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You Cannot NOT Communicate (or the “mic” is always live)

In my previous posts, I have focussed on understanding emotions and the emotions process.

In this post, I want to revisit the topic of communication and how words can effect us.

The goal, here, is to refocus your attention on the words you use in “talking” to yourself and others because these words will elicit emotions which will impact your life as I addressed in my previous posts.

The reference to the “mic” refers to situations in which celebrities have made comments in front of a microphone which they thought was turned off, or  dead, only to have those comments show up in the next day’s news  because the mic was live.  

When you attempt to communicate, someone is always receiving the message. You just may not know what message is being received!

The title of this blog post may look like I added an extra word.

The extra “NOT” is intentional.

The point I am making  is that we are always communicating something whether we intend to or not.

Indeed, most people believe that communication is a fairly simple process.

This is an unfortunate myth.

The process of communication (while simplified in these examples) can be illustrated as follows:

Example #1: Think back to the days of the telegraph.  If you wanted to send a message, you had to write out the message, the telegraph operator had to convert it to Morse Code, the wires had to be in place between you and the place to which you were sending the message, the receiving  operator had to get the signal, decode the message, and write it down so that your target person could receive your message.

This first example illustrates the verbal communication process.

Factual or “basic” information. 

Most of us can easily encode an idea into words, deliver the words, and expect the receiver to accurately decode the message and understand what we mean and intended to say.  And, in most cases, when it is factual information we are communicating, this process works.

There are some underlying assumptions here.

  • Both of the participants speak the same language and can understand the words being used.  Words can be thought of as one “filter” through which ideas are processed. (One way to understand the idea of a filter is to think about what happens when you take a black and white picture with your camera or smart phone. The filter takes out the color.) Words can have a multitude of meanings and, therefore, can be thought of as a filter in that you choose the words you eventually use based on what you want to convey.
  • The message is clear, does not involve emotional issues in either party, and is not easily misinterpreted. (Emotions are another “filter” through which ideas are processed.)
  • Both participants are paying attention to each other, are not distracted by “noise” in the environment (think about having a conversation in a loud lounge), and are “actively” listening with the goal of receiving and understanding the message.  They are not  “passively” listening while engaged in some other activity such as texting or planning tomorrow’s schedule.

Emotions or “complex” issues.

However, if we are dealing with issues involving emotions (or complex issues), the process becomes more complicated.

Example #2: Think about the last time you sent a text or an email thinking that you were being very clear only to have the person to whom you sent this electronic message get upset because they misinterpreted the message they received.

The second example illustrates a situation in which the message has several different “layers” but the only layer of information that is “available” is what is “written” down.

There are several possible complications here:

  • The message may contain implied emotional overtones. For example, you are upset with the person and have not directly expressed your feeling.
  • You may have directly expressed your feelings but the meaning of the emotional words you have used were misinterpreted when “decoded” by the recipient of the text.
  • You tried to use humor in your text or an emoji.
  • And so forth.

By the way, the above process is why we are frequently advised, and warn our kids, to be very careful about what they send in an email or a text.

There is a quote from the Neurolinguistic Programming (NLP) literature that says: “The meaning of a communication (to the receiver) is the response that you (the sender) get regardless of what you intended to say.”

The receiver’s (upset) response clearly suggests that he (or she) viewed the message as “threatening”. This is the “real” meaning of the message to him.

If the communication process is to be successful, you will need to determine where the “disconnect” is. Perhaps, the misunderstanding occurred because the message contained implied emotional overtones that were included in the message (either intentionally or unintentionally) or the receiver read emotional overtones into the message that were not there.

When you are involved in a face to face conversation, there are additional complications that can take place because of the nature of non-verbal signals.

  • Non-verbal signals comprise a significant (perhaps, major) portion of the communication process and involve your tone of voice, the expression on your face, the way you are standing and so forth.
  • An important part of the emotional process is the constant scanning of our surroundings that our senses engage in, our Amygdala monitors, and our bodies unconsciously react to if there is a threat.
  • Our primitive brain is programmed to “read” non-verbal signals because they are often a more accurate (though not always so) indicator of possible threat. This is because humans are not very good at modifying their non-verbal signals (unless they are trained to do so).

