Mind your emotions: why emotional agility is the key to personal growth

What do scorn, hate, anxiety, shame, and regret have in common?

According to David Hawkins, they may be killing us.

It’s no secret that our emotions can play a significant role in our mental and physical health. But Hawkins, a psychiatrist and lecturer, theorizes that what we feel on a daily basis is a matter of life and death — at least on the cellular level.

Hawkins’ theory is based on his recent finding that all emotions have a specific amount of energy. While Hawkins believes lower-energy emotions like anxiety and shame contribute to cell death, more positive states of mind like peace, joy, love, and reason can actually make us healthier.

Powerful as our emotions may be, here’s the good news: we’re not victims of the feelings that negatively affect our lives. Research on neuroplasticity demonstrates that the human brain is more than capable of reorganizing itself.

But where do we start? How do we gain control of our emotions — and even leverage them to be stronger leaders and creatives?

Learning how to manage our emotions begins with a basic understanding of the brain.

The science of our emotions

Our brains are made up of two primary structures.

The limbic system controls our emotions and behavioral responses, triggering a sympathetic nervous system response when we’re under stress. This is part of the fight-or-flight reaction, the brain’s instinctive, physiological way of protecting us when it senses we’re in danger.

Have you ever felt nervous before a big presentation? You have the limbic system to thank for your sweaty palms and stomach butterflies. Ever been cut off by a reckless driver on the interstate? Your cheeks grow hot and your heart begins to race because your limbic system senses a threat. In short, the limbic system helps us survive.

The prefrontal cortex, on the other hand, is far more evolved. If someone’s ever told you to “use your head,” they’re probably referring to the prefrontal cortex, the conscious part of the brain that allows us to reason, delay gratification, and experience the meaning beneath our emotions.

While the limbic system is responsible for keeping us alive, problems can arise when it’s in the driver’s seat for too long:

“When people are in the grip of fear, anxiety or depression, or chronic stress, they are unable to make realistic assessment[s] of situations,” writes Dave Gray, an author and visual thinking coach. “The prefrontal cortex goes ‘offline.’ Creative thinking and innovation, indeed, all higher-level brain functions, are stifled.”

So, how do we find mental balance?

If the limbic system is the brain’s accelerator, the prefrontal cortex is like the brakes — helping us slow down, assess the situation, and respond to our emotions appropriately.

Learning how to hit the brakes is the premise of emotional regulation, or the ability to control how we respond to our feelings — and an important step toward our personal growth and wellbeing.

The art of emotional agility

No one is born with the ability to self-regulate. We see this with babies who can’t fall asleep without being rocked, and toddler meltdowns in the grocery store checkout line. Children communicate through emotions.

By the time we’re school-aged, most of us have learned how to temper our emotional responses to difficult situations, whether through positive thinking or distraction.

We learn that we can control our emotions, and they don’t control us — a critical facet of our wellbeing. In fact, emotional regulation is a vital part of maturing socially and an important pillar of mental health.

But there’s a difference between merely moving past our emotions and actually managing them. While emotional regulation focuses on preventing a negative response, emotional management can help us leverage emotions for personal and professional growth.

Harvard Medical School professor and psychologist Susan David calls the practice of managing our emotions by mindfully engaging with them “emotional agility:”

“Whereas positive thinking and avoidance have overemphasized the role of our thoughts, emotional agility is a skill set that builds on our ability to face our emotions, label them, understand them and then choose to move forward deliberately,” David writes. 

“It is the ability to recognize when you’re feeling stressed, be able to step out of your stress, and then decide how to act in a way that is congruent with your personal values and aligned with your goals.”

If emotional regulation is a science, then emotional agility is an art.

With the ability to strategically embrace and harness our emotions, we can grow in our creative, communication, and leadership abilities. As social scientist and author Joseph Grenny writes:

“The ability to recognize, own, and shape your own emotions is the master skill for deepening intimacy with loved ones, magnifying influence in the workplace, and amplifying our ability to turn ideas into results.”

How to practice emotional agility

1. Don’t hide from your emotions

Building a startup is inherently emotional.

