Is There Any Advantage to Having Feelings (Emotions)?

The short answer is…. Yes, there are several advantages!

Think about this for a moment…

Have you ever:

  • wished that you could eliminate a particular feeling (or emotion)?
  • felt controlled by your feelings (and wanted that feeling to go away)?
  • wondered if,  perhaps, it wouldn’t be better if all feelings (at least the ones that “feel” uncomfortable) would disappear.

The answer is most likely yes (to at least one).

By the way, while scientists distinguish between emotions and feelings, for the rest of us, they are basically the same.

In each of the above cases, there is an implied underlying assumption.

Wanting to “eliminate” some feelings assumes that there is no advantage to having those specific (or most) feelings.

This assumption that it would be best to eliminate some emotions is not at all uncommon and stems from the disadvantages of emotions..

Several (This isn’t a comprehensive list.) disadvantages of feelings include:

  • some feelings “hurt” (or are experienced as painful)
  • sometimes, based on a misperception, feelings can lead to inappropriate behavior
  • feelings happen very quickly so they are experienced as controlling us (This is a myth.).
  • there is a learning curve to mastering them

As all of the disadvantages can be overcome,  let’s focus on the advantages of feelings.

While this is also not a complete list, 5 advantages that come to mind are:

  1. Your emotions are your “window” on the world.
  2. Your emotions “protect” you.
  3. Your emotions allow you to gain control over your life
  4. Your emotions facilitate your interacting with others.
  5. Your emotions make life interesting and engaging..

Some important facts:

  • You can’t eliminate your feelings because they are “hard-wired” into your genetics.
  • While you can try to deny your feelings, ignore them, or project them onto others, they don’t go away.
  • There are some psychological disorders where the emotional circuits seem to be disconnected and severe trauma might impair some of these circuits but these disorders can lead to some very undesirable behaviors and I wouldn’t wish severe trauma on anyone.

So, you can’t eliminate feelings and the costs of disconnecting your emotional circuits far outweigh the benefits, so you might strongly consider learning how to master your emotions and make the most of the advantages they offer you.

Let’s discuss the advantages of feelings.

1.Your emotions are your “window” on the world.

The Emotions Cycle describes how your feelings “work”. This is the cliff-notes version.  I have discussed the emotions cycle in greater detail in other posts…

  • You unconsciously scan your surroundings for “threats”
  • when you perceive a threat, your brain automatically puts you on alert and prepares you to take action to eliminate or escape from the threat.
  • You become aware of the perceived threat and are given the opportunity to assess and evaluate the nature of the threat and to decide how you want to respond to the threat.

This is a link to a PDF of the Anger Mastery Cycle.  The “cycle” for other emotions is very similar.

When you take the time to assess the emotion, you become aware of how you are perceiving your world and your interactions with others.  This is the message of the emotion.

This message is your “window” into your world.

Or, to put it another way, your emotions give you access to the lens through which you are interpreting what you are experiencing.

For the more familiar emotions, the messages are..

Anger-you perceive a threat that you can eliminate if you throw enough force at it. Anger prepares you for war.

Anxiety– you perceive a future based threat that might, or might not, hurt you. Anxiety prepares you to either give up and freeze (distress), or buckle up and take the actions to prepare yourself for the threat should it occur (eustress).

Fear – you perceive a threat that will kill you. Fear prepares you to get the hell out of that situation. Fear is not the same as anxiety.

Sadness – you are aware that you have experienced a significant loss. Sadness prepares you to back off and heal.

2.Your emotions “protect” you.

You are driving in your car and you notice a “sign” (street sign, electronic bill board) that alerts you to take some action which protects you from an unwanted outcome.

Your emotions, as threat detectors, serve the same function as these warning signs and provide you with important information.

When we lived in caves, all the “threats” we faced were survival-based in that they would kill us if we did not detect them.  So, we evolved emotions to alert us to these threats.  While, today, we face psychological threats (not survival threats), the emotional early alert system hasn’t changed.

We subconsciously detect a threat, go on “red alert” and we are ready for action.

This is the protection  that emotions provide.

Our emotions also subconsciously prepare us to take action against the threat.

This action is linked to the perceived nature of the threat.

When we lived in caves, this subconscious process of detection, alert, and  preparation for action could mean the difference between life and death.

Today, the preparation for defensive (or aggressive offensive) action happens very quickly and, if not countered, is the basis for the “disadvantage” of believing your emotions control you noted above.

Fortunately, we have evolved a thinking brain which gives us an opportunity to counter the “red alert”.

3. Your emotions allow you to gain control over your life.

Once you become aware of an emotion and the message it communicates to you about how you are perceiving your surroundings, you can actively assess the nature of your situation and choose how you want to respond (rather than react) to what is going on.

The “control” you gain is in the choice you have regarding how you will mitigate the situation your emotions have alerted you to.

