“Knowing others is intelligence; knowing yourself is true wisdom. Mastering others is strength; mastering yourself is true power.” - Lao Tzu
The area of self-competence, according to the field of Emotional Intelligence, is comprised of self-awareness and self-management. We learn about ourselves through self-reflection and mindfulness. Through this knowledge we can direct our energies to gain control over our reactions and thereby accomplish more and feel better about ourselves. In honing our self-competency skills, we gain true wisdom and power.
Awareness is always the first step to creating change. We have to be aware of an aspect of our lives with which we are unhappy, draw motivation to change it, and then exert effort consistently over time to see results.
But being aware is not sufficient. As the Buddhist proverb says, “To know and not to do is not to know.” We must take the knowledge we’ve gained and use it for self-mastery.
We’ve all had instances where we got swept away by a strong emotion. Life can be stressful and even overwhelming at times and it’s easy to succumb to such experiences by crumbling or letting the feelings build inside us until we explode. What’s difficult is to manage our emotions the way a tightrope walker maintains their balance. These artists must perfect their craft to surpass focusing simply on biomechanics. They must be present in mind and emotionally calm.
To truly master your emotions, you must first understand them. Here are six of the most common feelings we experience regularly:
Our survival instinct kicks into gear when we believe we are threatened. Our body produces adrenaline and goes into what is known as a Fight or Flight response. What this means is that we become energized in the face of danger to either fight off the threat or flee for our lives.
While this response is appropriate and vital when we are truly in harm’s way, the majority of our fear lives in our mind, not in any physical reality. Our brain simply hasn’t adapted from the time we were cave dwellers to know the difference.
Stress, it is said, is an experience we have based on our interpretation of events happening to us. A testament to this is that when an event takes place, each person’s reaction to that same event is different. That is because we each view that event through our personal lens which has been shaped by our early life experiences.
So the next time you notice your heart fluttering, your head swimming with worried thoughts of what’s to come, and your breathing shallow, remind yourself that you are safe. Gaining perspective on the situation can help calm you down so you can focus on problem-solving.
We often feel angry when faced with an injustice such as when someone falsely accuses us of an act we didn’t commit or when we feel disrespected by others. When anger sets in, you might notice your temperature rising. Anger creates heat inside of us and if we don’t manage our anger properly, it will reach its boiling point and we will likely explode.
Rather than think of yourself as a pressure cooker, someone who lets resentment build and build over time, it is best to notice when you begin to feel upset and take charge of the situation.
One way to do this is by paying attention to your language.
Dan Siegel, an American Psychiatrist, coined the term “Name it to tame it.” What he is referring to here is that by naming your emotion, you can begin to gain mastery over it. The other piece to consider is what to call your emotional experience. The greater your vocabulary of emotional terms, the easier it will be to intervene.
Let’s say your manager promised to meet with you each Friday at noon to go over your weekly progress and discuss upcoming projects. Somehow, as you get to the end of the week, you notice that your manager’s schedule is completely booked. He bumps your meeting off until next week. The following week, he’s 20 minutes late. The week after that, he tells you he has to leave early. You value these meetings as they are part of your plan for getting a promotion. If you can’t have face-to-face time with your manager, you’ll likely stay stuck in your current position.
After the first occurrence of neglect, you feel frustrated but try to stay optimistic and maybe even understanding of your manager’s busy schedule. The next time he brushes you off, you feel annoyed. By the third week, you’re furious.
By naming your emotions, you can see where on the spectrum you are. By using different terms such as “frustrated,” “annoyed,” and “furious,” you stay aware of the intensity of your emotions.
The more an injustice takes place over time, the more we go from irritated to irate. The danger is that when we are emotionally escalated, our rational brain goes offline. It becomes harder and harder to control our behaviors and we are more prone to overreacting, to saying or doing something we will likely regret. Instead, we need to intervene sooner by asserting ourselves as in firmly reminding our manager how important we find these weekly meetings and checking in to see what's getting in the way.
Anger, as it turns out, is a secondary emotion. While it’s true that we are angered when someone crosses our personal boundary, underneath that anger is typically another feeling. In some instances, anger is an externalization of our sadness. By getting angry, we become energized to make a change rather than getting deflated and being immobilized. Alternatively, anger can also be a mask for fear. As in the example above, not meeting with your manager may be infuriating if you are afraid of staying stuck in your position when what you desire is a vertical career move.
By understanding what you are feeling and how deeply you are feeling it, you can take proactive steps to recover.
