How to Manage Your Emotions
The life lesson we should have been taught at school
Posted August 14, 2017 | Reviewed by Matt Huston
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.
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 as those of overreacting, and sometimes more so. 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 who, if anyone, is right?
To navigate through this emotional battleground, we need to make some important distinctions:
We cannot turn emotions on and off like a tap. They will come and go whether we like it or not. Once this is clear in your mind, you can stop waiting for unwanted emotions to go away. The idea that we can banish them is unhelpful and doesn’t hold up to scrutiny; they are part-and-parcel of the human experience. Besides, the more we strive to live according to our values and commitments, the more our emotions will rise up to challenge us.
Emotions aren’t positive or negative. The human brain is wired to categorize things as positive or negative, and is particularly alert to threats. This made good evolutionary sense for our ancestors, who learned to react to external threats for the purposes of survival. As humans developed language, we employed the same process of classification to our internal state, including our emotions. Thus we see joy as positive, and therefore welcome, and fear as negative and unwelcome.
However, this creates new problems. On the basis that ‘what we resist persists’, suppressing emotions that we perceive to be negative only tightens their grip. So what’s the alternative? If we can experience the full range of human emotions without attaching positive and negative labels to them, the result can be hugely liberating. Take Dame Judi Dench as an example, who has won one Oscar, two Golden Globes and 10 BAFTA awards. She says that the more she acts the more frightened she becomes. In contrast to thousands of aspiring performers who are waiting for the day when they’ll overcome their fear, she treats it as a companion rather than an enemy. This is not to say that she finds her fear comfortable, but she makes no attempt to resist it, and therefore it doesn’t define her. "I have the fear," she says. "I wouldn’t be without it." Perhaps this is why her on-screen characters brim with humanity.
You are not your emotions. Emotions are, by their very nature, strong. However, it’s important to get clear that you are not your emotions. You are a person with values and commitments who happens to have emotions that are triggered on a regular and ongoing basis. This point might seem semantic, but it isn’t. When we become fused to our emotions – thinking that ‘they’ and ‘we’ are one and the same thing – we are effectively hijacked by them. If you can notice emotions without becoming them, they no longer determine your behaviour.
We always have a choice. A thought or feeling in itself doesn’t prevent you from taking any action. It’s easy to think, "I’m frightened and can’t speak," but this is a trick of the mind. It would be more accurate and authentic to say, "I’m frightened and I’m choosing not to speak." Being able to observe our emotions – even when they feel overwhelmingly powerful – creates a space in which we can reference our commitments and values. While we cannot always choose our emotions, we can choose our response to them. This gets to the heart of responsibility, and responsibility is probably the closest thing to a superpower that human beings possess.
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.