The More You Can Manage Your Emotions, the More Effective You’ll Be

The More You Can Manage Your Emotions, the More Effective You'll Be

Understanding the deep-rooted basis of our negative emotions and their destructive consequences can help us navigate the turmoil that sorrow, love, anger, greed, envy, pride, and fear can invoke in our lives.

American Philosopher William James on Emotions The pioneering American psychologist William James argued in his famous 1884 essay “What is an Emotion?” that emotions and their effects on our attitudes and our behaviors is bidirectional. That is to say, “bodily disturbances” are manifestations of our emotions and those reverberations are really the fount of the emotions themselves.

Our natural way of thinking about these standard emotions is that the mental perception of some fact excites the mental affection called the emotion, and that this latter state of mind gives rise to the bodily expression. My thesis on the contrary is that the bodily changes follow directly the PERCEPTION of the exciting fact, and that our feeling of the same changes as they occur IS the emotion. Common sense says, we lose our fortune, are sorry and weep; we meet a bear, are frightened and run; we are insulted by a rival, are angry and strike. The hypothesis here to be defended says that this order of sequence is incorrect, that the one mental state is not immediately induced by the other, that the bodily manifestations must first be interposed between, and that the more rational statement is that we feel sorry because we cry, angry because we strike, afraid because we tremble, and not that we cry, strike, or tremble, because we are sorry, angry, or fearful, as the case may be. Without the bodily states following on the perception, the latter would be purely cognitive in form, pale, colourless, destitute of emotional warmth. We might then see the bear, and judge it best to run, receive the insult and deem it right to strike, but we could not actually feel afraid or angry.

“Geological Upheavals of Thought”

American Philosopher Martha Nussbaum on Upheavals of Thought I’ve been reading American philosopher Martha Nussbaum‘s outstanding—albeit demanding—book Upheavals of Thought: The Intelligence of Emotions. The initial chapters contemplate the power of emotions and the manifestation of emotions in all aspects of our thought stream.

One of the central positions of Nussbaum’s book is that our sentiments and emotions spring from internal narratives—the stories we ponder within ourselves about who we are and how we feel. Emotions are acknowledgments of our indigence and lack of self-reliance.

Emotions are not just the fuel that powers the psychological mechanism of a reasoning creature, they are parts, highly complex and messy parts, of this creature’s reasoning itself.

Emotions … involve judgments about important things, judgments in which, appraising an external object as salient for our own well-being, we acknowledge our own neediness and incompleteness before parts of the world that we do not fully control.

Emotions should be understood as “geological upheavals of thought”: as judgments in which people acknowledge the great importance, for their own flourishing, of things that they do not fully control—and acknowledge thereby their neediness before the world and its events.

Human beings … are the only emotional beings who wish not to be emotional, who wish to withhold these acknowledgments of neediness and to design for themselves a life in which these acknowledgments have no place. This means that they frequently learn to reject their own vulnerability and to suppress awareness of the attachments that entail it. We might also say … that they are the only animals for whom neediness is a source of shame, and who take pride in themselves to the extent to which they have allegedly gotten clear of vulnerability.

'Upheavals of Thought' by Martha Nussbaum (ISBN 0521462029) Nussbaum notes that our strong emotions stem from our intolerance and from the disruption to our internal narratives about what comprises perfection:

The emotions of the adult life sometimes feel as if they flood up out of nowhere, in ways that don’t match our present view of our objects or their value. This will be especially true of the person who maintains some kind of false self-defense, and who is in consequence out of touch with the emotions of neediness and dependence, or of anger and aggression, that characterize the true self.

Idea for Impact: People who lack the capacity to withstand psychological distresses such as anger, fear, frustration, and sadness are at a marked disadvantage in life. Learn to manage your negative emotions.

Learn to Manage Your Negative Emotions and Yourself

Negative emotions not only take their toll on our mind, body, and spirit, but also hinder your liberation from suffering, according to the Buddhist way of life.

People who lack the capacity to withstand psychological distresses such as anger, fear, frustration, and sadness are at a marked disadvantage in life. When faced with life’s unceasing challenges, they respond with greater emotional distress. Worse yet, rather than deal with the challenge at hand wisely, they engage in destructive behaviors, often with verbal and physical aggression toward themselves and others.

Swami Chinmayananda Saraswati on resilience and equanimity

There’s great strength in learning to divorce yourself from negative emotions

People with lower tolerance for distress usually spin their wheels and find as many escapes—including substance abuse and binging—as their troubled minds can conjure up. Instead of allowing themselves a modest amount of grieving, rebounding quickly, and moving on with their lives, they feel victimized. They avoid people and situations that may provoke frustration, discomfort, embarrassment, and uncertainty. In due course, their mind, body, and spirit start to atrophy.

