Sometimes you do everything right and still get the wrong results. A suggestion


The scenario.

This is a picture of a bicycle frame and a bicycle tire both of which are securely chained to the stand.  Unfortunately, all the rest of the bicycle is gone.  I am sure the owner of the bicycle thought he (or she) did the right thing by putting a chain with a secure lock through the frame and detached wheel.  Clearly, the owner did not get the result (a secure bike) that he had anticipated.

The same thing can happen when you express your emotions.

I discussed the emotional process in 3 earlier posts (3/31/16, 4/6/16 and 4/13/16).

Emotionally, you are a threat detecting organism.  Once you perceive a threat and your Amygdala subconsciously prepares your body to REACT and engage the threat, your cerebral cortex kicks in and enables you to assess the nature of the threat and choose how you want to RESPOND.

So, let’s say that you correctly assess the threat your feeling informs you about (The threat is genuine.), you choose your response (rather than react), and the reaction you get is not at all what you expected.

As an example.  You are standing in line to get to the cashier and someone cuts in line.  This is a “threat” to your view of right and wrong.  In other words, it isn’t right and it isn’t fair. You get annoyed (mild anger) or even angry, gauge your response to the situation and assertively tell the person that you (and others) have been waiting in line and that they need to go to the back of the line.

When we get angry, it means we have perceived a threat to our egos, our goals, our values, our relationship, or our resources from our point of view.  This is what anger, as a threat detector, is designed to do.

You expect the line-cutter to apologize and exit the line. This is what they “should” do.

Instead, they glare at you and tell you to mind your own business.

What went wrong?

In short, the person with whom you are interacting had not read the social “script” which states what a reasonable person should do in this situation. Notice the italicized words. Their anger tells you that they see you as a threat and that they are attempting to minimize the damage they believe you have caused them.

To put it another way, you viewed the “threat” from your point of view and acted accordingly. They did the same thing.

Who is wrong here?

You can answer this question in several ways.

The word “wrong” implies a judgment.

So, this person has violated a “social norm” regarding lines.  In this sense, we judge him (or her) to be wrong.

Emotionally, however, everyone’s feelings are based on their view of the world.  This is important to keep in mind when we deal with other people. Your emotions are always valid for you (and the other person).  Valid means that your feelings are consistent with how you view the world.

Your feelings may be valid for you but wrong for the situation.

Or, in this case, his feelings may be valid for him but wrong (according to social norms) for the situation.

You, however, have experienced a valid feeling (anger), your emotion is right for the situation, and you took the right action to nullify the threat. Unfortunately, what you did resulted in the situation escalating.

Another example.

A few months ago, I posted  a question on “Connect A Professional Woman’s Network (LinkedIn).  I wanted to know how professional women were treated when they showed anger (both appropriate anger and anger appropriately displayed) in their work settings.

Over 2000 responses indicated that when women got angry, the men in their work settings demeaned and marginalized them and/or called them derogatory (misogynistic) names.

These women did all the right things (from an anger mastery point of view) and got all the wrong results.

So, what can you (as a man or a woman) do?

The short answer is that you shift your point of view and use the energy of your anger (or other feeling) to motivate and energize the actions you need to take to nullify the threat.

My assumption here is that you have correctly perceived a threat and that some action needs to be taken to nullify that threat.

In this situation, you need to shift your point of view to that of the other person.  The questions to ask are: How does he (or she) see the situation and in what way does he see you as a threat?

Please note that I am not saying his point of view is correct (by any standard).  Nor am I suggesting that you ignore your perception of threat. On the contrary, he (or his actions) are a threat which you need to address. But, you can’t address these issues until you understand and work around his perceptions.

There are several actions you can take.

First, you can apologize for any misunderstandings that may have occurred. Note that you are not apologizing for your getting angry. You are only attempting to soften any misunderstandings.

Next, you need to take a “project manager” approach.  By this, I mean that you need to step back and review what your goals are in the situation, what the stumbling blocks are, what risks you might be exposed to, and what resources you need to move forward.

You are approaching your situation with this person as if it were a project and using your anger to give you the energy you need.  You are still angry but you are not outwardly showing your anger as this will only escalate the interaction.

