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3 Ways Emotionally Powerful People Succeed

Approach 2019 from a place of planning, preparation, and spontaneity.

Jelena Danilovic/Shutterstock
Source: Jelena Danilovic/Shutterstock

"And now we welcome the new year. Full of things that have never been." —Rainer Maria Rilke

The new year is upon us, and it's time for the accumulated wisdom of coaches, experts, and other gurus and non-gurus to well up out of the collective consciousness and onto the page. The dark days draw near, and it is getting cold in the northern hemisphere. Holiday grumpiness and cheer are upon us, and it is the best of times and the worst of times. It's the old man and the baby, and pretty soon the spring holidays, after Valentine's Day, then Mother and Father's Day, Halloween, etc. And it's New Year's Eve.

Ringing ahead

2019 is a year before 2020, and you can bet it will be a doozy. They say that hindsight is 20/20, but my wish for the new year is for 20/20 foresight.

Enough of this madness. With that in mind, I'm sharing some off-the-cuff thoughts that have just popped into my head. What does it mean to be emotionally powerful, and what does it take? Our strengths, our fears, and other people.

1. Self-efficacyResearch shows that a sense of self-efficacy, more than self-esteem, is at the heart of success. In performance and in couples work, providing esteem support led to greater self-efficacy. Esteem support from our partners drives self-efficacy by reinforcing effort and highlighting our wins, focusing on our strengths and capabilities, joining us in seeing things from our point of view, and by helping to sooth failure and self-criticism. We can provide many of these functions for ourselves, actively biasing what we look for in ourselves, what we make most salient, toward the positive.

This does not mean getting rid of everything that is negative, because we need all of ourselves, eventually. But it does mean engaging in resistance against the basic human tendency to give more weight to negative information in the environment, a holdover from evolution that allows us to scan preferentially for threats. Unfortunately, despite what it may feel like, on average the world is much less threatening to an individual than it was when our species was in its youth, and much of what we fear is driven by belief and perception rather than actual danger. Partner with yourself to bolster self-efficacy by providing your own esteem support and making sure others around you do the same as much as possible.

2. Mastery of vulnerability — Curiosity, the ability to tolerate and even bask in uncertainty, and the capacity to contain and reflect on strong emotional states without resorting to reactive behaviors — these characteristics allow one to sit with one's own worst demons. Naturally, it isn't always so melodramatic or hyperbolic, and there is real joy to be found from tenderness toward oneself, grounded in self-compassion, kindness, and patience with oneself. Watch out for self-blame, for not being kind enough to oneself, which can sneak in. Compassion hits the reset button for self-induced distortion, allowing us to let go of what we don't need and can't use.

Since we may all from time to time give ourselves a hard time, it makes sense to receive it with poise, curiosity, and to ask ourselves how we are feeling, where is the anger coming from, and note it is OK to feel disappointment as well as optimism for oneself. As long as we are paying some attention to what is going on and not suppressing or avoiding too much, we can catch issues as early as we can. Being vulnerable means being imperfect and embracing oneself. If you start calling yourself names, it's time to slow waaaay down and say, "What's going on?"

Skipping blame isn't a way to shirk responsibility or skirt around the issues, but it is important to differentiate responsibility, which comes from our core values, from feeling at fault as a result of feelings operating out of our awareness, such as shame and blame. When we are attuned to our own strengths and vulnerabilities, when other people bring up provocative subjects, we can stay balanced and responsive. If we are comfortable feeling vulnerable, we maximize what we can learn from experience. The problem with being non-judgmental is that it can mess with your judgment.

3. Compassionate empathy with and for others — The third pillar is relationships. Relationships often seem very complicated to us, and human emotions too hard to untangle. This is often for two reasons: first because we are “too close” to the situation, and so our own emotional involvement blinds us to what would be straightforward if we were consulted by a friend. Second, we aren’t well-educated about what emotions are, how they work, and how to integrate thoughts and emotions into a coherent, resilient whole. It’s simpler than it may seem, as we like to make ourselves more complicated than we actually are. Mysteries are alluring, necessary, but sometimes dangerously misleading.

What else?

When we are comfortable with our own self-efficacy, and can sustain it ourselves for a period of time, because we have internalized a good-enough caregiver part of ourselves, and we can deal with whatever our own vulnerability can throw at us, we become amazing listeners. Not only can we tolerate having less air time, we may even come to feel that speaking with urgency is less effective than showing what we think through our actions as well as our words. It takes time to know what we really think and feel. Meaning grows at its own pace sometimes, and emotions in particular often come out in repeating sequences, which require time to grasp as they go by so fast we may miss the evolution in our own minds.

Compassionate listening

We become amazing listeners, because we can empathize. Our own egos are off to the side, delighted to be learning so much from the other person. It’s a win-win in this state of mind, mutual, reciprocal. Balanced give-and-take. However, we are not so empathetic that we let ourselves get used up, chewed up, burned out, or worse. Cultivating compassion, the urge to act to alleviate suffering, applies to oneself and others and protects from the ill-effects of over-identification, the hazards of compulsive caregiving, and the risk of losing connection with one’s own center by being sucked into the other person’s world.

People’s motives can be unclear, and we sometimes read the worst into what people intend. Even when we intellectually understand that people’s intentions are good, we don’t always trust them or our own judgment. We can second-guess ourselves, and more to the point, even when cognitively we believe there’s no reason to be worried or take things personally, our emotional systems can hijack our higher brain systems, leaving us flying on autopilot.

This means, for many people, going into fight-or-flight mode, activating old relationship patterns which don’t bring other people to a place where they can provide for us, and we can provide for them. Assuming there isn’t an actual life-and-death battle with the other person — even when our emotions tell us it feels like our very survival is on the line, as it can, for example, when threatened with the loss of a treasured and needed relationship, job, identity — it is critical to start by listening to the other person’s point of view. This means you, 2019.

More from Grant Hilary Brenner MD, DFAPA
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