Both self-control and effectively interacting with others require you to master your emotions as strategic tools.
This is a bold statement that you might find odd for at least two reasons:
- While everyone talks about managing emotions, few authors talk about mastering emotions. (Mastering one’s emotions includes and goes beyond managing one’s emotions.)
- Emotions are critical components in successfully dealing with issues that primarily involve you (self-control) and with issues that involve others (relationships).
Definition of emotional mastery: You master an emotion when you understand its message, take a moment to assess the validity of the message as it reflects upon what is actually happening, and choose a response that adaptively deals with the situation you are facing.
Widening the concept of a tool:
While you may not think of diverse objects in this way, you are surrounded by “tools” in your life.
- Your car is a tool to get you where you want to go.
- Your cell phone is a tool to complete a variety of tasks including, but not limited to, having a conversation with someone.
- Your TV remote is a tool you use to control how you consume content.
- Your computer is a tool.
- Your sewing machine is a tool.
- Your emotions are tools, the function of which is to alert you to and prepare you to deal with your surroundings
Each tool has a purpose. To get the most out of the tool, you need to learn to master it.
Definition of “strategic”:
- carefully designed or planned to serve a particular purpose or advantage. (Oxford Languages)
To use a tool strategically involves both using the right tool for the job and using that tool in the right way.
Hence, you can use a hammer to pound a screw into a wall to hang a picture but a screwdriver is the right tool for the job.
I used to use my smartphone primarily as a phone. This is the right use of the tool.
It is not strategically using the tool in the right way…I am now learning to use it as a camera, an internet portal, a storage unit which provides access to important articles and books, a stopwatch, a personal assistant (Siri), etc.
I think you get the idea.
Mastery and self-control: When you use your emotions as tools, you are now in a position to effectively respond to your surroundings. You are in control of you and you can choose responses which improve your life by effectively moving you forward toward, and motivating you regarding, goals that you set.
Mastery and interpersonal influence: You can master the emotions of others and deescalate an interaction by observing emotions in others, understanding how they perceive what is going on (the message of the emotion) and choosing a response which validates (does not approve) their perception and helps them to reevaluate their interactions with you.
Few articles talk about managing or mastering ALL emotions.
It seems a bit ridiculous to think about managing your excitement or mastering your guilt or your anxiety.
But, this is exactly what I am suggesting!
Mastering your emotions involves five steps.
- manage your own arousal
- understand the message of each emotion
- assess the match between your emotion and the situation in which you find yourself
- choose an adaptive response
Step 1: Self-awareness
In order to master your emotions, it is important for you to be aware of how that emotion physically presents itself in your body. In other words, where and how do you experience each emotion. What part of your body tenses, feels warm, or begins to churn when you feel angry, anxious, upset, guilty, ashamed, and so forth?
You may not be aware at this point of how your body reacts to each emotion but you can become familiar with your body by observing what you feel the next time you experience the emotion you want to learn to master.
In Chapter 4 of my Amazon best selling book Emotions as Tools: Control Your Life not Your Feelings, I have included checklists to help you identify how your body specifically reacts. Choose an emotion and use the tables to monitor your body.
Step 2: Managing Your Own Arousal
Once you become aware of your initial emotional reaction, it is important to lower your physical arousal so that you don’t immediately take an action (react) following the emotion.
Ultimately, you want to respond to your situation.
Lowering your arousal level does not “come naturally” and must be learned.
You do this by teaching yourself to…
- take a step back from the situation and
- taking a deep breath.
Taking a step back does three things…
- It provides you with some physical safety if you need it given the situation.
- It “removes” you somewhat from the situation so you can be more objective.
- It reminds you to lower your arousal.
Taking a deep breath (or 2) does three things..
- The deep breath “relaxes” you somewhat.
- This lowers your physical arousal level just enough.
- The deep breath gives you provides some psychological distance and gives you additional time to think about what is going on.
The important point about your arousal level is this. According to the Yrkes-Dodson law, you don’t have to completely relax to be effective, you only need to relax enough so that you are not overly energized.
Think about the last time you got excited and “caught up in the moment”. You might have purchased something you later realized you didn’t need or said (or did) something you later regretted.
Whether the emotion is excitement about a new adventure or “shiny object” or anger regarding the violation of an important value, stepping back from the situation and taking a breath will give you an opportunity to adaptively deal with what comes next.
Step 3: Understanding the message of each emotion
Each emotion communicates a different message to you based on how you initially perceive your situation. Understanding this message enables you to assess your initial evaluation of what is happening. Your emotions are always valid as they represent your initial (often unconscious) evaluation of your situation. However, the emotion may not be accurate as you might have misinterpreted another person’s actions or intent. Or, you might have reacted to what is going on based on your own past experiences, current levels of stress, wishful thinking, and so forth.
- anger: You perceive a threat you believe you can eliminate if you throw enough force at it. Anger prepares you for war.
- fear: you perceive a threat that can kill you. Fear prepares you for escape.
- sadness: you perceive a situation in which you have lost something or someone that is important to you. Sadness prepares you for withdrawal.
- happy: you perceive a situation in which you are engaged with an activity that is enjoyable. Happy prepares you to engage and involve yourself.
- guilt: you perceive a situation in which you have done something wrong. Guilt prepares you to make things right.
- anxiety: you perceive a situation in which some future event might occur which could have unwanted consequences. Anxiety prepares you to either retreat (distress) or prepare (eustress) yourself for that event.
Step 4: Assessing the match between your emotion and the situation in which you find yourself.
Once you have tuned into the emotion you are experiencing and understand what that emotion communicates to you about how you are viewing your situation, you can take a physical and psychological step back from the situation and attempt to assess the degree to which your reality matches your perception.
You do this by asking yourself questions such as:
- Have I misunderstood what is going on here?
- Is there another point of view that I am missing?
- What evidence is there to support my perceptions?
Based on your assessment, you are ready to move on to the next step.
Step 5: Choose an adaptive response.
The fifth step is to choose an adaptive response to the situation. An adaptive response is an intervention which helps you improve your situation.
Your initial perception is accurate…
If you believe your emotion matches the situation than you will choose a response that utilizes the energy of the emotion as motivation to manage the situation.
Your initial perception is not accurate…
If you believe that your emotion does not match the situation, than you might choose to change your perception by asking for clarification or additional input from others with whom you are interacting. When you change your perception, you change your emotion.
Emotional mastery can also help you improve your own life by helping you become more effective in meeting the goals you set.
Mastering your emotions also opens up opportunities to be more effective in your relationships with others because you can apply the same principles of emotion mastery to dealing with others who direct their emotions at you.