The 3M approach to feelings. Part 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The first M ==> Management

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

See you, then.

How to Express Your Emotions

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

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

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

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

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

Physical signs: 

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

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

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

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

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

None of these “assumptions” about emotions are true.

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

Cognitive signs.

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

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

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

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

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

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

How to express emotions

  • Use “I” language

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

There are several elements in the above statement…

I am angry about your comments you made to me.

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

I found what you said to be inappropriate.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • If appropriate, apologize for any misunderstanding.

This is not saying you are wrong.

This is not negating your feelings.

If you are wrong, acknowledge this directly and apologize.

  • Be congruent.

non-verbals should match verbals

  • Remember the concept of escalation

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

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

Emotional Flexibility

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

Mastering your emotions involves five steps.

  1. self-awareness
  2. manage your own arousal
  3. understand the message of each emotion
  4. assess the match between your emotion and the situation in which you find yourself
  5. choose an adaptive response

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

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

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

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

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

and

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

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

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

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

Notice that I did not say validity.  

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

a. are representative of how you are perceiving your situation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Setting a personal goal of Maintaining your emotional flexibility means…

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

Five Steps to Mastering Your Emotions as Strategic Tools

Both self-control and effectively interacting with others require you to master your emotions as strategic tools.

This is a bold statement that you might find odd for at least two reasons:

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

Anger as an example

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

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

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

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

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

This choice places responsibility on the person not the emotion.

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

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

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

Mastering Emotions

Few articles talk about managing or mastering all emotions (including anger). It seems a bit ridiculous to think about managing your excitement or mastering your guilt or your anxiety.

But, this is exactly what I am suggesting!

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

Mastering your emotions involves five steps.

  1. self-awareness
  2. manage your own arousal
  3. understand the message of each emotion
  4. assess the match between your emotion and the situation in which you find yourself
  5. choose an adaptive response

Step 1: Self-awareness

In order to master your emotions, it is important for you to be aware of how that emotion physically presents itself in your body. In other words, where and how do you experience each emotion. What part of your body tenses, feels warm, or begins to churn when you feel angry, anxious, upset, guilty, ashamed, and so forth?

You may not be aware at this point of how your body reacts to each emotion but you can become familiar with your body by observing what you feel the next time you experience the emotion you want to learn to master.

In Chapter 4 of my Amazon best selling book Emotions as Tools: Control Your Life not Your Feelings, I have included checklists to help you identify how your body specifically reacts. Choose an emotion and use the tables to monitor your body.

Step 2: Managing Your Own Arousal

Once you become aware of your initial emotional reaction, it is important to lower your physical arousal so that you don’t immediately take an action (react) following the emotion.

Ultimately, you want to respond to your situation.

Lowering your arousal level does not “come naturally” and must be learned. You do this by teaching yourself to take a step back from the situation and taking a deep breath (or 2). The step-back gives you some physical distance and the deep breath gives you some psychological distance from the situation.

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

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

Step 3: Understanding the message of each emotion

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

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

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

You do this by asking yourself questions such as:

*Have I misunderstood what is going on here?

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

*What evidence is there to support my perceptions?

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

Step 5: Choose an adaptive response.

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

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

This is mastering your emotion.

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

This response is also mastering your emotion.

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

 

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

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

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

Two Important questions:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mastering your new tools greatly enhance their usefulness.

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

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

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

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

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

Here is how the emotional process works.

The subconscious element:

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

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

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

The conscious element:

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

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

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

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

Two examples of “information” and choice:

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

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

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

Here are the messages of the some basic emotions.

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

Anger (or mad) prepares you for battle.

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

Sadness prepares you for reflection.

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

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

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

Fear prepares you to escape.

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

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

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

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

Anxiety can lead to action or inaction.

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

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

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

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

Mastery and interpersonal influence (dealing with others):

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

Emotions and Logic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He did not give me a ticket.

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

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

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

This is how emotions and logic should work together.

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

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

Emotional Mastery: Emotion and Logic Together

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

Here is the message of some well known emotions:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In my response, I ..

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

My response…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fast forward to the 21st century.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There are two strategies which will work in your situation.

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

There are two reasons for taking a deep breath.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here is how

In the comfort of your own home,

A. review the strategy in your mind ==>

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4. Do this several times.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Definitions:

Work for you.

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

This idea is similar to the emotion controlling you.

Control:

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

Hense, no control.  Only preparation.

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

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

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

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

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

The Emotional Mastery Cycle and Asking Questions: Anger. Part 2

Note:

This is the second of two posts addressing the issue of asking questions to facilitate mastering your emotions as strategic tools.  In this post, I offer additional comments on asking questions and use the emotion of anger as an example.

I have a neighbor who works in “construction”.  The other day, I was trying to build something in my  garage and my neighbor came over and was watching what I was doing.  After a short while, he commented, “Let me loan you a tool which will make your job easier.”  He did loan me the tool  and the tool simplified my project.

There is always a right tool for the job. If you have it, the job is much easier.  If not, the job doesn’t get done or you improvise.  Have you ever used a shoe as a hammer?  You get the idea.

All of you reading this have a tool available to you that will help you deal more effectively with your own emotions (including anger) and the emotions of other.

That tool is the ability to formulate important and focused questions.

Let’s take a look at some of the characteristics of questions.

  1. Questions innately call for answers.

When we ask a question, our brain automatically goes into “answer mode” and seeks the information the question is addressing.

By the way, you can use this link between question and answer to your advantage.  When I was in grad school and a paper was assigned for the next class, my roommate would work on the paper until 12 or  1 o’clock and would then go to bed.  I would stay up until the paper was done.

