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Mastering the (So-called) Negative Emotion of Anxiety

All of the emotions (think anger, anxiety, sadness, guilt, shame, envy) which either do not feel good (their hedonic quality) or elicit (lead to but do not cause) unwanted behavior are mislabeled as “negative”.

In fact, while it is true that some emotions are experienced or misinterpreted as negative as opposed to others (happy, excited, enthusiastic, optimistic),which are viewed as positive because they “feel” good…..

there are no negative (or positive) emotions.

Let me put it a different way using some common examples..

  • Your smart phone doesn’t do what you want it to and seems to have a mind of its own
  • The spell checker totally messes up your message
  • The remote control for your TV won’t pull up the channel or app you want

When any of these “tech disconnects” happen, do you label the “tool” as negative and toss the device in the trash or do you get annoyed, pour your self some Chardonay or Cabernet, settle down at some point, and get some help (google, your kids, The Geek Squad)?

Of course not…

You figure it all out and get on with your life.

The exact same situation exists with your emotions.

Every emotion is an adaptive tool that, once you learn to master it, can be deployed to improve your life and your relationships.

Understanding Emotions

The function of each emotion is to both alert you to a situation you are facing which requires your attention and to prepare you to deal with that situation.

To put it another way:

Your emotions empower you to…

  • assess the situation
  • choose a strategic response
  • adaptively take action to deal with the situation.

Empowerment means that you are more capable of handling your situation.

The elements of empowerment include:

  • the message of the emotion which is the alert you get from your emotion regarding your perception of what is happening.

With the alert you now have…

  • awareness: you are mindful (present and in the moment) and focused on your situation and…
  • motivation: you are driven to take adaptive action.

Taking adaptive action involves…

  • assessing: your situation in terms of its validity or the match between what is happening and your perception of what is happening and …
  • choosing: deciding on a response that works for you and others in that situation (if there are others).

The action you feel compelled to take when you experience the emotion is the physical preparation your emotion is eliciting in you.

Let’s demystify the emotion of Anxiety

Anxiety is the emotion you experience when you are looking into the future and anticipate that a pending situation might go bad and result in a negative outcome.

Examples include:

  • Having to give a speech that might result in your looking bad, being ridiculed, making a horrible impression, etc.
  • Asking your boss for a raise and being turned down.
  • Going into an interview for a job or a promotion and botching it.
  • Asking someone out on a date and being rejected.
  • Expressing yourself in an important meeting and getting marginalized, criticized, or negatively mislabeled.

In each of the above examples, there are at least three possible outcomes…

  1. It could lead to a disaster.
  2. It might not go exactly as you want but it isn’t a disaster, you learn from your mistakes and you do better next time.
  3. It could result in success.

The reason anxiety is a so-called negative emotion is that it leads us to withdraw from the situation in order to avoid the negative outcome we assume will happen if we participate in that situation.

This is called “anxiety as distress”.

And, it can be debilitating.

Anxiety as distress happens because…

  • we assume the worst,
  • act as-if it is the only possible outcome and then
  • withdraw to avoid that undesired outcome.

To put it another way.. we ask ourselves the question “What if I do XYZ (the situation) and (the undesired outcome) happens?” And the answer we give ourselves confirms our worst concerns and strengthens the desire to avoid that outcome.

Or, in other words…

  • I’ll look like an idiot.
  • My reputation will be ruined.
  • I won’t be able to find that perfect job.
  • I’ll get fired.

While these negative outcomes are possible, it never occurs to us that there are two other possible (or even probable) outcomes…

  1. The assumed negative outcome never happens
  2. Our preparation leads to a desirable outcomeSo, how do we master anxiety as a strategic tool?

First some definitions..

Master: become so familiar with the tool that you know how it works and how to make it work for you.

Strategic: applying the tool to the specific situation in such a way that it both matches the situation in which you are deploying it and accomplishes what you need it to do.

An example from your own experience..

When you started your current job, you didn’t really feel that you knew what you were doing.  You may have been somewhat slow or tentative in your work, maybe asked a lot of questions etc.  As you spent more time doing what you do, you began to master the job in that you understood what you do, did it more successfully and found ways to do it even better (strategy).

That is mastery.

As a tool, anxiety is a future based tool which alerts you to a situation which MIGHT be problematic for you and prepares you to take action which preserves your safety in dealing with that situation.

The key to mastering anxiety involves how you choose to view that situation and what you do to “protect” yourself as you face that situation.

So, if you view the future situation as a certain disaster, avoidance might be an appropriate response.  This is anxiety as distress I noted above.

But, what if you view your anxiety as a warning beacon alerting you to the need to take action to prepare for the situation you are facing?

This is anxiety as eustress and is exactly what you need to do to master your anxiety.

This, by the way, is what my successful students do regarding any upcoming exam.  They get anxious about the exam and use that nervous energy to motivate them to study.

There are two interventions for dealing with anxiety.

  1. Turning a disabling “what if” into an enabling “if–then”!

So, in each of the above examples, your anxiety can motivate you to prepare.

  • You can write and get feedback on your speech.
  • You can role-play an interview.
  • You can think about future actions you might take if your idea, your proposition (asking for a date or a raise) isn’t accepted.
  • You can gather all your facts before you speak up in that meeting.

