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

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

The problem is that this is an  emotional myth!

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

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

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

Some definitions...

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

The “Tools” We Use

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

“Task oriented” Tools

Task oriented tools are designed to complete a specific task.

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

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

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

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

“Set point” tools.

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

Examples of set point tools include:

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

Everything is fine…Until it isn’t!

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

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

The tool does what it is programmed to do.

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

It is these “exceptions” that are often problematic.

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

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

You get the idea.

Emotions as Tools

Emotions are hardwired tools..

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let me break it down….

compelling

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

uncomfortable

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

debilitating

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

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

So, you may ask:

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

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

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

(Set point is reached.)

  • The emotion engages and elicits physical and psychological events

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Your Cruise Control

Classic, or “dumb”, cruise control

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

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

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

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

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

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

Smart Cruise Control

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

Our emotions CAN function the same way.

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

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

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

Emotional mastery is NOT automatic and must be learned!

Anger as a Tool and an Example.

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

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

When you get angry:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is called mastering your emotions:

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

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

 

 

Regret: An emotion I misunderstood. Until Now.

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

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

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

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

This is, in fact, the essence of regret.

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

This could involve an action you took such as

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

or

It could be a missed opportunity to..

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

You get the idea.

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

An example from my own life..

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

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

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

I’ll explore my regret in this situation below.

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

My self-talk regarding my mom went like this…

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

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

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

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

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

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

How IWBNI works.

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

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

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

I’ll explain.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I was mistaken.

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

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

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

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

Step #1 Acknowledgment

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

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

Step #2 The Basic Relationship Rule (BRR)

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

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

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

Step #3 Compassion

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

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

You can let go of your judgement.

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

Step 4  Consolidation and Moving on

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

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

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

What did I learn from my regret?

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

I have mastered my regret.

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

 

Mastering Grief as a Strategic Emotion

Grief is an emotion that is well known but little understood.

Today’s post is designed to give you both insight into this important emotion and, should you find yourself in its “grip”, hopefully give you some suggestions for mastering your grief as a strategic tool.

Grief is an important emotion because its purpose is…

  • to focus our attention on what we have lost,
  • prepare us to effectively deal with that loss, and
  • allow us to grow beyond the loss and get on with our lives.

Grief

  • Grief is the emotion we experience when we experience a significant loss.
  • The message of grief is that we have sustained a significant loss and that we need to withdraw from others so that we can heal.
  • Grief, as an emotion, hurts.

Grief and Pain

The experience of grief can involve..

  • tears that seem to come on their own
  • a sense of emptiness inside
  • an inability to function normally because we are consumed by a sense of unresolvable loss

Other feelings which can go along with grief

  • sadness
  • anxiety
  • guilt

Two significant Grief myths

  • It is important to be “strong” (whatever this means) in the face of grief
  • Moving on with your life means forgetting about your loss

So, let’s dive in..

If you never experience grief, I hope it is because you have never experienced a significant (however, you define this) loss.  If so, I am thrilled for you.

It is, however, more likely that you will experience such a loss in your lifetime and you have at least two ways to approach the grief that accompanies the loss.

The unhealthy way…   suppress the feelings, power through it, and keep going.  This denial is equivalent to looking at the growing red spot on your skin, ignoring it because you don’t want to know more about it or don’t believe in skin cancer, and, down the road, having to deal with your cancer when it finally reaches a point where you can no longer avoid it.

The healthy way.. mastering the grief by validating it and working through it including experiencing the pain and the “symptoms” associated with the pain.

Pain explained.

A few years ago, a close family friend “lost” his wife after some 40 years of marriage.  They were high school sweethearts, got married and spent their whole adult life together as a couple.

When his wife died, he felt as if an important part of him had been wrenched away leaving a void which could not be filled.

He was right (almost).

An important part of him had been wrenched away and there was a void. However, while he would never be able to replace his wife of 40 years (nor would he want to), he would learn to heal the void.

While he expected to miss (grieve for) his wife, he was blindsided and totally (but intermittently) immobilized by  pain, tears and irreconcilable emotion.

There are at least two important elements to understanding the pain of grief.

I. The pain he experienced happened because of, and was a direct reflection of, his incredible 40 years of marriage.

In other words, the amount of pleasure he experienced in his marriage (however, he would define this term and what it included) was the “cause” of the pain he experienced when his wife died.

