Five Steps to Mastering Your Emotions as Strategic Tools

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:

  1. While everyone talks about managing emotions, few authors talk about mastering emotions. (Mastering one’s emotions includes and goes beyond managing one’s emotions.)
  2. Emotions are critical components in successfully dealing with issues that primarily involve you (self-control) and with issues that involve others (relationships).

Anger as an example

Many articles have been written about managing the emotion of anger. In these articles, the authors tend to view anger as a “negative” emotion which must be controlled so that it doesn’t explode in unwanted, often destructive, behavior. Managing anger involves calming down (lowering your level of arousal), forcefully controlling your anger, or preventing it from being expressed by distracting yourself in some fashion.

There are at least three problems with this approach to anger.

The first is that anger is labelled as a “negative” feeling.

There is no such thing as a negative emotion as all emotions are adaptive and have evolved to provide you with actionable information about the world around you.

Secondly, in spite of the questionable practice of misrepresenting inappropriate behavior as an “anger problem”, anger is never the main issue. Anger is just a feeling. How one chooses to deal with his anger is always the “problem”.

This choice places responsibility on the person not the emotion.

Thirdly, managing one’s anger is implied as the only (or best) way to deal with this often very strong emotion.

From an anger mastery perspective, managing one’s anger is only the beginning of the process of adaptively dealing with anger.Teaching someone who has an “anger problem” to manage his (or her) anger is one goal of treatment. It is not the ultimate measure of success.

Note:  An analogous assessment could be made for many other emotions.

Mastering Emotions

Few articles talk about managing or mastering all emotions (including anger). 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!

When you master all your emotions, you integrate these important sources of valuable information into your life and in so doing add meaning to and enrich your interactions with your surroundings.

Mastering your emotions involves five steps.

  1. self-awareness
  2. manage your own arousal
  3. understand the message of each emotion
  4. assess the match between your emotion and the situation in which you find yourself
  5. 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 (or 2). The step-back gives you some physical distance and the deep breath gives you some psychological distance from the situation.

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.

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?                                             (Note that this question involves  the process of perspective taking in which you attempt to see your situation from the point of view of the person(s) with whom you are interacting in your situation.)

*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 adaptiveresponse is an intervention which helps you improve your situation.

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.

This is mastering your emotion.

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.

This response is also mastering your emotion.

Mastering your emotions opens up opportunities to be more effective in your relationships with others and  improve your own life by helping you become more effective in meeting the goals you set.

 

A Wide Ranging Interview Which Goes Beyond My Last Post

Happy Valentine’s Day if you are reading this when it originally drops.

This is a link to a podcast I recently did with David Webb.

In the interview, I covered a wide range of topics including my being labelled a “non-drinking alcoholic” while I was a Psychology Intern.

This label opened me up to my own process of denying my emotions and was a precursor to my becoming The Emotions Doctor.

Also, in the interview, I discuss the topic of suicide, provide a workable definition of “failure” and add some light to the difference between being “divorced” and being “single”.

If you have survived the dissolution of a marriage and you are still “troubled” by your past interactions with your spouse, you should find this last discussion enlightening.

https://dontpickthescabpodcast.com/episode/the-emotions-doctor-ed-daube-phd-dont-pick-the-scab-podcast-020-david-m-webb

Head’s Up (A Preview of What’s Coming)…

Over the next six weeks (one new post every two weeks), I will discuss three topics which could easily been included in this interview but were not discussed at any length.

Make a note on your calendar and come on back.

*Five Steps to Mastering Your Emotions as Strategic Tools. (2/28/24)

*Emotional Flexibility (3/13/24)

*How to Express Your Emotions (3/27/24)

 

Four Facts About Emotions to Help You Take Control of Your Life

Continuing with the theme of inocculating you regarding emotions, here is a post on 4 basic facts about emotions.

Most people have it backwards. They think they need to control their emotions to master their lives. The truth is that when you master your emotions, you gain control of your life. Here are some “facts” to help you master your emotions.

Two Important questions:

1. Do you, or someone you know, get angry and do things you later regret?

2. Do you, or someone you know, get anxious and avoid doing something you later wish you had done?

For many people, the answer to both of these questions is YES.

Because of how emotions work, it often feels like emotions such as anger and anxiety control us and cause us to act, or not to act, in ways we might later regret.

This can leave us with a sense that we are not in control of our lives.

The reality, however, is that we are in control of our lives and emotions help us maintain this control.

Here are 4 facts about emotions which will help you take back control of your life.

Fact #1Emotions are Tools you can learn to master.

If you have ever purchased a new “smart” tool such as a computer, cell phone, TV, car, or sewing machine, you know that these “tools” often involve a learning curve. For example, if you want to get the most out of your new phone, you will need to acquire some new skills.

Mastering your new tools greatly enhance their usefulness.

Mastering your emotions as tools could make your life more meaningful, improve your relationships, and give you back control over situations in which you find yourself.

By the way, the words emotions and feelings are basically the same (unless you are a scientist doing a study or writing technical books) and the words can be used interchangeably.