Consequently, you are always communicating non-verbally and your listener is always tuned into your non-verbals.  Hence, the title of this blog: You cannot NOT communicate.

An example of this potential conflict is  the saying “Your actions speak so loudly, I can’t hear what you are saying.”

Communication problems can arise for at least two reasons:

  1. The meaning of non-verbal signals is not always clear and can easily be misunderstood.
  2. The non-verbal signals you are communicating with your tone of voice or body language are not consistent with the verbal message.

You master your emotions (and the emotions of others) when you are aware of and utilize the nature of non-verbal (and verbal) signals.

  • In your own communications, take extra care to insure that the message you are conveying non-verbally is consistent with the words you are using.
  • Be aware of the non-verbal signals your receiver sends to you, the emotions indicated by those signals, and the message those emotions tell you about how he or she has interpreted your communication. Using this information, you can seek clarification if what you see in their response is different from what you expected and you can clear up any misunderstanding.

I will continue this discussion in the next two posts.

 

How to be your own “expert” advisor.

In my last two posts, I covered the “3M Approach to Feelings”.

The 3 M’s were…

  1. Management
  2.  Mindfulness
  3.  Mastery

The last step, mastery, involves understanding and strategically deploying your emotions.

In this post, I want to give you a 6-step technique which will help you move closer to emotional mastery.

Let me explain.

In the past when you wanted to pursue a new skill or gain some knowledge you wanted to learn, you may have consulted an “expert”, a counselor, or, as I often do, my neighbor, who has forgotten  more about construction than I ever knew.

Well, when it comes to mastering emotions, you have immediate access to an “expert” you probably didn’t give much thought to.

Indeed, as a reader of this blog, you know more about emotions than most of the population.

Based on this knowledge, you are an “expert”.

No, I am not pulling your chain.  As I am defining “expert”, when you know more about the subject than they do, you qualify as a knowledgeable source of information.  Or, to put it another way… an expert within the limits of your knowledge.

So, I am willing to bet that if someone asked you to give some advise on how to master emotions, you could give some very credible suggestions.

And, maybe, in a moment of self-reflection, you realized how good the advice was and felt a little rush of well-deserved pride. I hope so.

Good for you!

But, and this is the kicker, have you ever found yourself in a situation similar to the one you helped your friend navigate through and you didn’t use your own advice?

The answer for most of us, including me, is “yes”.

And, yes, when it happens to me (a certified expert in these matters), I feel kind of silly, have to laugh at myself, forgive myself, and reevaluate the choices I have made.

When I taught a Personal Growth class at the University where I teach, I would often answer questions from the students noting that I was much better at helping them solve their issues than I was solving my own. The reason for this is that I was objective and unburdened by emotions when I responded to their issues so I could easily and quickly access my experiences and knowledge to formulate an answer to their question.

In my own case, however, I was often very subjective  and emotional.

This subjectivity clouded my judgement and left me less effective as a problem solver.

I had the necessary knowledge but I was too close to the situation and the knowledge I had didn’t kick in.

In other words, I was not able to completely access my own knowledge.

I had difficulty being my own expert.

6 steps to help you become your own expert.

So, in order for you to be your own expert when you are facing an issue that is problematic, troublesome, and emotional for you, follow these six steps:

  1. take a piece of paper and write out the issue as you understand it to be. Note: the “facts” of the situation are not critical here as it is your interpretation that is critical.
  2. imagine that a friend of yours has approached you with this exact issue and requested your help
  3. write out your suggestions to your friend’s request.
  4. put the suggestions you’ve written away for a day or two
  5. pull out the suggestions you wrote down
  6. commit to follow the advice that is written down in front of you.

While this technique may not work in every situation and you may have to seek some outside input, it will be effective in many situations because:

  • you are a good advice giver (expert) when you are objective
  • this process helps you be objective
  • the 1-2 day cooling off period gives you some distance from the issue
  • you’ve committed to following your own advice.