Your “project” goal is to address the threat.

The stumbling block is that his ego, sense of vulnerability, misperceptions, or hidden agendas are preventing you from addressing his actions.

Your resources include your ability to find a different way to approach him.   Perhaps, you need to bring in a third person or you need to approach this individual from a different angle perhaps a cost-benefit analysis or a productivity or a workplace environment suggestion.

The point here is that you look for an approach which will grab his attention, take the focus off of you as a possible threat, and enable you to address the issue of his behavior that needs to change (for a reason he sees as important).

This approach will work in a professional setting or at home with your kids or spouse.  In using this approach, you are mastering your anger by using it as a source of energy and you are mastering the anger of the other person by understanding his perception of you as a threat and working around it.

I welcome your comments.

Why you might dislike having emotions.

Let me start by explaining my (and others) take on what emotions are. I will then address why you may dislike having them. By the way, academic writers will distinguish between emotions and feelings but, in every day use, they are the same.

There are 6 primary emotions that we, as humans, and some subhumans are born with. You can see these emotions develop over time in your kids.

The six primary emotions are mad, sad, glad, fear, disgust and surprise. Some of these emotions appear at birth and some develop a little later. Many of the more common feelings with which you may be familiar can be thought of as a combination of these primary feelings.

With the exception of glad and surprise, all of the primary emotions are primitive threat detectors which have existed since we lived in caves and which were “designed” by evolution to keep us alive so we could procreate and survive as a species. Early man did not have sharp claws or teeth to protect him. He did have his emotional threat detectors.

Here is how the emotional process works….

You constantly (and subconsciously) scan your surroundings for threats. When you perceive a threat, a fast track message goes to your Amygdala in your brain and then to the Thalamus. This elicits fight or flight and prepares your body to react to the threat. At the same time, a slower message goes to the cerebral cortex or thinking part of your brain. The cerebral cortex allows you to assess the nature of the the threat and choose how you want to respond.

Two emotional myths are that there are negative emotions and that your emotions control you. These two myths (there are others) are the reason you may dislike having emotions. I address 5 emotional myths in my book Emotions as Tools: A Self Help Guide to Controlling Your Life not Your Feelings. You can download the first two chapters of my  book without an opt-in by scrolling up to the “welcome” post.

Some emotions are labelled as negative because:

  • they do not feel good when you have them (a negative hedonic quality)
  • you may be negatively labelled by others when you express them, or
  • you may do things you later regret when you experience the feeling.

Feeling disgusted is not pleasurable and feeling anxious or vulnerable may be equated with powerlessness (also not pleasurable).

If you are a woman, you may be labelled a “bitch” or “hormonal” when you express anger.

When you are angry, you may do dumb things.

The emotion is wrongly blamed for the “negative” sensations, the misogynist labels,  and the “negative” acting out.

In fact, there are no negative feelings in the sense that we would not want to eliminate any of them. We may turn off the smoke detector that blares when we burn toast or has a weak battery. This is not a good decision.

All feelings are adaptive and the behavior you exhibit is based on the choices you make in response to the emotion. The feeling may start the process but you are always responsible for the decisions you make and the behavior you exhibit.

So, you may dislike a feeling that is hedonically negative, elicits results you do not want or that appears to cause negative behavior.

Once you realize that all feelings are tools which give you information you can use to improve your life and your relationships, the hedonic quality of the emotion becomes secondary and unimportant. And, once your realize that your emotions do not control you and that you can use your emotions as tools and choose your response, you will welcome your feelings in the same way you “welcome” the little light on your dashboard that tells you that you need to service your car. You may say, “Oh, crap, I don’t want to service the car now (because you are out of town or don’t have the money)” but you ignore the warning at your own peril.

If anger is the emotion that you “dislike”, I recommend you xcroll  up and download the first two chapters of my Amazon bestseller book Beyond Anger Management: Master Your Anger as a Strategic Tool. You can buy the book on Amazon.

As always, thanks for reading and I welcome your comments.

Understanding and Mastering Stress: A different approach

Nearly everyone has experienced “stress”.  It is an overwhelming feeling that:

  • Things are not going right for you
  • You are being asked to do too many things at one time
  • You do not feel qualified or equipped to handle what is being asked of you

You have heard others, or have said yourself, that you are “stressed out” and that chronic stress can, over time, damage you physically.