When you prepare, the calculus changes..

  • If I (prepare and have my ducks in a row), then (it is likely that things will go my way)

and

  • if (they do not go my way), then (I have a plan for my next move).

2. Survival

You need to at least think about the possibility that the situation could end in disaster.

You do this by asking yourself this question…

“If the worst possible outcome happens, can I survive it?”

The answer will in the vast majority of situations be “yes”.

If you know you will survive even though it may involve disruption or discomfort, you no longer have to avoid it at all costs.

When you are prepared, you still have no assurances that the situation will go your way, but you can anticipate that you will both survive the situation and be in a better position in your next encounter.

That is mastering anxiety.

 

 

Four Benefits You Get When You Master Your Emotions as Strategic Tools.

I have written extensively in this space about what emotions are (just tools) and how to strategically deploy (master) them as tools in your life to improve your life and your relationships.

My last few posts focused on giving you a roadmap for making (and successfully moving forward with) any desired changes in your life in the coming year.

Here is my challenge for you…

If you have not successfully mastered your emotions AND doing so was not on your list of desired changes, ask yourself this question..

EXACTLY WHAT IS THE REASON (or reasons) I AVOIDED CHOOSING TO MASTER MY EMOTIONS AS TOOLS IN 2023?

  • too hard
  • hasn’t been a problem so far
  • don’t know where to start
  • other ______________

Let me address each of these right up front.

  • too hard

Yes, mastering your emotions may very well be hard.  But, it is always doable.

  • hasn’t been a problem so far

If this means that you are comfortable with effectively expressing your emotions and assertively dealing with the emotions of others, great.  Then perhaps all you need to do is revisit the Index tab above and fill in any gaps in your knowledge with past blog posts.

If, however, this means that you haven’t yet been challenged by your emotions then perhaps the saying “Dig the well before you need the water.” is appropriate and you should learn to master your emotions so that you are prepared when this skill is needed.

  • don’t know where to start

Okay, this may be an issue now, but  I’ll point you toward some previous blog posts which will get you started once you have decided that getting started in in your best interest.

  • other ______________

I can’t address what I don’t know.  I can, however, tell you that it is entirely possible that I have addressed just about any issue which you might have.  With this in mind, I suggest you click on the Index tab above and browse through past posts to find the information you require.

With your reasons for avoiding mastering your emotions out of the way, let’s move forward.

There are numerous studies that make it clear that we only change our behavior when we wish to get a reward or we wish to avoid some pain.

  • Avoiding pain is a good short term motivator.
  • Getting a benefit is a better long term motivator.

As we enter a new year, I  want to take a moment to revisit the benefits you will get when you learn to master your emotions.

If there is a specific pain you want to avoid that is connected to how you interact with your emotions, then I suggest you flip that pain on its head and think of how your life will be enhanced when you learn to master your emotions as tools. This becomes a benefit.

So, here is my second question for you…

What are the payoffs you will get when you learn to master your emotions as tools?

Here are four benefits to mastering your emotions as tools.

  1. You gain more control over your life.
  2. You feel empowered to strategically deal with situations as they come up.
  3. You have more options in choosing how you will respond to situations you encounter.
  4. You become more adept at effectively dealing with others and improving your relationships.

Let’s dive deeper into each benefit.

You gain more control over your life.

Have you ever used the navigator app on your phone or in your car?  I have.

You set a destination and the navigator tells you when to turn, auto corrects if you make a mistake, and guarantees that you will arrive at your destination.  It isn’t perfect and sometimes you have to intervene, but most of the time its pretty good.

The navigator gives me a sense of control in that I know I can get to my destination.

Mastering your emotions is in some ways similar to your navigator.

Your emotions…

  • inform you of how you are perceiving your situation and,
  • give you an alert when what you are experiencing isn’t in alighnment with where you think your life should be,
  • give you an opportunity to make a correction if that is needed.

Examples include:

(now) anger

  • informs you that you perceive a threat (in the present moment) to your integrity, goals, well-being, beliefs and so forth
  • prepares you to go to war to reestablish your boundaries, if necessary.
  • prevents you from feeling, or being, victimized by others.

Mastering anger gives you the opportunity to validate your anger and motivates you to assess the match between your perception and your reality and choose the most adaptive response to strategically  impact your situation.

(future) anxiety 0r worry

  • informs you of a possible threat (in the future) which might require your attention and action (just like you navigator which tells you about upcoming traffic)
  • gives you the opportunity to assess the relevance and likelihood of the threat and motivates you to take action to prepare for it (An example is preparing for an upcoming job/promotional interview.)

Again..mastering anxiety gives you the opportunity to assess the match between your perception and your reality and choose the most adaptive response to strategically  impact your situation.

(past) guilt 

  • informs you that you have violated your own values
  • gives you the opportunity to reassess your actions and choose the most effective way to right any wrong you committed including apologizing and changing the way you do things.

Mastering guilt gives you the opportunity to make amends for past actions. so that you can move forward in your life and your relationships.

Relationships

When you learn to master your own emotions, you empower yourself to improve your relationships with others.

