How to use your emotions... instead of your emotions using you

I've spoken to a number of people recently who described their experience of life as being 'like a little boat, tossed about on the waves of emotion'... and MAN! do I remember feeling like that! It wasn't very nice. It makes the days very unpredictable and it can get in the way of good decision making... And as you all know - I'm all about good!

So - here are some hopefully helpful hints:

1. How to differentiate between helpful and unhelpful emotions

2. How to PRODUCE the helpful emotions that get you through your day

3. How to REDUCE the unhelpful emotions that are just not what you need right now

1. How to differentiate between helpful and unhelpful emotions

As we go through our every day - we all too often do this:

"How are you doing?" - "Fine"

If this were just a conversational issue it wouldn't be so bad - but unfortunately it's all too often how we dismiss our experiences in our own heads as well. Or how about this one:

"How are you doing?" - "Not too bad"

(a classic NZ answer...) - What the hell does that even mean??? That we're on the way down the cliffside but haven't hit the bottom yet? That we're not yet dead? I mean... really!!

So the first step in figuring out how to deal with our emotions is to become more specific about what we are ACTUALLY experiencing. Psychologist Dr. Robert Plutchik has helped us identify this via his EMOTION WHEEL (this is probably a progression from the original..)

So "fine" means any one or more of these:

Whereas 'not too bad' would point to one of these:

So - let's get a little more specific, shall we??

(A great book on the topic is "Permission to feel" by Marc Brackett!)

As a next step, let's reframe feeling 'good' or 'bad' by putting them into a context. What I mean by that is relating our emotions to a task or situation at hand - whatever is going on in the present moment. This allows us to think of our emotional states as 'helpful' or 'unhelpful' - and this will be a spectrum, so technically 'more or less helpful' and 'more or less unhelpful' in relation to a task or situation:

For example, if I am, trying to have a constructive conversation with someone, feeling 'angry' (or one of it's specific expressions) may be unhelpful - whereas, if I'm trying to motivate myself to work out harder at the gym, recalling that anger over a derogatory comment by a work colleague may be helpful in getting me to hit that punching bag with some enthusiasm. You get the idea.

And yes, feeling "bad" or "uncomfortable" emotions CAN be helpful. If Martin Luther King hadn't been angry about apartheid, we may still see it today.

But let's add this as another dimension: comfortable or uncomfortable / good or 'bad':

Now we can start to figure out what whether our feeling 'bad' may actually be a good (helpful) thing - something that motivates us to change, to reconsider, to apologize... Or whether our feeling "good" is actually not that helpful... For example, feeling very comfortable on our couch instead of going for a walk... or browsing our social media instead of doing some (uncomfortable) work on an important project.

Makes sense?

2. How to PRODUCE the helpful emotions that get you through your day

So now that we're able to identify what may be a 'more helpful' state for the task at hand (for example, a bit of stress about the approaching deadline in order to get us to finish our project - or some more 'diplomacy' and 'calm' before confronting annoying co-worker), we need to figure out how to GENERATE that emotion...

In principle, our inner emotional factory runs on three fuels: Our physiology, what we focus on and the meaning we create (or inner language we use).

We can shift our emotions by shifting any or all of the above.

A simple way to get into a better state is to shift our physiology - we can go for a walk, jump, dance, move, put a smile on our face... Fake it till you make it, essentially. Especially uncomfortable emotions tend to lock us into a tense physiological pattern - so break it up through movement, stretching, exercise. That's our first pillar.

Second aspect is what we focus on... which is essentially a shift in our attention. We can focus on the what was taken from us or on what we might gain, we may focus on what we want or what we don't want - all of those are going to impact how we feel about something. I could focus on all the nasty things this particular person may have said to me in the past - or the fact that we shared some great times together not that long ago. Where focus goes, energy flows... and I get to choose what I focus on before I go into this challenging conversation for example. Which one would be more helpful???

Lastly, we are meaning making machines - which means we CONSTANTLY interpret the world around us. Nothing is just left 'as is' in our minds - the sun is not just in the sky - it's 'nice weather'. There's not just words coming out of someone else's mouth - they are 'disrespectful'. Our brains are interpreters, not reporters of the world. And the meaning we create impacts the inner dialogue we have with ourselves... and often, it spirals out of control. So when your co-worker moved your chair across the room - they never just moved your chair: They were either being helpful or they were being disrespectful, uncaring and ONCE AGAIN! completely oblivious to your request not to move the chair. They always do that, right? They must think your requests don't MATTER! They clearly don't CARE about you! In fact - they don't care about ANYBODY!!

