Posts Tagged controlling emotions
One of my all-time favorite television programs is Frasier, a spin-off from another favorite, Cheers. Since the series ceased production in 2004, I have enjoyed watching reruns of the program that features a neurotic and perpetually challenged but witty psychiatrist who gets himself in a series of tough spots.
In an episode I recently watched, Frasier experiences misfortune when he tries to do good deeds. The worst misfortune is his arrest for soliciting prostitution when he mistakes a transvestite prostitute for a stranded lady in need of a ride on a rainy night. His misfortune causes him to contemplate the value of altruism. Within a week, I found myself contemplating the same.
Though my contract entitled me to keep it, I returned a substantial payment to a client when a deal unraveled due to neither of our negligence. Standard procedure dictated that I keep the payment and continue to work on the project, but it was evident that would cause distress for my main contact in my client’s office. Since I had a long and successful relationship with that contact, I broke protocol, returned the check and continued working on the project. After a short time, the project was unceremoniously cancelled. My good will was shrugged aside, just like Frasier’s.
Initially, I was hurt by the injustice and angry at myself for exposing myself to mistreatment. I had gone out of the way to do the right thing, and it backfired. Wasn’t I owed something for my effort? That’s where I was mistaken.
Life doesn’t owe us anything, and if we plod through expecting rewards, we will create unnecessary frustrations, like mine and Frasier’s, for ourselves. Frustrations eventually paralyze good intent. When good intent is paralyzed, we not only stop contributing positive energy, positive energy quits coming our way too. Before long, we become that grouchy old person that no one wants to be around. If we want to avoid that fate, we have to learn to let go of the anger that very naturally bubbles forth when someone lets us down.
Easier said than done, right? Much easier! Anger is one reaction to our natural fight-or-flight response, and it’s often the first reaction when someone lets us down. We’re mad at the injustice we suffered and mad at those responsible. There isn’t anything wrong with this natural reaction, unless we hold onto it for more than a few minutes or compulsively act on it. If we give ourselves too little time to make sense of our anger, we risk intensifying the situation with rash behavior, and if we hold on too long, we waste needless energy that should be directed toward positive outcomes.
Anger simply alerts us to a choice we must make: are we going to let the negative situation pass or does it merit a reaction? Many of us make the mistake of delaying this decision, which puts us in a helpless state of anger. We’re mad, but we’re unsure if what we’re going to do about it, if anything at all. It’s much better to stop and focus on the anger as soon as possible, and then, in most cases, to let it go.
I’ve been working on this myself, and that work required a little research and testing. Context and appreciation seem to be keys to dispelling anger that requires no reaction.
Context: most things that anger us aren’t really that important, if we put them in proper context. That guy who gave you the one-finger salute on the freeway? Will you even remember him next week? If not, why give him any more of your attention and energy?
Appreciation: anger tends to elbow its way to the front of our attention span. When we’re angry, it’s hard to appreciate our blessings. Have you ever let a bad experience with restaurant waitstaff rob enjoyment of an otherwise perfect evening? I’m ashamed to admit that I have. You never get back those moments you spent in anger. Make sure that appreciation gets much more attention than anger.
I applied this strategy to the situation with my client and their cancelled project. Other than this instance, my experience with them has been overwhelmingly positive. This one situation seems small and unimportant when I look back at my history with them. Further, I appreciate their business and wish to continue the relationship.
I’m not perfect. It took me most of an afternoon to come to this acceptance and let go of my anger, but I’m glad that it didn’t take longer and cost me a valuable relationship.
I celebrated another birthday last month. As I have mellowed, so too have the celebrations. Quiet dinners with my family have replaced loud parties with friends, and moderation isn’t something I scoff at any more. Instead of using the day as an excuse to indulge and go crazy, my birthdays are now an occasion for quiet reflection. In a way, I’ve brought the celebration inside.
This has made my mind my most important participant in my celebration. If my mind isn’t right, it won’t be much of a celebration. Because of this, on my birthday, I resolve not to let anything drag me down and to focus only on the positive.
If I dump half of the top shelf in the refrigerator trying to get orange juice for breakfast, who cares – it’s my birthday. If a fellow commuter challenges me on my drive to work, not a problem – it’s my birthday. If the kids leave the kitchen a mess, it’s not the end of the world – it’s my birthday.
I attempt to control and direct my emotions to improve my experiences, practicing emotional intelligence – the ability to recognize and control one’s emotions for personal development.
