I have written extensively about mastering emotions in both of my Amazon bestselling books and in multiple blog posts but I have not previously linked mindfulness with mastery.
To be honest, I have always known about, and discussed, the concept of mindfulness and I have written extensively about the unconscious aspect of the emotional mastery and the process of choosing an effective response..
It did not, however, occur to me, until recently, that mindfulness would have a direct impact on both the unconscious perception of threat and the conscious choice of how to adaptively respond to the situation you might be facing.
Hense, the title of this post in which I refer to mindfulness as the “overlooked” key to emotional mastery.
First, some basic “definitions”.
While there is a whole lot more to it, the basic underlying concept of mindfulness involves “being in the moment”. This means that your attention is focussed on what is happening to you now.
Most of us do not practice mindfulness.
You have to consciously work at it.
Again, while there is a lot more to it, the basic underlying concept of emotional mastery involves:
- acknowledging, and accepting, the “message” of the emotion,
- assessing the validity of the emotion
- choosing an adaptive response to the situation and using the “energy” of the emotion to carry out your chosen response
In my last post, I explained, in detail, the Anger Mastery Cycle (AMC).
While the AMC specifically deals with the emotion of anger, the three part process discussed in the AMC applies to all emotions. Rather than focus specifically on a given emotion, I will generalize the emotional process as the Emotional Mastery Cycle (EMC).
Mindfulness impacts every aspect of the EMC.
The EMC starts with the unconscious scanning of your surroundings for any “threat”. Once a threat is perceived, the brain puts the body on alert and prepares it to deal with the “threat”.
While the process is, indeed, unconscious..
- where you focus your attention and
- what you perceive as a threat
will often be influenced by what you are concerned about in the moment.
While not an exact fit, this example is illustrative of how your “focus” can change.
Think about the last time you were driving around in your car and didn’t really notice most of the fast food restaurants. The next time, however, when you were driving in that same area, you noticed almost every one of the restaurants. The only difference was that, in the first case, you had just eaten and now, you were hungry.
Your “inner state” of hunger influenced what you saw even though all the restaurants were always there.
To put it another way, you are primed by your hunger to notice all the stimuli (restaurants) which were now significant, or relevant, to you.
An analogous situation exists with the scans you constantly make for threats.
Because most of the threats that modern man faces are psychological in nature and not survival based, the filters through which you subconsciously perceive your interactions with others will significantly impact how you interpret the situations in which you find yourself.
As an example, let’s say you have a history of being ignored, passed over, humiliated or taken advantage of by co-workers, superiors, siblings, significant others or friends. Based on this history, you may be psychologically primed to perceive the actions of others as rejection.
Rejection is the filter through which you interpret any ambiguous interaction. Sometimes, others will be rejecting you and, at other times, you may just have misunderstood what others were saying, or doing, to you.
So, you go into work one day and you are sitting at your desk when your boss walks by you and says says nothing. Usually, he or she, acknowledges you in some way.
You find yourself getting both anxious and angry.
The message of anxiety is that you perceive a possible threat. This might be the worry that you did something wrong, although you don’t know what, and your boss is upset with you.
The message of anger is that you perceive an immediate threat you need to fight. In this case, your thinking might be that your boss has a lot of nerve ignoring you given all you’ve done for the company. You’d really like to show him (or her)!
While either of these motivations on the part of your boss could be true, they are reactions which you are primed to conclude based on your past experiences either with your boss or with others in your sphere of influence.
The reality might very well be that he is preoccupied with some important issue that is consuming him and his actions have absolutely nothing to do with you.
Your interactions with others can be adversely impacted by:
- the filters through which you view your world, if based on previous maladaptive experiences,
- the conclusions you drew from those experiences, and
- the overly broad and automatic application of those conclusions to your current world.
And, the impact of these factors on your interpersonal interactions may be completely outside your immediate awareness.
This is where mindfulness comes in.
Acknowledging the emotion
The process of mastering an emotion starts with acknowledging the message of the emotion. This is relatively easy if you are tuned into what your body is telling you.
You experience an emotion physically and you acknowledge it by noting:
- I’m angry.
- I’m pissed off.
- I’m annoyed.
- I’m worried.
- I’m embarrassed.
You get the idea.
Assess the emotion.
The next step is to assess the validity of the emotion.
This is where you compare what is going on in your interaction with others and how you are perceiving what they are doing.
This step requires you to consciously look at any of the filters which might exist and objectively (as much as you can) question what is actually taking place as opposed to how you are interpreting what is going on.
The questions you can ask include:
- Is my interpretation of what they are doing/saying the only possible explanation or could something else be going on?
- Could I be viewing their actions through an old (and outdated) filter?
- Is my interpretation consistent with their past actions?
- Could they (or I have misinterpreted) something that was said/done?
Notice how the questions are worded to raise doubt about your interpretation.
Spending time with and practicing both asking and answering these questions will help you to remain mindful in your interactions with others.
An important disclaimer:
Being mindful and “in the moment” is much easier said than done.
But, and this is CRITICAL…
It is doable.
Before you experience the emotion you are targeting as connected to your filter, remind yourself to be both keenly aware of the emotion and TO TAKE A DEEP BREATH as soon as you experience this emotion.
The deep breath will give you the time and the psychological distance to ask the above questions.
Mindfulness keeps you focused so that you will both ask the questions and listen to the answers.