There are several reasons for this…

  • Learning to read the emotions of others gives you important insights into how they are perceiving their interactions with you.
  • This insight allows you to choose how you want to strategically interact with another person based on the direction you want the relationship to take including validating and clarifying the perception so that the emotion does not highjack the situation.  The end result is that the person feels understood, the situation is defused and the relationship is strengthened. This process makes it a win-win interaction for you and the other person.
  • All of this happens because you have learned to master emotions by validating the emotion, heeding the message of the emotion and the insight it gives you into how the other person perceives the situation, and choosing an adaptive response to move the relationship forward.

You can learn to master your emotions as tools and here are some past posts from my blog TheEmotionsDoctor.com to help you get started.

There are over 225 posts all of which are directly accessible through the Index tab.  

Getting started. (earlier posts)

Why you might dislike having emotions.

Facts about emotions you probably didn’t know. Part 2: The Functions of emotions 1 through 5.

Facts about emotions you probably didn’t know. Part 3: Functions of emotions 6 through 10.

5 Steps to Master Any Emotion as a Strategic Tool

4 part series on anger. Part 1: Is it okay to be angry?

Love Mac and Cheese (LMAC): 4 Steps to Mastering Anger

You Verses Your Anxiety: 3 Secrets and 4 Steps to turn Your Inner “doom sayer” into an inner “motivator”. Part 1

2023 and the Changes You Have Chosen to Make.

Welcome back.

I hope you had a great Holiday season and Happy New Year.

Now that it is 2023, let’s get you back on track to use your emotions as tools to make some progress on the list you made in November, added to in December and will now use as a guide to changing your life in January.

At the end of last year you wrote 3 changes you want to make and 2-3 action steps per change to help you accomplish those changes.

As I to make the process of change slow and easy, I suggest you take 3 months for each change.

Or, to put it another way…one month per action step.

As you work on each action step, one of three “results” will occur.

1. You are feeling enthusiastic.

The message of enthusiasm is that you are enjoying what you are doing. Consequently,use the energy of the emotion of enthusiasm as motivation to keep going.

2. You are getting frustrated.

The message of frustration is that what you are doing isn’t working.

Using the Emotions as Tools Model, you need to validate (accept as a source of information) you emotion and assess its message as applied to your situation.

Are  you frustrated because you aren’t making as much progress as you think you should be making?  If so, give your self some slack and additional timer for each action step.  Okay, take another two weeks.

Maybe you frustrated because your action step is inadequate or poorly matched to the change you want to make.

In either case,  if you are still having challenges, perhaps you will need to make some adjustments to the action step.  If so, make some changes.

Or, perhaps, your frustration is informing you that the change you have designated as important to you is not as important as you originally thought.

This brings us to #3 which is the feeling of boredom.

3.You are getting bored.

Okay, the message of boredom is that the environment is no longer holding your atttention. The Emotions as Tools Model informs you that you need to understand the message of the emotion and choose an adaptive response.go for it.

If your boredom is informing you that you have completed the action step early and need to move on to the next step, well, go for it.

If, however, your boredom is informing you that the change you originally wanted to make is no longer relevant to your life, then you need to step back, reassess your life, and choose a new course.

The Emotions as Tools Model informs you that you strategically apply your emotions when you validate the emotion you are experiencing as a source of information (the message of the emotion), assess the importance and appropriateness of the message (how well does it apply to your situation), and choose an adaptive response.

To the extent that you have done this with the emotions you are experiencing, the changes you want to make in 2023 and the action steps you have devised, you will be in a position to move forward on your action steps or step back and reevaluate both the changes and the action steps, and utilize the energy of your emotions to  propel you forward to accomplishing what you want in 2023.

This is using your emotions as strategic tools.

You can do it.

My Holiday Greeting.

In my last post, I suggested that you put your list of changes you want to make in 2023 and your 2-3 action steps for each change away and jump into the Holiday Season. You will revisit this list in January.

I hope you did this.  If not, you can go back to my earlier posts and make the list later.  Just remember to do it.

That said…

I want to wish you and yours…

Happy Chanukah

or

A Very Merry Christmas

or

Happy Kwanza

And, of course…

Happy New Year.

Thankyou for staying with me, reading my posts, and, hopefully telling your friends and associates about this website so they can begin to master their emotions as strategic tools.

See you in January.

Ed Daube, Ph.D.,  The Emotions Doctor.

Just a reminder to revisit your list and write your action steps.

This post is a follow-up to my 11/9/2022 post in which I suggested that New Year’s resolutions didn’t work and that there was a more effective way to facilitate changing your life in 2023.

That being said, I am assuming that you are still serious about improving your life in the coming year.

So, let’s continue.

At the beginning of November, I suggested you think about 2-3 changes in some arena of your life that you believe would make your life better in 2023.

And, then, I suggested you write these changes down on paper.

If you haven’t made this list yet, no worries, take a moment sometime after you have read this post and make your list.

……….

Now that you have made your list, I am suggesting you take a few minutes during the next 10 days (12/7 to 12/17) to add 2-3 action steps that you can take that will move you forward in accomplishing the specific change you have indicated you will make in 2023.

These action steps should be doable by you.

Notice that I did not say that would insure that change.  If your action steps allow you to complete the change you’ve noted, great. Just moving you closer to that change is good  enough.  You can make some corrections later if you need to.

Hence, I said “move you forward” for three reasons.