If the marriage had not been a source of pleasure, the ending, or loss, of that relationship would not have been that painful.

So, one important question he had to address (directly or indirectly) at some point was…

Do the benefits (love, companionship, etc) he gained from the marriage outweigh the cost (pain) he experienced when his wife died?

Or, to put it another way..

If he was given the choice to go back in time and not marry his future wife, would he do it in order to avoid the pain he felt when she died?

When he was ready, he acknowledged that the upside (benefits) of his marriage far outweighed the relatively minimal downside (his pain) and he wouldn’t change anything.

 Note: Some people do choose not to get involved in a serious relationship in order to avoid having to experience this pain. While it has consequences, this is a valid choice.

II. His ability to relive, revisit and relish the memories of his wife and the 40 years he considers himself both blessed and very fortunate to have been able to spend with her could not happen until he experienced and worked through his pain.

This is an often overlooked component of the pain of grief and, by the way, is an argument for listening to, validating, and mastering grief.

Denying the pain of one’s grief does not eliminate the pain.  It may mute the degree of discomfort you experience with your guilt.

What happens it this.

Every time he tried to revisit a fond memory, he would get a jolt of pain.  Our friend would cry uncontrollably when these memories came up.

And, they seemed to come up almost spontaneously and unconnected to anything that was going on with him in the moment.

Mastering grief as a strategic emotion…

The message of grief is that you have experienced a significant loss.  Grief prepares you to withdraw and begin healing.

You master your grief when you take all the time you need to validate the emotion and all the experiences that accompany the emotion.  You withdraw as much as you can from your regular activities so you can experience the pain.  You avoid judging yourself and your actions (like crying, feeling weak and vulnerable, etc) and treat yourself with the same compassion as you would a close friend going through his (or her) grief.

The process..

As I explained to our friend, when you allow yourself to experience both the pain and the memories, you validate the loss, the emotion, and your willingness to grow through it.

What happens, over time, is that the pain subsides and you are able to enjoy your memories.  The pain may be experienced as sadness at the loss but the happiness which accompanies the memories far outweighs the sadness.

In addition, over time, the emptiness gives way to an acknowledgement that the relationship was deep, satisfying and real and that the memories which retrieve that relationship can never be lost.  The person may be gone, the experiences are not.

As you master your grief and grow though it, you will find that you are increasingly ready to reengage with the world and maybe even consider new relationships.

I recall a story told to me by a deeply religious friend.

His wife contracted cancer.  She didn’t want to do radiation or chemo so he and his wife changed their diets and lifestyle together until the cancer eventually took her.

He grieved for his wife for several years and didn’t date.

One night he had a dream in which his wife appeared to him and told him that she was safe with God and it was time for him to move on and begin dating.

He took her advice, started dating and eventually remarried.

Now, whether you believe that his wife actually spoke to him in his dreams or his dreams reflected his own growth and he was “talking” to himself is not critical.  The focus of the dream was that he had reached a point in his growth where he was able to both enjoy fond memories of his deceased wife and begin to form new ones with his new wife.

He never forgot his first wife and is currently happily married.

Our friend followed a similar course of action and returned to a very fulfilling life.

This is mastering one’s grief.

 

 

A New Podcast-Different Topics

These are links to my recent podcast on PositiveTalkRadio. In this interview, I discuss topics which were not addressed in the podcast I noted in my last post.

I’ve included these podcasts because some of you may prefer to get your information in a video or audio format rather than reading it.  If this is your preference, click on the Contact Me button above and leave me a message.

Audio only...

https://www.positivetalkradio.net/ed-daube-the-emotion-doctor/

Video

https://www.positivetalkradio.net/videos/ptr-ed-daube-phd-the-emotions-doctor/

Here are some specific issues which might interest you:

11:47 The problem with asking “why” questions and how “what” may be better.                                                                                                                                          19:10 The value of apologizing                                                                                          20:28 Personal responsibility and the challenge of believing that emotions control us.                                                                                                                                                 23:42 Jealousy
24:34 Hate
28:23 Fear and anxiety
32:10 Emotions gone astray and two issues… immigrants and the lady who called police on a black man walking his dog
37:34 Healthy disagreements with a spouse.

This is a link to a recent podcast I did on emotions with time stamps.

