Three examples of not mastering one’s emotions.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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:
- 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.
- 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
- 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,