  1. I am trying here to put you on a path that you can stay on.
  2. I know that making any progress will elicit the emotions of happiness, satisfaction, self-worth and others and
  3. The energy of these emotions will serve as a motivator to keep working on the change which is now more available to you.

This is using your emotions as strategic tools.

Once you have added 2-3 action steps to the 2-3 changes you will make in 2023, put the list away and jump into the Holiday season.

You will revisit this list in January when you can focus your attention on your action steps and move into 2023.

 

Happy Thanksgiving.

Tomorrow is Thanksgiving Day.

If you can squeeze it in between too much food and too much TV, take a moment to think about everything you have in your life that has made your life better and which, were “it” not in your life would negatively impact the quality of the life you have.

Whatever comes to  mind for you, take a quick moment and allow yourself to be grateful for all you have in your life that makes your life what it is.

Express the gratitude as in “I am grateful for X, Y and Z.

Once you’ve done this, feel free to resume overindulging.

Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours.

Using Your Emotions as Motivators to Changing Your Life: A new Approach to the Upcoming Holiday Season

YOU WANT TO MAKE SOME CHANGES IN YOUR LIFE IN 2023?  

  • Forget making resolutions.
  • Use the emotions of gratitude and anticipation as motivators.
  • Try a new approach starting TODAY.

Here is an overview of the process (Some dates are flexible.)

  • November 9, 2022: Introduction to a new approach to the Holidays
  • November 24, 2022: Thanksgiving Day
  • November 29 through December 10, 2022: Revisit your list.
  • December 25, 2022: Christmas Day
  • December 26 through December 30: Enhance your list (if you can).
  • January 1, 2023: New Year’s Day
  • January 9, 2023: Begin to change your life.

Today (11/9/22)

In two weeks, we will enter the Holiday Season with Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s.

A Different Approach

I’d like to suggest to you that, this year, you take a somewhat different approach  to the upcoming “Holiday Season” and these three holidays using your emotions as tools to change your life and your relationships.

The holiday season typically puts us in an upbeat mood.

This positive mood can be used as a motivator to pursue both the emotion of gratitude which is a powerful emotion and anticipation if there are aspects of our lives we would like to change.

Today, and for the next week, take a few minutes and think about 2 to 3 changes you could make in different arenas (personal, family, work, relationships, finances, health) of your life that, when done, will make your life better in some way.

Write down the changes you believe would be beneficial to you (notice I did not say “would like to make”.

Wanting to do something or liking something won’t go far as a motivator.  Being beneficial begins to engage your interest which is a motivating emotion.

Thanksgiving

Gratitude

For most of us, this holiday is about getting together with family, eating too much and vegging out in front of the TV.  All of this is good and doesn’t necessarily need any adjustments.

I am suggesting that you use this Holiday to really reflect on what you have to be grateful for in your life.

Whether you share this with your family or not is up to you.

This is a link to a post I wrote in 2019 specifically addressing the emotion of gratitude.

Here are some highlights..

According to an article posted on  positivepsychology.com, gratitude can:

  • help you make friends
  • improve your physical health
  • improve your psychological health
  • enhance empathy and reduce aggression
  • improve your sleep
  • enhance your self-esteem

November 29 through December 10, 2022….List of changes.

Once you have begun to express gratitude for all that is going right in your life …

you then use the “glow” that gratitude elicits and begin to think about those aspects of your life you want to change.

This sets you up for making a list of “changes” for 2023.  The “changes” you thought about earlier and wrote down now become your list.

Revisit your list and develop some action steps.

“No” to New Year’s Resolutions.

I don’t want you to make New Years resolutions as they do not work.

During the next few days, go back to your list and add 1-3 action steps for each item that are within your ability to accomplish. I did not say that they had to be easy.

Not Easy… But doable.

Anticipation

Because these steps are doable, the emotion of anticipation will kick in.

These action steps will turn your list into a plan of action by noting what you will need to do to make the changes you previously listed.

Once you have this updated and expanded list, put it away and get into the Christmas Spirit.

Between Christmas and New Years … 

Revisit your 2023 Action Plan and tweak it as needed.

Ask yourself these questions for each item.

  • What desirable changes will occur in my life when I successfully achieve (this change in my life)?
  • How will my life (relationships, job, family, health, finances) be improved when I successfully achieve (this change in my life)?
  • How will I know that I have begun to successfully achieve (this change in my life)?
  • What emotion can I anticipate I will experience when I successfully achieve (this change in my life)? Examples include: happy, accomplished, successful, secure (financially, relationships), etc.

Write your answers down for each item.

Note that just thinking about these changes in your life can elicit the emotions associated with those changes and serve as motivators.

January 1, 2023

Put the list away and welcome in the New Year.

January 9, 2023

Once your life gets back to “normal” (a week or so), take out your list and begin to take action on the first action step of your action plan.

Note:

If the week between Christmas and New Years was so hectic that you didn’t get to enhance your list, no worries.  You can begin this process now, without any guilt, because asking and answering these questions is, indeed, the beginning of your journey to changing your life.

If you follow all the steps listed above (to the best of your ability), you will be on your way to changing your life and using your emotions as tools to motivate you in that process.

