It feels like I have shrunk. For my five-foot-nothing frame, this is not a good thing. As it is, I need to use my 'bouncy bubbly' personality to gain space in the world, so when that bounce is deflated and the bubble is popped I feel insignificantly small. I have opened my inbox and there is another rejection letter. I know the pattern now: I will leave it there as a "motivator", I'll reply and ask for feedback and then receive some generic unhelpful blurb about 'not the right fit at this time' or 'many highly qualified candidates'. In other words, I will prolong the pain just to punish myself a little bit more.
Yes, I have chosen to wear my resentment pants this morning. They're not that comfy, rather ugly, quite restrictive and somewhat impractical but they are familiar, and herein lies the problem. I have what Carol Courcy calls an 'emotional pattern' that is not serving me well. It's my cycle of ambition and resentment that is fueling a never-ending circuit of contract applications, interviews and stress that spins faster and pulls tighter around me each click of the inbox. Toss in an ingrained fear of rejection stemming from my divorce over a decade ago, and ‘hey presto’ - each morning I select my emotional outfit from a wardrobe of moods that serve to protect me from the hard work of changing myself. I need to find a new pair of pants, preferably something a little less stiff.
To some degree we all have a favoured emotional range; mood habits that are so second nature it is now hard to identify them as choices. But temperament is not biologically fixed for life. Many studies have shown that we can control our emotional habits just as we can control our physical habits. What that requires is a proactive, conscious choice of emotion - not suppression, but acknowledgement and analysis.
That is not easy. Emotions are slippery, subversive things - taking control before we realise it and sometimes surprising even us in their intensity. The amygdala, that part of your brain’s limbic system that processes memory and emotional responses is a trained ninja, poised and waiting to attack without stopping to rationalise. When an event triggers an emotionally charged memory from the past, the limbic system responds with the feelings that went with the remembered event. The emotional mind reacts as if it is the past. Someone who has learned, through a painful childhood, to react to an angry scowl with intense fear and loathing will have that reaction as an adult, even when the scowl carries no such threat.
Furthermore, actions that spring from the emotional mind bring their own justification. We often feel a particularly strong sense of certainty in the moment of emotional response, because our limbic system’s simplified way of looking at things is comfortingly self-serving. It’s later when we have that ‘What did I do that for?’ thought that our rational mind is awakened to the moment and begins to think more carefully about choices that may now be too late to enact. Hence the need for that very human word ‘sorry’.
But what if we could start to reverse this speedy automaticity and learn to consciously choose an emotion to lead the action, rather than having to react to the emotion that was triggered by the event? This is the idea behind Courcy’s “emotional agility” - the idea that we can go further than just recognising and acknowledging an emotion, so that we can choose our emotional intent in advance of our actions. We can select an emotion to ‘wear’ to the event. It takes self-awareness, persistence and practice. Aristotle said it 1700 years ago, “Anybody can become angry-that is easy; but to be angry with the right person, and to the right degree, and at the right time, and for the right purpose, and in the right way - that is not within everybody’s power and is not easy.”
‘Taming the amygdala’, as it's described in Dr Jan Nelsen’s Positive Discipline programme, can begin from a very young age. Many schools have embraced this approach to teaching social skills which focuses on identifying the belief behind the behaviour. Effective behaviour management recognizes the reasons behind children’s actions as an expression of their basic need for recognition, belonging and significance. Early in the programme children are taught the basic structure of a human brain and use a ‘hand model’ to show the connection between the frontal cortex, amygdala and brainstem. They learn how many of their physical responses are automatic fight, flight or freeze responses of the brain stem reacting to an overloaded amygdala which has disconnected itself from the logical frontal cortex. This helps them recognise the need to be aware of their emotions, use ‘chill zones’ or select from a range of calming strategies to help take control of their emotions and then make more thoughtful choices about their actions.
Formal evaluation of the Positive Discipline programme is still light. Some studies have shown that Positive Discipline tools produce significant results including a reduction in school suspensions and vandalism, and an improvement in classroom atmosphere, behavior, attitudes and academic performance. Students' feelings of being connected to their school community increases and with that comes a decrease in the incidence of socially risky behavior (such as emotional distress, alcohol and marijuana use, and violent behavior). There is also significant evidence that teaching younger students social and emotional skills has a protective effect that lasts into adolescence.
Such skills include self-awareness, expressing and managing feelings, impulse control, delaying gratification, and handling stress and anxiety. The idea is to develop children’s ability to recognise and understand their emotions. This is a solid foundation for emotional agility. The next step is the proactive, conscious choice of emotion. Rather than suppressing or denying our feelings, emotional agility is that idea that we can use our feelings to our advantage: thoughtfully evoking feelings that will serve our purpose before we head into any action or communication.
For those of us whose schooling didn’t touch on the finer points of self-understanding, emotional agility is going to take work. Courcy’s book is a combination of her personal story and reflections from her clients wrapped around a series of exercises designed to encourage daily reflection to notice emotional patterns that aren’t serving us well. The first step is an confrontingly honest look at what our current emotional patterns are serving, and a challenge to the temptation to hold on to them. Once an emotional habit has taken its hold it is not easy to let go of. It has begun to shape your life and your identity. Even patterns of unhappiness can begin to feel comfortable, and challenging that pattern can be scary. Courcy does not demand that we get rid of such feelings, rather that we use them better. We find the right person, degree, time, purpose and way to be unhappy. All emotions can be useful. Emotional agility allows us to select our feelings to serve the purpose they can best fulfil.
For me, my resentment pants are definitely not the best fit as I draft contract applications and proposals, especially when I match them with my fear-of-rejection sweater. I am working on a new season of outfits. My first investment - a coat of curiosity. Through the exercises in Save your Inner Tortoise, and the wise words of my coaching mentor, I have found that curiosity serves me well in almost all circumstances I find myself. I am curious when I am confronted with a challenge: How will I cope with that? What more do I need to learn? I am curious when a colleague is in disagreement with me: What is behind their point of view? What opportunities can their perspective bring? And I am curious when I am angry: What memory has this triggered? What is it about this situation that is so important to me? I imagine my coat of curiosity as my superhero cloak, wrapping me in the power of emotional agility. It’s a nice image and while the reality hasn’t quite reached that ideal, it’s enough to help me survive the inbox and come out standing tall.