuss how the emotional process works.

Thanks for reading.  If you found this information helpful, please leave a comment below.

Emotions as tools

When you ask someone what they are feeling, most people will give you a very general answer such as good, okay, kinda down, or fine.  You might get a more specific answer such as happy, sad, or angry.

If, however, you ask the person to be more specific about their feelings or ask what does a specific feeling mean, you likely will get a look of confusion.  The reason for this is that most people do not understand what feelings are or why we have them.  Considering that there is very little “training” about feelings, this lack of knowledge is certainly understandable.

The downside of not understanding your feelings is that you may view all feelings as messy and intrusive, you may view some feelings like anger as bad or dangerous, or you may feel that your feelings control you.

The basic truths  are that there is a reason why you have feelings, all of your feelings serve a purpose, your feelings are tools which you can learn to master just like any other tool such as your cell phone, and you can use your feelings to improve your life and your relationships.

While I talk about all these subjects and more in my book Emotions as Tools: A Self Help Guide to Controlling Your Life not Your Feelings, I will introduce you to these truths in the next post.