Malcolm Gladwell made popular the notion that with ten thousand hours of practice, we attain mastery. Emotional mastery, thankfully, doesn’t take that long. It’s more about creating daily habits and repetition over time than it is about layers of experience. And in truth, we don’t have to become zen like Buddhist monks. There is no need to aim for perfection. We are human after all and that means that we are emotional beings. Even with all the training and good intentions in the world, we are bound to have a strong reaction every once and again. As long as we stay mindful of what triggers us, how we react to certain events, and what we can take away from an experience to minimize our reaction the next time around, we are engaging in an emotionally intelligent way.
Once we become aware of our emotional state, we need to be able to ride the wave of our emotions. Knowing that emotions come and go can help us stay calm and just mindfully notice what is happening within us rather than becoming fearful or overwhelmed. The alternative is suppressing the emotion which is a form of avoidance. While avoidance, as a coping strategy, may distract us from an unpleasant experience in the moment, it is not a long-term solution. Emotions that are suppressed tend to get stored in the body and can result in physical pain, autoimmune diseases, and eventually rupture in emotional outbursts.
When we are present to our experiences and can notice what is happening within us without running away, we are ready for emotional regulation.
You may recall a time when you became very emotional and impulsively reacted to a situation. This is often the case when we are driving a vehicle. Someone cuts us off or does something that either triggers a thought that we are being disrespected or a fear of being unsafe, and we get angry and lash out.
Regulating our emotions is about creating a space between the external event and the response to it. In the road rage example, it might be as simple as taking a deep breath or reminding ourselves that the other driver’s behavior is not a personal attack against us. When we take steps in the moment to slow down our reaction time or challenge our automatic negative thoughts, we are gaining control of ourselves.
Bring to mind a past experience when you became overwhelmingly sad. What triggered you? How did you react? Now consider how you would prefer to behave if you were faced with a similar trigger again. What can help you behave in your preferred manner? Perhaps by asking a friend for a hug or calling a loved one to share your sorrow. Maybe by lying down and with your eyes closed and bringing to mind a serene place or a happy memory.
Planning ahead for how to deal with difficult situations that evoke strong emotional responses can be helpful. Consider how you would manage yourself for each of the various emotions you might encounter, especially sadness, fear, and anger.
One important thing to remember is that no one can make you feel anything. This fact has two implications: 1) Events happen around us constantly. It is our interpretations of those events that leads us to feeling the way we do. If our emotions emerge from a thought in our minds, by changing our unhelpful thoughts to more helpful ones, we can also alter our emotional state; 2) We may experience strong emotions when something goes wrong and other people are involved. It is vital that you take responsibility for your part rather than focus on shaming or blaming the other person. Instead, you can share with them how their behavior affects you and make a request of them to do things differently.
While it’s important to manage our interpretations, it is also just as crucial to manage our expectations. It is when we build up expectations in our minds about the outcomes we want that we can get highly disappointed. This can lead to sadness, anger, or fear. Keep in mind the goal you want to attain and stay focused on making headway, but remember that only certain aspects of the road ahead are in your control. The things you cannot control you need to accept, learn from, and continually adapt to your environment. This is especially important when things don’t go your way. Keep things in perspective and don’t allow one let down ruin your mood and spoil the entire day.
In order to gain mastery over any area, we need an investment of time and energy. What can get in the way of that is boredom or a desire to engage in a pleasurable activity. Imagine that you want to write a book. This requires thought, research in some cases, and many hours of writing and editing. While you have good intentions to sit down and write, you may become distracted by a television show that is on in the next room, or be tempted to go out with friends for fear of missing out on the fun. All this temptation causes procrastination and prevents you from making strides toward you goal. Mastery requires discipline and a delay of instant gratification.
What does this have to do with Emotional Intelligence? Well, our behaviors are a result of our emotional state. If the reason we are procrastinating or giving up on our goal is because we are bored with a repetitive task, we need to manage our boredom to stick with a task long enough to master it. Similarly, if we are blowing off our commitments to engage in fun, we need to manage our mindset, remembering the benefits we will reap in the long-run and setting up rewards along the way that tie into milestones. This keeps us moving ahead and will lead to a sense of purpose in our lives which will outlive any short-term benefit you could possibly attain in this moment alone.
It is not only when we’re bored that we seek stimulation and forego any long-term goals. Low frustration tolerance drives us to impulsivity in many situations. A common illustration of this is on the road when we become impatient with other drivers, red lights, or pedestrians that cause us to slow down. When we act out of this impulsive state, we increase the risk of being in an accident and hurting ourselves and others.
Being aware of how impatient you feel and then taking some deep breaths can help to get your rational brain back online just when your emotional brain is taking over. Infusing your frustrating moments with relaxation can sometimes mean the difference between life and death.
Managing emotions is much easier to do when we routinely take time to de-stress. This allows us to recover from daily events and prevent overwhelm. The challenge many people have with incorporating self-care strategies into their day or week is they believe there isn’t enough time. This is a design issue that is easily solved. Rather than focus on everything you have to do first and then try to find time for the things you want to do, start with the notion that self-care is mandatory. Structure these ten self-care practices into your week and then find a way to fit the rest of your world around those.