 

 

Hidden Emotional Traps including: “As-if”, Castastrophising, and others

Note:

  • I’ve been doing a lot of podcasts recently in which I discuss the Emotions Cycle, Emotions as Tools and other relevant topics.
  • You can check out my podcast guest appearances by clicking this Google link…      Ed Daube podcasts.

In this post, I will discuss the topic of the emotional traps that exist as a direct result of the way the emotional cycle works and the often maladaptive way people react to the emotions they experience.

In the subconcious phase of the emotions cycle, including a constant scanning of one’s surroundings for threat and preparing your body to deal with that threat, the Amydala acts quickly and outside of your awareness. While this is by evolutionary design, the unintended consequences of this fast acting process is that you may be tempted to think that your emotions control you and the actions you take.

And, if you believe that your emotions dictate what you do, you do not assess the nature of the threat and you create a self-fulfilling prophesy in which the original perception of the event is incorrect, the actions elicited by that perception do not fit the situation, and you act as-if the emotion is, indeed, causing the behavior which is viewed as inappropriate .

When you act as-if your emotions control you and your behavior, you become vulnerable and leave yourself open to several emotional traps and the unwanted results of those traps including:

  • inappropriate behavior,
  • avoidable awkward interactions,
  • unneccary misunderstandings, and
  • escalating emotional whirlpools which can engulf you and isolate you from others.

Underlying Factors (all oof which are discussed in other posts)

The underlying factors which give rise to emotional traps include:

  • Part of the emotional cycle is unconscious.
  • Most of us don’t understand what emotions are, their purpose, or how they work.
  • We feel inadequate in dealing with our emotions. This inadequacy is experienced as being helpless.
  • Societal display rules seem to dictate what emotions are appropriate and which are unacceptable.
  • Accepting responsibility for our emotions and our actions is more difficult than avoiding that responsibility.

Emotional Traps.

Definition of an emotional trap

An emotional trap is a situation in which the poor handling of one’s emotions or feelings leads to  a worsening situation, escalating feelings, and a sense that there is no effective way to exit what is happening.

The emotional traps

While not an inclusive list, I will discuss 6 emotional traps  in this post.

  1. acting “as-if”. (This happened. It has to be the only explanation.)
  2. catastrophising (Worst case as the only case.)
  3. you vs I (Denying responsibility.)
  4. If only (This happened. Something else would have been better.)
  5. Shoulds (You failed to act in a certain way.)
  6. emotional whirlpools (Attempts to avoid uncomfortable feelings.)

Acting “as-if”. (This happened. It has to be the only explanation.)

All emotions originate as a perception which gives rise to a feeling which elicits a reaction which is strengthened by an explanation which might become a response.

To put it another way, you find yourself experiencing an emotion. In order to make sense of your situation, you “justify” the emotion with an explanation of what is happening to you. This is part of the emotions cycle.

The trap develops when you act as if that explanation is both correct and absolute in that it is the only explanation possible for your situation.

Road rage is an example.

You are driving and get cut off by another driver.  You instantly get angry, chase after the driver and give them a one-finger salute. As you are following them, you notice that they pull into the parking lot in front of a Hospital Emergency Room.

What happened is that you concluded that they intentionally cut you off and you reacted to the threat with an act of behavioral aggression. You never considered that there might be a reason for their erratic driving that had nothing to do with you.  You acted as-if the other driver was trying to kill you.

Catastrophising (Worst case as the only case.)

Catastrophising is a version of “as if” and happens when you follow one logical implication of your original explanation to the worst case possibility  and act “as-if” that possibility is the only possible outcome.

The trap happens because each logical step is the worst outcome possible and there is no attempt to consider other possible options.

As an example…

When I was in college, a med student jumped off of a building.  He survived and offered this explanation for his attempting suicide.

I failed my test in Organic Chemistry (fact).  Because I failed the test, I will get a bad grade in the class (a possibility). A bad grade in Chemistry will keep me out of med school (A very distant possibility). If I can’t get into med school, I will be complete failure and won’t be able to care for a family. (This is the ultimate catastrophe.) Being a failure in life is not acceptable so I will try to kill myself.(This is the as-if )

You vs I (Denying responsibility.)

This trap is an offshoot of the belief that our emotions control us.  The twist here is that you blame someone else for what you feel.

Examples include:

  • You made me angry.
  • If you hadn’t done (a, b, c), I would not have done (x, y, z).
  • I am (You name the emotion.) because everyone else is.

While the last point may be somewhat true because emotions can be contagious, the trap is that when we place the cause of our own emotions outside ourselves, we not only give away our own power but we also deny our responsibility both for the emotion and our own actions.

And, the truth is…

  • Your emotions originate with you.
  • You are always responsible for your actions.
  • If only (This happened.

If only  and “Shoulds” 

While both of these are offshoots of wishful thinking, if only’s (as in “If only I had..”) .if used as a possible learning exercise, can be effective.  If, however, an if-only becomes self-criticism or wishful thinking, it will likely be destructive.

The trap is that, while some other outcome might have been more acceptable, you did what you did.  Instead of validating the emotion, as it is, assessing its appropriateness to what is actually happening learning from your actions and setting yourself up to choose a more adaptive response next time, you get caught up in emotions such as anxiety, guilt or regret which can be disempowering and distracting if not mastered.