Fact#2: Your emotions alert you to and prepare you to effectively interact with your surroundings.

Most people believe that their feelings both control and happen to them. While this is partially true, it is also misleading.

Indeed, there is a subconscious element of emotions which you do not control. However, there is also a conscious element which gives you a great deal of control.

Here is how the emotional process works.

The subconscious element:

All of us constantly scan our surroundings for threat. This process is hard-wired in us and helped us survive as a species when our early ancestors lived in caves.

This subconscious element functions the same today as it did millennia ago.

When you perceive a threat (physical or psychological), your brain sends a message to the Thalamus which puts your body on alert. This is called fight or flight. It is your initial reaction to an emotional situation.

The conscious element:

At the same time, the thinking part of your brain gets a wake-up call to begin the process of thinking about the threat you have subconsciously noticed. This element of emotions allows you to assess your situation and empowers you to decide how you will react. This choice helps you improve both your own life and your relationships with others.

The process of assessing your situation and choosing a response is called emotional mastery.

You don’t control your initial reaction but you can learn to master your response to the perceived threat.

Fact #3: Each emotion informs you about how you perceive your surroundings. You can use this information to choose how you will respond to what happens to you.

Two examples of “information” and choice:

1) your gas gauge informs you about the fuel in your tank so you can decide whether you need to stop and fill up

2) a thermometer tells you how your body is reacting to an internal “disease” process so you can decide whether you need to consult a doctor. Your emotions tell you how you perceive what is happening to you and allow you to decide what you might need to do about it.

Each emotion communicates to you a different message based on your initial reaction to an event.

Here are the messages of the some basic emotions.

Anger: You perceive a threat that you believe you can eliminate if you throw enough force at it.

Anger (or mad) prepares you for battle.

Sad: You are facing a loss which may require you to step back, wind down and come to grips with an altered future.

Sadness prepares you for reflection.

Glad: You are facing a situation which looks encouraging and which you want more of.

Glad (or happy) prepares you to engage and increase your level of involvement.

Fear: You are facing a situation which will kill you.

Fear prepares you to escape.

Disgust: You are facing a situation which “leaves a bad taste” in your mouth.

You are prepared to get away from this bad situation, person, or object.

Surprise: You are facing a situation which is different from what you expected. If the surprise is pleasant as in winning the office pool, you may want more of what is going on. If the surprise is unpleasant as in your car not starting, you might wish the incident had never taken place.

Anxiety: You are facing an uncertain future. Another word for anxiety is worry. Anxiety is not the same as fear although people use the words interchangeably.

Anxiety can lead to action or inaction.

The issue with anxiety is that the future MAY or MAY Not take place. If you act as if the future will definitely occur and will result in negative consequences, you may do nothing or avoid that about which you are worried. This is anxiety as distress. On the other hand, if you, like my students, use the energy of your anxiety to prepare yourself for your future, then you will take effective action to prevent the future about which you are worried. This is anxiety as eustress. These are the two sides of anxiety: same emotion, different interpretations and different responses.

Fact#4Mastering your emotions gives you more control over your own life as well as increased influence in your interactions with others.

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

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 (dealing with others):

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.

Emotions and Logic

In this post, I am suggesting that you view your emotions and logic as mutually reinforcing and use them both to help you make better decisions and engage in behavior that is beneficial to you and those with whom you interact.

When you get into your car, you are aware that you need to manage the power of the car, be aware of your surroundings and other drivers, and compensate for outside factors such as weather, visibility, and momentum.  If you fail to consider these factors, you and your car may be “out of control”.

One example involves excessive speed (given your physical status, traffic, the road surface or the weather).  If you are going too fast, when you step on the brake, your car may be out of control and slam into the car in front of you.

  • Maybe, you are tired or impaired and you misjudge the required stopping distance.
  • Maybe, you are driving during the winter and fail to consider various road conditions. You may lose contact with the road (friction), your car becomes out of control and you slip and slide.
  •  Maybe, fog is restricting your vision more than you believe and you don’t see the car in front of you.

In all these cases, the information is available to you that, if you paid attention to and heeded the message this information (about yourself, driving conditions, etc) was providing, you would be both prepared and motivated to take corrective action which could have helped you avoid the accident.  Even in a multi-car pile up, some cars were able to avoid a collision.

While the analogy is not perfect, think of the car as an emotion.  It is very powerful and can be used very positively to speed you to the hospital for emergency care, very negatively as a weapon, or neutrally to drive you to the grocery store.

The feedback you get from your surroundings is information available to you as you decide how to manage and take advantage of the power in your car. This information is similar to the message of an emotion that you are experiencing.

When my wife was pregnant with our first child, she went into labor, I got anxious, and we rushed to the hospital in our car. While I was speeding, I was not reckless.  When I ran through a red light after briefly stopping, a cop pulled me over.  I stopped the car and informed the policeman that I was headed to the hospital (which was a few blocks away). I told him that he was welcome to follow me to the hospital and that, once my wife was safe, I would show him my licence and do whatever I was instructed to do.  He followed me to the hospital, checked my license and insurance, gave me an obligatory “lecture” about safe driving, and wished me luck for a successful birth.

