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Are You Emotionally Driven?

Learning to act in spite of how you feel.

Source: AlexLMX/Shutterstock

Katy was determined to get in shape and vowed to start by going to the gym every day. But it’s not long before her plans fall apart: She wakes up, decides she didn’t sleep well and is tired, so she skips, saying to herself she’ll go tomorrow when she’s more rested. Or she plans on exercising during lunch at work, but feels too rushed because her meeting ran late, and again skips and vows to go the next day.

Jake’s friends see him as a wild and crazy guy. He’s been known to suddenly decide to go to Florida for the weekend, to buy a $1,000 suit because it looks good in the store window, or a pair of $300 sneakers that catch his eye online. Like Katy, he’s also been known to put things off, like that boring spreadsheet for his job; it’s only likely to get done when his boss gives him a do-or-die deadline.

We can think of rationality and emotionality as opposite poles of a long spectrum. Way over on the rational end are the Mr. Spocks of the world where logic and reason rule the day. Next to them are those a bit less extreme, perhaps, who are driven by “shoulds,” the rules in their heads, usually accompanied by a scolding voice when they fail to follow them, leaving them feeling guilty and anxious. What these folks at this end of the spectrum miss is the important information that emotions can provide. They often struggle to know or act on what they truly want, what they need.

But at the other end of the spectrum are folks like Katy and Jake; both of them are emotionally driven. Instead of rules or logic governing their lives, it is emotion that determines what they do or don’t do: Katy doesn’t feel like going to the gym and skips, Jake looks at the sneakers and has to have them or looks at the spreadsheet as an exercise in boredom and parks it. The downside of living this way is that things don’t get done that need to, and procrastination takes over until things start to back up. But even then, it is emotion that is likely to drive behavior—the pressure of the deadline at work or worry about money for Jake, or health issues for Katy—may finally propel them forward for a brief time.

But the effects can also be cumulative, leading to a low-level but chronic depression and hits to your self-esteem. Compared to those around you, you realize that there is no real forward momentum in your life; instead you look back and see a past littered with unfinished projects and abandoned good intentions.

The starting point for moving away from the emotional end of the spectrum and more towards middle is realizing that the problem is not about dealing with the gym, the suit, or the spreadsheet, but instead with the role and power your emotions have in running your life. Your challenge is the opposite of those Mr. Spocks and should-driven folks at the other end: While they need to learn to build emotions into their decisions and actions, you need to learn to act in spite of how you feel.

Easier said than done, of course, but doable. Here are some suggestions to help you get started:

Practice slowing down

To be emotionally driven means that your emotional, impulsive brain is always overriding your rational one and shutting it down. To move toward the middle, you want to keep your rational brain online, and to do that you need to slow down so your brain can reboot. Here Jake sees the suit and doesn’t go in the store but decides to give himself a day to think about it. Or he sees the sneakers, may plop them in his wishlist, but then walks away from the computer for a few hours to ponder and check out his credit card balance. By taking these breathers you interrupt the emotion-action pattern.

Experiment with willpower

This acting-in-spite-of-how-you-feel can be translated into beefing up old-fashioned willpower and discipline. That said, this doesn’t mean you need to run off to an Outward-Bound Course or become a Navy Seal. Instead take baby steps through planned experiments in not listening to your emotions, not going on autopilot, learning to be more comfortable with being a bit uncomfortable, delaying gratification. Here you take the cold shower, you decide to skip going out for lunch or grabbing the next beer, you experiment with staying home on a Saturday night rather than party with friends because you want to party with friends and you want to see what it is like to not.

What you do and where you start doesn’t matter, as long as you are going against your grain and emotions. Don’t worry about the outcome, just be sure to pat yourself on the back for taking the risk, and move forward. Over time, with practice, you will find that you have a greater sense of control over you and your life; your self-confidence will increase.

Set goals

While the rationally-driven folks usually have endless to-do lists, those who are emotionally-driven often have few or none that are truly operational. The emotionally-driven life is a reactive one, one shaped by the ever-changing emotions, rather than a proactive one, planned and set by steady rational and considered goals.

Here Jake, rather than flying off to Florida on an emotional whim, sits down with himself and plans out vacations he’d like to take in the next year. Or he proactively maps out a budget for clothing, or sits down with himself on Sunday night and figures out the three or four important things that most need to get done at work that coming week. Here Katy not only decides to go the gym but also looks ahead and signs up for a 5K race coming up in three months, knowing that having the goal itself will help her stay on track.

Slowing down, exercising willpower, and setting goals together form a firm foundation for moving away from an emotionally driven life. What you also need are ways to keep it going. Two suggestions:

Have prompts

Jake puts a note on his computer screen to remind him to slow down and think before making online purchases, or to remind him to do the spreadsheet first thing in the morning. Katy puts her running shoes by the bed so she practically has the trip over them in the morning, or sets up a reminder on her phone that it’s time to wrap up the meeting so she is not rushed and can make it to the gym. The more prompts, the better.

Get supports

Trying to implement any change is better with the support of others. For Katy, maybe recruiting a gym/running buddy or asking a colleague to give her a signal in the meeting when it’s time to wrap things up. Similarly, Jake may decide to bring his friend along with him when he decides to go suit-shopping to help him counter his impulsiveness or check in with someone who can talk him off the ledge when he suggests they should head out for Florida.

The theme and challenges here are clear: It’s about rewiring your brain by decreasing the emotional side and increasing the rational side, about building up willpower to counter impulsiveness, and about being proactive in order to take more control.

It’s about acting in spite of how you feel. It's not about transforming your personality but developing and practicing new skills. It’s about changing how you run your life.

You can do it. Just don’t wait until you feel like it to start.

More from Robert Taibbi L.C.S.W.
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