The Emotion of Gratitude

In my last post, I addressed the emotion of surprise both because I was surprised (pun intended) that not a whole lot is written about it and because I wanted to bring it to your attention.

I will address the emotion of surprise again in my next post when I talk about applying this feeling this year.

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.

You may have experienced something similar in your family.

So, I went searching for some information on the emotion of gratitude and I found an article which covers just about everything I was going to put in my post.

Here is the link to the Harvard Mental Health Letter from June 5, 2019.

Enjoy.

And, Happy Thanksgiving.

In Praise of Gtatitude

 

 

The Emotion of Surprise: Positive or Negative? Neither…and much more!

This post originated with a question I received on Quora.com which asked if surprise was a positive or negative emotion.

The question intrigued me because surprise isn’t often a topic of interest.

This post covers my answer to this question and more.

The Answer:

Surprise is neither positive nor negative.  It is just a tool.

  • But, how you experience the emotion, whether you are comfortable or uncomfortable with the emotion (it’s hedonic quality), may, however, be either p0sitive or negative.
  • And, whether it “works” for you (is adaptive or maladaptive), may also be important.

The Answer Explained:

There are, in fact, three parts to this question.

The first part addresses the emotion of surprise, the second addresses a myth that there are positive and negative emotions and the third part discusses an alternative way to label an emotion.

I. Surprise: the emotion

Surprise is one of the universal emotions and arises when we encounter sudden and unexpected sounds or movements. As the briefest of the universal emotions, its function is to focus our attention on determining what is happening and whether or not it is dangerous.  Paul Ekman.com

Surprise is one of 6 primary emotions that humans and some other species are born with. The other 5 are mad, sad, glad, fear and disgust.

Each emotion has a specific function of, as I noted above, alerting us to our surroundings and preparing us to engage with those surroundings.

 Surprise signals something unexpected that we need to give more attention to, engage productively with, or avoid.

Other words for “surprise” include:

  • startled (shocked and dismayed),
  • confused (disillusioned and perplexed),
  • amazed (astonished and awe) and
  • excited (eager and energetic).

These words are from an article Embracing Emotions in the Workplace by the Industrial Relations Centre of Queens University (irc.queensu.ca)

NOTE: I have written about these emotions and others in previous posts.  You can access all of my posts by category, title and date by clicking on the INDEX tab in the upper right hand corner of the home page.  This will take you to a PDF which, when opened, will tell where you need to go in the archives to access the post you want.

II. The Myth:

It is widely believed and often repeated that there are positive and negative emotions.

The Facts:

As I have discussed in my Amazon bestselling book: Emotions as Tools Control your Life not your Feelings, and and other posts on this Blog, there is no such thing as positive or negative emotions.

  • There are emotions that feel good and emotions that feel bad.  This is the hedonic quality of the emotion and is not a descriptor of the emotion.

In other words, good vs bad refers to how you experience the emotion and does not reflect the value of the emotion.

  • All emotions are just tools that you can learn to strategically deploy to improve your life and your relationships.

Emotions inform you about how you perceive your surroundings and prepare you to engage with what is happening to you.

You are familiar with many tools in your life including your TV remote, your cell phone, your car and maybe the cordless drill in your garage.

You do not think of these tools as positive or negative. They are just tools you need to learn how to use.

It is the same with emotions.

Four reasons why the myth persists:

1: How some emotions feel.

There are some emotions which are experienced as pleasant such as happy and others that are experienced as unpleasant such as sadness. This is their hedonic quality. This hedonic quality is frequently inappropriately applied to the emotion giving rise to the misconception that there are positive and negative emotions.

2: How some people behave when feeling a specific emotion.

Some people behave inappropriately when they experience some emotions.  One example is the abuser who beats up his significant other and blames his anger. “If you hadn’t done XYZ, I wouldn’t have gotten angry. And, if I weren’t so angry, I wouldn’t have (abused you).” While it may be true that he wouldn’t have gotten angry had she not done XYZ and it may also be true that he wouldn’t have abused her if he weren’t  angry, it definitely is FALSE that his anger made him do what he did.  His behavior was his choice and his responsibility.

Anger got the blame and the bad reputation.

3: Barbara Fredrickson wrote about positive and negative emotions.  She clearly noted, however, that positive emotions were those feelings which motivated people to engage with their surroundings in a satisfying way.  When you are happy, you want to do more of whatever it is that elicits happiness.  As I noted above, happy is a feel good emotion.

4. Many people still do not understand what emotions are, why they evolved over time and the functions they serve.

The “problem” with the myth:

The problem with labelling  an emotion as “negative” or “bad” is the message these words imply when applied to an emotion.

Think about anything you have labelled as as “negative” or “bad”..

  • The milk has gone “bad”.
  • You received a “negative” evaluation at work.
  • You got a “bad” deal.
  • You have a “negative” balance” in your checkbook.
  • The market is in “negative” territory.

The defining characteristic that all of these examples have in common is that they are undesirable and to be avoided if at all possible.

When we label some emotions as “negative” and others as “positive”, the  implication is that there are some emotions we should keep and others that should be eliminated or avoided.

Yes, I know that this is not how the words are used in the literature.  But, what we say and what others hear are often not the same thing.  You, as a reader of my blog, probably would not misinterpret what emotions are.