Shoulds (as in “I should have done (x, y, z).”) can be particularly insidious because they may imply blame and irresponsibility but offer no solutions. To the extent that a “should” becomes an IWBNI (It Would Have Been Nice If), you can learn from your past and change your behavior.

Emotional Whirlpools

This trap happens when you attempt to avoid a feeling that is either uncomfortable for you or culturally unsanctioned because of display rules.

The process is that you experience an emotion such as sadness (for a man) or anger (for a woman) and display a secondary emotion such as anger (for men) and sadness (for women).  This secondary emotion may lead you to do something you later regret or fail to do something that would resolve the situation.

The initial result is, perhaps  feeling guilt (I did something wrong.) or shame (There is something wrong with me.). These emotions are very uncomfortable and elicit more avoidance through secondary emotions.

The final result is an emotional whirlpool in which one  emotion leads to another which elicits a third and so forth. The process, because it starts with an appropriate emotion and moves to an inappropriate emotion, feeds on itself and is difficult to stop.

The Antidote

The roadmap to avoiding emotional traps is emotional mastery.

Emotional mastery involves accepting both that all emotions are adaptive and that you are the ultimate cause of your emotions all of which are elicited by how you perceive the situation in which you find yourself.

Once you acknowledge and validate the emotion you feel, you begin to master that emotion when you take a deep breath and a step from the o situation.  This creates psychological and physical safety.

You then assess the situation to determine the degree to which your initial perception matches what is actually going on.

The final step in mastering the emotion is to choose an adaptive response to the situation and either let the emotion pass or use the energy of the emotion as a motivator to resolve whatever needs to be corrected.

The bottom line is that emotional mastery facilitates being open to and honest about you emotions. This short-circuits all of above emotional traps and sets you up to more effectively deal with negative situations and improve your relationships with others.

 

 

 

 

Anger Mastery Techniques – 2 Actions and 3 Questions to Ask When Angry to Use Your Anger as a Strategic Tool

We all get angry sometimes.  But, most of us are poorly educated regarding what anger is or how to deploy it as a strategic tool to improve our lives and our relationships.

When you Google “anger management”, you will find a ton of links and lots of suggestions.  The “experts” will tell you that you have two basic choices with many different options within each choice.

The choices suggested by the “experts” are:

  1. Controlling your anger.
  2. Ignoring your anger by distracting yourself through telling jokes, yoga, or relaxation.

The vast majority of these “experts”, however, miss the point when it comes to understanding what anger, as an emotion, is.

They speak of anger as if it is a runaway car or a menacing dog that must be chained up rather than as an important tool that you need to learn how to master..

Or, they minimize anger as an emotion and label it as secondary emotion (as in a substitute for other emotions).

What most “anger” experts FAIL to recognize is that:

a. Anger is a basic emotion that communicates important information.

b. Sometimes, anger IS a secondary emotion that (men mostly) use to avoid experiencing emotions such as anxiety, guilt or sadness.

c. There are times when being angry is both necessary and appropriate.

d. It is the behavior of the angry individual that is always the issue, not the anger itself.

d. The real issue is learning how to master your anger as a tool rather than to control it, reduce it or avoid it.

It may surprise you to know that… You do not “get” angry!

Rather, you experience yourself getting angry.

“Wait a minute, now,” you say “what does that mean?”

Anger originates as a perception which gives rise to a feeling which elicits a reaction which is strengthened by an explanation which might become a response.

So, when you get into a situation which might be a threat to you, your brain unconsciously prepares your body to fight the threat or flee from it. This is a survival mechanism that humans have had from the beginning of time to help us survive.

Anger is a reaction to the perception of a threat that you, subconsciously, believe you can overpower.  Anger prepares you for war.

When you notice the changes in your body that relates to your perceiving this type of threat, you label the emotion you are experiencing as “anger”.

In other words, you experience yourself becoming angry and you label this experience as anger.

“Anger” explained.

  • Anger is one of 6 primary emotions we are born with and which have existed in humans since we lived in caves.
  • Anger evolved to alert us to and prepare us to deal with a threat by going to war.
  • Anger is primarily a threat detector.

There is a better way to approach anger:

Use your anger as a strategic tool to improve your life and your relationships.

Note: A strategic tool is one that is applied in a specific situation to accomplish a specific task unique to that situation.

Two actions to take and three questions to ask when you experience anger.

Taking these actions and asking (and answering ) these questions will help you respond  rather than react to your the situation and doing something you may later regret.

The two actions

  1. Create physical safety by taking a physical step back from the situation.
  2. Create psychological safety by takeing a deep breath (or two).

The three questions.

I. What is at risk?

What does this question do?

When you look at “risk”, you are assessing the nature of the threat. “Survival” threats are unambiguous and involve your life, your primary finances, or your values. “Psychological” threats are ambiguous and easily misunderstood and involve your ego, your goals, your beliefs or your dreams.

The nature of the threat will determine your response and takes you to the next question.

II.  What do I need to protect or accomplish in this situation?

What does this question do?

This question begins to match the situation you face with the actions you will take to deal with it.

Protection involves a “survival” risk. You need to do whatever it takes to protect your assets.

