If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself, but to your estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment. Marcus Aurelius

Conflicts, failures and losses at times seem to conspire to ruin us. Yet, as Marcus Aurelius observed nearly two millennia ago, we humans have an extraordinary capacity to regulate the emotions occasioned by such travails. Importantly, these regulatory efforts largely determine the impact such difficulties will have on our mental and physical well-being in addition to our relationships.   Many forms of psychopathology revolve around failures to adaptively regulate and master emotional responses, with consequences ranging from personal distress to socially maladaptive and self-destructive behaviours.

Lessons from a True Story
I thundered down the executive suite corridor in the LeisureNet Office. Heading towards the offices of my CEOs to whom I reported, I was buzzing with emotions. That buzzing felt unpleasant; imagine a bull with a fly in it’s ear.  Anger, disappointment, frustration, all of which cascaded into me feeling vulnerable and physically unwell. I’d been instructed to begin the transfer of a tranche of hundreds of millions offshore into a bank account held in Jersey. This was irregular and against the legal caveat LeisureNet held with the South African Exchange Control agency. My intention was to speak up and confront the CEOs to tell them they would be breaking the law if I processed their instructions and to state my unwillingness to comply. However, without the ability and skill to engage in Courageous Conversations I surrendered my emotional regulation to that fly getting louder and more insistent in my ear.

I wanted to have a conversation because I cared about the organisation, I cared about the CEOs and I cared about myself. It all mattered. But because I didn’t know how to master and express my feelings in a skilled way, I didn’t ‘have’ my emotions. Instead, my emotions ‘had’ me. Instead of listening to my shrill rhetoric, the CEOs effectively shut me down, reminding me of their power and my vulnerability. And as some of you know, this triggered my own hazardous journey towards blowing the whistle on ‘South Africa’s Enron’.

Feelings and how we attempt to avoid them
Most of us experience unpleasant feelings through our bodily sensations. Think about the heat and the rushing of blood to the face for embarrassment (menopausal hot flushing aside!) or that sinking feeling at your chest level for sadness or disappointment. People describe butterflies for anxiety or a tightening up or jaw clenching with anger. It’s not that most of us don’t want to feel or don’t want to feel a full range of what we can feel. I think we do. What we don’t want to experience is the bodily sensation that helps us know what we feel.  Our feelings, although functional and evolutionary are based on increasing our chances of survival and need to be regulated in a way that supports psychological health and well-being or to help achieve our goals.

Let’s understand what our body’s stress response is really for in order to re frame it from a pathology that we’re supposed to run from and control at all costs, to something that we can think about developing tools for.

Current research suggests that emotions are valenced responses to external stimuli and/or internal mental thought processes that
(i) involve changes across experiential, behavioural, peripheral and physiological response systems,
(ii) are distinct from moods in that they often have identifiable objects or triggers,
(iii) can either be learned responses to stimuli with acquired emotional value (e.g. a conditioned response or stimulus–reward association) or unlearned responses to stimuli with intrinsic properties (e.g. an unconditioned response to an aversive shock),
(iv) can involve multiple types of appraisal processes that assess the significance of stimuli to current goals,
(v) depend upon different neural systems
Of course, emotions don’t need to be regulated or modified all the time but only when they interfere with desired behaviours or goals.  Emotional regulation is not aimed at eliminating emotions from our lives, but rather at using them in a flexible manner,intelligently or understanding them and controlling their influence.

Top Down or Bottom Up?
We don’t talk about feelings coming down. We talked about feelings coming up, right?  Anybody that starts to think negative thoughts is actually doing what they call a top down process. So you’re thinking and then you’re activating the experience in your body. This may be because a previous experience you had is already there, triggering negative automatic thoughts. In reality, Dr Joan Rosenberg suggests that we have 35% of our feelings arising from our thoughts (top down) and 65% bottom up, feelings translating into negative body responses.

Research by Gross, 2002Ochsner and Gross, 20082014 indicates that there are five categories related to the dynamics of our emotional processes in which regulation may or may not occur.  The first four categories are classified as antecedent-focused because they’re employed before an emotional response.  The fifth category is response-focused as it’s used after the emotional response has already been activated.  The antecedent-focused strategies, which we provide Courageous Conversation training for, are found to be more effective as they change the emotion itself, and it requires more conscious energy and mastery to change an emotional reaction after the emotion has already been experienced.

Run, Distract, Avoid
In hindsight, recalling my thunderous march down to my CEOs offices, I recognise now  that I was trying to avoid anxiety, I was trying to avoid disappointment, that I didn’t want to be vulnerable and I didn’t want to have to face whatever it was that I needed to face, that I didn’t want to face the CEOs or have to recognise myself in a different way.

Kicking feelings out of a problem and into the margins is one way we cope with the dilemma of whether to raise something or avoid it. The potential costs involved in sharing feelings makes raising them feel like too big a gamble. When we lay our feelings on the table, we run the risk of hurting others and of ruining relationships. We also put ourselves in a position to get hurt. What if the other person doesn’t take our feelings seriously or responds by telling us something we don’t want to hear that rattles the image we hold of ourselves?  By sticking to the “business at hand,” we appear to reduce these risks. The problem is, that when feelings are at the heart of what’s going on, they are the business at hand and ignoring them is nearly impossible.

Watch this funny 1 minute video to see actor Will Smith struggling to bring his Courageous Conversation client back from complete distraction. From the movie Hitch

Managing feelings can be enormously challenging. Our failure to acknowledge and discuss feelings derails a startling number of conversations. And the inability to deal openly and well with feelings can undermine the quality and health of our relationships and the integrity of the organisations in which we work. Gross and colleagues indicate that there are processes that we all use to influence which emotions are generated, when they’re generated and how these emotions are experienced or expressed. The process we saw demonstrated in the video clip above, where the client starts spinning the fruit bowl and fiddling with the flower arrangement, is called attentional distraction, an approach to attention and emotion using a distracting task to limit attention to the emotional stimuli.
Other processes are:
Behavioural regulation of negative emotions which may limit expression but doesn’t dampen any of the unpleasant emotions, worsens memory and increases sympathetic nervous system activation.
Cognitive regulation (e.g. attending to or interpreting emotion-eliciting situations in ways that limit emotional responding). Cognitive regulation may neutralise negative emotions without impairing memory and may decrease physiological arousal;
Cognitive change might be used either to generate an emotional response when none was ongoing or to regulate an already triggered response. This is known as reappraisal and involves reinterpreting the meaning of a stimulus to change one’s emotional response to it
Attentional control : selecting an aspect of information enabling us to focus on a goal (self supporting info) and ignore non goal-irrelevant (your boss checking his phone while you’re speaking up) information.Have your Feelings or they will Have you
Feelings are too powerful to remain peacefully bottled. They will be heard one way or another, whether in leaks or bursts.If handled indirectly or without honesty, your feelings can contaminate communication.  In many conversations, it is really only at the level of feelings that the problem can be addressed. Kicking feelings out of the conversation and into the margins is likely to result in outcomes that are unsatisfying for both people. The real problem is not dealt with, and further,emotions have an uncanny knack for finding their way back into the conversation, usually in not very helpful ways.

Unspoken feelings can colour the conversation in a number of ways. They alter your affect and tone of voice. They express themselves through your body language or facial expression. They may take the form of long pauses or an odd and unexplained detachment. You may become sarcastic, aggressive, impatient, unpredictable, or defensive. Studies show that while few people are good at detecting factual lies, most of us can determine when someone is distorting, manufacturing, or withholding an emotion. That’s because, if clogged, your emotional pipes will leak.

For some of us, the problem is not that we are unable to express our feelings, but that we are unable not to. We get angry and show it in ways that are embarrassing or destructive. We cry or explode when we would rather act composed and capable. We don’t cry or lose our temper because we express our feelings too often, but because we express them too rarely. Like finally opening a carbonated drink that has been shaken, the results can be messy

What can we do?
Learn where your Feelings Hide
Recognise that Good People Can have Bad Feelings
Train for Courageous Conversations where you learn how to avoid your emotional map become the territory.
Appreciate that your Feelings Are as Important as your Conversational Partners’ feelings.
Learn how to Negotiate with your Feelings
Stay present to your bodily sensations and anchor to whatever that feeling is
Volunteer vulnerability
Avoid attributions, judgements and accusations. Just as peanuts aren’t nuts, whales aren’t fish and  tomatoes aren’t vegetables, these aren’t feelings.
Recognise that confidence and courage are invoked as you speak -listen up, not the reverse.
Working through and with your feelings is the best way of becoming connected to yourself.

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