He did not give me a ticket.

In this example, I was highly motivated to get to the hospital. My anxiety, manifested as eustress, led me to go as far over the “limit” as I could go and to ignore traffic signs if it was safe to do so. The car was my powerful vehicle. Road and traffic conditions and the policeman were bits of information I needed to take into consideration.

The emotional part of my brain (the Limbic System) pushed my behavior and the thinking, or logical, part of my brain (the cerebral cortex), analyzed my situation, considered all the available information including  both the need to get safely to the hospital as quickly as possible and to acknowledge the cop, and gave me the solution I needed to both validate my emotion and get my wife the care she needed.

Whether I did the right thing is certainly arguable and whether you agree with what I did is not the point. I give this example only to illustrate how emotions and logic can reinforce each other.

This is how emotions and logic should work together.

While you can download a copy of the Anger Mastery Cycle above (the same cycle basically applies to most emotions),  here is a quick review of how emotions work.

  • You constantly, automatically and subconsciously scan your surroundings for  possible threats.
  • When a threat is perceived, a fast track signal is sent to the Limbic System which prepares you for fight or flight. This is your emotional reaction and is the message of the emotion.
  • Simultaneously, a slower signal goes to the Cerebral Cortex which allows you to validate and assess the nature of the threat.
  • If a threat exists, you have the opportunity to choose how you want to respond.
  • Emotional mastery involves matching your response to the actual nature of the perceived threat.

Emotional Mastery: Emotion and Logic Together

You master your emotion when you understand the message of the emotion, add a “break” between the emotional reaction and your response, use this physical and psychological break to calm yourself and logically assess the nature of the threat to determine the extent to which your reality matches the threat and the alert message your emotion is giving you. Logic can then inform you about your response options so you can make an effective choice.

Here is the message of some well known emotions:

  • Anger: There is a threat facing me that I can eliminate by attacking it.  I am ready for battle.
  • Anxiety: There may be a threat in the future that might hurt me. I am EITHER prepared to run away to avoid the threat while still consumed by it (anxiety as distress) OR take action to nullify the threat (anxiety as eustress).
  • Jealousy: There is a  threat to my relationship.  Another person may be trying to take the affection of my significant other away from me.
  • Guilt: I have done something wrong and violated my sense of right and wrong.

If you know the message of the emotion, you can logically assess your situation to see if you have correctly or incorrectly perceived what it going on.  You can get feedback from others.  Following this “assessment”, you can choose, and implement, your response.

This is how you validate your emotions and use their messages to inform you about your surroundings.

From this perspective, you want more emotions.  This is the same reasoning you use to put both a smoke detector and a Carbon Monoxide detector in your house. And, maybe, add a security system.

You deploy your logic to give you viable options to effective master your situation.

I will expand on these ideas, including the concept of emotional flexibility in the context of mastering your emotions, in upcoming posts.

Happy New Year and (Emotionally) Making the Most of 2024 (and beyond).

Happy 2024.

Note:  As I am writing this, I just completed an interview with Bruce Hurvitz covering many aspects of the Mastering Your Emotions as Tools Model.

Here is the YouTube link to the interview.  Enjoy.

 

My first post of 2024…

While my hope for you is that 2024 will be a productive, prosperous, and personally meaningful year for you, as I write this, the world is facing many situations including wars abroad which can both elicit significant emotional responses  and might significantly impact the direction this country takes culturally, politically, and historically.

We are also facing an upcoming election which, because we are so divided in this country has already generated a tremendous amount of both emotional energy and emotionally driven maladaptive (my word) behavior including “mass” shooting events, death threats to public figures and, most likely, many personal, emotionally driven, interactions between friends and family.

With this as a background, I want to revisit some basic concepts regarding emotions.  My intent is to inoculate you with information about emotions which you may know but which might not be readily available to you because you don’t use it on a regular basis.

The idea here is the same as getting a flu, covid, or RSV vaccine.  Hopefully, you will not be  exposed, but if you are, your body is ready.

While you may not encounter someone who is  emotionally committed to one or more of the events facing us today, it is quite possible that you may experience some strong emotions in 2024 and be “motivated” (This is what emotions do!) to act-out or say something you later regret.

Hence, I want to emotionally prepare you to deal with these emotions if (When?) they arise.

If you are a “frequent flyer” on this blog, please consider this a refresher course.  All re-posts have been reviewed and updated. Some posts are brand new.

If you are new to the blog, this will be a good introduction to and overview of the Emotions as Tools  Model.

In today’s post, I will revisit a post from 2018 which addresses the relationship between emotions and logic.  This is part 1 of that discussion. Part 2 wlll post next week.

Note: It is a bit scary that the words I wrote are as relevant today as they were in 2018 and we are still facing similar behaviors!