But, have you ever wondered what stress is?

Mechanical stress

Think about what happens when a physical support on a bridge is overstressed or fatigued.  It breaks and the bridge collapses.  Put too much physical stress on a wooden pencil by bending it and it snaps.

Psychological stress

Psychological stress is, by analogy, similar. When you perceive that too many demands, or expectations, are being placed on you, your capacity to handle the load is surpassed and you feel overwhelmed.

Now, here is something you may not know.

You need a certain amount of stress in order to function.  Think about a clothes line.  If it is too loose, you can’t hang anything on it.  Too tight and it snaps.

I. The Yrkes-Dodson Law and Overwhelm

The Yrkes-Dodson law captures this relationship between too little and too much stress.  The graph below was copied from wikimedia

On the left, you can see the word “Performance”.  Another word that could be used here is “effectiveness“.  On the bottom, you see “arousal”.  Another word that could be used here is “stress“.

In order to understand the Yrkes-Dodson Law, think about being asleep. If your arousal level is too low, as when you are asleep, you can’t effectively do anything except, perhaps, dream.  As you wake up, your arousal level increases.   Perhaps, you need a cup of coffee to get you going.  You get to work, check your schedule, set your priorities and you are ready to go.

Being ready to be productive is “optimal arousal” on the curve.  You don’t feel stressed but  you are energized.

If  your boss, or circumstances, begin to pile more responsibilities on you, you will move  past your optimal arousal level and your performance (effectiveness) begins to drop.   You are feeling anxious or stressed.

Anxiety is another word for stress.  Three of my earlier posts directly address the emotion of anxiety and I have a chapter on anxiety in my book Emotions as Tools: Control Your Life not your Feelings


There are a few ways you can deal with this type of stress:

1. Take a deep breath.

Taking a breath lowers your physiological arousal so you can go on to step 2.

2. Prioritize.

Look at all the tasks facing you and prioritize them in any way that works for you (most to least important, easiest to complete to most difficult, time involved to complete the task from least to most, actions you can take from delegate through postpone to eliminate).

Having a plan  brings order to the tasks facing you.

3. Make a plan.

Once you set your priorities, make a plan to deal with the issues one at a time, and execute your plan.

This step moves  you back on the curve into your optimal range.

Eustress vs Distress

Stress that is enervating and moves you into your optimal zone is called eustress.

Stress that moves you past your optimal zone and lowers your effectiveness is called distress.

II. A definition of psychological stress.

Stress ==> Expectations ≠ Reality

Stress happens when what  you expect to be  taking place(your expectations) is not the same as what is actually going on (your perception of reality.

This approach to stress fits into Yrkes-Dodson but can be applied more broadly.  In many situations in which you find yourself, you will have an expectation regarding the way things should be.  You have expectations:

  • about work,
  • about your relationships,
  • about how your computer should work,
  • about your kids
  • and so forth

While you may, or may not, be aware that you have expectations and they won’t become an issue unless they don’t pan out, you do have them.

It is only when the reality of your situation violates your expectation that you feel stressed and you become very aware of how you think things should be (your expectations).

Handling psychological stress.

There are two possibilities here, both of which are designed to reduce stress by aligning your expectations with your perception of reality.

  1. You can reassess your expectations and adjust them to match reality.
  2. You can reassess and adjust your perception of reality to match your expectations.

In the first strategy, your assessment may tell you that your expectations were unrealistic.  You believed the other person would do more or act differently than they did but you either did not do your due diligence, did not carefully read the contract, or misunderstood what was supposed to happen.  When you realize that you have erred with unreasonable expectations, you make an adjustment, your expectations match reality, and your stress is gone.

In the second strategy, your assessment might tell you that you have misperceived reality.  The other person is doing exactly what you expected and you incorrectly judged them, reacted inappropriately, or just misunderstood.  In this case, you adjust your perception of their actions, the match between expectations and reality is reestablished and your stress is gone.

You now have a more adaptive view of stress and some suggestions for mastering it.

Thanks for reading and I welcome your comments.