I’ve been writing a lot about being in the midst of a sea of change lately. It is quite an interesting experience to have a number of significant aspects of one’s life feel like they are unfamiliar at the same time. In a way it is exciting and stimulating, perhaps with a sense of adventure attached to the experience. In other ways, it feels unsettling, a bit like being dropped in the middle of a thick forest without a compass.
The forest metaphor feels apt to me. When we are in the woods, there can be lots of background sounds and chatter. Some of the sounds are pleasing, like the chirping of the birds and the trickle of a brook. Others may sound more ominous and raise our defences, perhaps a snap of the underbrush as some creature moves, or the call of an unfamiliar animal .
Our minds can be a lot like that. Any significant amount of change can be quite stressful and as a result can dramatically increase the level of inner chatter on the edges of our subconscious where our emotions live. Some of this is pleasant and some of it is more distressing. It is at these times that we can benefit from some advanced listening skills – the ability to listen to ourselves and ultimately coach ourselves to a place of balance within the forces of change.
Here are five things to listen for and some techniques for putting them in perspective.
- Disruptive Emotions – as we move through our day we are constantly evaluating our surroundings and when something unfamiliar appears we react to it. Often these unfamiliar experiences can be interpreted as threats, and thus our more disruptive emotions such as fear, anger and anxiety can come into play via these reactions. We often don’t stop and listen to what is going on for us when we react but if we can develop the habit of feeling our need to react and then pausing to see what is behind it, we will learn a lot. Each emotion we possess is the result of human evolution, and thus they serve a purpose although that purpose was formed in a much older era where threat conditions were much different. If we know that purpose, we can see if the conditions that warrant that emotion actually exist. The purpose of a healthy level of fear is to ensure we protect ourselves. The purpose of anger is to set appropriate boundaries. The purpose of anxiety is to make sure we think things through.Here’s a process for using this information to manage disruptive emotions.
- First, learn to sense the way emotions feel to you physically. We can pick up physical manifestations of emotions faster than we can the mental ones. For example, fear may manifest as a sense of blood draining from our head.
- When we have identified a feeling, we then want to stop and bring that emotion to mind. So if our body warned us of fear we can ask ourselves what it is we are afraid of. For example, we may note that we are in a new role that we don’t know and we are afraid of failing at it.
- Look if there is something behind the initial feeling. Sometimes what we initially feel is genuine and if that is the case then we have nothing more to do. But often, there is a second emotion lurking behind the first and it is that second emotion that is really driving the bus. In our example, this fear of failure may have spawned from anxiety that we “don’t know what we don’t know” and we are anxious to know what it is we need to do. If we were to deal with fear, we would naturally evoke a fight/flight/freeze response whereas the real emotion of anxiety might ask us to become analytical.
- Once we have brought the culprit emotion from our subconscious mind into our conscious mind, we can use our amazing human intellect to process it. We can assess whether that emotion is acting on us appropriately or if perhaps it is overreacting to conditions around us, filling in the blanks of the unknown. Our intellectual pre-frontal cortex is much more powerful than our emotional limbic system, just slower to respond. The trick is interrupting the reaction cycle so we can use our intellect.
- Self-Criticism – shame is actually another of the distressing emotions we discussed above, but it deserves its own discussion. As with other emotions, shame has an evolutionary purpose, which is to ensure that we know our contribution to an issue. The trick is to keep this at a healthy level. To do this listen to your internal board of directors, those critical inner voices that say things like “you’re not good enough”, “you don’t matter around here”, “you aren’t valued”, etc. As with other negative emotions when you have identified the source and
pulled it into your consciousness you will be able to assess its validity. Sometimes we will find that there is some small amount of truth. For example, the voice “you’re not good enough” may be trying to point out that you didn’t put in your best effort on a task, but generally it isn’t a sharp enough instrument to be that accurate. If we can hear these general criticisms and affirm for ourselves that whatever we are hearing just isn’t true we can again calm ourselves to bring the facts to the surface and deal with them rationally.
- Blaming others – interestingly, shame and anger are actually the same emotion. Shame is directed inwardly at ourselves whereas anger is directed outwardly towards others. Shame doesn’t feel good, and thus it is fairly common for us to transfer the emotion to others in a process called shame-based anger resulting in us blaming others for our circumstances. While this may feel better, it doesn’t get us anywhere as we have very little control over the actions of others. Listen for when you do blame others. Even if the blame is warranted, the only way for us to change our situation is to bring the issue back into ourselves, know the part we played in the issue and to know what actions we alone can take that will make it better.
- Disconnecting from others – if we miss the blame cycle, we will often be at risk of disconnecting from others. Look for the signs of this. Often anger is afoot as we discussed above, and this often manifests in a very obvious disconnection action of physically leaving the scene. Other times the disconnection is more subtle than that, in that we physically remain in the situation but we withdraw our emotional connection to those around us. The risk in disconnecting is that, you are cutting yourself off from resources that might actually be willing to help you. As you catch yourself walking away or withdrawing, ask yourself if that is the best decision for you at the time. Sometimes you will have to apologize to re-establish the connection but that will serve you well as the other party may once again offer you assistance.
- Listen for the good sounds – as with the forest, there will be a lot of good things within the sounds of our mind. Listen for things that make us happy. Joy is an important emotion as it is our source of emotional energy and resilience. By looking for things that create joy for us we can focus on them and strengthen them, which both increases our energy and takes away space for our more negative emotions. Look also for warm feelings towards others. This is another source of strength. We are relational creatures and being emotionally attached to other people provides us with a great inner strength to lean on.
Give these a try. They take a bit of practice, as we will need to strengthen the neural pathways between our emotional and intellectual parts of our brain. As with all exercise, it takes time and it takes repetitions, but if you keep at it you can use these skills to increase your effectiveness, your vitality and your overall satisfaction in life.