We live in a world in which events like school shootings, a lone gunman firing an  automatic weapon into a crowd of people attending an outdoor concert, or a policemen beating up a person of interest or shooting and killing an unarmed individual pleading for his own safety strain our ability to understand what leads these people to act in this manner and beg for a reasonable explanation.

As these behaviors do not appear to be logical, the explanations often include some reference to mental illness and attempt to blame the behavior on emotions gone awry.

In other words, so the thinking goes, these people must be crazy to do what they did and they must be under the control of their emotions.

If they were “in their right minds”, they would control themselves and act more appropriately. The implication is that we need both more treatment for mental illness, and more  logic (less emotion) in our country.

Yes, having logical, in control, people making good decisions is both helpful and desirable. And, yes, we do need more to make mental health treatment more available in this country.

But, is it possible that you can have logical, in control, people making what most people consider very bad decisions and engaging in equally egregious behavior based on those decisions?

The answer is, “yes”.

The issue here is neither about mental health treatment nor about emotions verses logic.

While I am in no way condoning the deplorable behavior listed above and it is possible that mental illness was a factor, I am questioning three primary assumptions that pop up every time some outrageous behavior appears in the news:

1. All human behavior is either logical or it is emotional.

If the behavior is logical, it is appropriate, controlled, and understandable.

If it is not logical, it must be emotional (erratic, driven, devoid of logic).

2. Any behavior that doesn’t seem logical to us must be the result of emotions gone awry.

If the behavior is illogical, it must be due to emotions which have hijacked the person and are causing the deplorable behavior.

3.  Out of control behaviors imply the presence of mental illness.

So, you are either behaviorally stable or mentally ill.

The implication is that we need more logic and less emotion.

If emotions led to insane, out of control people, we’d be crazy to want more emotions.

Indeed, nobody wants crazed automatons running around doing dumb destructive things. No argument there, we all want to avoid dumb destructive behavior.

But, bad decisions and the undesirable behavior that follows from these decisions do not necessarily prove the presence of mental illness.

And, the unfortunate spin-off from demonizing emotions in the case of egregious behavior is that all emotions (when experienced and misunderstood) begin to be seen as “bad”, “undesirable”, “intrusive”, etc.

Let’s dive a little deeper….

While there may be a modicum of truth in each, statements 1, 2, and 3 are for the most part limited, misguided, incorrect and misleading.

  • Statement #1 is a false dichotomy.
  • Statement #2 implies that one’s emotions have become both autonomous and cancerous.
  • Statement #3 implies that anything we do not understand must be attributed to an underlying disease process.

So, the critical question that needs to be addressed  is… if the issue is not the  egregious behavior , what is the issue that we need to discuss?

The answer is not the emotions, per se.

Rather, the critical issue we need to discuss is how we, as a culture, and you, as an individual, view emotions.  In other words, what do you think emotions are and how do believe they impact each of us?

If your picture of emotions is that they…

  • force an out of control road-rage crazed driver to shoot at another car, or
  • leave the out of control cop with no other alternative than to shoot or beat up a perpetrator, or
  • compel the out of control  spouse, boyfriend, or girlfriend to beat up their significant other, or
  • cause the out of control  co-worker  to get angry with  and demean you, as a female, when you point out their inappropriate behavior in the office,

then, yes, less emotion is needed.

But, what if your picture is inaccurate?

“Out of control” implies that feelings….

  • have taken over,
  • are totally controlling,
  • are forcing and compelling a certain behavior while eliminating alternatives, and
  • are causing the individual to engage in the clearly unacceptable behavior they’ve displayed.

Take another look at these words…

  • taken over  
  • totally controlling  
  • forcing 
  •  compelling   
  •  causing

These words imply that the individual’s (male or female) emotions have transformed this person into a  robot.

In this picture, emotions and logic are mutually exclusive.

  • You are either an emotional time-bomb waiting to explode with no logical fail-safe mechanisms in place

or

  • You are an unemotional, logic-only Vulcan (think Spock in the TV series StarTrek) who has eliminated emotion from his life.

I am suggesting that emotions and logic are mutually reinforcing and when used together can lead to better decisions and more appropriate actions.

This is where we’ll begin in Part 2.

 

My Holiday Greeting.

As I am writing this, Chanukah has passed and Christmas and Kwanza are coming up.

This will be the last post of the year for me so I want to take this opportunity to wish you all the best of the Holiday Season.

I hope that it has been a good year for you and that perhaps something I have written has been beneficial to you as you continue the lifelong journey of mastering your emotions as strategic tools.

Happy New Year and I will see you in January.

Holiday rage… Where does it come from and what you can do about it.

In the coming weeks, you will be entering the Holiday Shopping Season.

The upside of the holidays is that most of us are in a festive mood with all the decorations, the music, the food, getting together with family, and so forth.

But, there is a darker side of holiday feelings. With the way the economy is going, there should be a lot of people out there competing for parking spaces and looking for that special gift. This darker side can include feelings of extreme anger (or rage), feelings of depression, and so forth.