Speaking of the need to expand the human capacity of resilience and equanimity and learn from adversity to achieve success, the renowned Hindu spiritual teacher Swami Chinmayananda Saraswati (1916–93) once said, “The secret of success behind all men of achievement, lies in the faculty of applying their intellect in all their activities, without being mislead by any surging emotions or feelings. The secret of success in life lies in keeping the head above the storms of the heart.”

Having a propensity to react negatively will hurt your career and personal life

When the celebrated American tennis player Andre Agassi (who was infamous for his temperaments) was asked in a Harvard Business Review interview if he learned to manage his emotions when he played, Agassi replied,

I’ve seen people use emotion, positive or negative, as a tool, and it works for them. But typically, the more you can remove emotion, the more efficient you’ll be. You can be an inch from winning but still miles away if you allow emotion to interfere with the last step. So you have to accept the weather, heat, rain, stops and starts, the line calls, whatever your opponent is giving you, however tired or injured you are. There are so many things that can distract you from taking care of business. The only thing you can control is your engagement.

Equanimity is thus at the center of Buddhist practice

When you learn to better understand, tolerate, and harness negative emotions, you become empowered.

Learn to manage your negative emotions and yourself. From Buddhist perspective, learn to thoughtfully attend to your negative emotions with an emphasis on neither suppressing them nor acting them out. According to verse 4.34 in Udāna, eighty stories that contain eighty utterances of the Buddha,

Whose mind is like rock, steady, unmoved,
dispassionate for things that spark passion,
unangered by things that spark anger:
When one’s mind is developed like this,
from where can there come suffering & stress?

Equanimity is thus at the center of Buddhist practice, which prescribes many forms of disciplined practices to overcoming the harmful effects of destructive emotions. According to the Therīgāthā (“verses of the female elders”,) a set of principles composed by senior nuns during the lifetime of the Buddha,

If your mind becomes firm like a rock
And no longer shakes
In a world where everything is shaking,
Your mind will be your greatest friend
And suffering will not come your way.

Idea for Impact: Negative emotions and the destructive behaviors they breed are essentially always wrong—they are psychological errors you’ll do well to eliminate in yourself.

This Trick Can Relieve Your Anxiety: “What’s the worst that can happen?”

I’ve previously written about how a great many of life’s anticipated misfortunes, adversities, trials and tribulations will never come to pass. Much of your worrying is ultimately fruitless and anger is often pointless.

Today, I shall discuss a technique you can use to let go of anxiety.

Bertrand Russell: Nothing that happens to oneself has any cosmic importance

The Remedial Benefits of Deliberating, “What’s the Worst That Could Happen?”

When you face anxiety, nervousness, fear, or worry, try the following technique: imagine all possible negative consequences of the situation you are confronting. Then, conceive of the worst outcome, even if there’s little chance events will turn out that way—imagine everything that could go wrong, in the worst possible way. Envision the worst outcomes.

When you exaggerate your fears and imagine the worst thing that could happen, you make your impending fears look unreasonable. You will realize that even the worst possible scenario isn’t so terrible after all. Often, this deliberation—and your sense of humor—usually restores your perspective on the anxiety you’re facing. You’ll realize that, at the worst, nothing that could happen to you is ultimately that significant.

'The Conquest of Happiness' by Bertrand Russell (ISBN 0871401622) Bertrand Russell, one of the west’s great intellectuals, was an advocate of this ploy. In The Conquest of Happiness, this extraordinary mathematician and brilliant philosopher asserts that happiness is in no way a passive endeavor, but a condition that takes a lot of work. Discussing how to avoid worry through the cultivation of right attitudes, Russell wrote,

A process … can be adopted with regard to anxieties. When some misfortune threatens, consider seriously and deliberately what is the very worst that could possibly happen. Having looked this possible misfortune in the face, give yourself sound reasons for thinking that after all it would be no such very terrible disaster. Such reasons always exist, since at the worst nothing that happens to oneself has any cosmic importance. When you have looked for some time steadily at the worst possibility and have said to yourself with real conviction, “Well, after all, that would not matter so very much,” you will find that your worry diminishes to a quite extraordinary extent. It may be necessary to repeat the process a few times, but in the end, if you have shirked nothing in facing the worse possible issue, you will find that your worry disappears altogether and is replaced by a kind of exhilaration.

To Get Rid of Anxiety, You Must First Embrace it

This Trick Can Relieve Your Anxiety: What's the Worst That Could Happen Russell’s method of overcoming anxiety and worry hints at the Stoic practice of “premeditatio malorum”—contemplating potential misfortunes in advance and reinstating emotional calm through positive affirmations. This classic technique of the Hellenistic world in due course laid the foundation for exposure therapy where anxiety is treated via exposure to stressful events either in vitro (in the laboratory of the mind) or in vivo (in real life.) Russell provides this explanation of exposure therapy:

Worry is a form of fear, and all forms of fear produce fatigue. A man who has learned not to feel fear will find the fatigue of daily life enormously diminished. … The proper course with every kind of fear is to think about it rationally and calmly, but with great concentration, until it has been completely familiar.

