Updated: Oct 14, 2020
Our emotions have the power to control us. But they also are a powerful window to our inner world. How we can use our emotions to find out what matter most to us and take back the control of our lives.
Have you ever felt overwhelmed by your emotions? Fell into the trap of overreacting in a situation in which you were emotionally charged? Of course you have. Everyone has.
Emotional reactions are natural processes controlled by the brain's limbic system (mammalian brain) and are meant to protect us. Our brain perceives information from the outer or inner world and, depending on the situation we face, releases hormones in our body to prepare ourselves to deal with this situation. In case of an imminent danger for example, our brain floods our body with lots of adrenalin, our mind is alert, our heart beat increases, and our blood is directed to either the arms or the legs to prepare us for survival: fight or flight. Anger or fear. Am I going to fight for my life, or run away? This mechanism happens automatically in our brain in a fraction of a second.
According to the psychologist and author Daniel Goleman, the other basic emotions, that are triggering those automatic physiological responses, but also typical facial expressions, are disgust, surprise, sadness, joy, and love. In his ground-breaking book, Emotional Intelligence: Why it Can Matter More than IQ (1995), Daniel Goleman defines emotions like this:
"All emotions are, in essence, impulses to act, the instant plans for handling life that evolution has instilled in us. The very root of the word emotion is movere, the Latin verb “to move,” plus the prefix “e-” to connote “move away,” suggesting that a tendency to act is implicit in every emotion" (p.6)
Emotional reactions have played an essential role in the evolution and the survival of species during millions of years. They are written deep in our genes and therefore so powerful. Whereas animals' survival depends exclusively on those automatic reactions, for us humans it will rarely be the case. Of course, it can save one's life in some rare critical situations too, but in most of the cases, it will simply lead us to react automatically, oftentimes in less than appropriate ways.
Why is this happening? Because we have needs: physiological, safety, love and belonging, esteem and self-actualisation needs (remember Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs?), and because our brain recognizes that these needs might be endangered. Because we've learned throughout our lives, mainly in the childhood, to develop defence mechanisms and compensation strategies to fulfil these needs when we were facing challenging times. Although these mechanisms have helped us to overcome many difficult situations in the past, they often won't be as helpful as we wish today.
Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs
The problem is that we have repeated these ways of acting and thinking over and over again. They became automatisms. These thinking, feeling, and acting patterns are now systematically activated, even if the situations in which we are now are different from those of the past, even if we have now gained new skills and competences that we hadn't before. These emotional reactions happen unconsciously, they are performed without a real intention from our side, and they are therefore often controlling us more than we are controlling them.
Luckily for us humans, we have the ability to reflect and control our reactions. This is what we call the "Emotional Intelligence": the capacity to recognize, understand, and manage our own emotions, to attenuate the negative and reinforce the positive ones, to motivate ourselves and bounce back from failures. This is also the ability to develop empathy and good relationships with others, to communicate clearly and manage conflicts. Thanks to our prefrontal cortex (the part of the human brain located at the very front of our head and responsible, among other things, for self-regulation), we can train it!
How can you do that? Here are a few steps you can follow when you notice that an emotion is arising:
Stop the reaction. It may be a thought, like a preconception, or the pressing impulse to do something, just stop it. First step first.
Observe. Look around you. What do you see? What is the situation you're in? Where are you? Who's here with you?
Feel. Focus your attention on the sensation in your body. How does it feel? Where is the feeling located? In your chest? In your stomach? Is it cold? Warm? What about your breath? Is it fast? Or rather deep and slow? What is the expression on your face right now?
Label it. What is the emotion or feeling presently there. Is it anger? Anxiety? Excitement? Relief? Excitement? Or even joy? Try to put a name on it.
Accept it. This emotion is there for a reason. It tells you something, so don't try to fight against or repress it. Instead, create a space for your emotion and embrace it as it is.
Evaluate the situation. Think about the situation. What is needed right now? What are the possible options? What could you do?
Find your need. What do you need in this situation? What is behind your current feeling? Which need of yours wants to be fulfilled? Is it recognition? Connection? Respect? Do you want your voice to be heard? Do you want to be understood?
Choose your reaction. What will you do now? What do you really want? Choose your words carefully, your next move consciously, and take back the control over the situation. Then you will see how powerful mindfulness can also be!
I recommend you to practice first in situations where your emotions are not so strong. It will help you learn to recognize and develop a sharper sensitivity to your emotions, without being directly overwhelmed by them. Exercising this on a regular basis will train your brain to deal more effectively with your emotions and develop further your self-control skill. In case of challenging emotional situations in the future, you will then know how to proceed, thereby increasing the chance to not fall back in the automatic reaction trap!
On the other hand, this pausing and reflecting exercise will give you useful insights about your unconscious thought and behaviour patterns, and about your personal needs, values and wishes. Self-awareness, another key element of emotional intelligence, is the foundation for growth, self-confidence and authenticity; it is worth working on it too!
"Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space lies our freedom and power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our happiness" - Steven R. Covey
If you struggle to name your emotions or recognize your needs: don't worry, it can happen. Try to focus your attention on the sensation in your body, perhaps on your breath, and your direct surrounding. This alone can often help too.
Sometimes, we also can go through complex professional or personal situations, in which we have to take an important decision but several of our needs, desires or beliefs are contradictory. In psychology, this is called cognitive dissonance. If that is your case, you probably will experience mixed feelings that will be more difficult to identify clearly. This is also normal, don't worry! You might just need a good life coach who can help you creating clarity in all this! ;)