1. Sleep. Research has shown the implications of sleep on our mood, not to mention our motivation and ability to focus. Most people require eight hours on average. Know your body’s requirements and ensure that you get to bed on time rather than waste time in the evening mindlessly checking your social media accounts, email, or flipping through television stations.
2.Physical Activity. Many of our waking hours are spent sitting down either in transit, at our jobs, or in front of a screen after work. Our bodies start to hurt when we don’t move enough. Build in time each day to stretch and take walks. Several times per week find time to exercise your muscles, build up strength, and increase flexibility.
3. Nutrition. When we are busy, we sometimes forget to eat. This can mean that we fall out of a scheduled routine and eat later than usual or that we skip meals altogether and then notice a shortage in energy or a headache coming on. Alternatively, we might overeat, eat out of convenience, or eat to avoid feeling an unpleasant emotion. Food is our fuel and we need to make good choices, plan ahead for meal preparation, and use food appropriately as nourishment.
4. Water. In addition to minding our food intake, our bodies need plenty of water throughout the day. Many of the popular beverages we consume, particularly coffee, can be dehydrating. Even when we aren’t physically active or exposed to the blistering sun, we lose liquids sitting in air-conditioned environments. We also wake up dehydrated each morning after hours of sleep. That’s why it’s important to drink water first thing each day as well as throughout the day and minimize substitutions that contain caffeine, sugar, or other additives. Water helps with digestion and can keep us working at a more optimal level.
5. Meditation. Meditation is particularly important for emotional regulation as it slows down your reaction time. It is a time to sit quietly, train the mind to let go of worries, stressors, and plans, and be present. It is a time to tune into your body and notice any tensions or pains. It is a time to focus on breathing, relaxing, and just being without doing.
6. Media. It’s true that there are negative events happening around us and all over the world all the time. That is what the media focuses on the most. When we take in lots of media, we become influenced by what we hear and see. This can compound the stress we already feel from our daily responsibilities and life events, so limit your media intake and spend that time on more helpful self-care and relaxation habits.
7. Nature. Spending time in nature is a very grounding experience, which can help regulate anxiety and fear states. It is an opportunity to breathe fresh air, to reconnect to your roots, and to truly relax without the bustling noises of modern society. Exposure to sun rays has been noted as being vital to absorbing Vitamin D, without which we are more vulnerable to experiencing depression in the wintertime, yet another reason to be in the outdoors.
8. Journaling. A habit that produces a more positive mindset is gratitude journaling. Just ask yourself what in your life you are grateful for. The answers can be as simple as the sun shining, your partner’s smile that greeted you upon awakening, or even a good night’s sleep. Furthermore, researchers have found that 20 minutes of daily writing about positive emotions helps reduce stress and anxiety. By spending time writing about what’s going well, we can improve our mood and build resilience to face future challenges.
9. Breathing. Breathing is something we must do to survive, but our breathing tends to be very shallow. Spend time mindfully taking deep breaths throughout the day during times of meditation as well as times of stress. The breath allows energy to move throughout the body and regulate our emotions. The more mindful you are about what’s happening in your body, the more aware you will be of when you are holding your breath and have that serve as a reminder to release any tension.
10. Social Support. Because we are wired for connection, when we share our feelings tactfully with others, we are happier. Social support is considered not only a positive experience, but a coping strategy that helps us get through difficult times. The alternative is isolation which leads to depression and loneliness. Ask for help when you need it. Getting support from others will allow you to create a bond as well as achieve more of your goals.
Control and Expression
Emotional mastery is not just about self-control. It is also about self-expression. What we are aiming for here is getting our needs met. That’s why it’s critical that we understand ourselves and use that knowledge to be proactive in communicating to others what we are feeling.
In a 2018 study, researchers examined responses to an Emotional Intelligence test taken by 1324 people. The data distinguished between responders who were able to apply both self-control and self-expression and those who managed to control their emotions but were unable to talk about their experiences with others. The group that expressed their feelings experienced advantages to the other group in every category including self-awareness, comfort around others, and contentment. The group who refrained from sharing their feelings was not only less assertive, but tended to feel less confident, more awkward around others, and be less successful in accomplishing goals. This is possibly explained by the group’s greater need for social approval.
Consider why self-expression is such an important component of Emotional Intelligence. If you truly want others to like you and don’t share your authentic self with them as well as don’t empathize with their situation in a compassionate way, your relationships will suffer. Let’s take it one step further - your health will also suffer because you are not getting your needs met when you favor compliance over self-care.
Mastering our emotions is part of our arsenal for becoming effective. To begin this journey, we must first be aware of what we are feeling, allow ourselves to face those emotions, and extract lessons from them rather than revert solely to our minds. Behaviorally we focus on responding mindfully rather than reactively, a form of self-control. As emotional masters, we take responsibility for how we are feeling and manage both our interpretations and expectations.
Emotional mastery results from mindful habits of self-care, self-examination, and self-expression. It is when we know ourselves that we can communicate to others what we feel and ensure we get our needs met.