I hope this helps.

The 3M approach to feelings. Part 2

In my last post, I introduced you to the 3M approach to feelings and discussed the first M: Management.  In this post, I will talk about the second and third M’s and conclude with how you can apply the 3M approach to the emotions of another person.

The second  M ==> Mindfulness

When you are mindful, you are present in, and aware of, the moment.

While we experience an emotion in the moment, our  perceptions of the situation we are facing may be absolutely accurate or may be impacted by extraneous or irrelevant information.  As these perceptions elicit our feelings, “irrelevant” information can lead to misunderstandings and misperceptions.

This irrelevant information can involve:

  • any experiences we have had in the past which are similar to, but not the same as, our current situation,
  • our tendency to project ourselves into some unwanted future,
  • our tendency to overreact for a number of reasons or
  • some ambiguity in the current situation.

When we talk about our “buttons” being pushed or “jumping to conclusions”,  we are referring to these three sources of misinformaiton.

Examples include:

  • getting anxious (a future based emotion) because we didn’t do well in a previous interview and we react “as if” our next interview will turn out the same way
  • getting angry (a present based emotion) because we misinterpret the actions of another as mistreatment without getting all the facts
  • becoming jealous, without really understanding what is going on, because our spouse seems to be giving attention to someone else

Mindfulness says that you should stay in the moment and fully understand what is actually taking place before you “interpret”, “judge”, “draw conclusions about”, or take action concerning the perceived threat your feelings are telling you exists.

When you are mindful, you ask questions about what is going on, you gain the information you need to decide what actions you will take, and you reserve to yourself the option of choosing what you will do.

The third M ==> Mastery

The anger mastery cycle, which applies to all emotions including anger, can be downloaded from this website and involves the third M or Mastery of the feeling.  Mastering an emotion picks up where Managing one’s emotion ends.  Once you have lowered your arousal, you can remain mindful, or in the moment, and assess or validate the threat you perceive exists.

The process of assessment involves:

  • gathering information about what is happening by asking questions,
  • learning, through perspective taking, about the process and intent of the other person with whom you are interacting,  and
  • evaluating your own perceptions. This assumes that you are psychologically open to the possibility that you might be wrong in your initial assessment. (Not an easy task.)

Assessment sets you up to make a decision about how valid your emotion is and how you want to respond to what is happening.

If the perceived threat is genuine, mastering your emotion dictates that you use all the energy the emotion provides to develop and execute a plan to eliminate the threat.

If the perceived threat is not genuine but is due to a misperception of what is happening, mastering the emotion dictates that you change your behavior and change the thoughts which are giving rise to the feeling.  This will result in the feeling changing.

Or, you can choose to let the feeling diminish and go away by ignoring it.

The same three M’s can also be applied when you are dealing with someone else who is directing their emotions at you. The process involves lowering your own arousal (managing) so that you don’t react and escalate the interaction (This can also result in the other person “powering down” somewhat.), remaining mindful so that you gather information about how the other person perceives you as a threat (mindfulness), and mastering their emotions by assessing how they see what is going on. You can then adaptively respond to their perceptions (if they are open to this) by acknowledging or validating their emotion, apologizing (if appropriate), or suggesting a resolution.

You can also choose to leave the situation.

I have a whole chapter on dealing with someone who is angry with you in my book Beyond Anger Management: Master Your Anger as a Strategic Tool.

The 3M approach to feelings. Part 1

In previous posts, I have talked about the Emotions as Tools Model which

  • takes all the mystery out of the topic of feelings  (Remember that the words emotion and feeling are interchangeable.),
  • reminds you that you can learn how to use your feelings to improve your life and your relationships in the same way that you learn to use your computer or TV remote (gain knowledge about the tool and practice), and
  • ultimately, gives you back control of your life.

In this post, i would like to give you a quick way to remember and implement the Emotions as Tools Model: The 3M approach to feelings.

As you continue to learn more about the message of each emotion, how your body informs you about a feeling by the way you experience each feeling in your body (your physical correlates), and the thoughts which both inform you about how you perceive your surroundings and which elicit each emotion, you can break the emotional process into three steps, each of which begins with the letter M.  The three steps involve Management, Mindfulness and Mastery.