Between the occasional disappointment of slow growth, the frustration of a bug in our software, or even simple office miscommunications, my tendency is often to move on, with a smile on my face. There are bigger things to worry about, and I want my team to see me as positive and resilient.

Isn’t that what good leaders do?

While staying calm in the face of adversity is part of managing a team, it’s not necessarily the best way to manage emotions. In fact, evidence shows I may be doing myself a disservice by wearing a grin when my pulse is speeding beneath the surface.

Burying emotions has an equally risky impact: When we avoid or numb how we feel, our emotions often come back magnified. One study shows that smokers who actively tried not to think about cigarettes ended up dreaming about cigarettes, which led them to smoke more.

Numbering our emotions can negatively affect our behavior, but more importantly, it can also limit our potential. To become truly resilient, we first have to experience our emotions. We have to allow ourselves to feel difficult things and experience life’s trials in order to grow stronger and wiser.

While it’s tempting to escape uncomfortable emotions by quickly moving on, distracting ourselves, or faking positivity, choosing to dig in and feel them can strengthen and stretch us:

“Unless we can process, navigate and be comfortable with the full range of our emotions, we won’t learn to be resilient,” writes David. “We must have some practice dealing with those emotions or we will be caught off guard. I believe the strong cultural focus on happiness and thinking positively is actually making us less resilient.”

Hiding from our emotions also disconnects us from ourselves. Difficult feelings mirror what we care about most in life, because “emotions like sadness, guilt, grief and anger are beacons for our values,” says David. For example, if you feel frustrated when a colleague arrives late for a meeting, you probably value respect and punctuality.

2. Tell a new story

While moving on to the next meeting or email during a moment of anger or disappointment seems like the simpler response, it can be more beneficial to reframe how we feel — to challenge the story our emotions are telling us.

When we view our emotions as “negative,” an escape attempt is inevitably around the corner. But reframing how we feel helps us to challenge and take ownership of our emotions

Beneath the surface of every feeling is a story. Think about it: in the face of a harsh and uninvited critique, you’re probably frustrated by your co-worker’s lack of tact, but look deeper, and you’re probably threatened by his comments because you wonder if you actually are incompetent.

Often, these stories represent core beliefs that took root much earlier in life.

To manage the emotions that surface in the heat of the moment, Joseph Grenny recommends exploring your “primal story.” For example, if you feel ashamed when a colleague criticizes you, try to trace back the origin feeling or experience.

When was the first time you felt ashamed of yourself?

As long as we believe these “primal stories” to be true, Grenny says we’re doomed to be victims of our emotions, which leaves us feeling out of control.

But understanding your origin story is the first step to challenging the emotion that comes from it:

“I’ve become aware of the primal origin of the stories I tell — and learned to challenge the perception that my safety and worth are at risk in these moments,” writes Grenny.

3. Build your emotional vocabulary

Managing our emotions also means simply identifying them. A big emotion without a name can feel overwhelming and unending. But naming our emotions empowers us to be realistic about their impact and find a solution.

Psychologist Lisa Feldman Barrett says misinterpreting our emotions can cause us to respond inappropriately — and that’s easy to do, since many emotional sensations feel similar.

Rather than describing yourself as sad, which feels vague, try labeling your emotion as “dejected” or “disappointed.”

Feldman Barrett refers to this specificity as “emotional granularity,” which can help us more deeply understand our circumstances, or reframe negative emotions to feel less threatening. For example, realizing that you’re disappointed by an investor’s reaction to your presentation probably feels more manageable than a vague sense of sadness.

Hitting the brakes to accelerate growth

Reframing and naming emotions may not be an escape route for everything we feel, but that’s not the goal in the first place. By skipping past the difficulties our emotions can bring, we miss important opportunities to grow.

The aim of emotional agility is to manage, and even leverage, emotions to move forward in our work and our relationships. Because when we can hit the brakes on the emotions that hold us back, we can begin to accelerate toward the things we want the most.

Aytekin Tank is the Founder and CEO of JotForm. A developer by trade but a storyteller by heart, he writes about his journey as an entrepreneur and shares advice for other startups. He loves to hear from JotForm users. You can reach Aytekin from AytekinTank@JotForm.com

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