I had said to my son a thousand times since he was old enough to remotely understand (ok, I started BEFORE he was able to understand it – poor kid!), “The two most important things you will ever learn are how to manage your behavior and your emotions.” Even though my son now greets this comment with appropriate teenage eye-rolling, it is true. The most important thing you’ll ever learn to manage is YOURSELF. Learning to master your difficult emotions and the subsequent behavior that follows them is fundamental to your success and happiness in life.
In fact, social science research shows that emotional intelligence is four times more than IQ in determining success.
Learning to understand and manage your emotions is simple in concept, but not easy in practice. Here’s why: Your brain has become conditioned to respond to external events (i.e., disappointments, disagreements, disillusionment and so on) as well as internal states (i.e., loneliness, worry, stress, discouragement, depression) in patterned and predictable ways. That process has occurred over the course of your lifetime, almost entirely below the surface of your conscious awareness.
Here’s a model of human behavior that will help you understand how your split-second responses occur:
At the top, you see “Event.” What that means is that something happened – either an external event such as your boss making an offhanded and derogatory comment to you, or your spouse coming home late, or an internal event such as a series of negative thoughts that drag you down the rabbit hole of worry and despair.
The event gets filtered through your BELIEFS, which are primarily unconscious to you. You then INTERPRET the event based on the degree to which your beliefs are in synch or conflict with it. When there is a significant disparity between what you believe and what you are experiencing, you have a negative emotional and often BEHAVIORAL response (i.e., you go into silent, self-protective mode, or you lash out in anger). That process creates the ATTITUDE you have toward that person or event that you will likely carry with you into the next event.
All of this happens in a split second, most often without your conscious consent at any of the stages, and it forms your attitudes and behaviors in subsequent similar encounters.
This is the baseline that you need to understand to begin creating mastery over your emotional world.
There is a simple (but not easy) four-step process I teach that helps you begin untangling what happened from the emotion you are having. Remember, no one “makes you feel” any particular way. You feel the way you do based on the beliefs and perceptions you bring into any given event.
For example, someone who places a high value on being respected at work by their co-workers (i.e., the belief “ My peers should respect me”) will probably experience difficulty working in a setting where no one greets you in the morning or acknowledges your contributions to the team. (I once worked with an organization where we spent a significant amount of time unpacking the various beliefs about the importance of saying “good morning” to each other!).
The four-step process is this:
1. Identify the troubling emotion. Are you feeling frustrated, angry, disrespected, disempowered, disappointed, jealous? What is the feeling?
2. Feel what you’re feeling. So much of our emotional difficulty results in denying the emotions we are having. Just allow yourself to feel the problematic emotion without acting it out, and it will pass! It may not pass instantly, but it will not hurt you. The trouble ensues when you act out based on the challenging emotion. Move your body, go for a walk, breathe deeply or let yourself cry. Just don’t act out toward the person or situation (i.e., don’t slam the door, scream in someone’s face or call them names). Expressing rage toward others creates anger in them through the process of mirror neurons. It is best to walk away, or stay present and let the emotion wash through you. I use the phrase, “I’m managing my emotion right now because I’m feeling angry. Please give me a minute.”
3. Disempower the emotion. After you have allowed the feeling to take it’s natural course; rising, hitting a crescendo and then dissipating; then ask yourself what you believe that ran in the face of what you experienced. Emotions are POWERFUL indicators of our beliefs if you pay attention to them.
4. Transform the emotion by asking yourself if or how this negative emotion serves your highest good. Is this how you want to feel? Is your belief even true? Be careful not to believe everything you think! Most often what you consider to be true is merely your preference – a preference for how you want others to interact with you, not a social requirement. As you practice not taking things personally, letting other people be who they are without feeling the impact of their personality on your emotions, you become masterful at managing your emotional world.
You can become the person who doesn’t get into office squabbles or family disputes because you become the person who never has to “be right” or “get your way.” You learn that you can both honor your beliefs while simultaneously letting other people have their own.
If you are interested to see how well you are doing with your emotional regulation, you can download a free self-assessment inventory here.