Idea for Impact: When confronting your fears, denial is never a wise strategy, positive action is!

The Roman lyric poet Horace advocated, “remember to keep a calm and balanced mind in the face of adversity” (loosely translated from the Latin “aequam memento rebus in arduis servare mentem” in Odes, II, 3.)

When faced with potential adversity or anticipated worry, try imagining the worst thing that could happen. This strategy for approaching your worries can help you to maintain an assertive, self-determining attitude even in the presence of very real and serious fears and threats.

Cope with Anxiety and Stop Obsessive Worrying by Creating a Worry Box

Stop Obsessive Worrying

Most worry is ultimately fruitless

Worries and concerns trouble us all. We waste valuable time worrying about things. As the American motivational author Leo Buscaglia once wrote, “Worry never robs tomorrow of its sorrow, it only saps today of its joy.”

In a previous article, I suggested a mindfulness exercise to help you realize the temporal nature of worry. I also emphasized that most of your anticipated adversities will never occur.

Despite the transitional nature of anxiety and worry, mental anguishes can overwhelm your mind. Sometimes these negative emotions can spill over and seep into the fabric of your day.

Obsessive anxiety and worry can wreak havoc on your body. Stress from worrying about life’s many “what ifs” can actually manifest in physical and medical problems, if you let them. For instance, say you are troubled about an upcoming exam in your least favorite course at college. Your worrying could become so compulsive that your apprehensions about the exam could interfere with whatever else is going on in your life. If unchecked, your worry could manifest in higher acid levels in your stomach. Then, you may start worrying about developing stomach problems if you don’t stop worrying. Your worries thus snowball and consume even more of your time.

Writing about your anxieties and worries can help you cope with current concerns

An effective way to stop agonizing and let go of troubling thoughts is to keep a “worry box.”

  1. Stop Obsessive Worrying by Creating a Worry Box Find a box and designate it as your worry box. Keep it in a handy location. (A “worry journal” may be just as effective.)
  2. Whenever you feel drowned in worries or have anxious thoughts circulating ceaselessly in your mind, take a piece of paper and jot down each worry as it arises. Write down as much about your worries as you feel like writing.
  3. Drop your note into the worry box. Try to imagine mentally letting go of your concerns. Turn your attention to other matters.
  4. Every so often, empty your worry box and throw away your worry notes without looking at them. If you want, you could read them—you will be surprised to see how many of your worries feel unfounded in hindsight, but were in fact seriously troubling in the immediate storms of distress.

Idea for Impact: Maintaining a “worry box” to deposit your anxieties and worries can help you break free from them and prevent them from disrupting your life.

The Nature of Worry

The nature and lifecycle of worry

Have you ever realized that most of your anticipated misfortunes never occur, that some of life’s difficult scenarios never come to pass, or that most of your worrying is ultimately fruitless and life goes on?

Below, I present a simple exercise to help you discover the lifecycle of worry. I encourage you to sit down at a quiet place, somewhere you can relax and reflect. If necessary, fetch yourself a journal, special notebook, or a piece of scratch paper.

Mindfulness Exercise

Consider a recent upheaval or stressful event. Go back in time and experience that moment for a minute. How do you feel? What preoccupies your mind?

Under the direct influence of your anguish, your mind is bewildered. You feel disoriented. Your mind is filled with apprehension. Bearing the burden of this stress, you cannot take your mind off the imagined ramifications. The wounds of your sorrow seem incurable.

Now, fast forward to a few days following the stressful event. What do you experience now? Your troubles no longer hold a grip on your life as before. You feel released from that moment’s immediate affliction. As you reflect the situation’s progress, you feel amazed by how your feelings have changed. What happened to the irreparable hardship?

Storms of Distress

Responses to distress are within your power Allow another interval of time to elapse. How do your feelings compare now? The original despair is diminished further. The event feels formless; your apprehensions are no longer recognizable. You may even find humor in your past misfortune.

A few days later, you are surprised by how easily these storms of distress passed. You wonder how these depressing emotions could have possessed you. The events are not undone and the external circumstances remain unchanged. What has changed is your mind’s condition?

Idea for Impact: “This too shall pass”

“Do not anticipate trouble, or worry about what may never happen. Keep in the sunlight.”
Benjamin Franklin

It is your mind that relates external circumstances to your internal being. Joy and sorrow, hopes and despairs, elation and desolation, pleasures and annoyances are nothing but outcomes of your sensibility. Outside forces are challenging to conquer—our control over the exterior world is narrow, and merely illusory. However, the evolution of your thoughts and feelings and your responses to distressing situations are within your power.

The next time you experience a hardship—a conflict, a distressing situation, or annoyance, recall what happened with your prior hardships. Recognize that everything happening in your external environment is but impermanent. Say to yourself, “This too shall pass.”