Accomplish addresses “psychological” threats and tells you that you have many options including:

  • Doing nothing if there is no threat.
  • Calming down the situation so you can seek a win-win solution or a compromise,
  • Clearing up any misunderstanding that is being seen as a threat and generating anger,
  • Deciding what actions are needed to insure that…

a. your opinions are heard,

b. your beliefs are expressed,

c. your needs are met,

d .your relationships are maintained or healed,

e. your disagreements are resolved.

III. What is my most effective response?

What does this question do?

This question directs your attention to the RESPONSE you will choose based on reason and away from a REACTION which is an unconscious behavioral outburst.

This question looks at your options and seeks to match your response to the situation and threat you face.

Examples of a response include:

  • Taking physical action against a perpetrator,
  • Talking to a supervisor or filing a formal complaint at work,
  • Engaging in conflict resolution strategies to clear up misunderstandings or disagreements,
  • Walking away so you do not hurt yourself or someone else so thatbboth of you can cool down and come back later to reach a win-win resolution or a compromise.

In learning to master your emotions as tools…

  • taking a physical step back from the situation gives you physical space or safety,
  • taking a deep breath creates psychological space, and
  • asking the right questions informs you about how you can strategically respond to the situation which elicited (did not cause) your anger.

Once you understand what anger, as an emotion, is (a strategic tool that detects threat and prepares you to deal with that threat) and the strategies you need to engage to master it (two actions to take and three questions to ask and answer), you are in a position to deploy your anger strategically to improve your life and your relationships.

Mastering emotions as tools: Anger, and your car’s “smart cruise control”.

There is a widely held belief that our emotions control us and make us do things we may later regret.

The problem is that this is an  emotional myth!

I have attempted to address this myth in my blog posts, my responses to questions on Quora.com and in my podcast appearances because belief in the myth prevents people from taking control of their lives by utilizing their emotions as strategic tools.

In this post I will address this myth in a different way.

I will use your car’s cruise control as a metaphor for mastering your emotions.

Some definitions...

  • Classic or “dumb” cruise control: The traditional mechanism in your car that keeps you traveling at a set speed.
  • Smart cruise control: Technology which both allows you to set a specific speed and gives you additional options by automatically adapting to the surrounding situation and kicking in when an obstacle is present.
  • Set point: This is a specific number or limit which tells the device with a feedback loop that a specific designated action needs to be initiated.  It could involve a thermostat turning on the furnace or air conditioner or the cruise control speeding up the car.
  • Emotional set point:  The degree to which you perceive a specific situation as a threat which initiates an emotional reaction.
  • Your perception: The meaning you give to any situation you observe.
  • Emotional reaction: The subconscious physical changes which your brain (amygdala) initiates in your body when a threat is subconsciously recognized.
  • Emotional response: The action you choose to take to allow you to effectively interact with the perceived threat.

The “Tools” We Use

There are many tools  which you use on a regular basis.

“Task oriented” Tools

Task oriented tools are designed to complete a specific task.

Sometimes this “task” is simple. A screwdriver is just a screwdriver unless you don’t know the difference between a flathead and a Phillips.

At other times the “task” is very complicated. Your cell phone can do many things very well but it won’t replace a screw in your cabinet.

Examples of task oriented tools include your cell phone, your computer, your car, your TV remote, your sewing machine and a screwdriver.

While you may not think of your cell phone and computer as “devices”, they are also “tools”.

“Set point” tools.

Devises with set points make your life easier by automatically maintaining whatever “status quo” or set point you choose.

Examples of set point tools include:

  • The thermostat in your home or car that controls the temperature.
  • The spell checker on your word processor that monitors your document as you type.
  • The cruise control on your car that keeps you going on the freeway.
  • Your brain which encourages you to keep doing the same habits in the same way.

Everything is fine…Until it isn’t!

In most cases, our tools work fine and there is no problem.

  • (Thermostat)…The house/car stays warm (or cool) and comfy.
  • (Spell Checker)…The correction that is made is appropriate.
  • (Cruise Control)…We merrily move along on the road at a chosen speed and get to our destination.
  • (Brain)… The actions we take fit the situation, are appropriate, and lead to a desirable outcome.

The tool does what it is programmed to do.

It is not able to make adjustments for unique situations. In other words, it does not typically think about or take into consideration “exceptions” to the norm.

It is these “exceptions” that are often problematic.

The spell checker that changes the name of an important client in an email or changes a word that gives the sentence a totally different focus than what you intended.  You missed the changes in the overview before you hit “send”.

Your brain elicits an angry outburst which is hurtful, inappropriate and    unnecessary  because you misread the situation.

You get the idea.

Emotions as Tools

Emotions are hardwired tools..

  • Your emotions  unconsciously perceive threats
  • They unconsciously prepare your body to react and insure your survival.

You are hardwired to perceive threat in your surroundings.  This has been the case since humans lived in caves and this “ability” helped us survive as a species.

This is the first part of the emotions cycle and is mitigated by the Amygdala in our brain.

Each emotion has a set point at which it recognizes a significant event such as a “threat”.  This is the message of the emotion.

Your definition of threat is your set point and when that set point is reached, your emotional “cruise control” kicks in.

Below this set point, or threshold, there is no experienced emotion.

The characteristics of this process are that it is automatic, out of our awareness, and quick. This is our emotional reaction.

