Big wolves do cry. Why does emotional agility matter?
Have you always wondered what makes great leaders really great. I am going to try to convince you in this blog post that their biggest asset is their emotional agility. Their ability to deal with both positive and negative emotions. The ability to contain these emotions, when things go wrong or good, is one of their greatest strengths. Do you want to know more about this “superpower”? Then, please keep on reading.
It seems almost crazy that I, a very emotional unstable person, writes this blog post. In the recent past I neglected my own negative emotions. This, in essence, made my emotions pile up in my head. Currently, my head can be compared to a library full of anti-self-help books ready to crush my kindness and compassion.
You might ask, “How do I know this?”
I was very snappy and passive aggressive in front of other people. I was also less compassionate. It felt like, my otherwise compassionate brain space, was clogged with cloudy and shunned emotions. One thing you must realize is that you cannot bypass your own emotions. This negligence will eventually show up in your life. There was only one word for my state of mind – I was a self-absorbed ass. Yes, these words completely justify the way I was behaving.
I will illustrate this with a little story. This story will influence the remainder of this blog post.
Everything started with a patient who called me. She asked me how her test results of the imaging studies of her back were. I gave a slightly inappropriate answer in which I explained some results and added the following sentence, “But that does not mean you need to get a new surgery.” She did not ask if there was a new surgery necessary. Ouch! Mistake number one. She continued to ask what she now had to do. I suggested I wanted to see her on a consultation. She agreed and we met for a consultation. I am not going to spill much details about what went wrong in that consultation room but let us say she felt that I did not take her complaint seriously enough.
Result: One angry patient that leaves the consultation room.
Two days later, I found her name on our team discussion board. I immediately called the person in question and listened to her complaints.
You could say, “How good of you?!” But it was a very reactive deed to protect my own ego. Later that day, I discussed the case with the other doctor. I felt relieved because it felt I never failed to control the situation. How wrong could I have been? I lost control of the most important asset, which were my emotions.
One month later, I saw a new name on that discussion board. It was written on the board without any context or reference. Everything snapped in my little head. I went to my supervisor in full panic mode and wanted to know immediately what went wrong. Little did I know, she actually wanted to discuss a happy patient. My true character was revealed! We discussed this reaction and I admitted that it originated from my insecurity and suppressed emotions.
But wait! I am not going to spoil everything. Let us start with some explanations of the different concepts of emotional agility and I will guide you through my mistakes.
What are emotions?
There are basically two primary structures in the brain.
The limbic system controls our emotions and behavioral responses that will trigger a stress response when we face danger.
The prefrontal cortex, the conscious part of the brain that allows us to think about our emotions and choose the appropriate response to them.
Emotions are expressed in fact quite similar in different cultures. We have homogeneous facial expressions to express emotions over many cultures.
We all experience five fundamental emotions: anger, fear, disgust, sadness, and enjoyment. Each of these emotions has their own reason to exist. It is the task of your prefrontal cortex to find out what the meaning is. Your primal brain has the task to choose the necessary emotion (1).
I found this quote to be quite powerful and it summarizes in one sentence one of the biggest difference between thoughts and emotions. Emotions make us feel exposed. Emotions show how vulnerable we are. Many times our reaction is to rationalize the emotions we do not want to face. Maybe that is not such a good idea.
Thoughts are private; emotions are public.
In my story, there are two different elements. There are the rationalizations I made afterwards. I truly believed my immediate response to the situation was constructive even though my real emotions were brought to light throughout the interaction with my patient. You can not hide your emotions.
How do these emotions develop over time?
The process of emotions can be pictured on a timeline, the emotional timeline.
Emotional timeline: Trigger → Emotional Reaction → Behavioral Response.
An emotion is the result of a trigger. The trigger for my overreactive emotion was the message on the discussion board. My emotional reaction was anxiety which lead to passive aggressiveness. The behavioral response was to immediately run to another person in an attempt to defend my own story. It was a futile attempt.
This is precisely the moment you should use the skills of emotional agility. This is your moment to flex and train your emotional muscles.
What is emotional agility?
In this current society, we are expected to express only positive emotions and to tuck our negative emotions away. Negative emotions are subjects you pay no attention to. We also overestimate the influence of our thoughts and disregard the fact that most of us are emotionally reactive. Emotional agility lets you face your emotions. You give your emotions a proper name and take time to properly understand why they exist. Once you understand, you will be able to move forward.
The antidote to a destructive emotion is a constructive emotion.