In this podcast, we discuss how I became interested in the topic of emotions, what emotions are and other informative issues.

Here is a summary (First number is minutes into the interview. Second number is seconds both of which are approximate):

3:47. Where did my passion for emotions come from.

6:08 How to understand the emotions cycle.

8:46 Understanding men, women and emotions.  Men default to anger, women default to sadness.

14:26 Basic Relationship Rule

17:12. Emotions inform and motivate.  The next step is mastery.

20:24 Develop new emotional habits.

24:38 My best success stories

28:23 Working with incarcerated young women

30:02 Anxiety

35:00 Sadness and IWBNI’s

31:00 Happiness

41:56. Primary and Secondary emotional progressions

52:25. Explore the blog

52:43. What would I tell a younger me?

54:47. Final Words.

Enjoy.

Jimbo Paris Podcast

Mastering and Strategically Deploying the Emotion of Frustration

Note: You can learn about all the emotions you experience by hitting the Index button above and clicking on any post that addresses your issues.

As I am writing this, we are entering the 2021 Holiday season.

I hope you had a great Thanksgiving and experienced a lot of gratitude.

The material for this post came to me as I was watching the news.

While certainly happy about getting together with families, people are facing  crowded stores, supply-chain  issues, differences in approaches to vaccinations, and other issues.

Taken together, I wondered what emotions people might be experiencing this holiday season.

Here is what I came up with.

Let’s explore a possible scenario…

You are trying working on a project or pursuing a specific goal and your progress slows down or stops.  

Your “project” could involve:

  • Trying to buy Holiday gifts
  • Trying to book seats on a plane to visit relatives
  • Trying to organize an “event” such as a wedding and keep everybody safe while balancing different viewpoints toward vacinations (a real example, by the way)

You are facing an…

OBSTACLE.

What emotions do you think (or know) you might be experiencing?

While frustration is an obvious emotion in the above scenario, and I will address this emotion in detail below, you could experience several different emotions depending on your interpretation of the obstacle and its impact on you  including:

  • anger (if you perceived the obstacle as a threat of some kind),
  • sadness (if you perceived the obstacle as signaling a need to end the project),
  • anxiety (if you perceived a possible future loss because of the obstacle),
  • guilt (if you perceive yourself as having done something wrong)
  • amusement (You just knew this would happen!)

In the Emotions as Tools Model, each emotion informs you about how you are perceiving what is happening in your situation.

This is the message of the emotion.

The emotional mastery cycle (EMC) enables you to both understand the emotion and choose how you want to strategically deploy that emotion to your benefit.

Some basic definitions:

  • Strategically Deploying an emotion

Strategically Deploying an emotion involves adaptively applying the energy of the emotion to the situation in which you find yourself so that what you do (your behavior)  improves, resolves, responds to, or, at the very least, does not exacerbate, that situation.

  • Emotional Mastery Cycle (EMC)

The EMC describes the process by which we experience, recognize, label, analyze and utilize our emotions as tools to improve our lives and our relationships.  You can download a PDF of the Anger Mastery Cycle  by clicking on the link provided.

The EMC can be summarized in 5 steps:

  1. Experience the emotion (physical and automatic)
  2. Take a deep breath and “step back” from the situation (create “safety”)
  3. Acknowledge the emotion and its message (cognitive)
  4. Question the validity of the emotion  (begin mastery)
  5. Choose and initiate a response (strategically deploy the emotion)

Frustration

The message of frustration is that your project has stopped and you are annoyed because an obstacle is impeding your progress on your project.

While many articles recommend a passive approach to frustration including distraction, relaxation, exercising, or doing yoga, the Emotions as Tools approach advocates actively validating the emotion and dealing with it strategically. The passive approach, while not always inappropriate, won’t work here because it ignores the feeling and moves away from the goal.

Once you have experienced and acknowledged your frustration, you are now in a position to use the energy of your frustration as motivation to question (and master) the emotion.

Two important questions you need to ask (and answer):

  1. What is the nature of the obstacle?
  2. If there is an obstacle, what can I do to eliminate or overcome that obstacle?

Strategically Deploying Frustration:

Question #1 serves to validate whether an actual obstacle to your forward progress actually exists.

Two major possibilities exist here.

  • There is an actual obstacle and you have identified it.
  • There is no actual obstacle and you have in some way misinterpreted what is going on.