In this article, I will address holiday rage.

During this season, we may find ourselves scurrying around to do last minute tasks (get somewhere or do something) and someone (or something) wrongly gets in the way and thwarts our efforts to accomplish our goals.

When we in a hurry, we may feel stressed and outside of our comfort zone (the place where things are going along as they should be).  When stressed, the threshold at which we get angry is lowered.

Note the words in italics.  “Scurrying” implies that you are under some pressure and “wrongly” implies that the person or thing that is blocking your goals is doing so intentionally. “as they should be (going)” implies that we are less in control of our and what is happening to us.

Let’s look at each of these “issues” and see how they relate to increased anger.

Scurrying

When you are “scurrying”, you are already in a heightened state of arousal.  In other words, you are on an emotional edge. This sensitizes you to (and amplifies or magnifies) any possible impediment (or threat) to your goals.

This magnification is similar to what happens when you speak into a microphone.  The amplifier attached to the mic takes your voice and makes it louder.

Because you are in a hurry, behind schedule, over-scheduled, late, or just trying to do too much at one time, you are overly focused on your immediate goal and you will tend to perceive anything (or anybody) who gets in the way of your goal as not only a threat but, because of your heightened state of arousal, as a mega threat.

Remember that the message of anger is that you perceive a threat that you believe you can eliminate if you throw enough force at it.

Consequently, you will tend to get very angry and energized to overpower the mega threat which is impeding your completing the task at hand. Notice the implication of the italicized words. The arousal of your hurrying about magnifies your perception of threat and amplifies the arousal of your anger.

The slow line, poorly written instructions, or distracted clerk which under “normal” conditions would elicit a feeling of frustration or mild upset, now elicits extreme anger or rage.

Wrong and intentional.

To see another person’s actions as both wrong and intentional will always push your anger button. In fact, the element of intentionality is a key component of anger that is often overlooked.

As an example.. you are walking down the street and someone forcefully bumps into you.  Your initial reaction might be to “push back”.  If the person apologizes or if the person is visually (or otherwise) impaired, the “bump” is now viewed in a very different context and there is no anger.

Or, if the actions of another are viewed as inappropriate but not as intentionally attempting to hurt or damage you in any way, you might feel annoyed but you don’t escalate into anger.

So, if someone makes you late by intentionally taking your parking place or cutting in line, the inadequate instructions prove that the company doesn’t give a rip or care about you, the end-user, or the distracted clerk is only there for the money, is poorly trained, or would rather be somewhere else, they are a mega-threat and your anger is completely justified to nullify the threat.

Again, notice the implication of the italicized words.

The way things should be..

This implies that you have a model of your world in your head which you may or may not be aware of.

Your model might involve wishful thinking along the lines of “I wish the lines would be shorter.” This is experienced as The lines should be shorter! It isn’t right that the lines are this long! or All these people are making it more difficult for me to get my shopping done!

The discrepancy between your model and reality may be perceived as a threat which can then elicit anger.

So, what can you do about it?

There are four actions you can take:

  1. take a breath
  2. Assess the nature of the threat, your model of the “world” and whether or not a real threat exists.
  3. Think about what could happen if you react in the way you are just about ready to do.
  4. Choose an appropriate response.

Take a breath.

The first step when you are dealing with any of the threat detecting emotions (anger, sadness, fear, disgust, anxiety) is to take a breath. Taking a breath lowers your arousal and gives you some psychological distance between you and the threat.  The few seconds or that you gain give you an opportunity to assess the nature of the threat and your options.

Note: If you are experiencing fear (not anxiety), you always want to escape from the situation.

The second step is to assess the nature of the threat and your model of the world.  Perhaps your model of what should be happening is inaccurate given your timing, the nature of the situation in which you find yourself, and so forth.

Thirdly, think about the the actions you are contemplating doing.  This is really a cost-benefit analysis.

Some examples:

Stolen parking place…

Is it really worth risking an accident to try and get that parking space? Probably not. Yes, it should have been your space but there is no “mega-threat” as you can find another.  What if you stop your car and cuss out the other driver and you get into an argument? Now, not only has a scene been created but you will be delayed even more.

To illustrate this, I remember years ago when I got a speeding ticket and went to driving school.  The instructor made a comparison on the board between speeding and getting a ticket.  He noted that speeding might save me maybe 10 minutes on my arrival.  If I got a ticket, the time it would “cost” me to deal with the cop would be more than the time I would save by speeding.  Other costs included fines (if any) time spend in driving school and so forth.  The cost-benefit analysis of speeding clearly showed that the benefits did not outweigh the costs.

Person cuts in line…

You can say something to the person who cut in line.  However, if you approach this person with all the energy of your heightened arousal, the reaction you get might not be the apology you deserve but an aroused angry over-reaction. Is it worth it to get into an argument when an apology would restore the situation?   Probably not.