Every emotion has the possibility to become constructive or destructive. If I gave my patient more compassion and understanding, then I would have never faced the consequential problems. These destructive emotions like anger, fear, and frustration are thoughtless and would not move a needle. They are based on misunderstandings and non-existing logic. I did not understand the perspective of the patient because I did not explore her emotions. Otherwise, I did not use this moment to express the frustrations I experience when I do not know how to help someone. Constructive emotions are more based on realistic expectations. They are predicated on knowledge and post-event analysis.
I could have chosen a constructive emotion instead. But how do you work on your emotional agility? Please continue reading to find the answer.
How to work on your emotional agility ?
I like to present you my own presentation of a work scheme. You can use this work scheme when you are coping with particular emotions. I encourage you to imagine your own story when you go through the steps. First I will to walk together with you across a couple of actions you can use to turn destructive emotions into constructive emotions. I only used words that begin with “r” to make it easy to remember. You can call it the 7 R’s of emotional agility.
Before you react:
Recognize the emotion or the emotional timeline. What trigger lead to which emotional reaction and to which response. In my story, the trigger was the confrontation with my own mistake on this team board. The real trigger though can be traced back even further in the past. It could be bad sleep, a fight with your loved one, or a sick kid. In this step, you have to recognize what events provoke certain emotions. No judgments are allowed in this step.
2. Respond after a pause
Learn to pause before you respond. In the second story, I could have controlled my emotional reaction by stepping back and taking a pause to reflect. I would have realized how harebrained it was to immediately step to my boss when I encountered a negative review. I could have waited until we examined the past event together in a considerate way. That in-between time could have been essential to think about what message I wanted to deliver. During the pause your pre-frontal cortex (thinking brain) gets the opportunity to shine. In my case, my monkey brain took the prize for the most reactive idiot of the day.
What to do instead:
Attach the proper name or vocabulary to your emotion. Do not intellectualize your feelings. Say aloud what your exact emotion is (or write it down). Most of us do not like to talk about our negative emotions. We do not want to talk about that exact moment we feel anger or sadness. We intellectualize these feelings by saying things like, “I am just a bit stressed out but everything is going to be fine.” or “I should not be angry, I should be grateful instead.” No, give these emotions the proper name. In my story, I felt anxious and insecure.
What was extraordinary was that a positive change happened once I told my boss about my feelings. She did not notice my insecurities and thought I was just really confident of my competencies. She saw my passive-aggressiveness as a sign of personal boldness. Because I talked about my emotions, our connection has improved. It also opens the door to talk about emotions when I would feel the need during the next conversation.
Let your emotional state rest. Allow it to pass by when you have addressed the give emotion to yourself and to your co-workers. It is normal to feel certain unwanted emotions. I personally made the mistake that I never addressed my feelings of incompetency as a doctor. I ran away of these feelings by focusing on other projects outside the doctor’s practice. This obviously made things only worse and at a certain moment I completely lost my interest in the job of a doctor. If I would have not tried to escape this emotion, I would maybe have never experienced that situation.
Choose a proper constructive emotion instead. In my case, the proper constructive emotions was to confront these incompetencies. These were exactly my pain points. Not only would I have dealt constructively with my emotion but I also would have been actively trying to become a better doctor. This is exactly what I am now trying to achieve. It took me a little four months to realize this while I probably could have accomplished this much sooner. You should not make the same mistakes as me.
What to do afterwards:
Discover the relation between recurring emotions by noting them down and by being generally curious to understand them. Emotions always have a deeper cause. In my case, my feelings of incompetency date back to my time as a child. I had the nickname of “socially incapable’ Sarah. (That is a joke!) Teachers saw me like the popular TV-show: “LOST!” Mingle this childhood with a perfectionistic and controlling personality and voilà, you get one emotional wreck. Before things get really depressing, let us get to the next step.
Tell a new story based on the origin story you have uncovered in the previous step. It is not because something bad happened in your history that it should define your future as well. Me being socially helpless as a child should not characterize my communicative capacities as an adult. There is really no reason to mistrust everyone including yourself. Do not engage in negative self-talk and try to find a sense of purpose. You need to have a strong sense of purpose to constantly build positive emotions. The only thing I leave up to you in this discussion is how you can find that sense of purpose or you can read one of my blogs.
Emotions are hardwired in our system. They should neither be controlled in the pure rational way nor should they be suppressed. You should always address your emotions to give yourself the ability to analyze them and to move forward when you are ready. Use emotional agility in moments of stress or euphoria. This way you, leverage your emotions instead of giving them the power to wear you down. Do not make the mistake like I made in my example. Use the 7 R’s of emotional agility, if necessary, and finally deal with these suppressed emotions. Good luck!