Being emotionally brave

Published Categorized as brain wiring, emotions, negative emotions, Uncategorized

I think many people become more emotionally brave as they get older. I expect much of this is down to an ever-increasing ‘dossier’ of potentially tricky situations where we prove to ourselves that we could cope after all! However, I also think greater emotional intelligence and self-awareness can also play a part in accelerating this. Specifically, how we approach unenjoyable emotions – especially those in the fear family and those we might be fearful of experiencing. Also of significance is how much we anticipate and assume we will experience any uncomfortable emotions.

When we are not paying any attention to our emotions, they can have a powerful unconscious effect on the decisions we make. If we are not noticing them, they influence our choices without us even being aware that they have done so. Take as an example; if someone asked us to speak in front of lots of people i.e. do some public speaking. For many (including my younger self) the idea would trigger an automatic negative emotion and we immediately refuse the offer, grasp at plentiful excuses for why we couldn’t and by-pass any real consideration of what would be involved. We respond to a lightning ‘gut reaction’ that says ