This is a new series of blogs that will help the reader develop a better awareness of emotions that are experienced and develop techniques to regulate them more efficiently. We all want to be more peaceful. Many of us want to be able to manage our emotions better so we do not end up losing control and regretting it for the rest of our lives. How we express our emotions impacts the success of our personal and professional life. Habitual patterns of reaction can destroy our mental health if we continue to be unaware of their destructive impact. The good news is that new tricks can be learnt at any age.
Emotional regulation is trainable
When Daniel Goleman first came up with the concept of Emotional Quotient, it was difficult to get our heads around the concept. But as the world is getting more global and the need to interact with people from different cultures on the rise, this has become an important factor for organizations to consider. Differences between people or the tendency of people to have a “us versus them” perspective has become a serious impediment in successful business partnerships or interpersonal relations at work. EQ can be improved by training. I believe that the first step in developing emotionally maturity is the enhancement of emotional awareness. Becoming more self-aware helps an individual understand how they react to stressors in their environment, because after all its not the stimulus itself that causes stress, it is our reaction to it.
Each person is unique in the way we perceive and react to situations that we experience. If I see a lion running towards me, I may be frozen with fear, run for my life or have a heart attack because everything I have heard or read about lions has told me that they are dangerous and should be avoided at all costs. Now if a forest ranger happens to see the lion coming towards her/him, the reaction is going to be different. They may immediately go into problem solving mode and think about how to stop the lion in its tracks because they are trained and equipped for the job. Hence their reaction is different.
Just so, all people can be trained to see the situations that they are generally exposed to, in a different light. This training will allow them to come up with the best solution for the specific situation. Unfortunately, very few people are blessed with a Buddha temperament by birth. Most people who have it have worked hard to cultivate it.
Why do we experience Emotions?
We all experience emotions. We are happy, sad, angry, envious etc. depending on the context and our reaction to it. To take charge of our emotional see-saw it is necessary to first cultivate an understanding about why we get emotional. Pleasant emotions are always welcome. It is the destructive or unpleasant emotions that cause harm to us and the people around us. In Buddhist philosophy they are called “Kleshas” or poisons. There are five kleshas – anger, jealousy, passion or craving, greed and ignorance also known as sloth or lethargy. This is just one classification I like to use. Most experts do not consider fear as an emotion but as the basis for most destructive emotions. It is more of a survival instinct rather than an emotion, very similar to a higher body temperature being an indication of an attack on our immune system.
From a psychological perspective, when a child is born only two emotions are experienced – delight when they get food or comforts and distress when they experience discomfort because of deprivation of food, sleep, or a soiled diaper. As the children grow, the emotions become more complicated and are given names depending on the origin of the stimuli and our reaction to them. This is a simplistic explanation.
We have been hard wired for fight or flight instincts from the time of our ancestors. Having to hunt prey for food and fight those very prey or other hunting groups made it necessary for homo sapiens to prepare for fight or flight when faced with dangerous situations. This instinct has been passed on through the generations. This instinct determines the type and intensity of emotions we feel to this day when we are faced by threats. It’s manifestation is molded by the experiences we have in our childhood/youth. We pick up cues from our environment and the role models around us. We react based on imported scripts from the past.
Emotions are also set off by universal or personal triggers. For instance, when we see a car speeding towards us, we instinctively get out of the way no matter where we live in the world. Other triggers are personal to each one of us and may be related to our specific experiences and fears. For instance, if you have been bitten by a dog in childhood you may develop a fear of dogs and consequently react with anger or aversion.
Techniques that promote Emotional control
Now that we have an understanding of how we experience emotions, we can move on to the next step of learning techniques that will help us to take charge of our emotion by learning to catch it’s onset early enough and avoid potential damage to ourselves and those around us. The techniques include breath control and meditation and a process that involves three steps refraining , reframing and relaxing made popular by the Buddhist Monk Pema Chodron which involves mindfulness and Cognitive Behavior Therapy. We shall explore the use of these techniques in the next few blogs which are part of the series on “Emotions and you”.