Your emotional state can make or break your day. If caught off-guard, an emotional turn for the worse can hijack conversations, adversely impact productivity and derail otherwise well-functioning relationships. There are, however, some simple strategies that can, at the very least, lessen the bang.
That’s why I bought a pity pig. Yes, that’s right: a pity pig. I realized that even as a coaching professional, generally standing with both legs firmly on the ground, there are moments when undesirable emotions creep up through my subconscious and into the world, interfering with my daily routine, actions, plans and mood.
For some people, these emotions are anger or fear or sadness. For me, it was a combination of pretended helplessness and self-pity. There would be moments in my personal and professional life during which everything became a bit too much and I started singing a song of “poor me” and “I can’t possibly do this – I need someone else to do it for me”. Whilst generally on the tone-deaf side of things, this was the one song I sang well, that I knew by heart and for which I seemingly had developed a chart-breaking melody. In short: it rocked so much – I started humming it all day.
Now, every decent leader will have come across one seminar on emotional intelligence or another. The key premise is to learn how to observe, identify and manage your own emotions and to do the same with others with the aim of producing effective, high-quality relationships. It sounds easy enough in theory, but can be shockingly difficult in practice. This is especially the case when a co-worker or loved one – intentionally or unintentionally – presses that little red hot button that guarantees a firework. Or, when you wake up in the morning and realize that yesterday’s inner sunshine and blue sky don’t seem so shiny and blue any longer; and instead have taken on a pale hue of “grey meh”, appropriately accompanied by an inner feeling of “whatever”.
These are the days and moments that strategies for emotions management come in handy, because – let’s face it – the day will still have twenty-four hours: whether you focus on the grey or the blue. This is not to say that a generalist Pollyanna-approach is the answer to all of our sorrows. No. Sometimes stuff happens and stuff can hurt or make you sad or make you feel angry. And these feelings are appropriate and legitimate in a lot of cases. But for how long? And driven by whom or what?
My personal realization of frequently occurring self-pity was a big “ouch” moment. However, the good thing about such an acknowledgment is that it’s the first step in developing intra-personal emotional intelligence – the ability to observe your own emotions as they arise and as they change. Yet, as someone so eloquently put it to me once, to know and not to do is not to know. So, obviously, the next step is to take action: actions that allow you to identify the triggers and – in my mind, even more importantly – actions that allow you to effectively manage the emotions as they arise.
Although identifying triggers is important, my hypothesis is that the actual management of unwanted emotions carries more weight simply because in some cases people know their triggers and then work really hard on avoiding situations that may trigger them. An example of this is someone who feels anxious when they have to speak publicly – so they avoid it, avoid it and avoid it a bit more until the anxiety either turns into something akin to a phobia or the avoidance strategy starts having negative effects on their professional well-being and progress. Both are not really desirable situations. It is for that reason that I personally prefer to put more emphasis on emotions management.
For me and my occasional self-pity, it’s the pity pig: innocently sitting on my bookshelf and living a relatively sedentary life. Yet, every now and then as self-pity arises, my pity pig comes off the shelf and I hug it for a while and tell it all the things I pity myself for and – once I am done and bored with self-pitying – the pig returns to its shelf. This strategy works for me since I allow myself to feel and embrace the emotion – on a timed basis – instead of fighting or suppressing it; or –even worse – beating myself up for feeling it in the first place.
Clearly, this particular strategy is not for everyone. In fact, as a male coaching buddy of mine pointed out quite aptly in a very deep and manly voice: “Can you imagine me hugging a soft toy?” Even the thought of it made me laugh. No, I couldn’t. But there are other strategies. For example, another friend of mine sometimes wrestles with feelings of regret. So he makes it a point to regularly go to Manly Beach. There he enjoys a day by the ocean, contemplates his regrets in the early evening and as the sun starts setting down, he finds a quiet place and visualizes his regrets going down with the sun. What a beautiful image and strategy! Even better: it works for him.
We all have different strategies for working with our emotions – the key is to find an effective one so that emotions don’t turn into loose cannons that spoil your whole day, week, month or year. And whilst everyone is unique, here are some general ideas to consider including in your own strategy development.
