Have you ever experienced an impulsive urge to shout, scream or hit out? Is there a type of person or situation that pushes your buttons? Do you ever feel so overwhelmed that you just can’t think straight in the moment and shortly afterwards you come up with things you wish you’d said?
Emotions drive our actions and behaviours, clouding our judgement and dominating our thinking especially when faced with a difficult situation.
Indeed, being emotional is often perceived as a weakness leading to a need to control emotions, which in practise usually means suppressing them. Suppressing emotions can have an enormous impact on mental energy resources because an emotion requires roughly an equal amount of energy to suppress as to create it, so twice as much energy has been used just to retain the status quo!
Becoming smarter with your feelings, otherwise known as being more emotionally intelligent, enables you to use your emotions as a tool to achieve better outcomes through embracing the gifts within them. Emotions provide valuable information about a situation as well as a source of energy that can be used to define and execute the most appropriate actions. As well as facilitating better outcomes, this has the following benefits:
- Reducing stress
- Increasing energy levels
- Improving well-being
So how can we use our emotions intelligently?
At a very basic level, the ultimate function of our brains, is to ensure our survival, through a combination of minimising danger, maximising rewards and conserving energy.
Our emotions play an important role in achieving these objectives as they focus our attention on the danger or reward as well as triggering a fast response. This fast response serves two aims:
- Conserving mental energy by not engaging our conscious functions, and
- Providing our best response for survival in the moment when there is insufficient time to think through alternative options
However, these fast responses are not always the most appropriate, for two main reasons:
- Our stone-age brains have not evolved sufficiently to cope with 21st century events that trigger the threat response (designed for threats to our physical being, such as from predators) when the reality for now is merely a perceived threat to our ego
- Our responses may have been learned from previous experiences, or knowledge, that our brains consider sufficiently similar to the current scenario to warrant a similar response, whereas an alternative response may be more appropriate
Exploring our autopilot reactions
The Disney Pixar film ‘Inside Out’ shows how our core emotions, depicted as five animated characters, in our heads, are driving our behaviours in a really simplistic but accessible way. I have used these five core emotions to demonstrate what they get our brains to focus on, and the ‘theme’ of the fast initial response that is triggered when that emotion arises:
Flight or freeze
Each of these emotions trigger a range of associated responses. For example, anger can range from mild disappointment through criticism and shouting to actual physical fighting.
In addition to the above it’s useful to recognise a couple of other interesting facts about how our brains work:
- We have 5X more ‘brain circuitry’ focussing on threats than rewards (explaining our natural negativity bias) so we are more likely to respond with anger, fear or anxiety
- Our state in a particular moment can influence how we respond, for example if you are hungry, stressed or tired you are more likely to react negatively to a situation
- Emotions are contagious so if someone else is displaying a strong emotion this can influence our response
The first step to increase emotional intelligence is to acknowledge what is being experienced. Next time you feel an emotion use the table above and ask yourself:
- What is your focus? What triggered that emotion? What has drawn your attention?
- What is your default response to that trigger?
- Is my current mood or emotional state having an impact on my reaction?
In reflecting on your emotions, don’t judge yourself. Just acknowledge what’s happening and reflect on whether it’s helping you achieve the results you desire. This heightened self-awareness will in itself awaken new ways of responding.
There are so many books available on emotional intelligence and the neuroscience behind emotions. Here are a few references that I found easy to digest and put into practise:
Disney Pixar Inside Out
‘Meet the little voices inside your head’
For a light introduction into how emotions are driving behaviours watch the Inside Out film or even some clips.
Here’s a link to a trailer
Emotional Intelligence 2.0 by Travis Bradberry & Jean Greaves
This is a perfect book for developing emotional intelligence (EQ) as it introduces the key competencies for EQ and provides loads of practical ways to develop each of them including:
- Self-awareness defined as knowing yourself as you really are
- Self- management being an ability to use the awareness to choose your response (& not react)
- Social awareness is the skill to recognise and understand the moods of other individuals and groups of people
- Relationship management being an ability to use the other EQ skills to work on building relationships and making them work
The book also includes an online edition of an emotional intelligence appraisal test to help you pinpoint how skilled you are in each of the core competencies and what skills you would benefit from developing
The Power of Negative Emotion – how anger, guilt and self-doubt are essential to success and fulfilment by Todd Kashdan & Robert Biswas-Diener
The premise of this book is to view emotions as useful and that for a successful and fulfilling life we should be aiming for ‘wholeness’ rather than happiness where all emotions are embraced.
As the title implies, it encourages the reader to embrace negative emotions rather than avoid or suppress them and use them to achieve success, for example:
- Avoiding discomfort could lead to missed opportunities
- Fear of rejection could stop us meeting people
- Fear of failure could stop us taking risks
- Avoiding problems means avoiding finding solutions
Negative emotions inform you that something isn’t right and requires attention. Used effectively this can improve performance and success:
- Anger increases motivation and confidence
- Guilt motivates you to improve your behaviour
- Anxiety increases stimulation and focus
In short, stop labelling emotions as either positive or negative and reframe each emotion in terms of the benefit it provides.