Press pause

Press pause

Monday, 04 March 2019

Emotional regulation or our ability to control strong emotions by not acting on raw feelings in an impulsive or destructive manner is a vital part of EQ – resulting in better decision-making outcomes. We discuss how to develop this inner resilience, and discover the powerful and creative space between reacting – and acting.


When faced with a situation that pushes all your buttons, how often have you said something or acted in a kneejerk way? Most of us will admit to it occasionally – meeting a situation with the fire of emotion before we have truly had a chance to think things through. Reacting may feel appropriate at the time, and even briefly empowering – but in retrospect we can often find that it did not in fact lead to the most productive outcome. And in some instances, it can be downright damaging to relationships, projects or your own credibility.


One of the key pillars of emotional intelligence – both at work and in wider life – is the ability to manage our emotions – particularly our negative ones. It’s imperative to look at the benefit of self-regulation for yourself and those around you, and the idea that rather than anger, fear or anxiety controlling you, you control them.


“Like an ongoing inner conversation, [self regulation] is the component that frees us from being prisoners of our feelings,” wrote Daniel Goleman, author of the 1990’s seminal book Emotional Intelligence: why it can matter more than IQ. And within that, the power to put a mindful space between a negative stimulus and a response is paramount to achieving this freedom.


The word to watch here is response – for while a reaction is instant; driven by the beliefs and prejudices of the unconscious mind, a response is a slower process. Responses are based on information from both the conscious and unconscious minds and take into consideration the long-term effects of what you do or say.


A reaction and a response can often look superficially alike, but they feel different – in a situation that challenges you know that you are reacting negatively if you are tense, contracted and defensive; responsive behaviour on the other hand always feels balanced, measured, with a feeling of calm and purpose throughout.


This is because reacting comes largely from your instinctual ‘reptilian brain’, explains Rick Hanson in his book Just One Thing: Developing a Buddha Brain One Simple Practice at a Time. This ‘fight or flight’ response in your limbic system can be activated by anything in the environment that causes you to feel threatened - from an undue amount of pressure at work to a coworker making a critical remark. In your brain’s natural resting state, where this instinctual response hasn’t been triggered, you feel safe and calm. This is the place where you are free to make conscious choices, without being buffeted by fear.


In short, you have a reaction – and you make a response.

For Hanson, the more reacting we do, the less empowered we are. However, the converse is true, he insists, and we can even train our brains to make it easier for us to stay out of highly reactive behaviour. “Each time you rest in your brain’s responsive mode it gets easier to come home to it again.  That’s because “neurons that fire together, wire together”: stimulating the neural substrates of calm, contentment, and caring strengthens them. This also makes it harder to be driven from home; it’s like lengthening the keel of your mental sailboat so that no matter how hard the winds of life blow, you stay upright, not capsized, and keep on heading towards the lighthouse of your dreams.”

It’s for this reason too that practices such as regular meditation and mindfulness can foster awareness and help to encourage and reinforce the responsive mode of your brain. “When we are aware, we can respond,” says meditation teacher, Maggie Richards. “We can begin to direct our lives and relationships in a positive direction rather than be dragged along by our fears. And all it takes is a decision, here and now, to stay with our experience as it is. For optimum results, start a home practice. Even 10 minutes of simply sitting still and seeking inner peace can begin to have a balancing effect on the rest of your day.”

Useful internal work can also include visualisation. “Think about the person you would like to be, especially in the areas in which you struggle. Take the time to develop a clear vision of this more ideal version of yourself,” suggests psychologist Dr Leslie Becker-Phelps.


For Becker-Phelps though, one of the most powerful tools can be to imagine a better outcome. “Think about better ways to respond. Imagine doing them and the consequences of this. Also imagine what it would feel like to respond more in keeping with what you want for yourself. If you have a problem with impatience, you might envision yourself responding calmly to a problem and then moving on to find your way to an effective solution.”


All of which can make it easier to be aware of the point of power between what happens to us and how we meet that stimulus every day – even when we find ourselves in a negative situation, such as being faced with a difficult email, a criticism or the reverberating reaction to a being passed over for a promotion or feeling angry with a colleague.


It is important to acknowledge that when something happens we are going to react physically regardless of how Zen we have made our mental garden. The trick is to not to let this define our interaction – to learn to put a beat between us and it (or them) and resist doing anything immediately.

The simplest thing to do in any immediate situation is to take a deep breath, something that will not only calm your heart rate but will also introduce a few seconds into the flow to allow you to turn your reaction into a response. Checking in with yourself and asking yourself a few questions - even just introducing them quickly into your consciousness – can also press pause. These can include: “do I feel as if I am about to overreact – do I know why? – why does this bother me so much? – what would be the best way to respond to this situation”. In a face-to-face encounter it can be useful to ask the person for additional information in order to take things to a more neutral place and allow you to delay your reaction. If you are about to leap to react by email/text, however, make a conscious decision to respond later when you are no longer feeling so instantly emotional about it.


Of course, there is a second step to the process, which is to make an impactful response after the space you have created that will be constructive and drive you forward. By taking time to step back and putting yourself in a calm state you can properly consider your options, any ramifications and what is going to be in your interest - and make the best choice possible from a position of pause power.


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