We all suffer from emotional overreactions. In the heat of the moment we say something to a person we love without stopping to consider the shockwaves. Or we blast off an email and wonder why we didn’t sleep on it before pressing ‘Send’. Our emotions spill over and, by the time they recede, the damage is done.
There’s no denying that this kind of behavior is on the rise. In the public domain, barely a day passes without newspapers splashing the story that a comment, tweet or email has caused an uproar. Demands are made for heads to roll, and responses range from retractions (‘I apologise unreservedly for my lack of judgement …’) to defiance (‘This is a ridiculous case of political correctness…’). And then the next story breaks.
The converse situation is that we feel gripped by fear or anxiety and fail to seize the moment to speak up or act according to our values. The consequences of freezing can be just as deleterious, and sometimes more so, than overreacting. Either way, managing our emotions is a tricky business.
When we look back on these situations our stock explanation is, ‘My emotions got the better of me’. But this raises a serious question: am I in charge of my emotions, or are they in charge of me? Nobody asked me this question at school, or told me the answer. Consequently I stumbled into the adult world with a royal flush of emotions – ranging from joy and excitement to fear and anger – without a manual for how to live with them.
The truth is that we’ve ended up with a tangled mess of advice in this area. Much of the prevailing literature tells us to squash negative emotions and replace them with positive ones. Other experts tell us this is tantamount to putting icing on dog food and calling it cake. So which, if any, is right?
To navigate through this emotional battleground, some important distinctions need to be made:
For more in depth information, see my books ‘Blamestorming: Why Conversations Go Wrong and How to Fix Them,’ and ‘Workstorming: Why Conversations at Work Go Wrong and How to Fix Them’. Both are published by Watkins.
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