Managing Emotions and Why it Matters
By Claudia Boers
How the world shows up for us and the possibilities we see (or don’t see) for ourselves is heavily determined by our emotional state. When we experience emotional shifts, different worlds appear for us. French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre wrote that emotions are the source of "magical transformations of the world". The good news is that with awareness and practice, we can learn to not only recognize our emotions, but also, if they’re not working for us, shift into emotional states that can help us shape the future we want.
Stop being so emotional
Many of us have been conditioned to think that we can compartmentalize emotions from other aspects of daily living. As a result, we imagine that we can leave our emotions at home when we go to work, or "Stop being so emotional!", or study and learn in a purely rational way, with just our heads. The reality is that we are all in some sort of emotional state every waking minute of every single day. Whether it’s sadness or fear, anger or peace, calm or curiosity, we’re feeling something, even if we don’t notice it.
Emotions are biochemical processes
In the 2000s a scientist called Candace Pert played a significant role in identifying that emotions are electrochemical signals that carry emotional messages throughout the body. These signals, a mixture of peptides, have far reaching effects. This discovery confirmed that emotions are not the abstract, airy-fairy things that we once thought they were, but concrete, physiological processes that have an effect on our bodies, as well as our thinking and our behaviours.
So why does this matter?
When we shift from one emotional space to another, we become different, which is commonly reflected in our perception and behaviour. Contrary to their reputation as messy, unpredictable things, emotions are, in fact, very predictable in how they predispose us to think and behave.
The structure of emotions
One way of looking at it, is that an emotion has a particular structure. The components of the structure are the following:
Impulse – how the emotion typically predisposes us to behave.
Story – it gives us information about our perceived situation and has an underlying narrative.
Physical response – from breathing to posture to musculature to internal sensations e.g. your throat tightening or a feeling of hot lava churning in your chest, these can vary from person-to-person, but many are commonly recognizable and distinctive to particular emotions.
Here are some examples of the structure of a few different emotions (shared with permission from Newfield Institute):
Common Physical responses
To get even or punish.
I've been treated unfairly. I don't deserve this. Someone is going to pay
Tense, clenched hands and jaw, frowning.
To hide or withdraw.
The world is threatening. I'll be harmed. I won't cope.
Making ourselves smaller, tense, shallow breathing.
To not see any possibility and as a result, do nothing.
Why bother? What's the point? Nothing will make a difference.
Sagging, slumped, sighing breath.
To try something out, experiment, explore.
Let's see what happens. This will be interesting.
Open posture, sense of ease, not self-conscious but focussed on external world.
To take action, to look for possibility.
I will find a way. I'll play a part in change occurring. Something is possible
Strong legs, upright posture, sense of energy and mobility.
An emotion is a stance in the world
While we cannot control other people and many of our circumstances, we can control our emotional state or the stance we take in any given situation. Crucially, the stance we take has an impact on what sort of future we bring into being. While difficult emotions can be helpful in telling us something important - acting as catalysts for change - acting from them is generally not productive. For this reason, it makes sense to wisely choose the emotions we act from. This might sound like common sense, but all too often we act on the impulses of our reactive emotions and, in doing so, sabotage the very things that matter to us. By giving ourselves a little space to reflect and then, if appropriate, cultivate a more helpful emotion, we are more likely to enable the sort of outcome we want.
We can choose our emotions
Eleanor Roosevelt captured this idea beautifully when she said, “Nobody can make you feel inferior without your consent”. You could swap inferior with any emotion in that statement. And it’s true. Nobody can make you feel anything. This is because an emotional response is an interpretation of events based on our own perception. It’s you alone who decides how you are going to feel. As I mentioned at the start, with awareness and practice, we can learn to not only recognize our emotions, but also, if they’re not working for us, shift them into ones that can help us shape the sort of future we want to create.
As ongoing learners with relation to our emotions, we would ask ourselves:
What am I feeling?
How is it I am feeling this way?
How does this emotion influence the way I see things?
How does this emotion incline me to act?
Does this serve the future or outcome I want?
If not, what emotion will serve me better?
Emotions contain valuable data
Before deciding to shift into a more helpful emotional state, it’s important to remember that there’s wisdom in our emotions. They serve a purpose, taking care of some aspect of life and presenting for a reason. Because of this, we don’t want to simply ignore or bounce out of our challenging emotions outright, but nor do we want to be at their mercy. Rather, the goal is to be able to consider them objectively, thereby putting ourselves in the best position possible to take care of whatever it is they’re telling us.
Cultivating an emotion
Assuming we aren’t suffering from a disabling mental health disorder, shifting our emotions is possible, even though it’s not always easy. In fact, each of us knows better than anyone else how to shift our own emotional states. Some examples of things that enable emotional manoeuvres are:
Listening to music that moves you
Going for a walk
Pausing to intentionally look at the world around you - the horizon, the sky, the space behind you
Taking a bubble bath
Can you think of your own to add to the list?
Food for thought
If you’d like to start practicing, why not try the following exercise? Think about an issue or a challenge you’re currently facing in your life right now, one that you’d like to make progress on. It can be helpful to write it down, describing it for yourself. Now consider the following questions:
What emotion are you experiencing around this issue?
Is your emotion helping or hindering you?
How would this issue change for you if your emotional state changed into this more helpful one?
What emotion might be more helpful?
What steps do you want to take to ensure that you are able to cultivate a more helpful emotion in relation to your issue?
What might you do to shift into the more helpful emotion you identified in relation to this breakdown?
How might this and other manoeuvres be applied in other areas of your life?
Our emotions may feel overwhelming at times, but with patience and practice, we can learn to engage with them in a curious way. By learning to see them more objectively, we give ourselves the space to consider how they’re helping us and whether we want to continue acting from a particular state. If not, we can consciously cultivate a different, more helpful emotion. In doing this we are effectively adopting a different attitude in the face of what’s happening around us. Remember, while we can’t control or change most of what’s happening to us, the attitude we adopt and act from does have an impact on the sort of future we create for ourselves.
The ideas offered in this article are an expression of my perspective based on what I’ve learned as a life and leadership coach. I offer them in the hope that they might be useful. Please use them at your discretion.
I’m an ontological life and leadership coach who helps people learn how to become their own best resource. If you'd like to have a conversation and find out more about developing new perspectives, please take a look at my website: www.claudiaboerscoaching.com