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.