Poorly written instructions for the toy you are trying to put together at 11:00 PM…

well, I have been there and done that. And, no, getting angry at the company, the person with inadequate writing skills, or the editor accomplished nothing.  I still had to do the best I could to figure out what I needed so I could build the bicycle and get it under the tree.

I think you get the idea.

If someone directs their anger is at you..

The process is similar to the that outlined above.  The only difference is that when someone directs their anger at you, you need to take a breath to lower your arousal so that you don’t react and, remembering that he sees you as a mega-threat, apologize for any misunderstanding (not for doing something wrong). You can then ask him how you can help to make things right.

The exception to the above is if you feel fear in the presence of someone directing their anger at you.  If this is the case, walk away.

So, my suggestion is that you enjoy all the great feelings that the holiday season elicits and be alert to anger if you experience it.  Master the anger so that it doesn’t escalate and potentially ruin your holiday.

Regret: An emotion I misunderstood. Until Now. A Reprint (as promised). And..Happy T-Day

Note: As I noted in my last post, this is a reprint of a post in which I discussed in detail how to master the emotion of regret.

7/13/22

Regret is an emotion that, like anger, has gotten a lot of bad press.

The image we often see is of a tattoo on a buffed arm that reads “No Regrets”.

Or, if you are into humor…”No Regerts”.

In a new book, Daniel Pink writes about the emotion of regret and notes that when you ask people if they have regrets, they will answer that they do not. If, however, you ask them if there are things they did (or failed to do) that they wish they had done differently, they will  say “yes”.

This is, in fact, the essence of regret.

The message of regret is, indeed, that you either did something, or failed to take some action, that led to an outcome that you strongly wish had progressed differently than it did.

This could involve an action you took such as

  • selling the stock just before it split and hit a new high
  • losing a bunch of money because you got scammed
  • “acting-out” and destroying an important relationship

or

It could be a missed opportunity to..

  • get an education
  • tell someone you loved them before they died
  • reestablish a relationship that ended badly
  • start a business
  • buy that house

You get the idea.

The emotion of regret is often labelled as a negative emotion because it hurts.

An example from my own life..

When I was in graduate school, I was home for vacation and my mom was taken to the hospital. I had visited her in the hospital and was going to visit her a second time.  I was outside the hospital in my car and decided that I would run an errand and then go and visit her.  She died while I was on my errand and I was both not there for her and unable to say my final good-byes.

It is important to note that the “errand” was not at all critical.

I, maladaptively, held on to my regret for many years.

I’ll explore my regret in this situation below.

My issue with regret stemmed from my belief that the emotion could only lead to a downward spiraling rabbit hole from which there was no escape.

My self-talk regarding my mom went like this…

  • I screwed up. I was not there for my mom in her moment of need.
  • My actions led to a bad situation which I can’t change.  She died and I will never be able to comfort her and tell her how much I loved her.
  • I should have  made a different decision. I knew that the errand was not significant but I “bought” my rationalization. I acted in a cowardly manner.
  • My actions will always haunt me because I can’t change what I did.
  • There must be something wrong with me that led me to screw up. I was in grad school and knew about rationalization.  I did not acknowledge my own inability to cope with my mom dying. I should have acted differently.
  • I screwed up because I was unable to deal with my anxiety.  I will always be haunted by my guilt because there is no way for me to make it  right.

Experiencing an emotional maelstrom involving self-criticism (guilt), self-denigration (shame) and being stuck (regret) was horrible. But, it is exactly this negative emotional soup that is associated with the emotion of regret and that gives it its bad reputation.

As a Psychologist with the Youth Authority, I had 5 young incarcerated women all of whom had killed their children.  I need to say upfront that while I always maintained that they were responsible for their actions, I needed to help them deal with their regret so that I could help them grow and develop into healthy adults once they left the institution.

In order to help them and deal with my own regret, I developed and embraced  the idea of IWBNI which allowed me and my clients to “eliminate” the emotion of regret by approaching the event as an IWBNI (It Would Be Nice If).

Viewing what I did through the lens of an IWBNI solved two issues which, to me, embodied the worst aspects of regret..

  1. We (My clients and I) screwed up.
  2. There was nothing that could be done to make it right.

How IWBNI works.

Noting that “It would be nice if” the (screw-up) had never happened…

  1. tacitly acknowledges and validates that it DID happen
  2. detaches the “screw-up” from any attached self-recrimination
  3. puts the undesired outcome both in perspective and in the past
  4. allows us to acknowledge and move past whatever was done and the negative outcome it elicited and
  5. allows us to learn from our actions.

While using IWBNI’s, per se, is still a viable and effective approach to events which elicit regret, I now believe that regret ought to be considered a valid emotion that can be mastered like any other emotion.

I’ll explain.

I paid too little attention to the learning potential of regret and it is this potential  that is the key to using regret as a strategic emotional tool.

It is important to note here that there are two categories of regrettable actions.

  1. Actions you have no opportunity to change.
  2. Actions you can do something to reverse the past and create a new outcome.

Category 2 was easy.  If I could change my future behavior, great, regret could be strategically deployed as motivating me to avoid future similar screw-ups.