Or what about that public presentation you're giving? Are you going over all the things that could go WRONG, the elements you'll FORGET and the fact that you'll be standing in front of your audience with a BIG STAIN on your shirt that you didn't notice? Or are you focusing on the best possible outcome, how you WANT the presentation to go and how EXCITING It will be to hear the applause after the fact??

And what about your inner dialogue? Are you telling yourself that you're a terrible speaker, you are ALWAYS forgetting your lines and how much you HATE the fact that you're having to give this presentation? Or are you telling yourself that 'you've got this', that you have mastered WAAAY greater challenges in your life and that you are true expert on your topic??

You get the idea.

So ask yourself: what is that more helpful emotion you need to generate? Excitement? Anticipation? - How do you stand / move / behave when you're excited? What do you need to focus on? What do you have to tell yourself?

A next level hack here - if you can't for the life of you figure out how to get excited over a dental appointment - think of SOMEONE you admire and respect who would EXCEL in this. Maybe your spouse who manages to not only swing past the dentist regularly but comes back happily recalling the chat they had with the dentist over their last kayaking trip - whilst you'd be sweating silently in your chair. Imagine what your SPOUSE might be focusing on? What do you think they are telling themselves? How would they hold themselves walking into the clinic? - Do that.

Which really leads us to

3. How to REDUCE the unhelpful emotions that are just not what you need right now

We've just done it. Replaced our dental anxiety with EXCITEMENT. Cool.

Except - it's not always that easy.

Unhelpful emotions can be pretty persistent - especially when we have created a HABIT around hanging out with them. Think back to the emotions wheels above - which ones did you feel more familiar with - the uncomfortable or the comfortable emotions? - This may tell you where you built your emotional home.

To effectively reduce 'unhelpful' emotions, we may need to retrain ourselves. This is not a one-off exercise - just as going to the gym and lifting a weight ONCE is not going to make you fit. You have to practice and be persistent. So you need to learn to NOTICE those unhelpful emotions, and then make a conscious effort to shift your physiology, focus and inner dialogue - until you have a new habit and it become natural.

But there's another small catch - make sure the 'uncomfortable' feelings are not actually considered 'helpful' by a pesky part of you that hasn't got the memo There are many many people out there who get incredible benefits from feeling 'bad' - let's be honest. Being 'overwhelmed' can "help" you avoid having to do the annoying tax return just as being 'anxious' can very effectively get you off the hook for that presentation (and -- consequently -- the promotion, but you're not thinking that far, are you?).

In order to effectively reduce unhelpful emotions, you have to figure out what your 'secondary gains' (to use a bit of jargon here) are. How is feeling sad or tired or anxious serving you, at least in the short term?

Once you have that identified, you'll be able to either make a new decision (my promotion is actually more important than a bit of anxiety) OR you can find new ways to meet a very legitimate need: If you being 'down' is helping you connect with a bunch of your friends who are also 'down' most of the time - could there be a better strategy, maybe??

I admit this last part is getting into quite complex territory, but that's where working with a coach can help you by supporting you through those tough questions and really getting at the root of the evil.

In summary, it comes down to three very simple questions:

  1. What - exactly - am I feeling right now?

  2. What do I need to feel in order to be effective in this situation?

  3. How do I need to shift my physiology, focus and inner conversation in order to feel that way?

Would love to hear how you go!

This post is a content summary of my first "Next Level" session... however, it's NOT about the content (well - not exclusively). Next level sessions are about having a chance to meet new people over meaningful conversations while learning some new skills and tools to improve your every day in the 'good-good Quadrant'. Next level sessions are where we don't just LEARN this stuff, but EXPERIENCE and PRACTICE it. Information isn't power - ti's potential power. Unless you have given yourself the experience - how will you ever know this works?? And in case you missed it: Next level sessions are NOT recorded, and there's no replay - they are real life conversations, shared exercises and practices and subsequent celebrations with real human beings.. So be there or be square!

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