The 3M approach works both for your own feelings and when you are interacting with the emotions of another person directed at you.

The ultimate goal is to master your emotion so that you can strategically apply it to any situation in which you find yourself.

I will talk about the first M in this post and the second and third M in my next post.

The first M ==> Management

The emotional cycle is always working and begins with the process by which we all unconsciously and continuously scan our surroundings for any threat. This process is hard-wired in our brains and is a primordial survival mechanism that allowed us to survive as a species when we lived in caves.  Once a threat is perceived, the Amygdala (emotional center in the brain) sends a fast track message to the Thalamus to prepare the body to fight, flee, or freeze (the fight or flight response).  At the same time, a slower message goes to the cerebral cortex (the executive part of the brain) which allows us to make a decision about the threat.

We become aware of an emotion in one (or both) of two ways.

One the one hand, we need to learn to identify how our bodies react emotionally.  In my books, I call this one’s physical correlates.  Secondly, we should learn to identify the thoughts which accompany and elicit each emotion.

As soon as you become aware of an emotion, you should begin to manage that emotion. The process of managing one’s emotion involves lowering your arousal level.

There are at least two reasons you want to do this.

The first is so that you can take a physical step back from the “threat”. This is the establishment of physical space.

The second reason is to give you some psychological distance between you and the “threat”. This psychological space gives you the opportunity to respond rather than react to the threat.

The Amygdala “assumes” that all perceived threats are genuine and will kill us. While this was true when we lived in caves or roamed the Savannah, it isn’t necessarily true now.  Indeed, being stuck in rush hour traffic or being given the “one-finger salute” may be exasperating but is not fatal.  While we have evolved as a species, the Amygdala has (at least in this aspect) not evolved. The Amygdala just reacts and prepares our bodies to take action.  Our bodies being prepared for action is experienced as heightened arousal, muscle tension, and other physical correlates.

When you are energized and ready for action, you are more likely to react to the perceived threat.  While this may be okay if the threat is genuine, if there is no threat, you may do something you might later regret. Lowering your arousal reduces the likelihood that you will react.

There are a variety of ways you can lower your arousal.  You can take a deep breath. You can learn relaxation techniques.  You can remind yourself to slow down.  Taking a physical step backwards can act as a reminder to “take a breath”.

While the process of managing an emotion applies to all of the “threat detector” emotions, the field of “anger management” specifically has tended to focus on the process of management as a desired end result. Because I believe that one can go beyond managing one’s anger to mastering one’s anger (the third M), I tend to take issue with many anger management approaches.  I talk about this in my second book Beyond Anger Management: Master Your Anger as a Strategic Tool.

Once you have lowered your arousal, you can continue the process of emotional mastery by assessing the nature of the threat.  In order to do this you must be “mindful”.  Mindfulness is the second M.

As I noted above, I will discuss the second M in more detail in my next post.  And, of course, I will finish up with the third M– Mastery.

See you, then.

How to Express Your Emotions

In my last post, I talked about the importance of maintaining flexibility in choosing how you respond to and express your emotions as you work through the process of mastering them as tools.

The process of mastering your emotions begins with the ability to know and label the specific emotion you are experiencing and continues through the actions you take that are consistent with and appropriate to that specific emotion.

So….How do you know what emotion you are experiencing?

I address this issue in my book Emotions as Tools: A Self Help Guide to Controlling Your Life not Your Feelings.   I also provide checklists which will help you identify your feelings.

That being said, let me give you enough information about how to identify your feelings so at least you can get started.

Physical signs: 

Typically, your first indicator that you are experiencing an emotion will be physical changes in your body.

This could include muscles tightening, a sense of warmth, your body preparing to go to war (fight), run (flight), or stiffen (freeze).

That your body is your first indicator follows from the subconscious element of the emotional process which involves your subconscious (and continuous)  scanning of your surroundings for any threat and your brain preparing your body (again subconsciously) to deal with the perceived threat.

