Understanding emotion matters
You may have heard it said that all emotions are valid. While this is true, it doesn’t mean that you’re well within your rights to throw a temper tantrum whenever you don’t get what you want. The validity of emotions stems from the fact that emotions provide useful information about our internal and external environments. When you feel an emotion, you need to pay close attention because that emotion is telling you something important.
While all emotions are valid, and all emotions are helpful because they provide you with important information, some emotions help you to perform better at your work. These high performance emotions are enthusiasm, confidence, tenacity, and optimism. High performance emotions increase our arousal levels while still maintaining a wide and open focus. For example, when you are at your most enthusiastic, it’s not uncommon for your thoughts to race. This indicates the high arousal and energy level involved in the high performance emotions. Keep in mind, however, that not every emotion with a high arousal level is helpful to performance. The other key factor that marks the high performance emotions is the wider focus and a sense of openness.
The swing emotions are called that because they can be either extremely useful in improving your situation, or they can actually help make a bad situation even worse. The swing element comes from how you choose to make use of these emotions. Swing emotions are there to tell us that something is not right in our environment. This can mean a whole range of things. The wrongness can reside in our thoughts about a situation or in the actual situation itself. The swing emotions are anger, frustration, and anxiety. They are similar to the high-performance emotions in that they involve high levels of arousal. When you are angry, anxious, or frustrated, your thoughts tend to race faster. A key difference between the high-performance emotions and the swing emotions, however, has to do with your focus. When you are angry or frustrated, your focus narrows and you become blind to other possibilities.
The key to making swing emotions work in your favor is to identify the feeling and attempt to lower your arousal levels and widen your focus. When you focus on your breath and your level of relaxation, you tend to open up more and slow down a little, and it’s in this state of being where you can truly make the swing emotions work for you. When you feel frustrated, this is a definite sign that something you are doing is not working. Because your focus is narrowed, you might even think that what you are doing is the only way to approach a problem. Here is a helpful phrase you can use to widen your focus and reframe an unsolvable problem into one with the possibility of resolution:
•The real problem is NOT ___________. The real problem is __________. This reframing of the problem allows you to open yourself up to a new range of possible solutions.
The third class of emotions is the blue emotions. Low arousal levels as well as a narrowed focus mark these emotions. Blue emotions include dejection, depression, and disappointment. When you feel these emotions, it’s a sign that you are low on energy and need to speed things up. This is why exercise is so often recommended for people suffering from chronic depression. Another way to address negative emotions is to widen your focus. Just like with the swing emotions, blue emotions often include distorted thinking styles. When you become mindful of these distorted thinking styles, you widen your focus. Calmness and mindfulness are examples of low arousal emotions with a wide and open focus, which are helpful for analysis and reflection.
Whenever you feel emotionally ill at ease, it is completely natural for your thinking to become distorted as well. During high arousal periods when our thoughts race, we can make both logical and intuitional leaps that may or may not hold up when further examined. When our focus narrows, we close ourselves off to possible information and circle over the same types of destructive thoughts repeatedly. Cognitive psychologists refer to these as automatic thinking, which falls into various patterns.
Dichotomous reasoning means that you think in terms of hyperbole, extremes, and black and white. When you focus in on your thoughts, take note of whether you use words such as always, never, everyone, nobody, the best, the worst, or in terms of either/or etc. Rarely is a messy room or space the “worst you have ever seen” and no matter how rough a day you may be having, this doesn’t mean that “everybody hates you.” When someone you know makes a mistake, this does not mean that they are “pure evil” either. Whenever you notice distorted thinking that involves dichotomous reasoning, try phrasing the thought in a complete sentence first. Automatic thoughts often come in the form of short hand words and phrases. The simple act of expanding these into complete sentences often reveals how absurd the thought really is.
Take a few deep breaths and ask yourself, is it really the ________ (the worst, everybody, etc.). If you’re being truly honest and open about the situation (i.e. mindful) chances are the answer is no. Try rephrasing the sentence to better reflect the reality of the situation. For example, “although it feels as if everyone is mad at me, in reality it is only (these specific people), and the reason why they are mad at me is…”
There is also magnification and minimization. Typically people who magnify or minimise situations tend to gravitate towards one type of distortion. Magnification occurs when you blow things out of proportion. It’s also often referred to as “making a mountain out of a molehill.” Here are a couple of examples:
•“If I don’t get that promotion, my life is over.” • “If that car gets into the lane before I do, I’m going to be late for work, and I’ll get fired.”
One particular form of magnification is called catastrophising. This occurs when you give added weight to the worst possible scenario. Catastrophising often includes an implied logical fallacy of the slippery slope, where one thing leads to another all the way to the worst possible disaster. Here’s an example:
•“If I ask that girl out and she doesn’t want to, and says no, she will make fun of me in front of everybody. I’ll become the biggest laughing stock and everyone will know that I’m an absolute loser.”
Of course, when you take into account the kind of short hand that goes along with automatic thinking, including magnification and catastrophising, this type of thought, when you encounter it, looks more like this:
•“If I ask that girl out … biggest laughing stock … total loser.”
This is what makes automatic thinking so insidious because between the ellipses, there’s a whole bunch of logical leaps that don’t actually follow logically.
If magnification is making a mountain out of a molehill, minimization is the exact opposite, making a molehill out of a mountain. Here are some examples:
•“It’s okay if I miss work today. Nobody will notice, and I have plenty of absences to play with.”
•“I know I cough a little bit from time to time, but it’s not so bad that I have to quit smoking.” (When the person has been coughing up phlegm and blood on a daily basis)
Filtering occurs when you only hear the negative someone tells you, when their statement is a mixture of negative and positive. Here’s an example:
•Your boss says: “I really enjoyed your presentation. You gave us a lot to think about. Some of it was pretty complicated. You also might want to shorten it, but I can tell you worked very hard on it, and I appreciate your dedication. You hear: “The presentation was too complicated and went on too long.”
Another form of filtering is called disqualification. This occurs when you automatically discount something positive someone says to you as either an impossible statement, one made from naiveté́, or one made for ulterior purposes. Here’s an example:
•Your supervisor says: “Excellent work today on that project.” You think to yourself, “She’s just saying that so she can butter me up to work overtime.”
A more balanced life is possible if we can get a handle on our emotions. Enthusiasm is the get-up-and-go emotion. When you find yourself procrastinating, you are lacking enthusiasm. Military leaders and coaches of athletic teams understand that when their groups are collectively more enthusiastic, they will perform better. Thus, those famous wartime or half-time speeches really do play an important role. Here are some suggestions you can take to increase your own level of enthusiasm:
•If you have been practicing the activities in this course so far (mindfulness meditation, keeping a gratitude journal) you are actually well on your way towards increasing your feelings of enthusiasm.
•Celebrate every success, even the small ones.
•Listen to upbeat music that makes you happy.
•Engage in regular physical exercise.
•Surround your workspace with things that inspire and motivate you.
•At least once a day, enjoy a good laugh. In order to do this, you need to collect jokes and try to find the humor in situations whenever you can. Sometimes a favorite show is a good opportunity to enjoy a deep belly laugh.
•Before you go to bed each night, write down on an index card three statements that will put you in a good mood, and place it on a nightstand or table so that you look at it when you wake up. This way you start out each day on a positive note.
If you have some other ideas you use to get yourself into a good mood, feel free to share them with me.
*Dr. Akindotun Merino is of the Africa Mental Health Alliance (AMHA) Jars Education Group
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