But..

  • The author of the question on Quora lacks this sophistication.

And, because the myth is so widespread…

  • I do not think it is beneficial to refer to emotions as “positive” or “negative” without providing a context.

III. Adaptive vs Maladaptive.

  • This is an alternative way to label an emotion.
  • The main focus here is on whether the emotion benefits you in some way or is problematic?

Have you ever heard someone say: “I hate surprises.”?

While all emotions are valid in that they are real for you in the moment and reflect how you interpret what is happening to you, some emotions may not be working for you to improve your life or your relationships because how you react to them elicits results you do not want.

Maladaptive

  • Mal:  “not” or in a faulty manner
  • Adaptive: helps you deal with or adjust to (the situation)

Labelling an emotion as maladaptive for you tells you that you need to examine:

  • how you react to, experience and relate to the emotion when you experience it
  • are the issues with the emotion, per se,
  • are there issues related to a specific context in which you experience the emotion and
  • what it is about the emotion that isn’t working for you.

The bottom line: until you learn how to master these emotions, they may be, for you, maladaptive.

Preview of coming attractions:

On 12/2/2020, my annual Holiday Post will revisit the emotion of surprise. 

Keeping with the Holiday theme, I will suggest that you give a gift to yourself and others by deploying the emotions of surprise and anticipation this Holiday season. 

Yes, I realize that this is a months out and, in today’s environment, it is often difficult to plan for tomorrow.

But, if this sounds interesting to you, I can guarantee that you can anticipate being pleasantly surprised by what you will read.

So, mark your calendar and check it out.

 

 

 

Mastering “sensitivity” to criticism?

I don’t know of anyone who likes being criticized.  I certainly didn’t (and don’t). Indeed, I am still sensitive to criticism.

But, I welcome criticism now.

In other words, I have mastered my sensitivity.

Let me start with a story.

I am a Senior Adjunct Professor at an accredited University.  I have been for over 25 years.

While the feedback I get from my students now is that I am fairly good at what  I do, this wasn’t always the case.

Indeed, I started teaching because I was highly anxious about public speaking. And, as you might guess, I was terrible at it.

NOTE:  I did not say that I was “afraid” of public speaking as the correct emotion here is anxiety and not fear!

For several years, I did not seek out feedback from my students because I was both aware of my short-comings and I was “sensitive” to any comments (criticism) which brought attention to my lack of skill.

Any criticism only highlighted my sense of inadequacy.

My feeling inadequate led to my wanting to avoid being judged.

I was also fairly naive at the time about how emotions worked as tools.

Once I became a little more self-assured, I began to seek feedback from my students.

Seeking feedback is an effective way to deal with criticism and I’ll discuss this in more detail below.

When you talk about being sensitive to criticism, there are two issues.

  1. The first involves the nature of criticism.
  2. The second involves the nature of “sensitivity”.

Criticism

First, let me address the issue of criticism.

The root of the word criticism and critical is the same and involves passing judgment.

By its very nature, criticism involves a judgement or evaluation of your actions by another person.

When you are being criticized, someone else is telling you their opinion about what you have done. (Or, you are sharing with them your  opinion.)

Now, when you look at criticism from a psychological perspective, there are two categories and four possible actions involving criticism.

I. Giving Criticism:  (1) Constructive Giving  and  (2) Destructive Giving

II. Taking Criticism: (3) Constructive Taking and (4) Destructive Taking

Because I am addressing the idea of being sensitive to criticism, I will focus on the category of “taking” criticism.

Regardless of the focus of the criticism,  there are two elements to the message.

  1. One is the manner in which critical comments are delivered 
  2. The other is the validity (or truthfulness) of the critical comments.

However, when it comes to sensitivity, neither of these elements are critical.

Let me repeat that with emphasis added because it could be seen as a bit controversial…

Neither the way a critical message is delivered nor the degree to which the message is true have any connection to how you receive the criticism.

This is the reason that the message, per se, is of secondary importance to sensitivity.  (It is important for other reasons as I will discuss below.)

In addition, there are two ways to receive the critical message regardless of the focus of the message.

  1. One approach to receiving a critical message is constructive.
  2. The other approach to receiving the message is destructive.

How you receive a message, or your sensitivity, is totally under your control!

Sensitivity

As the person to whom the criticism is directed (the taker), if you wish to gain some mastery over your sensitivity, it is critical that you separate the content and the manner of delivery of the criticism from your response to the message.

Indeed, this is the key to mastering your sensitivity.

Typically, when one says that they are “sensitive” to criticism, it usually means that they are hypersensitive and their emotional reaction to the criticism involves anxiety, anger, or feelings of inadequacy.

And, hypersensitivity usually involves destructive taking of criticism.

“Sensitivity” might involve a desire to lash out at the person delivering the criticism.

There was a story in the news recently in which a customer of a well known consumer website published a critique of the website in an online blog.  Senior officers of the website were incensed, engaged in very offensive actions of revenge including sending live bugs to the authors of the blog, and ended up being fired by the website which was the focus of the criticism.

Clearly a case of “hypersensitivity” and destructive taking of criticism!

A prominent, and often overlooked aspect of destructive taking of criticism is that the message, or content, of the criticism is given too little consideration.