4. Your emotions facilitate your interacting with others.

In an episode of Star Trek, Mr. Spock, a Vulcan with suppressed emotions, becomes acting Captain of a crew stranded on an alien planet.  He makes all the logically correct decisions to protect his crew and gets all the wrong results because he “fails” to consider the feelings his crew were experiencing.

The emotions other people express toward you give you important information about them which you can use to adjust how you interact with them.

To put it another way, when you understand what feelings are and the messages they communicate, you now have an insider look at how the other people in your situation are perceiving what is happening between you and them and you can choose how you want to adaptively respond to them.

5. Your emotions make life interesting and engaging.

I have mentioned that many of our emotions are threat detectors which prepare you to engage for self-protection or “flee” for self-preservation.

The message of other emotions is that we need to proactively engage because it is “beneficial” to us in some way.

Think of the feelings of surprise, happy, excitement,  and gratitude.

These feelings add spice and color to your life and elicit your willing involvement in whatever is going on.

So, in summary, while there are some disadvantages to feelings, I believe the advantages far outweigh them.

And, by doing your research (check out the Index tab above) by reading some of the 150+ posts covering all aspects of emotions, you can acquire the information you need to overcome the disadvantages and begin mastering your emotions as adaptive tools.

 

 

July 4, 2021— Celebrate Your THREE “Independences” and the 7 Steps to Emotional Independence.

We interrupt this 4-part series for a special Independence Day message.  The last post in this series will be published in two weeks.

This Sunday (July 4) we, in the US, will celebrate Independence Day. It is often a fun Holiday marked by fireworks and outdoor barbecues.

This year, I am suggesting you celebrate our country’s independence (#1), your independence from the covid-19 virus (#2) and your independence from your emotions (#3).

So, what does “independence” mean?

To the extent that you are “independent”, you are capable of making your own decisions, creating your own destiny, and taking control of your own life to impact the directions in which you want to go and the relationships you wish to create and nurture.

  1. Our country fought the war of independence to get out from under the onerous rule of the English Monarchy.  Independence meant being able to    determine our own destinies.
  2. Regarding the Covid-19 virus, your independence, if you have taken the vaccine shots, may mean that you are now free to hug your grandkids, meet in your home in small groups, go shopping, or have a meal in a restaurant. And, you may declare your independence from  the Covid-19 emotions of anxiety, anger, grief, helplessness, depression, etc. This will take us to #3.
  3. Now, you may wonder what I mean by celebrating your independence from your emotions.

Well, as a reader of this blog, you know that I write about strategically using your emotions as tools to improve your life and your relationships.

To the extent that you are doing this, you are independent of your emotions.

Many people, however, believe that their emotions control them.

This belief stems from their experience that emotions seem to just happen and to just happen to them.  As I have explained in the Emotional Mastery Cycle, the unconscious reaction to a perception of threat does happen very quickly and is beyond one’s control.  This is a survival mechanism and evolved to protect us.

But, and this is crucial, another part of the Emotional Mastery Cycle is the activation of the Cerebral Cortex or thinking part of the brain.  The Cerebral Cortex empowers you to decide how you want to utilize and strategically deploy the energy the emotion provides.

Hence…..

Your emotions do not control you.  

They alert you, inform you, and motivate you.  But, you always have a choice about how you will respond to the situation in which you find yourself.

So, if you believe that your emotions control you, then, maybe, this July 4, is your opportunity to declare your independence from your emotions.

I have written numerous blog posts talking about what emotions are and how to strategically deploy them as tools.

In this post I want to list, for you, the 7 steps to emotional independence.

Step 1: Declare, regardless of how you feel about them, that “Emotions are ONLY tools.”.

Step 2: Declare that you can learn how to use a tool.

Step 3: Pick a specific emotion you want to learn how to use and write down any questions you may have about that emotion and the control it feels, to you, that it exerts over you.

Step 4: Hit the Index tab in the upper right hand corner of this homepage, open up the Index PDF and pick a post which seems to address your major questions about that emotion.

Step 5: Using the information from the posts you have read regarding the specific emotion you want to learn to use (become independent of), decide what new decisions you need to make regarding how you relate to that emotion.

Step 6: Make a Plan and a Commitment to yourself to make these decisions  and apply them in your life.

Step 7: Execute your Plan.

But, remember that making changes in your life takes time.  Be kind and supportive of yourself and you begin to establish that your emotions are there for you to deploy, as tools, to improve your life and your relationships.

Happy July 4th Independence Day!

5 Steps to Master Any Emotion as a Strategic Tool

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).

Definition of emotional mastery: You master an emotion when you understand its message, take a moment to assess the validity of the message as it reflects upon what is actually happening, and choose a response that adaptively deals with the situation you are facing.

Widening the concept of a tool:

While you may not think of diverse objects in this way, you are surrounded by “tools” in your life.