The answer to question #2 is the basis for a plan of action which emanates from your frustration.  Your plan of action determines what you do with (or how you deploy) your frustration.

(Note: This is the essence of emotional mastery.)

Turn your Frustration into Determination

When you decide that you can (and will) overcome the obstacle,  the obstacle becomes a challenge and your frustration morphs into determination.

The debilitating emotion of frustration becomes the enabling emotion of determination and you begin to move forward.

You master the emotion when you….

  • recognize and validate it,
  • understand the information it provides about how you are perceiving your situation
  • choose how you want to respond to, adaptively deal with, and strategically apply the energy of the emotion to effectively change the situation which elicited your frustration in the first place.

Happy Holidays.

 

 

 

The Emotion of Gratitude, “Giving Thanks”, and Happy Thanksgiving.

In this post, I will address the emotion of gratitude.

There are two reasons for this..

  1. Next week, in the US, we will be celebrating the Holiday of Thanksgiving.
  2. While there are articles out there which address gratitude, you may not be all that familiar with this emotion.

For me growing up, Thanksgiving was a holiday marked by eating too much good food. We knew of the Pilgrims and the origin story of the Holiday.

And, maybe, we even gave some verbal homage to what we might be thankful for.

We didn’t spend any time thinking about the emotion of gratitude.

But, then, in my family of origin, we didn’t spend much time talking about any emotions. That is another story.

With my kids, I would always ask them, during Thanksgiving, to mention something they were thankful for, which they did.

Probably just to humor me.

As I write this, the US is beginning to come out of the Covid-19 pandemic.  Because we have safe and effective vaccines, hospitalizations and deaths from Covid are down and people are beginning to return to “normal” (however that is defined).

Yes, we are still dealing with folks who are avoiding the vaccines but that is another issue.

I am grateful that the vaccine is available.

I am grateful for a daughter-in-law who loves to FaceTime me so I can enjoy my two young grandchildren as they grow and develop and that I am healthy enough to interact with them when we get together.

Maybe you have reasons to be grateful this Thanksgiving.  I hope so.

With that in mind, here is an updated and expanded reprint of a 11/19 post.

Thanksgiving, as a Holiday, is supposed to commemorate a feast that took place between  native Americans and the Pilgrims who landed in America.

Today, however, It is basically an enjoyable time off from work during which we get together with family, eat too much, and watch parades or football on TV.

In my house, as I’ve said, we attempted to emphasize the “giving thanks” part of the Holiday.

Most of us think of being “thankful” and being “grateful” as the same thing.

Well, while they are very similar, they are not the same.

Indeed, being “grateful” goes beyond being “thankful” and the emotion of “grateful”(gratitude) is both misunderstood and underutilized.

“What”, you say. “misunderstood and underutilized?”

Yes. On both counts.

First, let’s take a closer look at “thankful” vs “grateful”.

According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary (online), “thankful”and “grateful”are the same with the exception of two significant words.

Thankful is defined as “conscious (emphasis added) of benefits received” while grateful is defined as “appreciative (emphasis added) of benefits received.”

Being “conscious” implies only an awareness while being “appreciative” implies an involvement with whatever it is that you are choosing to acknowledge and highlight.

Here is an example of the difference between these two.

You go into work and your colleague says to you, “Hey, there, how are you doing?”  In most instances, you say (often automatically) “Fine.” or “Good, and you?”

This interaction reflects ONLY an acknowledgement, or awareness, of the other person.

Now, in contrast, you meet up with an old buddy from your past and he asks you, “How are you doing?”  You most likely would begin to fill him in on what has happened to you since you last met.

This is involvement.

Imagine the surprised response you would get at work if you responded to “How are with you?” with an indepth explanation of your whole weekend, the argument you had with your spouse, and so forth.  This would be an example of confusing involvement with acknowledgement.

Misunderstood

Sure, you are very familiar with saying “Thank you” whenever appropriate and maybe even being “grateful” when someone does a favor for you.  But, in most cases, the emotion just sort of happens and you don’t really think about it.

Someone holds a door open for you and you say “Thanks.”  Sure, you appreciate the gesture but you aren’t really involved in the interaction.

And, in fact, why should you be involved?

This is a casual interaction in which someone has done something nice for you and you have acknowledged their actions.

