February 2018: Snap! The art and science of handling your emotions
A long while back someone asked me what feelings were and what they were for. I don’t recall much about my fudged answer. The same person explained that some brainy cove (an evolutionary psychologist?) had come up with a wonderful little concept… that feelings were in fact “our first, best, quick guess” about what was going on ‘out there’, around us.
After donkeys' years thinking and reading around feelings I do, more than ever, buy the notion that they are our early warning system. A pre-conscious interpretation of sub-consciously captured data and the emotions that result. Eh? A quick conclusion about an amazingly complex, yet quick, synthesis of all the bits and bobs that you have noticed (without knowing that you’ve noticed) that you get a gut reaction about that you then think of as good or bad… and then have a feeling about it.
Feelings let us answer the endlessly occurring, moment by moment, essential-to-life questions…. What next? Do I stick around? More of the same please? Do I change something? Do I get the heck out?
Most of us have a threshold of tolerance for things going wrong. Our tolerance enables us to put up with a hopefully expanding collection of circumstances in which things might not exactly be going our way but may be good enough for now. Tolerable.
It is of course socially highly acceptable to be seen as ‘tolerant’, so many of us, as we go through life, try increasingly hard to accept things we don’t like. But at some point, most of us have to admit defeat and, if we were trying really hard not to, may snap rather unexpectedly rather than give in gracefully.
But why do we hold out at all? Well there’s the whole social acceptability angle as I said but we also have a bit of a problem estimating our capacity for doing things. It’s well written up that we think that we’re great at a whole load of stuff like spotting a liar and predicting the stock market - but we’re not. Point blank: we’re just not as clever as we think we are.
So if we were to embrace our faultiness and own up to our feelings much earlier, what could possibly stop us from being more effective at handling said feelings and therefore more able in a whole collection of awkward situations that we get involved in at home and work? Well, just the small matter of up-bringing and culture. We have beliefs about feelings, about what is an isn’t allowed and when. The three rules that turn up the most regularly are:
1. Showing feelings at work is weak/unprofessional.
People who try their hardest not to show their feelings ironically are often the first to ‘leak’ their real position when the pressure is on. What's more, people who have learned to be ‘private’ about their feelings (and are successful at it) are often perceived as being cold fish/difficult to read and therefore can encounter difficulties in breeding trust amongst their peers and teams. Keeping our feelings at bay can indeed keep us out of certain types of trouble... but at a price.
2. Feelings cloud logic.
The science suggests that feelings, and the parts of the brain that are involved in their generation, are very much involved in the process of decision-making about all sorts of things involving people as well as things. Feelings provide the fine-tuning for decision-making that facts alone cannot provide.
3. Sticking to facts keeps feelings at bay.
It is possible to keep feelings out of the speech elements of a conversation but they continue to happen in parallel without being asked to. We can even distract ourselves from a feeling of foreboding about a situation or person by focusing on the positive or we can pretend to be OK with someone when we’re not… all at the price of having to work harder than usual in keeping our secret. Begging the question… why not just be more real? More truthful? Make it easier for ourselves?