The great captains of our lives

Prague Leaders Magazine, September 2009

Summer offers more opportunity to indulge in reading, one of my favorite activities, and I especially like it when I bump into a book or an article which stops me in my tracks and reorients my thinking.

One of those moments happened last month when I came across a New York Times article entitled “Mental Stress Training Is Planned for U.S. Soldiers”, which says that the U.S. Army is developing an intensive training program about emotional resiliency.

While the corporate world has embraced Daniel Goleman’s Emotional Intelligence principles for a couple of decades, the military culture has generally considered talk of emotions to be a sign of weakness rather than a dimension of strength to be incorporated in their combat training.

All that is about to change with the new “Comprehensive Soldier Fitness Program” which, according to Army Chief of Staff Gen. George Casey, “is designed to strengthen soldiers, family members and Army civilians emotionally, spiritually and socially, giving them the ability to cope with stress.”

Confronted with an increase in service suicides (62 confirmed suicides and 34 unconfirmed from Jan 1 through July 31) and PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder) cases, the Army is prompted to bring the same emphasis to soldiers’ emotional fitness as their physical fitness.

The salient discovery that emotional fitness plays a crucial role in the soldiers’ overall well-being and their performance in combat resonates deeply with Daniel Goleman’s assertion about “the vital role that empathy and self-knowledge play in effective leadership.”

Daily life requires that we cope with complex emotions, from getting stuck in traffic on our way to an important meeting to preparing a presentation for the next marketing strategy plan. But, regardless of our efforts to try to keep our emotions under control, our emotional brain reacts quicker than our rational brain.

Situated in the limbic system (mediator between thoughts and feelings), the amygdala (responsible for our emotions) reacts instantly to what we perceive. When the amygdala perceives an emotional emergency, it can take over the rest of the brain before the neo-cortex (the thinking brain) has time to analyze the signals coming in and decide what to do. Depending on the signal, the amygdala can prompt us to high anxiety, paralyzing fear or even rage, before we quite know what is going on.

All emotions serve a purpose; they are the Hermes of our subconscious mind, the feedback messenger of our unconsciousness. When we get into an emotional tailspin, it is time to pay attention to the messages our emotions are sending us, because any emotion can have negative consequences and become destructive. Even too much happiness, turned into hysteria, can lead to destructive behavior.

But when we speak about negative emotions we are usually referring to fear and anger, with anger often the focus of attention.

A healthy dose of anger is often useful, even beneficial; if there was no anger about injustice in the world, no revolutions would have ever taken place. But being able to express anger in a healthy manner is a challenge, especially when anger hard-wires our physical and emotional responses. If, as Vincent van Gogh once professed, “Emotions are the great captains of our lives and we obey them without realizing it,” how do we find ways to handle our destructive emotions more effectively, to become the masters of our emotions instead of letting them take over?

According to Daniel Goleman, “The good news is that the brain is plastic throughout life – it is shaped through repeated training and experience. That means we can acquire emotional skills.” And emotional skills can be learned and developed until an advanced age.

As much as those crucial emotional skills can be learned, it takes practice to be able to observe and understand feelings when they arise, and to pause before we respond. To foster the ability to restrain our quick emotional impulses we need to develop:

1. Emotional Awareness

This is understanding what we are feeling and why. It is identifying how our bodies feel when we are experiencing fear or anger and describing our physical sensation; e.g. when I want to ask my boss for a raise, my stomach gets tense; when my colleague doesn’t listen to what I say, my blood boils. It is also describing the action the emotion seems to be pushing us to do; e.g. when I am angry I feel like shouting.

2. Emotional Focus or Mindfulness

Mindfulness is the calm awareness of one’s body functions, feelings, content of consciousness, or consciousness itself. To acquire mindfulness, we can practice simple mindful meditation, which is the ability to attend to the moment. This can be done while seated, walking or during any activity. It is mind training. It is about paying close attention to what we are doing and experiencing, and how we feel in the moment. It is the opposite of multitasking. It is about bringing the mind back to the moment whenever it wanders off.

3. Emotional Control

As the Dalai Lama pointed out in one of his interviews, “To be effective in responding to what makes us angry, we need to keep the focus and energy of the anger, but drop the anger itself in order to act more skillfully.”

Some easy ways to drop anger are to breathe deeply, from your diaphragm; silently speak a calming word or phrase; or to visualize a pleasant place or experience.

Never speak or act/react when feeling angry, and focus on what you want to achieve instead of what is bothering you. Our perceptions are controlled by what we focus on and the meaning we give to what is happening to us. For example, when someone is late we can think one of several things:

  • Something came up, he/she will arrive soon
  • How dare he/she be late and make me wait
  • Something horrible like an accident must have happened

Before letting ourselves get into an emotional tailspin/unthinking panic mode, we need to take a deep breath and:

  • Change our perception: the person probably didn’t mean to offend us
  • Change our approach: maybe we mis-communicated the time or place of the meeting
  • Change our communication: shift from indirect to direct communication and be specific, instead of assuming people know our expectations.

Anger can feel good, even terrific, because it is energizing. But the consequences can be adaptive and functional, or really destructive. Used appropriately – recognizing when we are angry and why we are angry – anger can be a powerful tool for change.

For years, the accepted belief was that intellectual abilities were the key to success in life. It turns out that emotions also play a crucial, possibly greater, role. Far from distorting our rational thinking or distracting our minds, emotions are key to our ability to appraise, evaluate and ultimately make decisions. They are what make life rich and interesting.

If the U.S Army, which has long suppressed talk about emotion, recognizes the necessity to teach soldiers adequate emotional skills to deal with the extreme stresses combat generates, the task should be fairly easy for the rest of us. And recognizing the fundamental connection between rationality and emotion allows us to be more open about accepting the impact and benefit of emotions in the professional world, as well as in our private lives.