Acknowledge and embrace it
What you resist persists. So, instead of fighting or ignoring emotions, a good first step is to not only acknowledge the feeling that you’re feeling but also to give yourself permission to feel it. Beating yourself up will only end up feeling bad about feeling bad. How unproductive! It’s quite alright to feel bad from time to time – you’re human after all.
An often given piece when trying to break bad habits is to interrupt the habit. Take the example of someone who has a persistent thought of “not being good enough”. The advice is to put an elastic band around their wrist and flick it (pain!) every time that the thought arises.
Similarly, in the case of negative or unwanted emotions, it is a good idea to interrupt the emotions and corresponding thought patterns by changing activity and location. For instance, if you find yourself feeling sad and sitting on your sofa moping, then go out for a walk. Although it’ll take a lot of energy to actually get up and move, it is likely to have a positive effect since it will interrupt the “sadness-loop” you’re in.
For the same reason, a squeaky pity-pig probably would be an even more effective strategy for the self-pity I experienced, since the squeaking would interrupt my thoughts on an auditory level.
Once, I complained about my work and shared my feelings with a friend. His response was: “Is this the most empowering story you can tell yourself about this situation?” Whoa! What a powerful question. I hadn’t even contemplated that there might be other interpretations.
Often we are so stuck in our own ways and in the ways we interpret a certain situation, that we forget that there are multiple viewpoints and that just because we see a situation a particular way it neither means that this is the right or only way. So ask yourself, what are other ways on how you could interpret the situation? What would another person think about it? How are you likely to feel about it in ten years’ time? Are there any positive aspects that come with this situation?
Emptying out can be cathartic. Along the lines of “better out than in”, sometimes a good empty out can solve a lot of things. Personally, I prefer a written empty out – simply because it allows me to clear my head before talking to someone else. If, however, you prefer to empty out to another person, then I recommend you consider a couple of points: firstly, ask the other person for permission instead of simply overwhelming them with a tirade of all the reasons why your world sucks right now.
Another recommendation is to put a time frame, such as fifteen minutes, on it. Not only does it keep the empty-out focused but it also allows you to turn your conversation to other topics afterwards. This is important because you want to ensure that – if you empty out to a friend, for instance – there is balance in the relationship so that you don’t end up being known as that friend who only ever calls when they want to whine or have problems. In that case, you’d be better off talking to a counsellor or coach instead of risking a friendship.
Personally, I also take care when selecting to whom I talk since some people take a well-meant and well-needed empty out as an invitation to jump on the bandwagon; often leading to a “my world is worse than yours” contest and ultimately to even more negative emotions on both sides. After all, you want to feel better after the empty-out, not worse.
Become a healthier painter and narrator
In some instances, your internal imagery and internal dialogue can be major contributors to a slippery slope of negative feelings. If we take the aforementioned situation of public speaking anxiety, for example, we find that a lot of people paint pictures of failure in their mind: in their imagination, they blank, the audience laughs at them or they come up with other worst-case scenarios, often accompanied by negative self-talk along the lines of “Why am I even bothering? I don’t know enough anyhow. People will think I’m a loser.”
In those situations, it is important to gradually change that imagery and self-talk to a more supportive and encouraging one. There are several strategies for doing so, one of them is the above challenge of: “Is this the most empowering story you can tell yourself about this situation?”
Develop a ritual
Akin to my pity pig or my friend’s trip to Manly, a ritual can put certain conditions around dealing with arising negative emotions: location, time, things, or activities. The process is very similar to developing a habit. If you do it often enough, your brain gets the hint.
The truth is that different things work for different people – and you need to find what works for you: it might be one particular thing or a combination of many. It might be one thing for one emotion, and another for another. The key is to develop strategies that allow you to be in charge of your emotions instead of your emotions being in charge of you. Of course, there are always situations, such as grief due to the loss of a loved one, in which even the best strategy fails and professional help is warranted (which, if you think about it, is also a strategy).
Just remember though that it is always better to be proactive about your emotional and mental well-being instead of passively riding an unpredictable emotional roller coaster. Most people take pride in and a proactive approach towards their physical appearance and health and it’s more than high-time to do the same with your emotions.