  • Your car is a tool to get you where you want to go.
  • Your cell phone is a tool to complete a variety of tasks including, but not limited to, having a conversation with someone.
  • Your TV remote is a tool you use to control how you consume content.
  • Your computer is a tool.
  • Your sewing machine is a tool.
  • Your emotions are tools, the function of which is to alert you to and prepare you to deal with your surroundings

Each tool has a purpose.  To get the most out of the tool, you need to learn to master it.

Definition of “strategic”:

  • carefully designed or planned to serve a particular purpose or advantage. (Oxford Languages)

To use a tool strategically involves both using the right tool for the job and using that tool in the right way.

Hence, you can use a hammer to pound a screw into a wall to hang a picture but a screwdriver is the right tool for the job.

I used to use my smartphone primarily as a phone.  This is the right use of the tool.

It is not strategically using the tool in the right way…I am now learning to use it as a camera, an internet portal, a storage unit which provides access to important articles and books, a stopwatch, a personal assistant (Siri), etc.

I think you get the idea.

Mastery and self-control: When you use your emotions as tools, you are now in a position to effectively respond to your surroundings. You are in control of you and you can choose responses which improve your life by effectively moving you forward toward, and motivating you regarding, goals that you set.

Mastery and interpersonal influence: You can master the emotions of others and deescalate an interaction by observing emotions in others, understanding how they perceive what is going on (the message of the emotion) and choosing a response which validates (does not approve) their perception and helps them to reevaluate their interactions with you.

Mastering Emotions

Few articles talk about managing or mastering ALL emotions.

It seems a bit ridiculous to think about managing your excitement or mastering your guilt or your anxiety.

But, this is exactly what I am suggesting!

Mastering your emotions involves five steps.

  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.

Taking a step back does three things…

  1. It provides you with some physical safety if you need it given the situation.
  2. It “removes” you somewhat from the situation so you can be more objective.
  3. It reminds you to lower your arousal.

Taking a deep breath (or 2) does three things..

  1. The deep breath “relaxes” you somewhat.
  2. This lowers your physical arousal level just enough.
  3. The deep breath gives you provides some psychological distance and gives you additional time to think about what is going on.

The important point about your arousal level is this.  According to the Yrkes-Dodson law, you don’t have to completely relax to be effective, you only need to relax enough so that you are not overly energized.

Think about the last time you got excited and “caught up in the moment”. You might have purchased something you later realized you didn’t need or said (or did) something you later regretted.

Whether the emotion is excitement about a new adventure or “shiny object” or anger regarding the violation of an important value, stepping back from the situation and taking a breath will give you an opportunity to adaptively deal with what comes next.

Step 3: Understanding the message of each emotion

Each emotion communicates a different message to you based on how you initially perceive your situation. Understanding this message enables you to assess your initial evaluation of what is happening. Your emotions are always valid as they represent your initial (often unconscious) evaluation of your situation. However, the emotion may not be accurate as you might have misinterpreted another person’s actions or intent. Or, you might have reacted to what is going on based on your own past experiences, current levels of stress, wishful thinking, and so forth.

  • anger: You perceive a threat you believe you can eliminate if you throw enough force at it.  Anger prepares you for war.
  • fear: you perceive a threat that can kill you.  Fear prepares you for escape.
  • sadness: you perceive a situation in which you have lost something or someone that is important to you. Sadness prepares you for withdrawal.
  • happy: you perceive a situation in which you are engaged with an activity that is enjoyable.  Happy prepares you to engage and involve yourself.
  • guilt: you perceive a situation in which you have done something wrong.  Guilt prepares you to make things right.
  • anxiety: you perceive a situation in which some future event might occur which could have unwanted consequences.  Anxiety prepares you to either retreat (distress) or prepare (eustress) yourself for that event.

Step 4: Assessing the match between your emotion and the situation in which you find yourself.

Once you have tuned into the emotion you are experiencing and understand what that emotion communicates to you about how you are viewing your situation, you can take a physical and psychological step back from the situation and attempt to assess the degree to which your reality matches your perception.

You do this by asking yourself questions such as:

  • Have I misunderstood what is going on here?
  • Is there another point of view that I am missing?
  • What evidence is there to support my perceptions?

Based on your assessment, you are ready to move on to the next step.

Step 5: Choose an adaptive response.

The fifth step is to choose an adaptive response to the situation. An adaptive response is an intervention which helps you improve your situation.

Your initial perception is accurate…

If you believe your emotion matches the situation than you will choose a response that utilizes the energy of the emotion as motivation to manage the situation.

Your initial perception is not accurate…

If you believe that your emotion does not match the situation, than you might choose to change your perception by asking for clarification or additional input from others with whom you are interacting. When you change your perception, you change your emotion.

Emotional mastery can also help you improve your own life by helping you become more effective in meeting the goals you set.