What do I mean by this?

Well, I mentioned above, that I now seek out feedback from my students. A few years ago, I had a student who did not like my class. Based on this information, I could have justifiably ignored any feedback from the student and assumed that he was biased. (Which, by the way, he was.)

However, when the quarter was over, I specifically reached out to this student for his feedback. 

While most of what he said involved his own issues and was not really relevant to me, he made one comment about how I approached the subject matter which was right on.  Attempting to adaptively deal with the criticism, I considered his whole message.  Had I not done this, I would have missed some useful information.  In other words, I would have thrown the baby out with the bathwater.

Put another way, I would have been guilty of giving too little consideration to the message.

So, in seeking to master your sensitivity to criticism, there are six issues:

  1. Do not attempt to eliminate your sensitivity.  While possible, this can be a difficult task and isn’t really necessary.
  2. Understand that the criticism is ONLY the opinion (judgement) of the individual directing the message at you. While the qualifications of this person might be a relevant question to consider in rating the value of the criticism, there could still be some value in what is said even if the person is less than qualified to deliver it.
  3. The message may contain some truth, little truth, or no truth.  Truth, here is the extent to which the information is applicable to you. The question to ask is: “What is the relevance of the criticism to me.”
  4. How you receive the message is ALWAYS a choice.  Attempt to constructively receive the message by considering and assessing all of the message.
  5. You can gain some insight into your sensitivity by looking at the emotions you feel when someone criticizes you and the message of those emotions. If,  for example, you get angry, then you are perceiving the criticism as a threat and you will want to identify the nature of the threat. A feeling of inadequacy indicates that you may have some doubt about your own abilities. And so forth. 
  6. Remember to take the time to respond and avoid reacting to the criticism.

For me, now, sensitivity means that I attempt to remain open to any important information that a critical message may have for me. While it also may mean that I still have a tendency to overreact to criticism, I am aware of this and master my emotions as tools to inform me of both how I view the criticism and how I choose a constructive response.

In your opinion, which emotion is worse, fear or shame? (From my Quora.com post.)

NOTE: This is an edited reprint from a post I made on Quora.com in response to a question.  I  am reprinting it here because I believe it enhances my last post on emotions.

The issue for me is that emotions are highly misunderstood.

My 3-cents on the question.

To start, your question reflects the misconception that you can compare one emotion (or feeling) to another along a given dimension. This dimension might be better/worse, good/bad, or positive/negative.

I say misconception because all of these dimensions are false dichotomies.

All emotions are tools which provide us with information about how we perceive our surroundings. In addition to providing us with this information, our emotions also prepare our bodies to deal with the situation our attention has been directed to by those emotions.

To ask whether fear is worse than shame or vice versa would be like asking “Which is worse, a sewing machine or a TV remote?” Both are just tools which serve a specific function and which have a specific learning curve for mastering that function. To put it another way, each tool serves a specific purpose in a specific sphere of influence. This specificity makes the question of comparing them irrelevant.

If we wish to master the tool and get the most out of the function it provides, we need to understand the tool and apply it. This is called “mastery”.

So, while both of these emotions are just tools, they apply to different situations and, therefore, are unique. And, given this uniqueness, they cannot be rated along the dichotomous scales listed above.

Now, you can compare different intensities and manifestations of a given emotion. Examples include being upset verses appropriate anger and rage. This might be like comparing a home appliance with other brands or with an industrial appliance.

Bringing you up to speed.

In my first Amazon bestselling book Emotions as Tools: Control Your Life not Your Feelings,

I discuss the emotional cycle, the primary emotions, and several other topics.

The emotional cycle describes how the emotions “work”.

The quick version is that you are hardwired to scan your surroundings for “threats” and other meaningful situations which have significance to you. When a significant event is perceived, an unconscious message goes to your Amygdala which puts your body on alert. In other words, you REACT. A second message goes to the thinking part of your brain which gives you an opportunity to assess your situation and choose a RESPONSE.

The initial reaction to the situation as reflected in the emotion you experience is called the message of the emotion.

There are 6 primary emotions. These emotions (mad, sad, glad, fear, disgust, and surprise) appear sometimes at birth and are found in many subhuman species. The primary emotions have survival value. One writer incorrectly referred to these emotions as the only real emotions and attempted to exclude shame which, as another writer correctly noted, is a self-conscious emotion which develops later as the cognitive ability of the growing child increases.

Shame and Fear.

I am not sure what led you to compare these two feelings as they are very different. Perhaps, both of these feelings are problematic for you and you were wondering if you could eliminate one and keep the other.

Shame, as one respondent pointed out is a self-conscious emotion, the focus of which is yourself and the message of which is that there is something wrong with you. Shame implies that you are forever tainted because of something you have done (or not done). The sister emotion of Guilt tells you that DID something wrong. Shame says that you ARE something wrong.

Shame is a very powerful emotion that parents sometimes misuse as a means to control or correct their child’s behavior. Instead of saying “You did (something) wrong.” and creating a teaching moment, they say “You’re a bad boy.” Now, as parents, this sometimes slips out in all of us and no harm is done. But, if overused, it sends a very destructive message to the child.