We experience grief whenever there is a loss in our lives. This includes a loss of a loved one, a job, a geographical move, or even a disappointment when our expectations are not met. Sadness forces us to slow down physically and mentally. We tend to become sluggish and have a hard time focusing our minds. It’s important to take time to grieve as a way to release these feelings. One way we do that is through our tears. They shed the pent up anguish we feel inside and cleanse us from the inside out.
Children have a much easier time releasing their sadness than do adults. They are not inhibited by any stigma. When they experience a loss, they easily cry about it. But as we age, we learn that crying is not socially accepted. In a work setting it is often considered unprofessional. In many cultures, crying is seen as a sign of weakness, a belief that contributes to the stigma around emotional expression.
There is a fine line between expressing our feelings in a healthy way and being out of control. When we push our feelings down, we become numb. The tricky thing about this phenomenon is that when we numb our feelings in one realm, we become numb in other realms as well. So when you don’t allow yourself to feel the sadness, for example, you will also become numb to joy.
The key is to find healthy outlets for our feelings and to express ourselves assertively so we get our needs met. This allows us to stay emotionally balanced.
Our moral code is something we develop as a result of family and cultural norms. We are taught right from wrong and then add our own interpretations of what we should and should not do.
It is when we believe we have crossed our moral line in the sand that we feel guilty. The purpose of this emotion is to remind us of our rule and keep us in line.
There are two optimal ways to handle guilt. The first is to learn from your mistake and ensure you don’t step out of line again. It might include repenting for your action as in asking for forgiveness. It is righting your wrong. The alternative to this is asking yourself a simple question, “does this rule still work for me?” It may be that you decided on a rule for yourself quite a while back when circumstances were different. Rather than sticking to an outdated rule, this is an opportunity for revision.
Once you take action by either learning from your immoral action or changing your moral code, you can release the guilt. It has served its purpose.
Of all the emotions we experience, it is said that shame is the only one that does not help us in any way. Unlike guilt, where we believe we have done something wrong, shame is a belief that there is something wrong with us.
It is easy to see why we feel shame. Growing up, we may have heard adults tell us “you should be ashamed of yourself.” Shame is other people’s way of controlling us and when we hear it enough from others, we internalize it. We start to believe that there is something wrong with us, that we are not enough.
From my years of professional experience I have found that many of the problems we face internally boil down to a feeling of inadequacy that can be traced back to shame. We often lack confidence, experience imposture syndrome, and fear failure as a result of internalized shame.
When you recognize shame in yourself, ask yourself whether it is related to an immoral behavior - in which case you can substitute guilt - or to a belief that there is something fundamentally wrong with you. If the latter rings true, investigate the origin of this belief and any evidence for it. Then consider the aspects of your character that are positive. If you were to ask your loved ones why they care so much about you, what would they say? We are often so harsh on ourselves that we omit evidence that is contrary to our beliefs even though it is staring us straight in the face. To achieve a balanced perspective, you must take both sides into consideration.
The underlying goal we all have in common is the desire to experience joy. I often ask my clients what they want most in life. While for some people it is obvious that they want to be happy, many others focus on achievement or material possessions. The quest is to dig deeper and ask why you want what you want. When you dig enough, what typically surfaces is the desire to feel joy. There is nothing beyond it in the line of questioning. It is our biggest wish.
One of the emotions that gets in the way of joy is guilt. When we believe that we don’t deserve to experience joy, we block ourselves from pleasure. Some people have a tendency to put others’ needs ahead of their own and will sacrifice their own happiness as a way to feel important. It is true that having a sense of purpose is vital but it doesn’t have to be at the expense of joy. Ideally, we can find a way to experience joy and attain a sense of purpose. It is not impossible. It is a state of mind.
To engage in the world in an Emotionally Intelligent way, we begin with ourselves. We pay close attention so we can know ourselves and then make use of that knowledge to manage our emotions.
Self-management is a skill that requires us to examine our beliefs and challenge our perspectives. By understanding the purpose of each emotion and by expanding our emotional vocabulary, we can more accurately name what we are feeling. This practice helps us decrease the emotional intensity we feel. With the knowledge of what we are feeling and how deeply we are feeling it, we can take proactive steps to recover.
An important element that helps us manage our emotional states is assertive communication. It allows us a tool with which to make others aware of our needs and helps us get them met.
We must look for healthy outlets for our feelings, examine our moral code when guilt gets triggered, focus on what we can control, and remember that ultimately we want purpose and a sense of joy.