Emotions are the major driving force behind our behavior. Songs are written about them, poetry attempts to describe them and the quality of our lives bend to these experiences. The real question is, can you control them? This article series attempts to prove not only that yes, emotional mastery is a goal all of us can strive towards but how one can achieve it.
Emotional Mastery (Series)
Complete emotional mastery is a very lofty and some would say, unattainable goal. Even if this is true, small steps towards greater skill in managing and shaping our moods, experiences and feelings can pay off in huge rewards in your quality of life. Not only does emotional control help you handle extreme situations and crises more effectively, but it can give you much greater long-term stability and happiness.
In the first article of this series, I explored the concept of emotions as being a categorization of thoughts and experiences. Although these categories are arbitrary, we can all identify anger from joy and pain from pleasure. I also explored why it is difficult to control your emotions and the three obstacles that can prevent people from gaining skill.
In the second article of the series, Body Signals, I talked about how using your physiology is one of the best ways to quickly regain control and composure over your short term emotional power. Like maneuvering thrusters in a spaceship, using your physiology can allow you to make quick adjustments to your emotional state and should always be your first response when you attempt to change your mood.
In this article I will go into more depth in describing how you can use knowledge of mental patterns to gain longer term control over your emotional state. Although I will discuss persistent states of negative emotions in a later article, these strategies can help you break out of a bad mood and regain composure.
As I discussed in the first article, emotions are nothing but a category of thinking and experiencing. Although from a biological perspective there are hundreds of interacting neurotransmitters and hormones creating emotions, I am focusing on self-help solutions, so I’ll describe emotions from a purely experiential viewpoint. From this viewpoint it is easy to see that anger, love or enthusiasm is merely a simplified classification of an incredibly diverse and varied set of behaviors, experiences and thought patterns.
These thought patterns, or self-talk, form the foundation of your emotional experience. Whatever environmental, biological or physiological factors are influencing your feelings, these appear in your self-talk. Have you ever experienced a time when you were enraged, yet your internal self-talk was calm and placid? Probably not. You may have mustered the control not to express your emotions, but they will always show up in your self-talk.
Because emotions always express themselves in your self-talk, changing the path of your mental patterns or self-talk will change your emotional state. If you are feeling angry and your self-talk suddenly becomes joyous and happy, you will stop feeling angry. Change your mental pattern and you change your emotion.
The only problem with this approach is that if changing your mental pattern were so easy, you would have perfect emotional control already. Obviously once you get into a bad emotional state it can be very difficult to take on a new pattern of thinking to replace your old one. Mental patterns flow like rivers. The water in the river has no control over where that river flows, and although you have more conscious exertion than the water in a river, any attempt in diverting that flow directly will be like a school of fish trying to alter the direction. Indirectly, however, it is possible to change that flow and regain control of your emotional life.
Recognize Bad Mental Patterns
The first step in stopping any negative emotion is to recognize it as such. This is the first barrier to emotional mastery and often the most difficult to overcome. By the time you actually realize you are angry, depressed or enthusiastic, you are already deep within your pattern. It is also easy to forget that you are within a certain emotional state once you are caught in the worst of it.
To gain emotional mastery, you must start by being conscious of your emotional state at all times. Instead of simply looking at your emotions as being a facet of the world, you have to separate these emotions and perceive them separately. This way when you are feeling lousy, you will recognize that this is because you are running a bad mental pattern. With this knowledge you can begin to work on those patterns and replace them with better ones.
Interrupt Your Pattern
My favorite way for breaking a mental pattern is simply to interrupt it. This is a step Tony Robbins often advocates in many of his programs. Interrupting your pattern simply means doing something your brain doesn’t expect. A spontaneous new action or stimulus will immediately cause a massive state change. From this interruption you can regain control in your emotional state.
Using our river metaphor for self-talk, imagine a pattern interrupt like being a massive earthquake. This earthquake is so large that all the water in the riverbed splashes onto the shores. At this point the water may return back to the original riverbed, but it might also flow into a different direction or path based on where it lands. The riverbed itself might collapse so it cannot contain as much water.
So how do you interrupt your own pattern? Simply do something that you wouldn’t normally do when running this self-talk. Tony’s example of this is that when you are feeling depressed you should stand up and yell something like, “Thank God! My feet don’t stink today!” Of course this ridiculous phrase doesn’t fit into your pattern and you have a chance to escape a bad state.
The key when breaking your pattern is simply to try and outsmart the pattern. What would you normally do in this state? When this happens simply think of something that your mind doesn’t expect, something that doesn’t fit into the pattern. Although it can be as outrageous as Tony’s demonstration it doesn’t have to be. Simply find something you can do or experience that is completely outside the limits of that pattern.
I often find talking to other people to be a good pattern interrupt for myself. When I get into a bad mood I am more likely to turn inwards and cut off outside stimulation which could be necessary to recover my emotional state. By seeing other people I quickly break that pattern and set in a new one.
I could write thousands of ways you can break your patterns, but they must be tailored to each individual. You need to realize what your own bad patterns are and develop ways that can completely interrupt them. Interrupting patterns is one of the most effective ways to make a change in your own thinking.
Change Your Focus
Another way to alter the flow of a mental pattern is to change your focus. It is important to remember that focus is what creates an emotion in a first place. So if you are thinking about how you just lost your wallet and that creates a bad emotional state for you, try changing your focus to something else, like how happy you are to just have received a promotion.
Changing your focus isn’t always a good idea as it can keep you from handling urgent problems. In these cases I try not to completely shift my focus, but rather, alter my focus in such a way that it doesn’t create the negative emotions. If you are experiencing stress from having to give a presentation at work, shifting your focus to how this is really an opportunity for growth can help. Reframing a situation can be a more proactive means to change your focus.
There are some situations though where a drastic focus change is necessary. If you have no power to act upon a certain issue, then shifting your focus elsewhere can be a means to lessen the temporary emotional burden. If your television was stolen and you cannot do anything to rectify the situation, it may be necessary to shift your focus elsewhere until the stress from losing the television alleviates.
Visualization is another method to change your thinking patterns. By visualizing a new alternative or imagining something positive, you can shift your state. So when thinking about a speech going badly makes you feel nervous, instead consciously visualize it going well. Although it is important to recognize the negative possibilities of an action, there are many times when dwelling upon those possibilities is counter-productive. By deciding to visualize a positive outcome you help install positive emotions more strongly than negative ones.
Focus changing and visualization are often more difficult techniques than interruption simply because they work from the inside-out. As a result they require considerably more mental fortitude to control than simply doing a pattern interrupt. Nonetheless, practicing focus changes and visualization can allow you to have more control over where you emotions flow. There will be times when you either cannot think of a pattern interrupt or it is inappropriate to do so, in these cases practicing focus and visualization can give you the edge.
Condition New Patterns
Although these techniques work in the short-term, when used often enough they become habits. By conditioning new habitual patterns into your self-talk it becomes more difficult to return to negative states of mind. You disrupt the rivers of thought so intensely that water won’t flow down them anymore.
If you have a particularly bad habit pattern of thought that is recurring, you may want to do a 30 Day Trial with alternative interrupts, focuses and visualizations to destroy it. Although mental habit trials can be very challenging, successfully installing a new habit pattern of thought can create massive change in your life.
In the next article in this series, I will explore how energy effects emotions and how emotions themselves have an inherent energy quality. By looking at emotional energy you can see how cycles of stress and recovery can be used to create mastery. Similarly by classifying emotions by there level of energy you can look at a more biological basis for emotion and see why it is easier to shift from nervousness to enthusiasm than to peacefulness.
Emotional Mastery (Series)