The message of fear is that there is a threat that will “kill” you if you don’t escape. Fear is the sensation in the pit of the stomach and the hair standing up on the back of the neck which says “Get away, now!”.

Shame is not a type of fear.

Fear is a here-and-now emotion that is often substituted for anxiety as in “I’m afraid I screwed up.” Anxiety is a future based emotion the message of which is that there MAY be a threat and that threat MAY “kill” me.

While different from each other, anxiety and fear are feelings which need to be mastered.

The bottom line is that you need to understand and master all your feelings. If you can get past shame (through therapy if needed) and thereby eliminate it, great. Do so.

If there is a threat which elicits real fear, get away from it.

If what you are experiencing is anxiety, use it as a motivator to deal with the threat and neutralize it. I discuss how to do this on my blog.

Note: You can access all of my 100+ posts directly by going to my site and clicking on the Index tab in the upper right hand corner of the home. This will take you to a PDF which will list all my posts by title and month. Go to the Archives you need, click on it, and scroll down to the post you seek.

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

In part 1 of this three part series, I introduced you to the emotion of anxiety.

In part 2, I addressed the 3 secrets to mastering your anxiety as a strategic tool.

In this post, I will discuss the 4 steps to mastering your anxiety.

Mastering (getting the most out of) your anxiety.

When I first got my iphone, I only used it to place and receive calls.

I had to learn how to master my phone and while it still does a whole lot more than I need it to, I have made progress.  Today, I use it to record my ideas for future posts and books (memo app), provide a countdown timer for my barbecue ribs, remind me what I need to buy at the store (list app) and so forth.  These are tasks my phone could always do but I needed to learn how to effectively use it as a tool to improve my productivity.

The same is true for you and your anxiety.

You need to know how to make it work for you.

Four Steps to Mastery

Mastering your anxiety involves four steps, each of which you can learn to do.

Step#1: As soon as you experience anxiety, create a psychological safe space.

Physical signs

There is an unspoken assumption here and this is it.  I am assuming that you know your body well enough such that you know your physical signs indicative of the emotion of anxiety.

Do you experience anxiety as…

  • faster heart beat
  • sweating
  • changes in skin temperature
  • and so forth?

I devote a chapter to the physical signs of emotions and include checklists in my book Emotions as Tools: A Self Help Guide to Controlling Your Life not Your Feelings which is available on Amazon.

You can google “physical signs of emotions” or here is a link to a website.

Create a psychological safe “space”

You do this by taking a deep breath (or two).

Let’s say you are worried about an upcoming interview and you are getting all tied up about what might happen.

Rather than “go with” the anxiety and react as if the danger is real, stop what you doing (thinking) and force yourself to take a deep (full bodied) breath.  Fill those lungs up over a count of 4, hold it for a 4 count, and exhale over a 4 count.  By the way, you might have to do this a couple of times.

This process does two things.

  • First of all, it naturally relaxes you a bit.
  • Secondly, it breaks the connection with your anxious thoughts and, thereby, sets you up to assess your situation. This gets you out of the what-if whirlpool and sets you up for step #2.

Step #2:  Ask yourself this question—How real is the threat?

Have you ever been caught in a “rip-tide”?  Well, if you are in the ocean and you find yourself being pulled out to sea by the current, the worst thing you can do is try to swim to shore.  You will tire out and die.  The correct technique is to swim parallel to the shore and out of the current.  You can then swim back to shore.

What-ifs are like a rip tide (or a whirlpool).  If you try to answer each hypothetical what-if, you’ll wear yourself out.  Instead, focus on two questions:

  1. Do I have any evidence that this particular “what-if” is even a possibility.
  2. What other possible outcomes (more positive and less catastrophic) am I not considering?

The reason what-ifs and catastrophising are so debilitating  is that people tend to view them as “probable” rather than “possible”.  In other words, when you ask yourself “What if I go to the interview and blow it?”, instead of viewing this outcome as one possibility because it could happen, you react to this hypothetical outcome as if it is both probable, highly likely to occur and inevitable, as in the only outcome that will happen.  This is why your what-ifs draw you in just like a whirlpool or a riptide.

Step #3: Assess your answers and your options.

There are three possibilities here…

First: The threat is real (the interview could go bad).

Assess your options by asking yourself–Can I survive it if it goes bad?

In nearly all cases, the answer will be “yes”.

This answer does two things for you.

  • It frees you up from disabling worry by  reminding you that no matter how bad the outcome is, it won’t kill you. You can take yourself off “red alert”.
  • it reminds you that you will still have options (eventhough they might not be all that great).

Second: The threat is not as bad as you thought or isn’t really a threat.

This answer tells you that you have misunderstood the threat and you can let go of your anxiety.

Third: The threat is real and your anxiety is telling you that you need to take steps now to avert the threat.

This is mastering your anxiety as the tool it was designed to be.  You are using the energy of your anxiety to motivate you to take corrective steps.

This is what my students do prior to an exam.  Their anxiety motivates them to study.

Step #4:  Use the energy of your anxiety to develop a plan to deal with the threat and work your plan.

Once you have created a psychological safe place and lowered your anxiety such that you are able to think things through and make some decisions, you can  assess the future threat and make some plans regarding any action you might take to minimize the threat.