Mastering your emotions also opens up opportunities to be more effective in your relationships with others because you can apply the same principles of emotion mastery to dealing with others who direct their emotions at you.

 

Using Your Emotions as Tools-A Suggested Guide for Women (A 51 minute video)

This is a link to a video (and audio) of a podcast I did with Bernadette Boas.  Her Podcast is entitled “Shedding the Bitch Radio”

For readers of this blog, the “bitch” referred to above is any emotion that might be problematic for women.

When I learned of the podcast, I emailed Bernadette and suggested that the notion that women might want to eliminate or “shed” their emotions might disempower women and that I would welcome the opportunity to offer a different way for women to  view and strategically deploy their emotions as powerful tools.

While I do not present myself as a spokesperson for women, I do know about emotions.  Bernadette asked me to appear on her podcast.

I highly recommend this video both to you as my readers and to anyone you believe might benefit from it.

Yes, the focus is on women but men would also benefit from learning both how women perceive us (I am a man after all.) and how to more adaptively interact with women.

Throughout the podcast, Bernadette led the discussion and I responded to her questions with suggestions that she, as a woman, found useful.

She and I talked about a wide ranging variety of topics including:

  • what emotions are
  • the emotions cycle
  • the “non-difference” between men’s and women’s anger
  • how different “display rules” dictate what is emotionally “appropriate” for men verses women
  • the emotion myths
  • the power of anger
  • how and why men demean or devalue women’s anger
  • how women can strategically deploy their anger to effectively impact their interactions with men
  • the Basic Relationship Rule as a key to understanding others and dealing with anger that is directed by men toward women
  • a suggested strategy for dealing with others who are yelling at you and the reason this strategy is effective (it isn’t what you might think)

Here are the links to the audio and videos.  Feel free to pass them on.

Asking Questions: A Critical Tool You Can Use to Master Emotions

I have discussed the Emotions Cycle (EC) in numerous previous posts.

This cycle describes both how the emotions we experience are elicited and how we can strategically deploy those emotions as tools.

Recall that the EC involves our constantly scanning our surroundings.

This unconscious process is:

  •  protective in that we continuously  and automatically scan for any threats,
  • informative as it alerts us to any situation which requires that we quickly take action to insure our “survival” and
  • energizing as it automatically prepares our bodies to take the necessary action.

There are at least two basic categories of emotions: Survival based emotions and Engaging emotions.

  1. The “survival” focussed emotions are primitive threat detectors and include emotions such as anger, fear, disgust, anxiety.  These primitive threat detectors prepare us for “fight or flight”.
  2. The “engaging” emotions such as happy, anticipation, and excitement prepare us to enthusiastically interact  with what  is going on.

Once we experience an emotion, the conscious part of our brain kicks in and provides us with the opportunity to validate the emotion.

Validation involves:

  •  accepting that the emotion is giving us information about how we perceive what is going on
  • examining the extent to which our initial perception matches what is actually happening and
  • matching the emotional response to the “reality” of what is going on in the situation.

Once, we determine the degree to which what we think is happening matches what is actually happening, we can choose how we want to respond to the situation.

The process of validating our emotions involves asking questions.

The Process of Asking Questions

While it sounds easy to “just ask questions”, the process of asking the right question in order to elicit useful answers isn’t easy as it involves:

  • lowering your arousal level so that you can…
  • focus on the situation at hand and
  • remaining both mindful and somewhat objective, or detached, from that situation, so that you can…
  • understand the nature of the informative answers you are seeking.

Indeed,  if we don’t ask the “right” questions, the answers we get won’t be of much use to us in generating an adaptive response to our situation.

The “right” question is the one that focuses your attention on, and attempts to gain insight into, what is actually going on in your situation that elicited the emotion you are experiencing.

So, let’s take a closer look at both the process of asking questions in the context of gaining insight into your situation by validating your emotions and exploring some examples of questions you might ask.

Step 1: Create safety.

Before you can effectively deal with any emotional situation, you have to create some “safety” in that situation.

So, the first step, which prepares you to ask questions, is to take a step back from what is going on and the second step is to take a deep breath.

The first step creates physical safety and the second creates psychological safety.  If your situation only involves you, then taking a deep breath, or two, is all you need to do.  The deep breath has a calming effect on the body and provides an opportunity for you to  increase your objectivity.  The more intense the emotion, the more problematic it will be to remain objective or “detached”.  But, it is doable and the more you work at maintaining some detachment, the easier it gets.

(Note: Remember that emotions and feelings are, in this context, the same thing.)

Step 2: Identify your initial feeling.

You can gain some insight into your emotional reaction by asking:

What am I feeling here?

The emotion you initially experience is elicited by your subconscious perception of what is going on.  It is influenced by the present environment, the other person’s behavior, perceived differences in status between you and the other person, your own past and any emotional “baggage” you may bring with you into the present.  This baggage can involve previous situations which seem (but may not be) to be similar to the present, your insecurities or doubts, your interpersonal skill sets, etc.

