If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself, but to your estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment. Marcus Aurelius
Conflicts, failures and losses at times seem to conspire to ruin us. Yet, as Marcus Aurelius observed nearly two millennia ago, we humans have an extraordinary capacity to regulate the emotions occasioned by such travails. Importantly, these regulatory efforts largely determine the impact such difficulties will have on our mental and physical well-being in addition to our relationships. Many forms of psychopathology revolve around failures to adaptively regulate and master emotional responses, with consequences ranging from personal distress to socially maladaptive and self-destructive behaviours.
Lessons from a True Story
I thundered down the executive suite corridor in the LeisureNet Office. Heading towards the offices of my CEOs to whom I reported, I was buzzing with emotions. That buzzing felt unpleasant; imagine a bull with a fly in it’s ear. Anger, disappointment, frustration, all of which cascaded into me feeling vulnerable and physically unwell. I’d been instructed to begin the transfer of a tranche of hundreds of millions offshore into a bank account held in Jersey. This was irregular and against the legal caveat LeisureNet held with the South African Exchange Control agency. My intention was to speak up and confront the CEOs to tell them they would be breaking the law if I processed their instructions and to state my unwillingness to comply. However, without the ability and skill to engage in Courageous Conversations I surrendered my emotional regulation to that fly getting louder and more insistent in my ear.
I wanted to have a conversation because I cared about the organisation, I cared about the CEOs and I cared about myself. It all mattered. But because I didn’t know how to master and express my feelings in a skilled way, I didn’t ‘have’ my emotions. Instead, my emotions ‘had’ me. Instead of listening to my shrill rhetoric, the CEOs effectively shut me down, reminding me of their power and my vulnerability. And as some of you know, this triggered my own hazardous journey towards blowing the whistle on ‘South Africa’s Enron’.
Feelings and how we attempt to avoid them
Most of us experience unpleasant feelings through our bodily sensations. Think about the heat and the rushing of blood to the face for embarrassment (menopausal hot flushing aside!) or that sinking feeling at your chest level for sadness or disappointment. People describe butterflies for anxiety or a tightening up or jaw clenching with anger. It’s not that most of us don’t want to feel or don’t want to feel a full range of what we can feel. I think we do. What we don’t want to experience is the bodily sensation that helps us know what we feel. Our feelings, although functional and evolutionary are based on increasing our chances of survival and need to be regulated in a way that supports psychological health and well-being or to help achieve our goals.
Let’s understand what our body’s stress response is really for in order to re frame it from a pathology that we’re supposed to run from and control at all costs, to something that we can think about developing tools for.
Current research suggests that emotions are valenced responses to external stimuli and/or internal mental thought processes that
(i) involve changes across experiential, behavioural, peripheral and physiological response systems,
(ii) are distinct from moods in that they often have identifiable objects or triggers,
(iii) can either be learned responses to stimuli with acquired emotional value (e.g. a conditioned response or stimulus–reward association) or unlearned responses to stimuli with intrinsic properties (e.g. an unconditioned response to an aversive shock),
(iv) can involve multiple types of appraisal processes that assess the significance of stimuli to current goals,
(v) depend upon different neural systems
Of course, emotions don’t need to be regulated or modified all the time but only when they interfere with desired behaviours or goals. Emotional regulation is not aimed at eliminating emotions from our lives, but rather at using them in a flexible manner,intelligently or understanding them and controlling their influence.
Top Down or Bottom Up?
We don’t talk about feelings coming down. We talked about feelings coming up, right? Anybody that starts to think negative thoughts is actually doing what they call a top down process. So you’re thinking and then you’re activating the experience in your body. This may be because a previous experience you had is already there, triggering negative automatic thoughts. In reality, Dr Joan Rosenberg suggests that we have 35% of our feelings arising from our thoughts (top down) and 65% bottom up, feelings translating into negative body responses.
Research by Gross, 2002; Ochsner and Gross, 2008, 2014 indicates that there are five categories related to the dynamics of our emotional processes in which regulation may or may not occur. The first four categories are classified as antecedent-focused because they’re employed before an emotional response. The fifth category is response-focused as it’s used after the emotional response has already been activated. The antecedent-focused strategies, which we provide Courageous Conversation training for, are found to be more effective as they change the emotion itself, and it requires more conscious energy and mastery to change an emotional reaction after the emotion has already been experienced.
Run, Distract, Avoid
In hindsight, recalling my thunderous march down to my CEOs offices, I recognise now that I was trying to avoid anxiety, I was trying to avoid disappointment, that I didn’t want to be vulnerable and I didn’t want to have to face whatever it was that I needed to face, that I didn’t want to face the CEOs or have to recognise myself in a different way.
Kicking feelings out of a problem and into the margins is one way we cope with the dilemma of whether to raise something or avoid it. The potential costs involved in sharing feelings makes raising them feel like too big a gamble. When we lay our feelings on the table, we run the risk of hurting others and of ruining relationships. We also put ourselves in a position to get hurt. What if the other person doesn’t take our feelings seriously or responds by telling us something we don’t want to hear that rattles the image we hold of ourselves? By sticking to the “business at hand,” we appear to reduce these risks. The problem is, that when feelings are at the heart of what’s going on, they are the business at hand and ignoring them is nearly impossible.
Watch this funny 1 minute video to see actor Will Smith struggling to bring his Courageous Conversation client back from complete distraction. From the movie Hitch