At 4 or 5 0’clock, he would wake up and type out the paper.  It drove me crazy.  I did not realize until much later that his brain was working on the paper while he slept and all he had to do when he woke up was download the information.

I have used this strategy for years to write articles, speaches and book chapters.   It takes some practice and some faith that it will work, but you can do it.

While it is nice to use our brains and the questions we ask to solve challenges we face and compose articles, there is an underlying element to questions you need to be aware of.

Because the question sets up the parameters of the information or answers you get, you won’t get  quality detailed answers if you ask inadequate questions

Put another way, do you really want to have the information your question is seeking?

Let me give you an example.

Have you ever made a mistake and asked yourself: “How could I  be so stupid(emphasis added)?”  Do you really want to know about your (implied) stupidity?   Probably not.

Or, do you really want to know: What can I do to prevent a similar (mistake) in the future?

2. It is important to note that nearly all the behavior we observe in others or in ourselves is an implicit (or unasked) answer to an (often) unacknowledged question.

As an example, when you get angry and lash out at someone, the implicit question is: “What do I need to do to eliminate the threat that is facing me?”  Your actions are your answer to that question.

The questions you ask and the words you use will have an impact on the emotional response you get to the question.

As an example, in response to someone’s inappropriate behavior toward you, is there a different response to the question, “What is his problem?” verses “What is he trying to accomplish here and what are the challenges  he is facing?”

I think you get the idea.

In seeking to resolve conflicts involving anger, the goal is to, as much as possible, adopt a nonbiased, non-defensive, solution-seeking mindset.

With this orientation, you can formulate questions designed to help you gain a better understanding of what is eliciting (not causing) your anger, gain some insight into your behaviorial response and its effectiveness, and create an outlook which can facilitate a successful (win/win) resolution to the interaction between you and another person and improve your relationship with that person.

This approach is also effective if you are dealing with someone elce’s anger.

Questions leading up to your own anger

  • What is the nature of the threat?
  • How valid is my perception of threat?
  • What assumptions am I making about the other person and might they be inaccurate?
  • How else could I think about this situation?
  • Will the action I am motivated to take by the emotion I’m experiencing deal with the threat or am I, perhaps, over or underreacting to the threat?
  • What response can I choose to take to adaptively deal with the perceived threat?

Questions after your anger is displayed?

  • How effective was my display of anger in dealing with the threat?
  • Did I get the response I was expecting?
  • Was my anger appropriate for the situation?
  • What went right with my anger?
  • What went wrong?
  • Did I misperceive the nature of the threat?
  • Did I miscalculate the amount of force you needed to deal with the threat?
  • Was my message misunderstood, misinterpreted or ignored?
  • What can I do differently to get a more adaptive response to my anger?

Someone else’s anger

You can gain a better understanding of this other individual by asking questions about his anger.

Some relevant questions to gain understanding.

  • What is the nature of the threat that he perceived as he interacted with me?
  • Did he correctly interpret something I did?
  • Did he misunderstand what I was doing or saying?
  • Did he want me to give him some space (put me on notice)?

Some important questions to determine your response.

  • What is my goal in this interaction?
  • What is the best way to communicate with him in this situation?
  • If I was “wrong”, how can I effectively apologize?
  • If I did nothing wrong, how can I help him understand what I have done?
  • If I can’t directly deal with this person because of his “superior” authority, power, or potential to “harm” me, how can I safely accomplish my goals with “indirect” action?

When you ask the right question, you are more likely to get an answer which will lead to an effective response that will help you address the perceived threat.  The anger you experience will then be resolved and will no longer be needed.

 

The Emotional Mastery Cycle and Asking questions Part 1

Note:

This is the first of a two part series of posts on asking questions as part of the the Emotional Mastery Cycle (EMC).

In Part 1 of this two part series, I will address general issues involved in asking questions to help us master our emotions as strategic tools.

In Part 2, I will further explore the issue of asking questions and will use the emotion of anger as a specific emotion.

This EMC describes both how the emotions we experience are elicited and how we can strategically deploy those emotions as tools to improve our lives and our relationships.

Recall that the EMC starts with our constantly scanning of 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.

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”.

Other emotions such as happy, anticipation, and excitement prepare us to engage 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 by both accepting that the emotion is giving us information about how we perceive what is going on and examining the extent to which our initial perception matches what is actually happening.

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.

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
  • focussing your attention on the situation at hand
  • remaining both mindful and somewhat objective, or detached, from that situation, so that you can and
  • understanding 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. So, learning how to ask the “right” question is critical in dealing with emotions.

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.

The Process of Asking Questions

I. Create safety.

Before you can effectively deal with any emotional situation, you have to create some “safety” in that situation.  You need to put some physical distance between you and your situation and you need to put some  psychological distance  between you and your situation.

If you are not “safe”, asking questions will not happen.

So, the first step is to take a step back from what is going on.

Taking a step back from your situation not only creates physical safety, if this is an issue, but it gives you some  perspective on what is going on. The  creation of space between you and your situation is very important.

But, and this is also critical, you will have to practice taking this step in emotional situations in order for it to be available to you when you need it.

The second step is to take a deep breath (or more).

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.

II. Asking Clarifying Questions

The focus here is to ask questions the answers to which will give you the information you need to understand what you are experiencing so you can make an adaptive decision which will allow you to strategically master your situation.

Identify your initial feeling.

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.

Clarify the situation.

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. 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.
  2. 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.

Bring your feelings in line with the situation.

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.

Choose an adaptive response.

Note:

  • An adaptive response is one that takes into account what is going on in the situation, validates the initial emotional responses of both participants, and, where possible, seeks to resolve any emotional issues which exist.
  • This is a win-win.
  • A direct response may not always be possible and you may be in a situation where only your emotional issues are resolved.

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?

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 a response.