Remember the example in my last post about asking for a raise.  Actions you can take on your behalf is to make a list of all the value you bring to the job and the reasons you believe you deserve a raise.  You can’t really know what issues, if any, the boss may bring up but you can be prepared to make your case.

And, by the way, it is also possible that the boss scheduled the meeting to praise you and inform you that you are going to get a raise.

You’ve made it through all three posts covering the emotion of anxiety.  You are now in a position to begin the process of mastering your anxiety as a strategic tool.

You can do it.

I welcome your comments.

 

You Verses Your Anxiety: 3 Secrets and 4 Steps to turn Your Inner “doom sayer” into an inner “motivator”. Part 2: The 3 secrets.

This is part 2 of this 3 part series of posts on anxiety.

In part 1, I…

  • noted that anxiety was a tool
  • discussed the concept of toxic anxiety
  • introduced the ideas of what-if questions and catastrophising

In this post, I will discuss the three “secrets” that enable you to turn your anxiety, as a “doom sayer” which can sap your energy into a “motivator” which can propel you forward.

Secret #1:  There is no “You verses your anxiety”.

Fact #1: You create your anxiety. It is a part of you.

While our emotions, including anxiety, are often experienced as happening to us because of the emotional process which gives rise to them, the fact is that we, through our perceptions and our thoughts, actually create and give meaning to our feelings (feelings and emotions are, for our purposes, the same).

In brief, the emotional process involves our subconscious scanning of our surroundings for possible threat and the subconscious reaction to the situation which prepares our bodies to “deal with” the perceived threat.  This “reaction” is the “feeling” we experience.  The second part of the emotional process involves,  our conscious efforts to give a label to and make sense of the feeling and choose how to respond to the situation in which we find ourselves.

When you choose to view your feelings as either happening to you or as beyond your “control”, you disempower yourself. To do this is to view yourself as powerless and as controlled by your anxiety.

While this may be a common way to view feelings, it is, nonetheless, incorrect.

Secret #2: Anxiety, as are all feelings, is just a tool.

Fact#2: Emotions evolved as tools which early (and modern) man could use to help him (or her) “survive”.

For our cave dwelling ancestors, survival involved living long enough to reproduce.

For us, survival means getting through the day, dealing with modern stressors such as work, commuting, dealing with others, and coping with social media. These are all psychological threats which are different from survival threats.  While they might feel as though they were the same, they are not.

When you view your anxiety as a tool, your attention will shift from a sense of being controlled by the tool to figuring out how to make get the most out of what the tool can do.

As an example, you may not be very good at getting the most out of your cell phone or computer.  And, you may even get annoyed at it.  As an author, I tend to get annoyed with the automatic spell checker in Microsoft Word. The spell checker is useful when it corrects a mistake I might have made but it is a nuisance when it corrects a sentence I have written that I know is correct.

Anyway, you do not see the computer, your phone, or the spell checker as an autonomous entity.  It is just a tool, doing what it is programmed to do and well within your ability to understand and effectively use.

Secret #3:You can learn to “master” your anxiety as a tool and utilize it to improve your life. 

Fact #3: The function of anxiety as a tool is to alert you to some future event that might need your attention.

It probably would not surprise you to know that the US is surrounded by an electronic perimeter the purpose of which is to give an alert that an incoming missile, or plane, is approaching the country so that appropriate action can, if warranted, be taken.

If an alert is sounded, an attempt is made to identify the perceived threat before an errant passenger jet or flock of geese is blown out of the sky.  If the threat is genuine, then appropriate defensive actions are initiated.

Your anxiety, as an early warning alert tool, functions in a similar manner.

Depending on how you define a particular threat, you may perceive the action of another person or an upcoming event as a threat and your anxiety level will send you an alert when a threat is perceived.

The problem is that your sensitivity to a perceived threat can lead you to misrepresent what is actually occurring and to inappropriately react.

As an example, you are scheduled to attend a meeting when you get to the office in the morning with the head of the company for which you work.  You believe you deserve a raise and are thinking about asking for that raise during your upcoming meeting. In the middle of the night, you wake up and are very anxious about your morning meeting.

You find yourself in a whirpool of negative what-ifs…

  • What if the boss is critical of you?
  • What-if she thinks you are being too aggressive and your request changes how she views you and the work you do?
  • And so forth.

Your anxiety has done its job..

  • There is some uncertainty surrounding the morning meeting
  • The meeting does represent a potential risk
  • There is a potential threat.

You have gone “beyond” the facts and are catastrophising.  You have turned the anxiety toxic.

You can, however, choose a different path in dealing with the alert your anxiety has given you.  Just like the professionals do with the radar alert, you can check out your alert before going off the deep end.

I will give you four steps to help you do this in the next, and final, post in this series.

 

 

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

This is the first of a three part series of posts focussing on the emotion of anxiety.  I will discuss what anxiety is and how it is different from other feelings, how to understand it as a tool and how to master and strategically employ it in your life.

I hope you find it helpful.

Have you ever worried about something that might happen in the future?

The “focus” of your worrying might be

  • an upcoming exam, interview, or presentation
  • what might happen if you ask someone out on a date or ask for a raise
  • what could go wrong if you aren’t perfect (however you define this)
  • something you did in the past that might “go bad” at some future date
  • and so forth.