That’s it. You go about your business and they about theirs.

But, think for a minute about being caught in a  downpour and having someone specifically notice you and the packages you are trying to keep dry, run toward the door, and hold it open so that you can run to get out of the storm.  In this case, you might be both thankful and grateful.

Holding the door is the same in both cases. Going out of one’s way to help you out, as in the second example, is a step beyond.

Unlike anger, anxiety, and sadness, gratitude, as an emotion, doesn’t get much attention. It is not problematic, is easily expressed, and often only becomes an issue when someone else, who we think should be grateful for something we’ve done for them, fails to express this emotion.

Hence, it is misunderstood.

Underutilized

Gratitude is most likely not expressed more because it just is not considered relevant.   People don’t usually avoid feeling gratitude.

The Benefits of “Gratitude….”

Did you know that, based on research, there are numerous benefits that come to the person who is grateful.

Keep reading…

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

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

Look, I have not verified these studies and I am not saying that they are all true or that you will experience any of these benefits.

I am, however, suggesting that  there is a real possibility that expressing gratitude or appreciation toward the good things that people do for you or the good things that either are bestowed upon you or that you have benefitted from could be in your best interest.  And, at the very least, will not harm you any way.

So, you have nothing to lose and lots to gain.

So, how do you begin to do this?

To me, something you can do right now is to begin to be more mindful of the good things that you have experienced and your interactions with others.

Mindfulness involves paying attention to and being aware of what is happening to you in the moment. Being mindless is to react to what is going on out of habit.

In other words, take yourself off of “auto-pilot” in how you view your world and your relationships with others. Then, attempt to consciously think these events (such as others, or you, surviving Covid), how others interact with you and how you want to respond to them.

Let me give you an example of being on “auto-pilot”.  And, I am not suggesting that you eliminate “auto-pilot” because, when appropriate, being on “auto-pilot” enables you to multitask.

Adaptive auto-pilot:

When you shower in the morning and go through your hair-washing routine, have you ever found yourself wondering if you used the conditioner?  You did, of course, but it is as if you weren’t even there.  And, the interesting part is that on the level of consciousness, you weren’t there because you were thinking of something else.

Maladaptive auto-pilot:

The same thing happens when you can’t “remember” where you put your car keys.  Memory isn’t the issue, you were thinking about something else (You weren’t mindful) when you tossed your keys down.  So, the location never made it into memory in the first place and wasn’t available to you when you tried to access it.

So, regarding gratitude, stay in the moment.

When someone does something nice for you, consciously thank them and think about appreciating their interactions with you.

When you experience a “grand moment”, express your gratitude (to yourself) that you are alive to enjoy the beautiful sunset, or that your loved ones have survived Covid, or that you were in the right place at the right time to see your grandchild walk for the first time.

It will take some time to begin expressing gratitude as an ongoing part of your life and your interactions with others.

But, stay with it and it will happen.

If you are in the US, Happy Thanksgiving.

If you are not in the US, Happy Thanks-giving.

 

Let’s take a look at the emotion of “hate” and why you might want to avoid it.

Note:  In my last post, I discussed the concepts of “emotional self-defense” and “mindfulness”.  Both of these are especially critical when it comes to the emotion of hate.

America, today, is portrayed as a divided society. In the news, we read about “hate” groups and “hate” crimes on a regular basis.

So, let’s look at the emotion of hate.

The Emotions as Tools Model notes that each emotion informs you about how you perceive your surroundings. This is the message of the emotion.

The message of hate is that you perceive a situation or person as extremely negative, or even demonic (emphasis added),

Hate is a very strong emotion that is usually reserved for people whose actions you view as totally unacceptable, evil, or reprehensible. Presumably, you would want nothing to do with this person because he, she, or it is extremely toxic, negative or hurtful.

Logically, you’d think that your emotional reaction to hate would be to cut ties with or avoid the person or situation you view with such disdain.

This is not, however, what frequently happens.

 How the  word “hate” is commonly used.

Brussels sprouts, anyone?

(Full disclosure.. I really like Brussels sprouts.)

When you say “I hate Brussels sprouts.”, the word “hate” is the same as used in the word “hate crime” but the intent expressed is VERY different.

To be accurate here, while you might say that you “hate” Brussels sprouts…. in reality, you just dislike them. And, you may really dislike them a lot!

