Emotions are important and we need to pay heed to them, but we have a personal responsibility for doing our best to manage emotion well.
Here’s a wee story (author unknown) that helps to illustrate why this is so important.
There once was a little boy who had a bad temper. His father gave him a bag of nails and told him that every time he lost his temper, he must hammer a nail into the back of the fence.
The first day the boy had driven 37 nails into the fence. Over the next few weeks, as he learned to control his anger, the number of nails hammered daily gradually dwindled down. He discovered it was easier to hold his temper than to drive those nails into the fence.
Finally, the day came when the boy didn’t lose his temper at all. He told his father about it and the father suggested that the boy now pull out one nail for each day that he was able to hold his temper. The days passed and the young boy was finally able to tell his father that all the nails were gone.
The father took his son by the hand and led him to the fence. He said, “You have done well, my son, but look at the holes in the fence. The fence will never be the same. When you say things in anger, they leave a scar just like this one. You can put a knife in a man and draw it out. It won’t matter how many times you say I’m sorry, the wound is still there.”
We all have moments when emotions run high and we lose ourselves to them. But when emotion runs unchecked, we can undermine all our hard work on a project or damage our relationships at work or at home. It’s also true that we lead others to where we ourselves are at. High emotion is contagious, but so is calm.
In fact, emotions in and of themselves are not bad — they are vital to great performance. The science tells us that we cannot make good decisions using only the ‘rational’ part of our brain. In fact, those who have had an injury to the amygdala (our brain’s emotion centre) have difficulty making even the simplest of decisions. This is because the ‘emotional’ centre of our brain serves as a highlighter — signalling what it is we need to pay attention to in order to make a sound decision.
Step 1: Know that emotions are not the enemy.
Recognise the situation is causing you stress — a natural biological reaction. Change and uncertainty put our body on high alert. Stress hormones convert our body’s resources into energy and then prime us for action. We are rearing to go. But when there isn’t an action that readily solves the problem, what happens? Where does all that blocked energy go? Hello high emotion.
The emotions you are feeling are a natural response to stress. In Western cultures, we could do better with being okay with emotion.
Tell yourself, “It’s totally normal and okay for me to be feeling _______ right now.”
Step 2: Hit pause.
Recognise that being in a high state of stress is not the best place from which to make decisions, to problem solve or to have challenging conversations.
Ask yourself, “Am I in the best place to make this decision or have this conversation? Can I hit pause? When emotions are running high, inserting a pause can make all the difference and save you having to unravel the damage you’re likely to do if you steam right ahead.
Step 3: Find calm.
In today’s world, we are well practiced in ramping up our energy — being ‘on’, being ‘busy’. We have taught our bodies how to do this — usually too well. But we are less practiced in taking our nervous system in the other direction. Being able to bring our body back down to feeling safe and relaxed is like a muscle that we need to build and strengthen with practice.
Note: If you find calming difficult, it may help to first actively do something with the pent-up energy. Expend that energy — for example, go for a run and sweat out the stress hormones, and then come back to this step.
High emotion usually comes from our body feeling under threat. Now is the time to calm, soothe, relax. Give our body the ‘wind down’ not ‘wind up’ message.
Slowing and deepening your breathing is the most direct tool we have to give our body this signal. And have up your sleeve the tips, strategies and activities that are calming for you. Know these in advance because searching for ideas under high emotion rarely works. We’ve created a shortcut for you — The Doing Well Cool Down cards give you plenty of tips to put in place when emotions are running high. Flick through these in settled times and pick the one you think will be most useful to you.
Step 4: Question if there is wisdom in the emotion.
It can help to ask yourself whether these emotions are trying to signal something. Emotions, managed well, are a good thing — they often send us messages about ourselves or our situation that we need to pay attention to.
Contrary to past thinking, science shows us that wise leaders include emotions as part of the rich data they draw from to inform their decision-making.
Ask yourself, “Is this emotion trying to tell me something? What wisdom or learning is here for me?”
The cards threaded through this blog are from Hummingly’s Doing Well card deck. They are a practical tool to help you manage your emotions and wellbeing.