For nearly everyone, the answer is “yes”.  

The reason for this is that worry (also known as anxiety) is a normal emotion.

Every emotion communicates to you how you are perceiving the situation in which you find yourself. This is the “message” of that emotion.  When you recognize and utilize the message of an emotion, you are beginning to strategically deploy that emotion as a tool in your life.

The message of anxiety is that there MAY be a threat in our future.

Every emotion can be viewed as a tool that has a specific application or purpose.  Examples of common tools include your cell phone, your TV remote, the hammer in your tool drawer and so forth.

The “purpose” of anxiety, as a tool, is to alert you to an event so that you can prepare yourself to deal with it.

But, sometimes, the emotion of anxiety can become “toxic”.

Something is toxic when it can seriously hurt you. Other words for “toxic” include poisonous and dangerous.

A substance, action or even a person can become toxic even though it may not always be this way.

Think about water….

  • You need it for survival
  • It’s really great when you are thirsty.
  • But…

Did you know that if you drink too much water in too short a time that you can experience what is called water toxicity.  While you can google it, you are not very likely to experience it.  My point is that water is an essential element that if consumed in too great an amount becomes toxic or harmful.

Similarly, anxiety, as I will discuss below, is a very useful emotion which, if experienced at too high an arousal level can become toxic or debilitating.

So, at a high level of worry, you might find yourself

  • paralyzed and unable to take any action.
  • losing sleep
  • unable to think about anything else

And, it seems that

  • there is no way to break free of your anxiety and
  • your anxiety has become an inner “doom forecaster” that seems to be controlling you
  • you are caught up in a whirlpool  of “what-ifs” as in “What if (this or that) happens?”
  • you are also, probably, catastrophising.

This is toxic anxiety.

Regarding “what-ifs” and “catastrophising”…..

  • A major problem with “what-ifs” and toxic anxiety is that they involve catastrophising.  When you catastrophize..
    • you focus on the worst possible outcome that could occur
    • you tend to react as-if the “worst possible outcome” is a certainty
    • you do not think about other, less disastrous possible outcomes
  • The result of catastrophising is..
    • that you do not have any answers to your hypothetical “what-ifs” (because there are no factual answers) and
    • your lack of an answer is viewed as another issue about which you need to worry.
    • you’ve gone deeper into the whirlpool.
  • As I will discuss below, using anxiety as a strategic tool involves using what-ifs to focus your attention on constructive solutions.

So, what is anxiety? 

Anxety is a future based emotion the message of which is that there MAY be a threat out there that may hurt me.

Anxiety differs from..

  • fear, its present-based cousin.  The message of fear is that there is a threat that will injure me,
  • depression, its pathological cousin. The message of depression is that my situation is hopeless, I’m helpless to do anything about it and I am, therefore, worthless, and
  • anger, its warrior cousin.  The message of anger is that there is a threat out there and I am prepared to go to war to eliminate it.

The two “faces” of anxiety..

Anxiety that has become toxic is called distress. This is anxiety as a “doom sayer”

The other face of anxiety is called eustress.  This is anxiety as a “motivator”.  When you view anxiety as eustress, you are using this emotion as a strategic tool.

Think about an upcoming interview for a job or a test in a course you are taking.  You get nervous, anxious, or stressed about it and use that nervous energy as a motivator to prepare for the interview or exam.

When you approach your anxiety as eustress and use the energy it provides, you are strategically deploying this emotion as a useful tool.

In part 2 of this series of posts, I will talk about how to turn anxiety from a “doom sayer into a “motivator”.

  • There are 3 secrets and 4 steps.

See you in the next post.

 

 

 

 

Part 4: Holiday rage… Where does it come from and what you can do about it.

This is Part 4 of my 4 part series.  In this post, which is a republication and update of a post I originally wrote in 2017, I address an issue which might be useful to you as you are most likely in the middle of your “Holiday Season”.

Publishing NOTE:  I normally publish every two weeks.  However, as Christmas is in two weeks, I will be publishing my second December post next week.

……

The upside of the holidays is that most of us are in a festive mood with all the decorations, the music, the food, getting together with family, and so forth.

But, there is a darker side of holiday feelings. This darker side can include feelings of extreme anger (or rage), feelings of depression, and so forth.

In this article, I will address holiday rage.

During this season, we may find ourselves scurrying around to do last minute tasks (get somewhere or do something) and someone (or something) wrongly gets in the way and thwarts our efforts to accomplish our goals.

When we in a hurry, we may feel stressed and outside of our comfort zone (the place where things are going along as they should be).  When stressed, the threshold at which we get angry is lowered.

Note the words in italics.  “Scurrying” implies that you are under some pressure and “wrongly” implies that the person or thing that is blocking your goals is doing so intentionally. “as they should be (going)” implies that we are less in control of our and what is happening to us.

Let’s look at each of these “issues” and see how they relate to increased anger.

Scurrying

When you are “scurrying”, you are already in a heightened state of arousal.  In other words, you are on an emotional edge. This sensitizes you to (and amplifies or magnifies) any possible impediment (or threat) to your goals.

This magnification is similar to what happens when you speak into a microphone.  The amplifier attached to the mic takes your voice and makes it louder.

