Emotions: Master Them, Or They Will Master You
We must master our emotions if we are to succeed as leaders. Otherwise we make the wrong decisions, we hurt key relationships, and we appear childish and temperamental—all qualities that quickly erode the trust of others in us and will invariably lead us to disaster. Let’s have a conversation about emotions today. I’ll share with you what I know and the key I found to process my emotions as a leader.
Emotions are surprisingly biological.
Our emotions are heavily influenced by biology. After all, our emotions are produced by our brains, and our brains are simply living cells that, just like any other tissue of the body, can get tired, depleted, and unhealthy. Have you noticed that when you are well rested, you are more patient and have less negative emotions?
The physical aspect of our emotions is simply astounding and surprising. A person who gets an injury to the front of their brain typically becomes more angry. A person who has even a small stroke becomes more depressed. A person who goes for a jog for 20 minutes becomes more happy and positive. Why is this important? Because when we recognize that our emotions are determined in big part by chemicals in our brains, we should take them less seriously.
To have emotions is to be human.
Everyone has emotions. We were created this way. Some have stronger emotions than others. And we each have different emotions that we may struggle with, and those that aren’t so challenging. Again, biology plays a big part. Have you noticed how some babies are smiling and happy all the time, while others are cranky and demanding? This temperamental tendency follows us into adulthood. For instance, some people tend to worry. Some never do. Some people tend to get depressed; others do not. Some people are easily anxious or fearful, and others are not. While to have emotions is to be human, it is important to note that we all have different predispositions to manifest certain emotions.
I tell my patients who visit me with depression or anxiety, “First, I want you to know that it’s okay. You are a human being.” The bottom line is: emotions are a part of our human experience. However this not an excuse to surrender to their powerful influence and potentially negative impact on our lives.
Emotions alter our thoughts.
This is very important. The reason emotions can hijack our leadership (and our lives) is because emotions alter our thinking. To understand this, let’s again turn to biology to explain a little bit about our brain’s anatomy and physiology.
Our brains are divided into different parts. The most basic part at the base of the brain handles our fundamental life-sustaining functions, like breathing. The most outer part, our neocortex, handles our most complex thinking—our logical thoughts. Other parts of the brain, like our limbic system, handle our emotions. When you experience a strong emotion, the limbic system fires signals in all directions which inhibits the neocortex from proper thinking.
When we are mad for example, even though we may believe in the moment that we are thinking clearly, we often are not. When we are frustrated or sad, the way we think and reason is affected. And if we don’t recognize the emotional state we are in, we tend to make decisions that are terrible and in hindsight clearly wrong.
When emotional, don’t trust your thoughts.
This may sound absurd, but it is not. Frequently, patients come into my office depressed for good reasons—very logical reasons. But the reality is, there are also those with terrible sicknesses (sometimes dying) who are okay, even content. While reality can affect our moods and thoughts, how we perceive reality is the dominant determinant of our thoughts and actions. Most often, it is not what is happening to you that affects you as much as what is what is happening in you.
So, I prescribe these patients a medicine and they come by in a few weeks feeling happy. I ask them about the “logical reasons” they gave me before that were causing the depression, and they think about them differently now. Same person. Same circumstances. But different emotions. When your emotions are poor, as much as you know that you are thinking clearly, you are not. You cannot. Your neocortex is flooded with signals from your limbic system. So what should you do?
When you have negative emotions (or strong positive ones), your logical thinking is not ideal. When I experience strong emotions, I simply tell myself that my thinking at these times is “no good.” So here is how I master this in my life: when my emotions are poor, I don’t trust my thinking. Thus, I practice the discipline of not thinking. And if I can’t help but think, I tell myself that these thoughts are simply not good, so I will not make decisions based on them.
Can we prevent negative emotions from bubbling up in the first place?
Up to this point, I talked about what to do when strong emotions come. But can we (and should we) try to prevent them from coming on in the first place?
Of course we can, and we should. Why? Because as much as we try to manage emotions when they come, occasional bad decisions or actions will take place. No, we should not be unemotional like robots. People want to follow leaders who feel. But they do not want to follow people who have no mastery over their feelings. If something produces frustration for you, it is imperative that you think about it and come up with ways to prevent it—whether it be removing the cause, removing yourself, or changing your thoughts on how you perceive it.
While it may not be possible to completely prevent negative emotions from occurring, it is possible to limit them. And when they come, it is within our power to manage them and master them. Great leaders do both.
Question: What is the biggest triumph you have had in the area of emotions?
I look forward to reading your response in the comments section below.
For me the biggest triumph I’ve had was in the area of worry. I always worried and could not shut my brain off at night, thinking and pondering life’s challenges. Then I discovered that I can and should simply stop thinking about it. In this blog, I described how I overcame that.
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