This is the primitive part of the emotional process which has existed in humans since we lived in caves and which evolved to help us survive as a species.  This part of the emotional process is very fast and automatic which, by the way, you would want it to be if you were about to be eaten by a saber toothed tiger.

The problem, however, for all of us today, is that this primitive emotional process continues to function unchanged in us just as it did in our cave dwelling ancestors.  This rapid reaction is the reason that many people feel controlled by their emotions, they view emotions as beyond their comprehension, and they blame their emotions for the inappropriate behavior they display when they experience an emotion.

None of these “assumptions” about emotions are true.

  1. You are NOT controlled by your emotions eventhough your initial reaction is subconscious.
  2. You can comprehend your emotions by reading my book, checking out the index tab to all my posts by scrolling to the top of this page or tapping into any number of resources available to you on the internet.
  3. The actions you take or your response  to your emotions are always your choice.  Your emotions do prepare you for a response but do NOT force you do anything.

Cognitive signs.

The “modern” component of the emotional process involves the thoughts you have about the threat your scans have perceived and your body has alerted you to through its physical reaction.

You might be more sensitive to changes in your thinking than you are to changes in your body.

If you are, you will become aware of “threat-based” thoughts which are preparing you to engage with the threat (indicative of anger), getting you all worked up over something that could occur in the future (indicative of anxiety), or, perhaps, alerting you to a situation that has immediate and unavoidable potential to do you great harm (fear).

You can learn to acknowledge these thoughts, accept their initial message as possible, question the extent to which these thoughts match what is happening to you, and choose whether to act on the thoughts or change them to match your situation.

By the way, if your thoughts alert you to an eminent threat and you are feelings fear, my suggestion is to escape the situation and assess it later.  An example would be a stranger in an elevator who looks “okay” but elicits an uncomfortable feeling in you.  Trust your “gut” and take the next elevator.  Whether he is or is not a threat is irrelevant.

This process of assessing your thoughts is what mastering your emotions  as strategic tools is all about.

How to express emotions

  • Use “I” language

I language sounds like this… I am angry about your comments you made to me.  I found what you said to be inappropriate.  What exactly did you mean by what you said?”

There are several elements in the above statement…

I am angry about your comments you made to me.

This person labels the feeling (anger) and takes full responsibility for the feeling.

I found what you said to be inappropriate.

This clearly states this individual’s perception and does not place any blame.

  • Ask “What” in your question, NOT “Why”.

What exactly did you mean by what you said/did?

This question starts with “what” which is designed to focus on the other person’s intent/behavior and not “why” which often elicits an excuse.

This question also leaves open the possibility that the questioner might have misunderstood or misinterpreted what was said.

Finally, this question gives the other person a chance to explain, apologize for, or even change the comment that was made.

  • Stay focused on the feeling and the issue which elicited the feeling.

Don’t introduce information which is not directly relevant to the situation you are addressing. What happened last week or last year is not relevant here unless the actions of the other person is representative of an ongoing and unresolved issue.

  • Acknowledge that you might have misunderstood and ask for clarification.

Note: Recall that an important part of being flexible is being open to the possibility that your initial assessment of your situation was incorrect.

  • If appropriate, apologize for any misunderstanding.

This is not saying you are wrong.

This is not negating your feelings.

If you are wrong, acknowledge this directly and apologize.

  • Be congruent.

non-verbals should match verbals

  • Remember the concept of escalation

Start with the lowest amount of energy needed to accurately reflect what you are feeling. This is being assertive.

You can always increase the level of aggressiveness if you need to.

Emotional Flexibility

In my last post, I noted the 5 steps of mastering emotions…

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

In a recent article in the February 2024 issue of Psychology Today entitled To Manage Overload, Think More Flexibly by Ellie Xu and Darby Saxbe, Ph.D., the authors discussed the concept of emotion regulation flexibility.

Prior to this article, I had not encountered the concept although the idea of emotion regulation flexibility is very consistent with the emotional mastery process as you will see.

The concept of flexibility (in the context of mastering your emotions) adds additional understanding to steps 4 and 5 of the emotional mastery process.