I, however, had viewed the emotion of regret only in terms of the first category.

Indeed, if you could not do anything to change, or reverse, what happened, I reasoned that you were powerless regarding the focus of your regret and, therefore, your only choice was to validate the emotion, accept your actions, and move on.

To put it another way, the emotion of regret informed me that I screwed up.  Okay.  But, it also reminded me that there was nothing I could do to change what I’d done.  Therefore, there was nothing to learn. Consequently, regret could not be strategically deployed.

I was mistaken.

My epiphany about regret was that you could, indeed, learn from both categories of situations.

And, to the extent that you could learn from your actions, regret could become an emotion you could master.

To utilize regret as a strategic tool, there are 4 steps…

  • Acknowledgment— IWBNI
  •  Context —The BRR
  •  Compassion and Understanding—Self-forgiveness
  •  Consolidation and Moving on—List of what you learned

Step #1 Acknowledgment

As I discussed above, viewing what you regret through the IWBNI lens allows to acknowledge and validate the situation without judgement.  You may still judge yourself and I will address that below.  The IWBNI, per se, simply acknowledges what happened and the truth that you wish it had not happened without any inherent placement of blame.

Once you have acknowledged the situation and your actions, you are ready to progress to step #2 which involves understanding what you did.

Step #2 The Basic Relationship Rule (BRR)

As I have discussed in other posts, the BRR states that everyone in every situation does the best they can given their Model of the World and their skill sets.

While I don’t have room here to go into the BRR in depth, its relevance to the emotion of regret is that you now have a context to understand the actions you took that you now regret. What was your understanding about your situation, the perspective you took in the situation and the resources you had available to you to deal with that situation?

Now that you have acknowledged and gains some insight into what you did, you are ready for step #3 which involves compassion.

Step #3 Compassion

In step #3, you approach yourself as you would a good friend who did something you did not like.  You express compassion toward yourself and you forgive yourself for what you did.

Self-forgiveness, like forgiving others, does not mean justifying what you did  or letting yourself off the hook, per se, for the regrettable actions you took.  Self-forgiveness simply communicates that it did happen and self-blame is no longer needed.

You can let go of your judgement.

Now that your actions have been acknowledged, understood and removed from self-blame, you are ready for step #4.

Step 4  Consolidation and Moving on

The final step involves listing what you have learned about your actions and making a plan to act differently should a similar situation arise (if this is possible) or if a situation that resembles (in any way) what originally took place happens again.

This is you consolidating what regret has painfully reminded you that you to do.

Once you have consolidated what you have learned, you are ready to move on.

What did I learn from my regret?

Whenever I am in a situation in which I know I need to act but I do not or I rationalize, I will step back, take a deep breath, reassess what is actually going on and what I am trying to avoid, and do what I know needs to be done.

I have mastered my regret.

Indeed, I still regret not going up to my mom’s room to be with her in her last moments on earth but I do not feel guilt and, in several situations, I have taken action I might otherwise have avoided because it didn’t feel absolutely right.

And, now that you’ve mastered regret, turn your attention to Gratitude as tomorrow is Thanksgiving.  I am grateful for (among many other things) all of you, my readers, and wish all of you A HAPPY THANKSGIVING!

What is the best way to stay calm in the situation when you are going to burst out your anger?

Note: This is a reprint of a response I made to a question that was directed to me by a reader on the website Quora.com.

In my response, I ..

  • noted that the issue for this reader is “maintaining” calm and that was a good start
  • reviewed what anger, as an emotion, is and its message
  • provided two strategies for staying calm and how to implement them
  • stressed the need to practice these strategies at home using your mind before they are needed and described how to “do” this practice.

My response…

You say that you want to stay calm before you burst.

This tells me that you are already controlling your anger so that you do not go off the deep end.  That you can do this is a good thing and it protects you.

Before I go further, let me say that it may be in your best interest to just leave the situation, calm down, and come back to it later.

That being said, there may be situations in which you need to take action.  For these interactions, what you want to learn is how to manage your anger so that it works for you and you can use the energy it gives you to correct a negative situation.

While you do not discuss the situation in which you experience your anger, I will assume that there is a real threat to you that you are reacting to that needs your attention.

Let me give you some background information so you understand what anger is and what happens to you when get angry.  I will then give you some suggestions you can use to help you manage your anger so that you can do what you need to and deal with the situation.

Anger is one of the 5 basic emotions (mad, sad, glad, fear and disgust) that humans have had since time began.  The job of anger is to prepare us to fight off threats that will harm us if not dealt with.  When we were living in caves, these threats were always real and usually were life threatening.  When angry, adrenalin is released into the body and prepares us for battle by giving us the energy we need to overpower our adversary

Fast forward to the 21st century.

Today, anger acts on  you the same way that it did for Mr. Caveman.

Your anger tells you that you perceive a threat to you.  Today, unlike for our ancestors, most threats are not survival based.  They are threats to our ego, our sense of right and wrong, our values and so forth.