The important issue here is to remember that your initial emotional reaction may, or may not, be accurate.

It’s nice if only one feeling comes up but sometimes you may experience several (or mixed) feelings.

You will need to accept whatever answer comes up and avoid judging (in any way) what you are feeling.

Accepting the feeling is the first step to validating it.  You do this by remembering that:

  • you are entitled to feel whatever you feel
  • you may not be entitled to act on the feeling
  • this is your initial reaction
  • you will be exploring this feeling to see how well it fits the situation
  • you can change the feeling.

Step 3: Clarify the situation.

You can gain some insight into the situation you are facing by asking:

What is actually happening here?

This is where you attempt to be as objective as you can.

This question encourages you to look at both what appears to be happening (your initial perception) and what might be happening (other ways to view your situation).

Other questions include:

  • Could I be missing something here?
  • What interpretations or judgements am I making about the other person and what he/she is doing?
  • What is the other person trying to accomplish here?
  • Could his/her actions be the result of a lack of ability to express his/her needs in a more appropriate way?

NOTE:

  1. It is important to note that you are not excluding the possibility that your initial perception is accurate and that the other person’s behavior is both inappropriate and represents the actual threat your feeling is telling you exists.
  2. By asking the above questions, you are either redirecting your thoughts so as to change how you perceive what is happening and your feelings about it or you are confirming your initial perception as a precursor to taking action.

Step 4: Bring your feelings in line with the situation.

This step involves aligning what you feel with what is going on.  Alignment will help you choose an adaptive response to your situation (Step 5).

Alignment asks:

To what extent does what I am feeling match what is going on?

Here, your intent is to bring what you are perceiving and feeling in line with what is actually happening.

Other questions you might ask include:

  • Does the intensity of my feelings match the situation?
  • Do I have several feelings I need to consider?

Now, that you have decided what is going on and how you feel about it, the next step choose an adaptive response.

Step 5: Choose an adaptive response.

The question you need to ask here is:

What is the best way for me to respond to what is going on?

What often happens when someone reacts to an emotional event is that they overreact, get a response from others they later regret, and blame the emotion for “causing” them to do what they did.

They might say, “If I wasn’t so angry, I would not have (done something stupid, acted out aggressively, hurt someone, etc.).  While it may be true that if the emotion were not present, the inappropriate action would not have occurred, it is NEVER true that the emotion CAUSED the inappropriate action.  What we do is ALWAYS our CHOICE!

Other questions you might ask here include:

  • What are my options for expressing my feelings?
  • Are there “display” issues I need to consider?
  • What actions do I want to take?
  • What are the consequences of each option?
  • What result am I hoping for?
  • What if I do nothing?

This 5 step process uses questions to move you through the Emotions Cycle.

Final notes.

You have now  completed the Emotions Cycle starting with your initial unconscious perception and ending with your conscious choice of what actions you want to take.

You did this by asking relevant questions, paying attention to the answers to those questions, changing your perceptions as dictated by those answers, and choosing an adaptive response.

 

Mindfulness-The Overlooked Key to Emotional Mastery

I have written extensively about mastering emotions in both of my Amazon bestselling books and in multiple blog posts but I have not previously linked mindfulness with mastery.

To be honest, I have always known about, and discussed, the concept of mindfulness and I have written extensively about the unconscious aspect of the emotional mastery and  the process of choosing an effective response..

It did not, however, occur to me, until recently, that mindfulness would have a direct impact on both the unconscious perception of threat and the conscious choice of how to adaptively respond to the situation you might be facing.

Hense, the title of this post in which I refer to mindfulness as the “overlooked” key to emotional mastery.

First, some basic “definitions”.

Mindfulness

While there is a whole lot more to it, the basic underlying concept of mindfulness involves “being in the moment”. This means that your attention is focussed on what is happening to you now.

Most of us do not practice mindfulness.  

You have to consciously work at it.

Emotional Mastery

Again, while there is a lot more to it, the basic underlying concept of emotional mastery involves:

  • acknowledging, and accepting, the “message” of the emotion,
  • assessing the validity of the emotion
  • choosing an adaptive response to the situation and using the “energy” of the emotion to carry out your chosen response

In my last post, I explained, in detail, the Anger Mastery Cycle (AMC).

While the AMC specifically deals with the emotion of anger, the three part process discussed in the AMC applies to all emotions. Rather than focus specifically on a given emotion, I will generalize the emotional process as the Emotional Mastery Cycle (EMC).

Mindfulness impacts every aspect of the EMC.

The EMC starts with the unconscious scanning of your surroundings for any  “threat”.  Once a threat is perceived, the brain puts the body on alert and prepares it to deal with the “threat”.

