Managing Emotions Has Never Been So Important as It Is Today
On Becoming Emotionally Intelligent
The year is 10,000 B.C., a forager stands face to face with a huge predator in the African savannas. Unarmed, he knows he doesn’t stand a chance against it. His heartbeat rises and begins to sweat—he feels fear. His body prepares for flight. He takes off and saves himself from being mauled by the predator.
Fast forward to the 21st century, a college-going teenager feels the same fear as the forager did. Not because he’s facing a predator, but because he’s in his maths exam looking at his question paper and knowing he’ll flunk for sure.
Fear saved the forager’s life. But was not really a useful emotion for the teenager, expect for spoiling his peace of mind for a few days thinking about how terribly he performed in the exam.
10,000 B.C. and the 21st century are completely different—the place we live, how we communicate, the work we do, and just about anything. But what didn’t change are our emotions. Emotions evolved while we were hunters & gatherers and it still assumes we are one.
As hunters and gatherers we, humans, needed emotions—they gave us an evolutionary advantage. Fear helped us run from or fight predators, joy—to socialise with members of the tribe, care—to raise offsprings, and so on.
Emotions are still important, we wouldn’t survive without them. But our emotional brains are not built for the modern world. A call from our boss at night is perceived as a threat and we feel dejected if someone doesn’t reply to our texts. These are places where emotions can signal the wrong thing and can mislead us.
While our emotions have been wise guides in the evolutionary long run, the new realities civilization presents have arisen with such rapidity that the slow march of evolution cannot keep up.
—Daniel Goleman, Emotional Intelligence
So we need a manual control for emotions atop the auto-pilot evolution built. In other words, you need to be emotionally intelligent. And it has never been so important than in today’s digital and technological world.
Managing emotions has two steps to it—first is identifying and labelling emotions and the next is managing them.
Knowing Your Emotions
Before solving any problem it is important to understand it clearly. The same applies to emotions—before going about managing emotions, you need to understand it properly. You need to answer the question “what specific emotion am I going through?” What you need is emotional granularity.
Emotional granularity is the ability to differentiate between specific emotions. For instance, when you feel sad, rather than labelling it as “sad,” you need to get specific — is it hurt? loneliness? sorrow? or displeasure?
This could be done by thinking about what caused it. Are you sad because your friend yelled at you? that’s hurt. Are you sad because there’s no one to keep you company? that’s loneliness. Or are you sad because you’re stuck in a party that makes you feel uncomfortable? that’s displeasure.
Understanding the root cause for why you feel the way you feel, you know what specific emotion you’re going through.
Like any other skill, this too is not simple to practice and master. It requires consciously observing emotions while being emotional—that’s at least an eight out of ten on the difficulty scale.
But each emotion has its own signature, if you pay enough attention you’ll be able to find and label it.
A simple way to get better at emotional granularity is to improve your emotional vocabulary. The emotional wheel below can help learn what specific emotions feel like.
The words on the periphery of the wheel represent specific emotions. Those are the words with which you’ll have to label your emotions.
List them down and look up their meaning in a dictionary. Write down a specific instance in your life when you had that emotion. Connecting those words with personal experiences can help you remember what the emotion looks or feels like. And more importantly, you’ll be able to label the emotion when it pops up the next time.
Once you’ve labelled your emotions, you’re ready for the next step—managing them.
Emotions tell us something. There is always a reason why it shows up. It may be something happening right now or something that happened in the past—days, weeks, months, or years.
Imagine this, you escaped by a strand of hair from being hit by a car while walking on the road—you would panic. What panic signal here is that you’re in a life-threatening environment, and you need to be careful. Another instance, where you’ve not got a good appraisal at work, you feel remorseful. Remorse says you’ve not done a great job last year, so you’ll have to perform better.
Once you’ve labelled the emotion and putting some rational thoughts to it—you’ll be able to figure out what it is trying to tell you. When you’ve done this, you’ll have to tell your emotion this, “I’ve understood the reason for you showing up, I’ll act on it,” and immediately act on it or at least devise a proper plan to act later.
After the close encounter with the speeding car, you could be more mindful while walking or could take another lane. After the not-so-good appraisal, you could plan a better work strategy to improve your performance and execute it.
When you take the best possible action on an emotional situation, rationally, that emotion’s intensity will lessen. Also, you’ll feel in control of the situation, as opposed to the emotion taking charge and making things messy.
But never suppress emotions, especially the unpleasant ones, it will always backfire in ugly ways.
Our emotions are important. But they’re also kind of dumb. They’re not able to think through consequences or consider multiple factors when acting.
— Mark Manson
Summing it up
Emotional management has to be done in two steps:
- Emotional Granularity—understanding the specific emotion and labelling it, along with what caused it. This can be done by improving your emotional vocabulary.
- Once labelled, rationalise what the emotion is trying to tell, and ask yourself what best can be done to stay in control of the situation. This will reduce the intensity of the emotion.
Emotions are vital for our existence, it makes us more human than what flesh and bones do. But a lot of emotions we experience in the modern world can signal the wrong thing, only a few have real significance. Our emotional brain is fooled most of the times and urges us to react in unnecessary ways leading to trouble. So it is important to have the emotional intelligence to manage them and thrive in the modern world.