But (and these are the critical differences here)…..

  • When you “hate” (or dislike)  Brussels sprouts, you just do not order them in a restaurant.
  • And, while you might dislike them a whole lot, Brussels sprouts remain emotionally insignificant to you as you do not become attached to them.
  • With hate (the emotion), however, what you do emotionally is exactly the opposite of what you would expect.

Hate can consume you.

Instead of emotionally moving away from the object of your hate, you bind yourself to the person or situation just as powerfully as if you were in love with them.

To put it another way,  you are just as securely connected to the object of your hate as you are with the object of your love. Where they go, you go. And, they are with you all the time.

If you truly hate someone, you can be consumed by your hate. Just as you can be consumed by your love.

This may be okay with love. It isn’t okay with hate.

When you truly hate someone, you might find yourself engaging more deeply with them perhaps to get revenge on or to hurt them in some way.

When this happens, you are most likely also experiencing anger.

The emotion of anger.

The message of anger is that you perceive a threat to your values or sense of right and wrong and you believe you can “eliminate” the threat by throwing enough force at it. Hence, you are motivated to take forceful action against the person (or people) you perceive as a threat.

Anger and hate together: A bad combination.

To mix anger and hate together can be very dangerous.

  • The hate emotionally binds you to the person (or object of your hate).
  • The anger emotionally energizes you to take destructive action.
  • Under these circumstances, logic and thinking about consequences often get eliminated. Think about hate groups, hate crimes, extreme discrimination, and so forth.

This is why you might want to avoid hating another person.

A visual example:  love and hate

Let me show you what I mean.

Imagine that you are facing a person and you are firmly holding both of their hands in yours. Everywhere they go, you go. And vice versa.

Think of this as love. You are emotionally connected to the person you love and they are with you all the time.

Now, let’s look at hate. You can visualize the emotion of hate by standing back to back with your partner and then firmly taking both of their hands in yours. As you can see, you are now opposite them in the sense that many people consider hate to be the opposite of love.

“Huh”, you say, “what does that mean?”

Well, as I said above, hate is a very strong emotion. When you are under the influence of hate, you tend to react rather than respond to your situation and you do not  take the next step in mastering an emotion which is to assess the validity of the message the emotion is communicating to you.

Thus, with hate, you should assess both whether the object of your hate is, indeed, demonic AND whether the actions you are about to engage in (moving toward rather than away from that which you hate) will, improve the situation in which you find yourself.

So, what are your options?

If someone or something is, indeed, terrible, reprehensible, or demonic, you can decide to feel disgust toward them.

The message of disgust is that you need to avoid or dispel the disgusting object.

Think of Brussels sprouts as disgusting.

If you find the actions of this despicable person as reprehensible and as a threat to your values or safety, you can use the energy of your valid anger to develop and execute a plan to neutralize this individual.

You are now engaged with, but not necessarily irrevocably emotionally bound to, the person or situation.

And, you have many different choices of how you want to RESPOND rather than REACT to the situation in which you find yourself.

 

How do you resolve shame?

There are two parts to this question.

First of all, I will address what shame, as an emotion, is.

Secondly, I will talk about how to deal with shame when you experience it.

So, let’s jump in.

The Emotions as Tools Model maintains that all emotions have a message.

The message of the emotion informs you about the lens through which you are viewing the situation in which you find yourself.

In other words, your emotions…

  • arise within a given situation,
  • are “caused” by and reflect your interpretation of your situation and
  • inform (or call your attention to) how you are interpreting what is going on

The message of shame is that there is something wrong with you as a person.

Your shame tells you that you perceive the actions you have taken or the situation you are in as caused by the “fact” that you are, in some way, FLAWED, BAD, INADEQUATE, DAMAGED or INCOMPLETE.

Notice that I put the word “fact” in quotes and the characteristics in CAPS. I did this because there is no “proof” that you are FLAWED.

There are four facts here:

  1. You, as a human, are definitely not perfect.
  2. You define your weaknesses as FLAWS.
  3. You can improve, grow and change.
  4. There is no “proof” that you are flawed or damaged.

Let me use the manufacturing process of a product as a metaphor here.