While the process is, indeed, unconscious..

  • where you focus your attention and
  • what you perceive as a threat

will often be influenced by what you are concerned about in the moment.

While not an exact fit, this example is illustrative of how your “focus” can change.

Think about the last time you were driving around in your car and didn’t really notice most of the fast food restaurants.  The next time, however, when you were driving in that same area,  you noticed almost every one of the restaurants.  The only difference was that, in the first case, you had just eaten and now, you were hungry.

Your “inner state” of hunger influenced what you saw even though all the restaurants were always there.

To put it another way, you are primed by your hunger to notice all the stimuli (restaurants) which were now significant, or relevant, to you.

An analogous situation exists with the scans you constantly make for threats.

Because most of the threats that modern man faces are psychological in nature and not survival based, the filters through which you subconsciously perceive your interactions with others will significantly impact how you interpret the situations in which you find yourself.

As an example, let’s say you have a history of being ignored, passed over, humiliated or taken advantage of by co-workers, superiors, siblings, significant others or friends.  Based on this history, you may be psychologically primed to perceive the actions of others as rejection.

Rejection is the filter through which you interpret any ambiguous interaction. Sometimes, others will be rejecting you and, at other times, you may just have misunderstood what others were saying, or doing, to you.

So, you go into work one day and you are sitting at your desk when your boss walks by you and says says nothing. Usually, he or she, acknowledges you in some way.

You find yourself getting both anxious and angry.

The message of anxiety is that you perceive a possible threat.  This might be the worry that you did something wrong, although you don’t know what, and your boss is upset with you.

The message of anger is that you perceive an immediate threat you need to fight.  In this case, your thinking might be that your boss has a lot of nerve ignoring you given all you’ve done for the company.  You’d really like to show him (or her)!

While either of these motivations on the part of your boss could be true, they are reactions which you are primed to conclude based on your past experiences either with your boss or with others in your sphere of influence.

The reality might very well be that he is preoccupied with some important issue that is consuming him and his actions have absolutely nothing to do with you.

Your interactions with others can be adversely impacted by:

  • the filters through which you view your world, if based on previous maladaptive experiences,
  • the conclusions you drew from those experiences, and
  • the overly broad and automatic application of those conclusions to your current world.

And, the impact of these factors on your interpersonal interactions may be completely outside your immediate awareness.

This is where mindfulness comes in.

Acknowledging the emotion

The process of mastering an emotion starts with acknowledging the message of the emotion.  This is relatively easy if you are tuned into what your body is telling you.

You experience an emotion physically and you acknowledge it by noting:

  • I’m angry.
  • I’m pissed off.
  • I’m annoyed.
  • I’m worried.
  • I’m embarrassed.

You get the idea.

Assess the emotion.

The next step is to assess the validity of the emotion.

This is where you compare what is going on in your interaction with others and how you are perceiving what they are doing.

This step requires you to consciously look at any of the filters which might exist and objectively (as much as you can) question what is actually taking place as opposed to how you are interpreting what is going on.

The questions you can ask include:

  • Is my interpretation of what they are doing/saying the only possible explanation or could something else be going on?
  • Could I be viewing their actions through an old (and outdated) filter?
  • Is my interpretation consistent with their past actions?
  • Could they (or I have misinterpreted) something that was said/done?

Notice how the questions are worded to raise doubt about your interpretation.

Spending time with and practicing both asking and answering these questions will help you to remain mindful in your interactions with others.

An important disclaimer:

Being mindful and “in the moment” is much easier said than done.

But, and this is CRITICAL…

It is doable.

Before you experience the emotion you are targeting as connected to your filter, remind yourself to be both keenly aware of the emotion and TO TAKE A DEEP BREATH as soon as you experience this emotion.

The deep breath will give you the time and the psychological distance to ask the above questions.

Mindfulness keeps you focused so that you will both ask the questions and listen to the answers.

 

 

 

Becoming aware of (so that you can master) Your Emotions: Three options.

The key to mastering your emotions as strategic tools is being aware of what emotion you are experiencing.

In several earlier posts and in my book Emotions as Tools A Self-Help Guide to Controlling Your Life not Your Feelings,  I’ve discussed in detail what emotions are and how to use them as strategic tools.  I’ve noted that each emotion informs us about how we are perceiving the situation in which we find ourselves and prepares us to take action.

The information that the emotion conveys is the message of the emotion.

Thus, if you are experiencing anger, the message is that you perceive a threat that you believe you can eliminate if you go to war with and overpower the perceived threat.

If you are experiencing anxiety, the message is that you perceive a threat that might, or might not,  exist.  Anxiety is a future based emotion.

You strategically deploy your emotion when you assess the message based on the situation in which you find yourself and choose an appropriate response.

The emotional mastery process involves:

  • recognizing the emotion,
  • managing your arousal so you can be objective,
  • assessing the message of the emotion and
  • choosing an adaptive response

A major assumption is that you are aware of what emotion you are experiencing.