The term emotional intelligence has been around for more than 100 years. Though there isn’t consensus among scientists about its validity as actual intelligence, most of us can benefit from its general foundation – awareness and purposeful manipulation of human emotion. If we can be aware of our emotions and their causes, we can attempt to control them.
I learned about emotional intelligence by reading the book Emotional Intelligence 2.0 by Travis Bradberry and Jean Greaves. Before reading the book, I accepted my emotions as a consequence of daily activities – something that would come and go. I resisted dwelling on my emotions and their causes, thereby undervaluing their effect on life satisfaction and personal development.
Emotional intelligence starts with awareness of emotions. At almost every point in the day, our emotions color our perception of the world, even if we are unaware of this effect. If you are combing through your e-mail, and you come across a message from someone who has disappointed or angered you recently, that anger and disappointment comes back. Though those emotions might not be as intense as they once were, they still affect us and our approach to the world, while they are with us.
Likewise, when we take time to notice the simple things in life, like the peaceful quiet of a new morning dawn, we fuel ourselves with positive emotions. Someone who can become tuned in to his emotions can minimize their negative disruptions while exploiting their positive benefits, but it takes practice. Like learned intelligence, emotional intelligence gains strength through repetition.
I stressed emotional intelligence on my birthday this year, and I had a great, peaceful day, which tells me that I need to do that the other 364 days of the year. I’m pretty sure that I’m bending pages in the second half of this really intriguing book called life, and it’s getting good. I can make better with emotional intelligence.
I don’t get angry as often as I used to, and even when I do, I usually can think my way through it and into better thoughts. Age, effort and targeted reading have helped me keep life’s challenges in perspective. That ability was recently challenged by an unexpected tax liability.
Whenever something doesn’t go right and introduces negative disruption to our lives, as this tax bill did, the natural reaction is anger. We feel slighted, wronged – victimized. Someone or something deserves our wrath. In this case, it was the IRS and politicians who create tax structures that stifle small business owners. I don’t want to whine or bore you with the details; I’ll just say that my troubles involve pass-through businesses.
As my accountant delivered the bad news, I became aware of my physical reaction to it. I felt a chill and tingling through my arms. My breathing became slightly more shallow and quicker. My eyes narrowed. These are perfectly natural biological impulses. Like our ancestors facing a saber-toothed tiger, when we experience anger, we are subconsciously experiencing a fight-or-flight response, and our body is preparing for that action.
In this way, anger is a good thing. When something is not right, we should fix it, if we can. If our children anger us because they are misbehaving at a dinner party, we need to act on that anger and do our best to correct the situation. If someone cuts us off on the freeway, however, it’s likely that there is nothing we can do to correct that situation. Sure, we can send them a message that we are unhappy, but what does that really accomplish? If they care what we think, they probably feel bad enough already. If they don’t care, they’re likely to respond with anger, which just escalates the potential negativity of the situation.
Too often, we misplace and overuse our anger, because we forget its main purpose – to alert us to evaluate a situation for correction. Again, in the case of the misbehaving child, there is a chance for correction, but that is not true of the traffic situation. Unfortunately, because we forget anger’s main purpose, we spend way too much time being angry about things we can’t change.
Maybe our favorite team makes a mistake that costs them an important game. I’ve seen people break furniture and throw things at the television screen during football games. How does that correct the situation? I once saw a church league softball player use his bat on his car after a frustrating game. Unless he was truly working on his swing, the only thing he was accomplishing was further anger when he realized the damage he had done.
Sometimes, we’re mad, but not mad enough to do anything about the cause of our anger. In these situations that we’re unwilling to change, anger accomplishes nothing. I see this a lot with relationships. We date people who are a constant irritation to us, but instead of finding a new place for our affection, we continue to expose ourselves to irritation. The same can be said of people who get angry at the weather. Throughout this past long Nebraska winter, I heard people declare, “This weather ticks me off,” and various less delicate phrases. Since the only way to change the weather is to move to a more agreeable climate, if you are unwilling to do that, you should probably just button up and shut up.
As absurd as most causes of anger is the justification we often use with its expression – I just needed to vent, to get it out. This is three-year-old, I-need-a-nap behavior. Because we’re unhappy, we need to negatively affect the environment around us. I once heard a colleague describe a perpetually angry manager we shared as a “fart in an elevator.” Don’t be that guy.
I had to remind myself of all of this as I faced the reality of my tax situation. My anger had alerted me to evaluate a situation for improvement. Since I cannot change tax law to improve my situation, and I’m unwilling to work as a W2 employee, acceptance trumped anger. And, since I don’t want to have the same social effect on my environment as flatulence, I reached for my checkbook and prepared for the next challenge.