4 Ways to Control Your Emotions in Tense Moments
Rich Hua stashed this in Emotional Intelligence
Own the emotion, name the story, challenge the story, or find your primal story.
Own the emotion. Emotional responsibility is the precondition of emotional influence. You can’t change an emotion you don’t own. The first thing I do when struck by an overpowering feeling or impulse is to accept responsibility for its existence. My mental script is, “This is about me, not about that or them.” Emotions come prepackaged with tacit external attribution. Because an external event always precedes my experience of an emotion, it’s easy to assume that event caused it. But as long as I believe it was externally caused I am doomed to be a victim to my emotions.
For example, my anger following Dale’s criticism had nothing to do with Dale’s criticism. His statement could have corresponded to feelings of curiosity, surprise, or compassion as much as resentment and anger. The fact that I experienced the latter rather than the former was about me, not him.
Name the story. Next, you need to reflect on how you colluded with the initial event to create the present emotion. Emotions are the result of both what happens, and of the story you tell yourself about what happened. One of the powerful practices that helps me detach from and take control of my emotions is to name the stories I tell. Is it a victim story — one that emphasizes my virtues and absolves me of responsibility for what is happening? Is it a villain story — one that exaggerates the faults of others and attributes what’s happening to their evil motives? Is it a helpless story — one that convinces me that any healthy course of action (like listening humbly, speaking up honestly) is pointless? Naming my stories helps me see them for what they are — only one of myriad ways I can make sense of what’s happening. As I sat with Dale, I realized I was deep in victim and villain stories. I was thinking only of reasons he was wrong but not of how he was right — and I was attributing his criticism to his personal flaws, not his legitimate frustrations.
Challenge the story. Once you identify the story, you can take control by asking yourself questions that provoke you out of your victim, villain, and helpless stories. For example, I transform myself from a victim into an actor by asking, “What am I pretending not to know about my role in this situation?” I transform Dale from a villain into a human by asking, “Why would a reasonable, rational, and decent person say this?” and I transform myself from helpless into able by asking, “What’s the right thing to do now to move toward what I really want?”
As I pondered these questions in my interaction with Dale, I saw how my impatience and… gulp… arrogance, was a big part of why he was saying this. As I asked, “What is the right thing to do…” I felt an immediate release from resentment and anger. A calming humility emerged. And, I began to ask questions rather than present my defense.
Find your primal story. Over the years, I’ve wondered why the stories I tell myself are so predictable. In my research with hundreds of leaders, I’ve found that most people have habitual stories they tell in predictable circumstances as well. Early life experiences that we perceived at the time to be threats to our safety and worth become encoded in our potent memories.
For example, perhaps a classmate in second grade coaxed you to an unsupervised place in the schoolyard and bullied you in a traumatic way. A parent may have shown you less approval than a sibling. From these experiences, the most primal part of our brains code certain conditions as threatening — physically or psychically. And from that point forward, you don’t get to vote on whether you’ll react when those conditions are present. When a larger work colleague raises his voice, your brain might connect with the old bully experience. Or, when Dale accuses you of being arrogant, your parental criticism triggers flare. I’ve found greater peace over the years as I’ve become aware of the primal origin of the stories I tell — and learned to challenge the perception that my safety and worth are at risk in these moments. When my chest got tight sitting across from Dale, simply thinking, “This can’t hurt me” and “Humility is strength not weakness” had an immediate calming effect. Reciting a specific script in moments of emotional provocation weakens trauma-induced reaction that is not relevant in the present moment.
"My tacit logic was that confessing hurt would telegraph weakness." Oh, what a tangled web we weave...
Sometimes confessing hurt does telegraph weakness, right?
There's a time and place, and being around the 'right' people, for being open. Stoicism to the extreme has been considered a cultural virtue for a very long time. Time to mellow out?
Good point. Time to mellow out.
I need to practice reserve clauses more.