Being flexible in mastering your emotions means that you are..

  • open to the possibility that  you might be misinterpreting what is going on in your situation. This is Step #4 and involves perception and self-awareness.

and

  • open to and able to implement a variety of strategies which will adaptively deal with and manage the situation in which you find yourself. This is Step #5 and involves both knowledge and capability.

So, Step #4, which calls upon you to  assess the match between the emotion you are experiencing and your situation, gives you the opportunity to determine the appropriateness of the emotion.

An emotion is appropriate when it accurately reflects what is actually happening in your situation.

An emotion is inappropriate to the extent that it reflects what you are experiencing but not what is happening.  In other words, you have misperceived the other person, their actions, or the situation.

Notice that I did not say validity.  

The reason for this is that I believe ALL emotions are valid in that they …

a. are representative of how you are perceiving your situation

b .they communicate to you information you can use to decide how you want to act

c. they can be assessed to determine the extent to which they accurately match what is happening to you and your initial perception of your situation.

In my last post, I listed the questions you need to ask in order to make as assessment of the appropriateness of the emotion. In order for you to even ask these questions, you have to accept the possibility that you might be wrong.

It is important to note that the focus of assessment also includes the possibility that you are correct in your assessment.

That being said, viewing yourself as wrong is often difficult especially if you are emotionally aroused and your ego is invested in the situation.

This is why Step #2 is so critical and why you have to practice the emotional mastery process before you find yourself in an emotionally aroused, high intensity, potentially precarious situation.

It is why you rehearse your very important speech before you get up in front of your influential audience. Master the skill sets before you need to implement them.

Again, I am focussing here on remaining flexible in mastering your emotions so that you have access to and can implement the strategies your emotions are communicating to you that may be necessary to adaptively deal with the situation in which you find yourself.

Once you have successfully completed Step #4 and assessed the appropriateness of the emotion you initially experienced, you will move on to Step#5 which involves choosing an adaptive response.

In my last post, I noted that if your emotion did not match your situation, you could seek out new information  which would allow you to change your perception and, subsequently, your emotion. This involves reappraising the the situation.

Reappraisal is an emotion-focussed strategy and, can be very effective.

Another emotion-focussed strategy which I did not mention in my last post but have discussed in other posts is suppression.

Suppression involves purposefully minimizing the outward display of the emotion. Hence, you are still experiencing the emotion but only you know it.

When I wrote my second book Beyond Anger Management I included a chapter on Professional Women and Anger and addressed the issue, which existed then and exists now, that women, when they express appropriate anger, are often maligned, negatively labelled or punished. I suggested a passive approach in which they did not express their anger but used the energy of the anger to develop an intervention which would correct the situation but not subject them to unwanted negative consequences.  I did not label it as such at the time but I was describing the process of emotional suppression. In this situation, suppression is adaptive.

If, however, you are suppressing an emotion because you do not understand the emotion or are attempting to avoid it, this may involve repression or denial and could be maladaptive.

Being  flexible in mastering your emotions might involve a somewhat different approach: a strategy aimed at the situation.

In this case, you decide that your emotion is appropriate, you are in a situation which is a “threat” and that change is needed. You continue to honor the situation and the emotion which drew your attention to that situation and you seek to change the situation to eliminate the threat.

Examples of actions you might take include avoidance in which you do not put yourself in the threatening situation (You turn down the date or offer.), you escape the situation (You leave.), or you alter the situation (You compromise or make a deal and, thereby, change the nature of the situation.).

Setting a personal goal of Maintaining your emotional flexibility means…

  • that you are aware of, and preemptively practice the 5 steps of emotional mastery and
  • that you are sufficiently self-aware and self-secure so that you are open to the possibility that you might be wrong in your assessment of your situation and also that you can accept the possibility that you might be correct in your assessment despite input from others to the contrary.
  • that you have a toolbox of available for dealing with different situations so that you can use the correct tool to master the situation and facilitate an adaptive resolution of the conflict, stressor, or threat that your emotions have alerted you to and prepared you to deal with.

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.