When  a product such as a computer component or a brake-pad is made, it is examined by quality control people before it is released.  If it is “flawed” or damaged, it is discarded.  The company does not want to ship flawed or damaged goods.  If the product is not perfect and can be repaired, it may be fixed and sold at a reduced price.

You are not perfect and may need to be upgraded (self-change through therapy or a personal decision) but you are not flawed. 

Shame can develop in a child when parents too often communicate that what a child does (his or her behavior) comes about because the child is a “BAD” boy not because he or she DID something wrong.

Now, I need to stop here for a moment…

I am not saying that you are forever damaging your child if you tell them “You’re a bad boy (or girl).”  Every parent probably does this on occasion.  I know I have.  But, if this is the message that you overwhelmingly communicate to your kid (AS OPPOSED TO “WHAT YOU DID WAS WRONG!”) then you may be setting up your kid for future problems.

A similar problematic situation is one in which a parent denies their own responsibility in an interaction and blames the kid.  This can happen when a parent says, “If you hadn’t done (x,y or z), I wouldn’t have gotten mad and beat you.”

Shame is a powerful emotion that can be used to subjugate or control another person.

This is often the scenario in abusive relationships.

Victims of abuse often feel shame when they are physically, emotionally and/or sexually beat down, treated as if they are worthless and blame themselves.

Now that you know the message of shame, you can use this knowledge to work through, resolve, or reconcile your shame.

You do this by challenging the “message” with questions.

  • What proof do I have that I am flawed (beyond the fact that no human is perfect)?

I can tell you that there is no “proof” other than what you may have been told by others.

  • In this situation, what might I have done that was dumb, inappropriate, or inadequate?

This question shifts your focus from yourself to your actions.

Note that when you feel bad about something you have done, the emotion that you experience could be guilt, embarassment, ridicule, disappointment, or humiliation.

While all of these feelings clearly inform you that you have done something wrong, inappropriate or even stupid, none of these feelings imply that you, as a person, are damaged, unredeemable, or bad.

What you are doing is allowing the feeling of shame to correctly change into guilt, embarassment, ridicule, disappointment, or humiliation.

This enables you to better and more objectively view your situation.

You can then use these behavior focused emotions strategically to guide you in making amends, better decisions, and more adaptive behavior?

This is the basis of strategically using your emotions as tools.

The next question you need to ask is…

  • Have I, indeed, done something wrong or have I misinterpreted what is going on?

If you have “screwed-up”, you need to acknowledge what you have done.

If you have misunderstood what is going on, you can engage others and change your perception of the event.

On my blog, TheEmotionsDoctor.com, I have over 150 posts on topics dealing with all aspects of emotions. To help you access this all this information, I have included an “index to all posts” tab which allows you to access any specific post you want with a click. Let me suggest that, when you are done reading this answer, you click on over to my blog and browse through the index categories.

Dealing with Uncertainty: Anxiety, Depression, Distress verses Eustress

The Event

Recently, an event happened which got my attention and got me thinking.

A good friend of mine had difficulty concentrating, lost her appetite, and had significant problems sleeping (symptoms). She didn’t feel motivated to do the things she usually does.

It sounded to me like she was mildly depressed.

The family related issues with which my friend was struggling were not new to her and had, in fact, existed for quite some time.

The “symptoms”, however, were both new and troubling to her.

Now, I should add that she had mentioned that she was angry about the way she was being treated by her family and was anxious about what might take place within her family if she challenged the status quo.

She definitely seemed “stressed-out” to me.

But not mildly depressed!

She decided to get professional help.

Using the Emotions as Tools lens.

 Some basic “definitions”..

Depression is an “in the moment” emotion. The message of depression is that one perceives themselves in their situation as helpless, hopeless or worthless.

Mild depression can be disruptive and draining.  Clinical depression can be debilitating.

Anger is an “in the moment” emotion.  The message of anger is that you perceive an injustice that you can eliminate by throwing enough force at it.  Anger prepares you for war.

Adaptive anger can facilitate impactful action.  Maladaptive anger can get you in severe trouble.

Anxiety is a future based emotion.  The message of anxiety is that there MAY be a situation which may have unwanted consequences for you. Another word for anxiety is worry.  Worrying can require a lot of energy.

Stress can be another word for anxiety.

Stress has at least two faces.

The most common is distress which leaves you feeling overwhelmed, sometimes unable to take action, or wanting to escape the situation.