Because you are in a hurry, behind schedule, over-scheduled, late, or just trying to do too much at one time, you are overly focused on your immediate goal and you will tend to perceive anything (or anybody) who gets in the way of your goal as not only a threat but, because of your heightened state of arousal, as a mega threat.

Remember that the message of anger is that you perceive a threat that you believe you can eliminate if you throw enough force at it.

Consequently, you will tend to get very angry and energized to overpower the mega threat which is impeding your completing the task at hand. Notice the implication of the italicized words. The arousal of your hurrying about magnifies your perception of threat and amplifies the arousal of your anger.

The slow line, poorly written instructions, or distracted clerk which under “normal” conditions would elicit a feeling of frustration or mild upset, now elicits extreme anger or rage.

Wrong and intentional.

To see another person’s actions as both wrong and intentional will always push your anger button. In fact, the element of intentionality is a key component of anger that is often overlooked.

As an example.. you are walking down the street and someone forcefully bumps into you.  Your initial reaction might be to “push back”.  If the person apologizes or if the person is visually (or otherwise) impaired, the “bump” is now viewed in a very different context and there is no anger.

Or, if the actions of another are viewed as inappropriate but not as intentionally attempting to hurt or damage you in any way, you might feel annoyed but you don’t escalate into anger.

So, if someone makes you late by intentionally taking your parking place or cutting in line, the inadequate instructions prove that the company doesn’t give a rip or care about you, the end-user, or the distracted clerk is only there for the money, is poorly trained, or would rather be somewhere else, they are a mega-threat and your anger is completely justified to nullify the threat.

Again, notice the implication of the italicized words.

The way things should be..

This implies that you have a model of your world in your head which you may or may not be aware of.

Your model might involve wishful thinking along the lines of “I wish the lines would be shorter.” This is experienced as The lines should be shorter! It isn’t right that the lines are this long! or All these people are making it more difficult for me to get my shopping done!

The discrepancy between your model and reality may be perceived as a threat which can then elicit anger.

So, what can you do about it?

There are four actions you can take:

  1. take a breath
  2. Assess the nature of the threat, your model of the “world” and whether or not a real threat exists.
  3. Think about what could happen if you react in the way you are just about ready to do.
  4. Choose an appropriate response.

Take a breath.

The first step when you are dealing with any of the threat detecting emotions (anger, sadness, fear, disgust, anxiety) is to take a breath. Taking a breath lowers your arousal and gives you some psychological distance between you and the threat.  The few seconds or that you gain give you an opportunity to assess the nature of the threat and your options.

Note: If you are experiencing fear (not anxiety), you always want to escape from the situation.

The second step is to assess the nature of the threat and your model of the world.  Perhaps your model of what should be happening is inaccurate given your timing, the nature of the situation in which you find yourself, and so forth.

Thirdly, think about the the actions you are contemplating doing.  This is really a cost-benefit analysis.

Some examples:

Stolen parking place

Is it really worth risking an accident to try and get that parking space? Probably not. Yes, it should have been your space but there is no “mega-threat” as you can find another.  What if you stop your car and cuss out the other driver and you get into an argument? Now, not only has a scene been created but you will be delayed even more.

To illustrate this, I remember years ago when I got a speeding ticket and went to driving school.  The instructor made a comparison on the board between speeding and getting a ticket.  He noted that speeding might save me maybe 10 minutes on my arrival.  If I got a ticket, the time it would “cost” me to deal with the cop would be more than the time I would save by speeding.  Other costs included fines (if any) time spend in driving school and so forth.  The cost-benefit analysis of speeding clearly showed that the benefits did not outweigh the costs.

Person cuts in line

You can say something to the person who cut in line.  However, if you approach this person with all the energy of your heightened arousal, the reaction you get might not be the apology you deserve but an aroused angry over-reaction. Is it worth it to get into an argument when an apology would restore the situation?   Probably not.

Poorly written instructions for the toy you are trying to put together at 11:00 PM…

well, I have been there and done that. And, no, getting angry at the company, the person with inadequate writing skills, or the editor accomplished nothing.  I still had to do the best I could to figure out what I needed so I could build the bicycle and get it under the tree.

I think you get the idea.

If someone directs their anger is at you..

The process is similar to the that outlined above.  The only difference is that when someone directs their anger at you, you need to take a breath to lower your arousal so that you don’t react and, remembering that he sees you as a mega-threat, apologize for any misunderstanding (not for doing something wrong). You can then ask him how you can help to make things right.

The exception to the above is if you feel fear in the presence of someone directing their anger at you.  If this is the case, walk away.

So, my suggestion is that you enjoy all the great feelings that the holiday season elicits and be alert to anger if you experience it.  Master the anger so that it doesn’t escalate and potentially ruin your holiday.

I hope these last 4 posts have been helpful.

Part 3: The Benefits of “Gratitude”. Happy Thanksgiving.

This is Part 3 of a 4 part series of posts.

In this post, I discuss the emotion of gratitude.  Being involved with others can lower the possibility that a disagreement escalates into a conflict.

To put it another way…people don’t care what you know until they know that you care.

In the US next week, we will be celebrating the Thanksgiving Holiday.

This 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, we’ve attempted to emphasize the “thanks-giving” part of the Holiday.

