Right about now, you might be very angry about all that’s going on with the Coronavirus situation. Especially if you watch any of the cable news reporting.
In the book, the 15 Commitments of Conscious Leaders, Commitment #3 (summarized) is: “I commit to feeling my feelings through to completion. They come, and I locate them in my body, then move, breathe, and vocalize them, so they release all the way.” It’s a topic that Conscious Leaders come back to time and time again because they practice emotional intelligence.
Dan Goleman brought the phrase “emotional intelligence” into the leadership lexicon with his 1995 book by the same name and through his Harvard Business Review Article entitled: “What Makes a Leader? “. Through his research, Goleman found that highly effective leaders distinguished themselves with qualities of self-awareness and regulation, as well as motivation, empathy, and social skill.
Unfortunately, when Goleman published his work, there was not much advice for those leaders who are “sensitive” and experience their own emotions (as well as those of others) very strongly. Sensitives can often ascribe a polarity (positive or negative) to feelings, and they can also experience them with varying degrees of intensity. Fortunately, science is now beginning to describe what Buddhist and Stoic philosophers knew over two millennia ago: the mind and body create emotions based on the current input and past experiences. Also, the mindfulness movement is helping leaders recognize and label their feelings in the workplace while enabling others to do the same, which brings us to the heart of the topic of this essay — dealing with difficult or afflictive emotions.
In the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, these are called Kleshas or mental states that cloud the mind and result in unwholesome actions. Some of these include anxiety, fear, anger, jealousy, hatred, and desire (to name a few). For many of us, anger (in its various strong, mild, and weak forms) is an emotion that can come up fast, and if one is not mindful can lead to harmful speech or actions which are often regret later (think of the Hulk). Thankfully, more and more leaders establish a daily practice of sitting meditation, which helps them be more mindful of their feelings. In the case of anger, mindful leaders can become more skillful (although not completely skillful) at noticing when anger arises. They breathe and create, as Viktor Frankl said [paraphrase]: “space between stimulus and response.”
In the leadership context, it is helpful to acknowledge that people are human beings that possess and experience a FULL RANGE of emotions. As leaders, we can take full responsibility for our feelings, noticing them as they arise and expressing them candidly. We can also create environments of candor that allow colleagues to do the same. You can learn how to do that here.
Also, I encourage you to reflect upon a time when you artfully handled a difficult emotion that arose, and also a time when you were not so skillful.
In the latter case, what if you treated yourself as you would a friend in a similar situation? How would that look? Most likely, you would be kind, understanding, and encouraging. Now, direct that type of response internally, toward yourself. That is called: “giving yourself a break” and is more commonly known as self-compassion, which is the focus of a good deal of psychological research in recent years. Psychologists are discovering that self-compassion is a useful tool for enhancing well being.
People with high levels of self-compassion demonstrate three behaviors:
- They are kind rather than judgmental about their own failures and mistakes;
- They recognize that failures are a shared human experience; and
- They take a balanced approach to negative emotions when they stumble or fall short — they allow themselves to feel bad, but they don’t let negative emotions take over.
I will say that giving myself a break when I’ve been unskillful (especially in relationships with colleagues, friends, and family) is very difficult for me right now. I have a powerful inner critic (or, self-judge) that would rather NOT be kind and compassionate when my afflictive emotions (especially anger) get the better part of me.
What I find helps is that I maintain what Carol Dweck calls a “growth mindset.” According to Dweck, people who have a growth mindset, view personality traits, and abilities as malleable. They see the potential for growth and thus are more likely to try to improve — to put in effort and practice and to stay positive and optimistic. On the contrary, people with a fixed mindset see personality traits and abilities, including their own, as set in stone. They believe that who we are today essentially is who they’ll be five years from now.
Even though I still have many breakdowns in the realm of dealing with powerful emotions, I am aware that I am improving and making progress. This does not mean that I suppress or repress them when they arise. It does mean that I am becoming more skillful (although not wholly skillful) in noticing the gap between stimulus and response and choosing from there.
I still do not always choose wisely. As recently as a few weeks ago, I had a massive emotional meltdown with my wife of 20+ years. I reacted very angrily upon learning that our daughter needed to awake at 5am the next day to get on a bus for an all-day lacrosse tournament. Now, when I get angry, it’s usually because a value of mine gets squashed. In this case, it is my value in parenting around the well-being of our children. Sleep deprivation, long bus rides, and a day of back-to-back lacrosse games do not neatly fit into that value system. And, learning about it the evening before violated a value I have around communication.
So, after the angry outburst, I apologized to my wife and decided to give myself a break. I am delighted to share that the wound healed quickly. And, some good came out of this for everyone involved. My wife and daughter are more mindful of commitments that do not honor our value around health and wellness. I was able to practice self-compassion and strengthen a psychological muscle that requires regular attention.
It would appear that self-compassion and compassion for others are mutually reinforcing. Practicing one boosts the other. Practicing compassion for others can increase compassion toward oneself. Being kind and nonjudgmental toward oneself is good practice for treating others compassionately.
So, the next time you have an emotional meltdown, I encourage you to give yourself a break!
David Langiulli is an Executive Coach and Trainer that uses all of his courage, compassion, and wisdom to help nonprofit leaders and their teams flourish and thrive.