Examples of distress include:

  • Choosing not to apply for a position because you think you might do poorly in an interview.
  • Choosing not to take constructive action because you are worried about a negative outcome.
  • Difficulty maintaining focus and disrupted sleep brought on by worrying.

Less well known is eustress which uses the energy generated by anxiety as a motivator to take whatever action necessary to prevent the unwanted future from happening.

An example of eustress is:

  • Preparing for an exam or interview is an example of eustress.
  • Developing and implementing a “plan” including setting priorities to resolve whatever concerns, problems, or issues you believe exist.

Chronic stress can, over time, damage you physically.

Another way to look at psychological stress.

Stress ==> Expectations ≠ Reality

Stress happens when what  you expect to be  taking place(your expectations) is not the same as what is actually going on (your perception of reality).

In many situations in which you find yourself, you will have an expectation regarding the way things should be.

You have expectations:

  • about work,
  • about your relationships,
  • about how your computer should work,
  • about your kids
  • and so forth

While you may, or may not, be aware that you have expectations and they won’t become an issue unless they don’t pan out, you do have them.

It is only when the reality of your situation violates your expectation that you feel stressed and you become very aware of how you think things should be (your expectations).

Handling psychological stress.

There are two possibilities here, both of which are designed to reduce stress by aligning your expectations with your perception of reality.

1.You can reassess your expectations and adjust them to match reality.

In the first strategy, your assessment may tell you that your expectations were unrealistic.

You believed the other person would do more or act differently than they did but you either did not do your due diligence, did not carefully read the contract, or misunderstood what was supposed to happen.

When you realize that you have erred with unreasonable expectations, you make an adjustment, your expectations match reality, and your stress is gone.

2. You can reassess and adjust your perception of reality to match your expectations.

In the second strategy, your assessment might tell you that you have misperceived reality.

The other person is doing exactly what you expected and you incorrectly judged them, reacted inappropriately, or just misunderstood.

In this case, you adjust your perception of their actions, the match between expectations and reality is reestablished and your stress is gone.

You now have a more adaptive view of stress and some suggestions for mastering it.

My “interpretation” of what my friend experienced.

  • My friend likes to be in control of her life.  She is intelligent and a “planner”.  She is not a “control freak”.
  • When the issues first arose, she had expectations for how she and her family should interact.
  • None of her expectations were met.
  • She perceived an injustice and got angry.
  • She didn’t show her anger because she did not want to make her situation worse.  But she was angry.
  • She tried to reason with and understand her family and facilitated some minor changes were made.
  • She felt better.
  • Overtime, the situation worsened and she began to feel anxious that her family might exclude her.
  • This was troubling.  Yet she tried to remain hopeful.
  • As her family situation worsened, she became mildly depressed because she sensed she might be excluded from her family and felt helpless to bring about change. Feeling both “excluded” and “helpless”, she felt somewhat “hopeless”.  There was little she felt she could do to correct her situation.
  • This is the message of depression.  However, mild the depression is.

What I suggested:

  • A reality check on her family
    • What is actually happening?
    • What have I done?
    • What are they doing?
    • What do I expect them to do? (or What should they be doing?)
    • What are they actually doing?
    • What can I do that might help me get what I want?
    • What are the risks?
    • How much risk am I willing to take?
  • Bring certainty to uncertainty.
    • What actions can you take which have a high probability of success. What is totally out of your control?
    • Very little in life is “certain”.  We can’t control the future.
    • The only certainty we have is that we can control what we do.
      • We can assess future events, make decisions about what actions we need to take to increase the probability of what we want happening, and work to minimize the risk to us if what we don’t want actually occurs.
  • One antidote to anxiety is to ask, “Can I survive the worst possible outcome if it occurs?”
    • The beauty of this question is that a “yes” answer tells you that the unwanted outcome, while still undesirable, is not catastrophic.  To the extent that this is true, if the benefit of the desired outcome outlays the risk of the unwanted outcome, then it is in your best interest to take action to intervene.
    • Your “survival”and your interventions are your certainties.
    • Your anticipated benefit is your motivator.
  • Accept that risk is real and there might be a negative outcome.
  • Prepare for the risk.
  • Take action.

Taking action alleviates the mild depression. Assessing the nature of the possible (unwanted) event alleviates the anxiety.