This post is an extension of that focus.

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

Anger, as an emotion, is also underutilized and  can, therefore, be used as an example to illustrate the concept.

Because angry people and the inappropriate things they do are often seen in the news, we tend to think that there is too much anger in the world.  These folks could benefit from reading my book Beyond Anger Management: Master Your Anger as a Strategic Tool.

The flip side of this coin, however, are  many people who suppress, or choose not to show, their anger because they are concerned their anger might “take over” and lead to unwanted behavior or because, as is often the case for women, anger is perceived as unfeminine, unwelcome, or even threatening in some environments.  In these cases, anger is underutilized.  These folks could improve their lives and their relationships by utilizing their anger more but doing so in a more adaptive way.  For them, mastering anger would also be an improvement.

For gratitude, however, the situation is different.

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

But, going back to my Headline: 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, if you believe in a benevolent “Universe”, the good things that are bestowed upon you, could very well benefit you.  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?

While the article I cited above does have some suggestions, if you are not psychologically minded, the suggestions may seem a bit wonky.

To me, something you can do right now is to begin to be more mindful of 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 your relationships with others and attempt to consciously think about 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.

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.

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.  Someone does something nice for you, consciously thank them and think about appreciating their interaction with you.

It will take some time to begin expressing gratitude as an ongoing part of 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.

Part 4 will be published in two weeks.

 

 

 

What are some sensible things to do to calm down, when a person gets angry or frustrated?

This is a reprint of an answer to the above question I received on Quora.com.

Madhura:

This is an interesting question and two of the answers you received which suggest taking a deep breath are correct but limited.

The third answer suggesting that you won’t get angry as you mature is problematic as it doesn’t seem to understand what anger is and may perpetuate a myth that anger can (or even should) be eliminated. The answer, however, is correct, in noting that anger can be mitigated or, as I talk about, mastered by using your ability to think through what it is that is eliciting (not causing) your anger.

That being said, you have asked about two feelings: anger and frustration. While frustration can certainly lead to anger, these two are not the same.

The quick answer to your question is that when you experience either anger or frustration there are two physical actions you need to take. The order in which you take these first two actions is not important. That you do both is important.

The first action involves taking a step back from the situation and the second is to take a deep breath.

Taking a physical step back from the situation creates a physical space between you and the situation. This is particularly important if anger is the emotion you are dealing with because this step backwards creates some safety for you.

The second action (again, order is not critical) is to take a deep breath. The purpose of taking a deep breath is to create some psychological space between you and the situation.

The deep breath does this in two ways.

First of all, a deep breath is a natural relaxant. The deep breath can lead to you relaxing your muscles just enough so that you release some of the natural muscle tension that occurs when the emotional cycle (anger) prepares your body for war. The message of anger is that you perceive a threat that you can eliminate if you throw enough force at it. Anger prepares you to attack and muscle tightening and a focusing of your attention on the “threat” occur without your having to think about them. Both of these reactions are mediated by the Limbic System in your brain.

Secondly, taking a deep breath provides some psychological space because it temporarily shifts your focus away from the threat. The purpose of creating psychological space is that it enables you to engage the thinking part of your brain (your cerebral cortex). Your cortex allows you to assess the nature of the threat and choose how you want to respond to it.

The emotion of frustration is different. The message of frustration is that a goal toward which you are moving has in some way been blocked. Put another way, your frustration is another way of saying “This (whatever the block is) should not be happening!”

With frustration, the same two steps of taking a physical step back and a deep breath are also appropriate. The step back from the situation which is blocking you isn’t for safety but to reinforce the deep breath which prepares you to think about what is going on, assess it, and choose what you want to do to correct it, learn from it, and move past it.

I have written two books dealing with mastering emotions as tools both of which are available on Amazon. The first is Emotions as Tools and the second is Beyond Anger Mastery.

The focus of both books is that all emotions can be viewed as tools which, just like your cell phone, computer, TV remote or fancy sewing machine, can be understood and mastered so they work better for you.

Emotional mastery involves understanding that:

  • each emotion both communicates how you perceive your current situation and prepares your body to deal with it. This is the message of the emotion which I’ve discussed above.
  • the initial perception of the situation and the initial message may not match what is actually going on
  • with each emotion, you need to assess the match between what is actually going on and your initial perception the message of the emotion, which I’ve given you above, and
  • you need to choose a response that fits what is actually taking place

So, Madhura, when you experience either anger or frustration, the “sensible things” are physical and mental. Physically, you need to take a step back from the situation and take a deep breath. Mentally, you need to assess your situation and choose an effective response.

Finally, let me address the third answer about anger.

While it may be true that as we mature, we are less likely to get angry, the reason for this is that maturity changes the way we perceive threat. Less threat leads to less anger. It is important to note that anger is always appropriate when we are threatened regardless of age or gender. Consequently, maturity should lead to more focused and strategically applied anger not necessarily less anger. The myth that many people believe is that anger is somehow bad and should be minimized. This myth disempowers women in particular (“Women should not get angry. it isn’t feminine.”) and older people (“An older person who gets angry is just being crotchety.”)

It is quite likely that this is not what the respondent meant but I wanted to clear up any implication that might be made from his answer.