There are 3 main options available to you to become aware of your feelings.

Option #1: Your body

The process of emotional mastery, as discussed in my Amazon best selling books Emotions as Tools and Beyond Anger Management and as illustrated in the Anger Mastery Cycle (PDF) which you can download here suggests that you determine what you are feeling by becoming aware of your body and how that particular emotion manifests itself physically.  Examples include muscle tension, headaches or an increased heart rate.

In other words, which specific muscle groups tense when you are angry (tightened muscles, a warming sensation) verses when you are anxious or stressed (hot and cold flushes, racing heart, tightening of the chest, quick breathing, restlessness, or feeling tense, wound up and edgy)?

If you experience a sensation of warmth or coldness with a specific feeling, what is that specific connection?

Each emotion usually manifests itself a bit differently in your body and you can learn to read these physical correlates.

The assumption is that you can learn to connect specific emotions with their physical correlates if you are tuned in to your body and how it changes with what you are feeling.

Option #2: Your actions (Self-perception theory)

If, however, you are one of those people who not seem to know where in their bodies they experience emotions, there is another option.

Indeed, you can learn to become aware of your own behavior. Examples include yelling, arguing, cursing and sarcasm or withdrawing.

And, this gives you another way to become aware of what you are feeling.

Let me give you an example of how this process works.

Have you ever finished eating a meal in which you consumed more than you thought you would and said to yourself: “I didn’t realize that I was so hungry.”

This is an example of self-perception theory in action.

What you have done is to view your external behavior (eating a lot) and inferred an internal state (being very hungry) based on that observation.

By the way, we all do this with other people when we observe their external actions and infer (or guess)  what might be going on inside them based on what they’ve done. So, you might observe your child or a co-worker and comment, “You look really angry to me.”.  Their response, which is less significant here, might acknowledge your observation “Yeh, I am upset.” or deny it, “NO, I’m not angry!”

Option #3: Your thoughts

But, if you are one of those who is more sensitive to your thoughts than to your body, monitoring those thoughts and the desire implied by those thoughts might be a more effective way to becoming aware of the presence of an emotion.

The Latin root of the word emotion (emovre) means to move.  Emotions motivate (move us toward) a specific action.

You can think of this as a desire as in “I want (desire) to attack you.”  Just like in the above example of eating too much, you can observe your desire (before you act on it) and say “I really want to go after this person. I didn’t realize I was so angry.

Once you do this, the next steps in the emotional process (after recognizing the emotion) is to create some physical and psychological distance between you and the “threat” (take a step back and a deep breath).  You can then assess the nature of the threat and choose a response.

Some examples include:

You experience anger and think about lashing out. You take a deep breath, take a step back from the situation, and choose how you want to respond (direct or indirect attack, do nothing because you might have misunderstood what was done, etc.)

You get anxious and think about escaping. You take a deep breath, take a step back from the situation, and choose how you want to respond (use the anxiety as eustress to prepare for the upcoming event, temporarily withdraw to further assess what is going on and how to deal with it)

You get excited during a sales presentation and think about signing up. You take a deep breath, take a step back from the situation, and choose how you want to respond (decide to do nothing and get more information through research, decide that the information you have is solid and sign the dotted line).

Ideally, you have access to all three options.

For now, take some time to reflect on how you relate to, experience, label and master your emotions.

Emotions – The Meaning of Life

If the reason you are reading this is that the title of the blog caught your attention or raised your curiosity, keep reading and I will fully explain it.

What do you do when you don’t know what a new word means?

You consult a dictionary.

What do you do if you don’t know what an article or a news story  is trying to convey?

You seek out the opinion of experts to help you make sense of an information source that appears to be ambiguous.

What do you do if you aren’t clear what a situation you find yourself in means?

“Is this a trick question?”, you ask.

Well, not exactly.  In fact, many of the interactions you experience may actually start out being ambiguous in that they can have a different meaning based on how you have chosen to view what is going on.

Let me give you an example.  The phrase “How are you?” is very common.

In most cases, the response you get is “Fine.” or “Good”.  The meaning to the other person of what you have said is that you have acknowledged their presence. Another way to do this is to just say, “Hi.”.

But, suppose, the other person responds with something like, “Let me tell you..yesterday was terrible…”  In this case, he or she heard you ask for a detailed retelling of all the bad things that they experienced.

Same phrase, vastly different interpretations.

So, how can you get some information about how you are interpreting the interactions you have with your surroundings?

The answer is that you become aware of your emotions.

Your emotions are your first window into how you are interpreting what is happening to you.

So, it a very real sense, it is your emotions that inform you about the meaning you have given to the event that you are experiencing.

In other words, your emotions are, at least initially for you, the meaning of life.

Let’s dive into this a bit deeper.