The bursting sensation you experience suggests you are over-energized.  You recognize the presence of a threat and you have an idea about how to deal with the situation but are overwhelmed by your own and, possibly, the other person’s display of emotion.

With the above in mind, let’s take a look at what you can do.

The suggestions I will be making sound simple to do and they are.

However, they will not be easy to do in the situation when you are angry.  This is the mistake that many writers make.

The writer offers a strategy. The reader tries to implement the strategy.  Nothing changes. The reader feels more frustrated.

There are two strategies which will work in your situation.

The first is to take a deep breath as soon as you become aware of your anger (not when you are at the bursting point).

There are two reasons for taking a deep breath.

The first is that the deep breath relaxes you physically and lowers your arousal (level of energy).  If you need to take several deep breaths, that is okay.

Remember, I noted above that  you tend to get over-energized in angry situations.  The deep breath helps to counter this,

The second reason is that the breath gives you a few seconds to collect your thoughts.  Your thoughts (perceptions) are what create the anger in the first place.

The next thing you need to do is attempt to asses the nature of the threat.  If you know what you want to say or do in your situation, you have already begun to do this. This helps you with your anger.

You can also take a moment to assess the nature of the threat the other person may see in the situation.

There are two reasons for assessing the nature of the perceived threat (both yours and theirs).

1) When you think about the threat, you give yourself a few moments to “calm down” a bit further and plan your response.

Note: You are not becoming less angry.  You are simply letting some of the energy go so you can take effective action.

As an analogy, when you are in your car, you slow down just enough to get around the curve.  Too much speed, you get in an accident.  You don’t stop the car, you just drop the level of energy (speed, in this case) to remain effective.

2) Thinking about your adversary’s perception of threat gives you an advantage in that it helps you manage your own anger by giving you some awareness of where their anger is coming from so you don’t take it personally and helps you deal with him or her.

If you can’t figure out what their threat is, this is okay.  You can still manage your own anger.

It is possible that you may be overreacting to your situation and you may decide that there is no real threat. In this case, just let go of your anger.

If you decide that the threat is real, you can use all of your energy to effectively deal with it.

As I said above, it is easier for me to make these suggestions then it is for you to implement them when you are angry and over-energized. But you can learn to implement them!

With this in mind, I suggest that you “practice” these strategies.

Here is how

In the comfort of your own home,

A. review the strategy in your mind ==>

1. As soon as I become aware of my anger, I will stop and take a deep breath.  If I need to, I’ll take two deep breaths.

2. Once my thoughts are more clear, I will think about the nature of the threat I perceive.  If I can, I’ll try to get a fix on his or her perceived threat.

3. As my thoughts continue to clear and my energy level drops just enough, I’ll engage him or her in conversation.

B. Next, think about the last time you got angry and almost burst==>

1.   Let’s say this is point B in the interaction.

2. Try to think back to point A when you first became aware of the anger.

3. Imagine yourself taking a deep breath and successfully implementing the strategy.

4. Do this several times.

C. You can also practice taking a deep breath with other feelings such as stress, anxiety and so forth.

The purpose is to give you a sense that you can do this (YOU CAN) so when you find yourself in the next angry encounter, you are more prepared to take effective action.

I hope the above 1. answers your question and 2. gives you some strategies you can use today.  if you need to follow-up, note it in your comments.

Do your emotions “work” for you or do they “control” you?

I once had a client who, when asked about his emotions, dismissively commented, “My emotions work for me.”

Another client noted that she felt that her emotions “controlled” her.

Let’s explore these two responses to the topic of emotions.

The concepts of emotions “working for” or “controlling” you might be a bit confusing so let me define these terms as I see it…..

Definitions:

Work for you.

  • This could mean that you do not have any issues with your emotions as in “that plan works for me“.  or
  • It could mean that the emotion is separate from you as in “that emotion just doesn’t work for me”. It just does what it does.

This idea is similar to the emotion controlling you.

Control:

The emotion process happens very quickly and, initially, is outside of your awareness so it seems that your emotions control you. Because your emotions are designed to prepare you for action, they must act quickly and without much thought from you.  This, however, is only the initial emotional reaction.  You are prepared to take some action.  Your emotions do not eliminate your choice of what action you eventually take.

Hense, no control.  Only preparation.

The sign on the street which says “slow down, traffic congestion ahead” warns you of impending danger, it does not hit your breaks!

So, while you may experience your emotions as “controlling” you, other than the initial reaction (which is controlling), how you respond to the situation about which your emotions have warned you and  prepared you to respond to, how you respond is always a choice.

This is the reason I have recommended that you practice responding to your emotional reactions by taking a physical step back from the situation to give you some physical distance (think safety) from the situation and take a deep breath (or two) to lower your emotional arousal level so that you can assess and think about your situation  before making a decision about what response to make.

Once you realize that you are always in control of your actions, you can then learn to strategically deploy your emotions as tools to help you match the emotions you experience to the reality of the situation.

When this happens, your emotions are, indeed, working for you.