For a long time people have been unsure about handling their emotionality, their emotional reactivity to a stimulus. Amazingly little explicit training is available for this complicated task.
Some of the lessons about emotions we acquire in life seem contradictory. People are taught to trust their feelings and to follow their heart, and yet are also taught to control themselves and bite the bullet, and not be such an emotional drama queen (or king).
Learning Emotional Skills
Too many people without any training in dealing effectively with emotional skills simply bounce along (sometimes painfully) through life. Lacking the skills for dealing with the emotional storms of life, and lacking sufficient support from others, some people end up believing that controlling their emotions is the best and perhaps only solution.
We were all taught in this scientific age to be reasonable and restrained, both in public and at work. In some cases that message ends up causing people to neglect and lose touch with their inner experiences and their feelings. Here are some ways in which certain people handle emotions.
The problem solvers
Some people become annoying problem-solvers, obsessively thinking everything through and trying to rationally fix everything for everyone, including themselves.
The spontaneous types
And other types of people embrace spontaneity, following wherever their feelings tell them to go without consideration of the outcome. Those are the types of people who praise the virtues of a passionate life, intuition, spirituality, and sometimes even mysticism.
Yet other people learn that they can’t trust people with their shared emotions and eventually mistrust even their own emotional signals. This type often ends up trying not to have emotions at all. After all, why focus on or experience feelings that others can’t tolerate or soothe and that are too painful to bear alone?
The Two Selves
Don’t forget the thing that makes being human so complex, in essence, is that we have two “selves” that don’t necessarily get along. One of our “selves” drives our rational stream of consciousness, where people are more thoughtful and deliberate, evaluating the events of the week, planning for the day, and/or even for an anticipated future. This monotonous monitoring becomes a non-stop internal critic that represents all negative beliefs, harsh criticisms, and under-assimilated values absorbed from others in your life.
The “should” and “oughts” sit on your shoulder, telling you how to act, that manipulate your emotions, propelling you to conformity, give rise to your feelings of inadequacy and discomfort. On the other hand, managed correctly, they are also the center of your integrated ideals and values, reflecting your healthy adjusted standards and goals.
The other self is a bit more unpredictable. It comes from an experiential, sensory stream of consciousness that is deeply more impulsive and at the same time, more delicate, sensitive and in some important ways, sensible. Emotions represent our evaluations and goals and many are prosocial, i.e., voluntarily intended to benefit another.
The Conscious and the Unconscious
As far back as the 1730s, human morality has been seen as derived from an immediate sense of feeling, especially a feeling the suffering of others. Feelings such as compassion, sympathy, benevolence, gratitude, injustice come not from reason but rather from feelings for others. Don’t be confused, it is not that one “voice” is conscious and the other unconscious, as some Victorian psychotherapists thought. Both are available to your consciousness. One communicates in words and the other through the sensory motor channels of your body. This contrast is often seen in dance or drama; you know, the types where the actors speak with each other in words while their alter egos dance out the other stream of consciousness in agony, or joy, or conveying subtleties of emotions between those extremes.
I don’t think that the solution to our emotionality lies in favoring one stream of consciousness over the other but in integrating the two inside yourself. Allowing emotional experience, focusing on it, and reflecting on it does this the best. When you do that, you are processing an ongoing interaction within yourself, constantly making sense of experiences moment by moment. What we make of our experiences makes us who we are.
Coping with Emotions
In my coaching and study, I have come to realize that emotion moves us, and reason guides us and coaching can profitably be viewed as an education in dealing with those emotions in a mentally healthy person. In my years of coaching individuals, couples, and business people, the most striking observation that I have made is that as a coach, I’m always teaching people and how to cope with their emotions more effectively.
When I began coaching with individuals and business people, and later with couples and families I saw that everybody was struggling with how to deal effectively first with their own emotions and then with the emotions of other people around them. I have seen how much emotion influences people’s views of themselves and others in their personal behaviors. I’ve also seen—and I’m not alone in this observation—the lasting change that can occur by moving from an intellectual understanding of yourself to an emotional understanding of yourself. In coaching work you can rapidly promote change by utilizing those emotions.
Learn Which Emotions to Follow
You can make giant leaps forward in your life when you learn which emotions to trust and to follow, which to bypass to get to something deeper, and which to regulate or change, and then do it. When you learn to identify emotions, differentiate what you feel from what others feel, tolerate emotions, synthesize contradictory emotions, use emotions as information, articulate feelings into words, use emotions to facilitate thinking, developing emotional knowledge, and reflecting on emotions, you’re well along the way to completing the tasks of adult emotional development. Now don’t get me wrong; this development has been going on since childhood and will continue to your last breath. What I’m suggesting is the advancement of working with both emotion and cognition, as well as with both selves and the system.
Almost every form of coaching I have seen involves teaching people about awareness, tolerance, and regulation of their emotions. For clients, becoming more aware of their feelings is a first step in the process. Seeing their own patterns of emotional response helps them gain perspective and the beginning of controlling their own emotional reactions. For all of us, changing our understanding helps regulate our feelings. Learning to reframe problems in a more positive manner, or focusing on solutions rather than problems is another great help. Facing fears in little steps helps people tolerate their emotions. Learning these things occurs in subtle and not-so-subtle ways; in direct coach-educative ways and in indirect, strategic ways.
To develop emotional wisdom, people need to be aware of their emotions, to make sense of their emotions, to regulate their emotions, and to change their emotions with emotion. Above all, emotional wisdom involves knowing when to be changed by emotion and when to change the emotion itself.
These skills are the most important ones to master so that you benefit from your intuitive sense and the passion that emotions can bring to your life.