The characteristics which comprise your emotional reaction are critical if your survival is at stake. But, they are also the foundation for the myth that our emotions control us.

The critical difference is that when the emotional process “originally” appeared in our cave  dwelling ancestors, all threats were survival based and this fast emotional reaction saved lives. Today, most threats are psychological and our brains have evolved so that we now can evaluate the threat and choose our emotional response.

When the emotion is compelling, uncomfortable, or debilitating, this automatic process is viewed as undesirable.

Let me break it down….

compelling

The emotion seems to “take over” and “compel” one to act in a particular way.  Examples include anger (aggression) and jealousy (driven to take back what you believe is yours).

uncomfortable

The emotion just doesn’t feel good.  We call this its hedonic quality.  Examples include sadness, anxiety, guilt, and  jealousy.

debilitating

The emotion seems to sap us of energy and leave us feeling unable to take effective action.  Examples include anxiety (an inability to take action) and guilt (a sense of unworthiness).

But, this automatic process is only part of the story and this is where the concept of a smart cruise control becomes important.

So, you may ask:

“What does the concept of cruise control have to do with emotions?”

The short answer is that people believe their emotions function the same way their classic (dumb) cruise control operates.

  • They get into a situation in which the emotion is automatically triggered.

(Set point is reached.)

  • The emotion engages and elicits physical and psychological events

(The brain and body are engaged just like the car speeds up.)

  • The emotion is experienced as acting autonomously and without conscious  input.

(The cruise control, once set, functions without additional input.)

The implication is that the emotion reaches some set point after which it takes over and the individual has no choice but to give in to the feeling and either act out or do nothing.

This is the Myth…but, there is more to the story.

Most people relate to their emotions from a classical (or dumb) cruise control model.

I am suggesting that it is much more adapative to adopt a smart cruise control approach.

Your Cruise Control

Classic, or “dumb”, cruise control

This technology enables you so you to set a desired speed.  This is the “set point” for speed. The tech monitors your speed and, if the car falls below this set point, the automatic system engages and you speed up.

I call this accessory “dumb” not because I want to put down the technology but because it is blind to changing road conditions.   Once set, it does its job and maintains a certain speed.

As long as you are in an unchanging situation such as a stretch of road with limited or consistent traffic, you are golden.  The car stays at speed.

But, if traffic should slow and you are not alert, the car in front of you may have slowed or stopped, you remain at speed and plow into the stopped car in front of you!

Your “tool” is happy to keep you going at 69 mph. It is doing its job.

In order to avoid an accident, however, you will need to remain constantly vigilant, continue to assess your driving environment, and override or disconnect the cruise control as needed.

Smart Cruise Control

Your smart cruise control has a set point which it maintains. This tech, however, is designed to monitor your surroundings and when there is a car stopped in front of you, it slows you down. Once the obstruction is removed, you go back to your set point.

Our emotions CAN function the same way.

Indeed, the second part of the emotions cycle involves the cerebral cortex and gives us the option to assess our situation and choose our response.

Just like your smart cruise control monitors your speed and your surroundings, kicks in to both slow you down and give you a choice about what you want to do, and then defaults to your set point once the obstruction is dealt with, your cerebral cortex can automatically kick it and give you choices about how you want to deal with a threat.

Emotional mastery involves experiencing the emotion, slowing down, assessing the situation and choosing a response.

Emotional mastery is NOT automatic and must be learned!

Anger as a Tool and an Example.

Your anger is a tool that is designed to help you survive.

Your anger cruise control kicks in when you experience a threat that you believe you can handle if you throw enough power at it.

When you get angry:

  • You have perceived a threat to your life, your goals, your ego, your values.
  • Your brain has sent chemicals all through your body telling it to prepare for battle.
  • You are ready to go to war with the threat.

When all threats were survival based, your emotional cruise control worked perfectly.

The problem is that nearly all of the threats we face today are psychological and not survival based.

Consequently, what may seem to be a threat may, in fact, only be a misunderstanding.

Unfortunately, your anger does not know the difference between a survival based and a psychological threat and you automatically go into self-protection or go-to-war mode.

If you lash out and say, or do, something you later regret, it is just like plowing into the car in front of you at high speed.

This is where the smart cruise control metaphor, the Emotions as Tools model and anger mastery come in.

Just as you should constantly monitor the traffic when your cruise control is on, you should constantly monitor your surroundings when you become aware that your anger (or any other emotion) has been engaged.

Once you become aware that you are angry, you should manage your anger by lowering your arousal and master your anger by assessing the threat and deciding whether to let your anger move you forward to take action (if the threat is real) or override the anger and shut it down.

The same idea works for other human emotions such as anxiety, sadness, guilt and shame.

The point, here, is that your smart emotional “cruise control” should always be set on automatic. This will let your emotions alert you to possible threats. When a threat is perceived, your “smart tech” will kick in and, before you react, you can evaluate what is going on  and decide what you want to do.

This is called mastering your emotions:

  • You accept and validate the automatic nature of your emotions.
  • You monitor your emotions and assess the situation.
  • You choose an adaptive response and initiate it.

The bottom line is that you want to approach your emotions from a smart cruise control model to get the most out of them as strategic tools.