Taming emotion

Your emotions influence your decisions. Learning to read and regulate your emotions will help you make better choices and build better relationships.

When I was nineteen, I spent four months traveling in India to learn meditation. Given the opportunity to experiment with dozens of different meditation techniques, I learned how to witness my thoughts and emotions and not react to them. Surprisingly, this is one of the most practical and useful skills I’ve learned, and I use it every day in my interactions with people.

Our emotions evolved to help us survive and reproduce. Fear, anger, sadness, joy, and disgust are names we give to describe different states of our nervous system. Fear is experienced as contraction in your belly or chest. Joy brings a feeling of expansion. Your reactions to these types of physical sensations influence your decisions and behaviors.

Babies express raw unregulated emotion. Discomfort due to hunger or pain causes them to cry. Babies have not yet been taught how to regulate their emotions. Imagine the reaction you would get at work if you started crying because you were hungry. Although I don’t cry when I’m hungry, I do have similar strong emotional reactions to situations that would be just as ridiculous if expressed.

As we mature, we are taught what is an acceptable display of emotion and behavior by the people around us. Breaking these social norms brings consequences. In ancient times, if you were kicked out of the tribe due to your behavior, you would likely not survive. This primal fear persists today, and strongly influences our behavior at work and in our personal lives.

Emotions are powerful but they are short lived unless you continue to feed them. If you are willing to sit in the emotion fully, instead of struggling to ignore or repress it, you will find the emotion is very short and lasts only moments—not minutes. It amazes me how if I’m cut off while driving, I can go from a calm state to full-on rage in less than a second. And then return to a calm state a few minutes later. My brain interpreted the car cutting me off as a threat and reacted. In that moment of rage, I felt capable of physical violence toward the driver who cut me off. Most likely the person did not wish me harm. They probably did not even see my car. If you pay attention to the physical sensations in your body, it’s hard to stay angry for more than a few moments unless you continue to feed the anger with additional mental chatter.

Emotional intelligence is the ability to separate your emotion from your behavior. The better you get at reading, regulating, and expressing your emotions, the better your relationships will be.

People with high emotional intelligence perform better at work. It’s not surprising that surveys of employers showed that 71% of them valued emotional intelligence over IQ in an employee. For managers and leaders this is an essential skill.

Emotional intelligence allows you to stay calm in times of stress, conflict, and challenge. This helps you resolve conflict effectively and quickly. By practicing active listening and taking an interest in understanding other people’s perspectives, you gain empathy, which creates the opportunity to cooperate. All of this allows you to form and develop better relationships with others.

Your ability to manage stress and build better relationships also increases your physical and mental health, preventing the onset and progression of heart problems, anxiety, and depression.

Emotional intelligence can be learned. But just like any skill, it requires consistent practice. You don’t get a healthy body by going to the gym once a week. And you don’t learn a new language by just attending a few classes. Building your emotional intelligence requires consistent practice over a long time-frame. But you can do it in small steps.

Here are a few useful ways to improve your emotional intelligence.

  1. Practice meditation at least 10 minutes every day. Meditation is an effective tool to build self-awareness. I use the Waking Up app by Sam Harris because the instructions Sam provides are useful and the app tracks the time. A common misconception about meditation is that you are detached and not feeling your emotions. The opposite is true. You are not distancing yourself from your emotions. You willingly feel emotions and physical sensations more intensely to fully experience them in your body. But you experience them without judgment. Meditation is practicing being fully aware without reacting. For example, you can’t close your ears and stop sound from entering. But you can listen to sound without it triggering an emotional reaction. Imagine if you are trying to concentrate at work and someone is speaking loudly near you and its distracting. You’ve a choice in how you respond. You may feel anger or frustration but it will not likely serve you to act out of anger in your response. 
  2. Ask for feedback. Ask people with diverse perspectives to give you feedback frequently. Be vulnerable and open to receiving what you hear. Monitor your emotions so that you are not defensive. Feedback gives you an opportunity to gain empathy by seeing different points of view, and it shines a bright light on your blind spots. Feedback also helps you correct mistakes quickly and improve your performance.
  3. Be curious about your emotions. Practice curiosity by becoming interested in the patterns of energy in your body in different situations. Approach this exercise as an experiment. Notice when you’re angry or frustrated. Are there certain people or situations that trigger these responses? Look for patterns.

Your emotions are a natural part of being human, but you can learn to regulate them in order to be happier, healthier, and more productive.


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