Stepping up to our emotions

Taking a step back to get perspective can help us develop emotional agility, life coach Jan Aitken says.

I've written about, and mentioned several times, the concept of us being emotionally resilient: being able to accept and deal with the good, the bad and the ugly that shows up in our lives.

I think it's one of the most valuable skills we can learn and one of the most valuable skills we can teach.

So when I stumbled across an interview with Dr Susan David (a Harvard University psychologist who has a successful coaching and leadership practice) talking about "emotional agility'' my ears immediately pricked up.

I was so impressed with her take on things I actually put my hand in my pocket and bought her book, Emotional Agility: Get Unstuck, Embrace Change and Thrive in Work and Life.

Harvard Business Review has called the book "groundbreaking''.

She rather elegantly links several popular themes and techniques that gives us a good framework to deal with what comes our way on a day-to-day basis.

Yes, like most things it requires practice, but it's reasonably simple and, I believe, well worth the effort.

It's known that every day we have around 15,000-20,000 words/thoughts/emotions/stories in our heads that are the driving forces behind our lives. These are based on our beliefs, culture, environment, experiences etc.

The majority of them are often negative. That's OK; our brains are wired to think and they are designed to anticipate and predict problems and help us plan how to avoid them.

It seems our thought processes are a little behind the reality though, as we're not as often in danger as we used to be.

For us here in the West we are relatively safe from predators and have a constant supply of food, so the negative focus isn't quite as useful as it once might have been.

The problem isn't so much that a lot of our automatic thinking is negative, the problem is how we respond to those negative thoughts and emotions.

Predominantly we live in a culture that has not taught us how to deal with the darker emotions and thoughts in a particularly useful way. Nor are we particularly good at recognising or interpreting them.

We tend to relate everything difficult back to being "stressed'' rather than what it really might be.

When we come home saying we've had a terrible, stressful day, we might, in reality, be sad about an argument with a loved one, angry at how we were treated at work, fearful of not living up to someone else's expectations, physically exhausted, upset at being in a job we hate and scared there's no alternative, or feeling inadequate.

The list goes on.

Even if we do figure out what's really going on for us, we're taught to push it away, bury it and be stoic. We're told to think positively and it'll be all right.

Unfortunately, pushing it away is like overinflating a bike tyre: you can pump and pump but eventually there's too much in there and the tyre simply explodes.

Those around us often cop the lot, are confused about the outburst and we end up feeling bad about lashing out.

Trying the "think positive'' approach, though well meaning, can have us feeling guilty about how we feel.

We can also be left worrying that we're worrying too much! It can all conspire to set up an inner turmoil that just ends up in a mental mess.

So, what options do we have?

Dr David suggests "showing up to our difficult emotions''. By this she means accept that we'll have difficult emotions and thoughts, stop judging them and learn to identify them for what they really are, i.e. anger, sadness, fear etc.

She also suggests being self- compassionate. She's discovered that people who are more self-compassionate tend to be more emotionally and mentally healthy as they give themselves a safe space in which to process what's going on.

She suggests the next move is to "step out''.

Stepping out involves putting some space between the event that triggered the thoughts and emotions and our response. It helps us to unhook ourselves from the situation, which can often be a repeating pattern. You know when you're "hooked'' as there is no space between the stimulus and the response.

Like mindfulness, stepping out allows you to take a "helicopter view'', step back and have a look at what's happening for you. It allows you to see what your choices are. They may not all be palatable but you will have them.

Viktor Frankl, an Austrian psychiatrist and neurologist who survived the Nazi death camps during the Holocaust, said "between stimulus and response there is a space and in that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and freedom''.

The next step is to take action based on our values.

Values are the anchor in our lives. While circumstances and fortunes may change, our values tend to be stable. When we base our decisions on our values, we make our most satisfying and meaningful decisions.

Values help determine who we are, what we want and how we live. Knowing our values will anchor us safely whatever storms surround us, and provide a rock-solid foundation on which to build richer, more fulfilling lives.

Decisions are more soundly based and goalsetting becomes easier. We are more likely to feel our life has purpose and life gets simpler.

Like most things, it is always good to reflect on how we are doing and tweak things along the way.

Nothing in our lives can change until we accept where we are at, identify unproductive patterns, understand what's really happening for ourselves and then make values-based choices and take values-based action.

- Jan Aitken is a Dunedin-based life coach.

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