Here is the process you (and everyone else) use to interact with your world.

You are hardwired to scan your surroundings for any threats.  This scanning is a hold-over from when we lived in caves and the threats we faced would, indeed, kill us. Our emotions were survival mechanisms whose function was to keep us alive. These survival mechanisms are reflected in the primary emotions (mad, sad, glad, fear, surprise and disgust).

When you subconsciously perceive a threat, a fast-track message goes to your Amygdala which puts you on alert.  This is the fight/flight/freeze response you are familiar with.  Note: it is actually a reaction in that you don’t really think about it.

This is  you assigning meaning to your life as you have, subconsciously, defined whatever is happening as a threat and your brain has issued an alert.

So, when you become aware of an emotion, you also become alert to the meaning or significance of this event to you.

Or, in a very real sense as I noted above, emotions are the meaning of life.

At the same time, a slower message goes to your cerebral cortex.  This is the thinking part of your brain.

It is here that you have an opportunity to change your perception based on your assessment of what it going on.

You are now moving beyond your initial subconscious emotional reaction to a rational emotional response.

When you change how you view the situation, the meaning of the situation changes to conform to your adjusted perception and the emotion you experience changes to match that perception.

Once again, your emotions reflect the meaning you give to your life.

So, while emotions are not exactly the meaning of life.  They are both a reflection of and a window into the meaning you give to the life experiences you have.

Or, to put it another way, the meaning of life.

 

A Self-Help “Secret” You Can Use to Make Your Life Better

Have you ever offered some excellent advice to a friend which helped them deal with a difficult situation?

Of course you have.

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 qualified 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 that 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.

From this perspective, here is my self-help secret…

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 “secret” 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” 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.

Be Inspired by Emotions

I have written extensively about emotions.

I have discussed the emotions  of mad, sad, fear, anxiety, shame, guilt, jealousy and disgust as:

  • primitive threat detectors
  • tools
  • a source of information about the situation in which you find yourself
  • a source of information about how others view you
  • and so forth

I have noted that what Fredrickson calls the “positive” emotions such as happiness communicate the message that the situation in which you find yourself is a pleasurable one and motivate you to continue to engage in what you are doing.

Recently, I thought about emotions in the context of being inspirational and  connecting emotions with being inspired was entirely new to me.

Dictionary.com defines inspired as: to fill with an animating, quickening, or exalting influence.

I am well aware of great speakers who excited their audiences and inspired them to take action to fight an enemy, pursue a worthy cause, make some important personal changes, and so forth.

However, to approach an emotion such as anger, anxiety, sadness and even guilt through the lens of being inspired by the emotion while incorporating the idea of being motivated, as by a great speech or piece of literature, was different.

Using your own emotions as a source of inspiration gives you an enormous source of both personal insight, energy and self-control.

Let me explain.

When you strategically deploy your emotions as tools, you experience the emotion and validate it as evidence of how you initially perceive the situation in which you find yourself.

Once you have accepted your initial emotion, you go into management mode which involves controlling the level of your emotion so that you don’t overreact.  Management also involves creating psychological safety (if needed) by taking a breath and physical safety (if needed) by taking a step back from the situation.

Emotional mastery suggests that you assess your situation to determine whether your initial perception is accurate or if, for some reason, you have misunderstood what took place.

Based on this assessment, you can choose how you want to respond to the situation.

If your initial perception was accurate, you can use the energy of the emotion to effectively deal with what is going on.  This is using your emotion as a motivator and is what emotions have done for humans since we lived in caves.

If your initial perception was inaccurate, you can choose to change your perception which will then elicit a different emotion and plan of action.

This is a one-and-done approach.  You deal with the situation and move on.

It is also where most of the self-help literature (including mine) end.

To be inspired by the emotion:

  • is a step beyond strategic mastery and
  • occurs after you have used the emotion to help you deal with a specific situation.

To be inspired by an emotion involves:

  •  viewing that feeling as having a degree of importance and influence beyond just being  a tool or a source of information leading you to take a particular action.
  • being curious about what that emotion tells you about you and how you interact with your environment
  • letting that feeling motivate or inspire you to learn about yourself, what it was about that situation and any experiences you brought to the situation that elicited the specific feeling you experienced, what can you learn which might be beneficial the next time you experience this feeling and so forth.

Does this mean you have to deep dive into you and do a self-analysis?  Well, if you can, great.  Or, if you decide to get into therapy to get some of these answers, again, great.

But, you can start the process of self-understanding (not analysis) by some simple questions such as:

  • What about that situation pushed my (anger, envy, jealousy, guilt, etc) button?
  • What was I so sensitive to in that situation?
  • Is this how I typically react to these situations?
  • Was this the most adaptive way to view this situation or could I have seen it in a different light?

Being inspired by your emotions is difficult but it is doable.  It just isn’t for everybody.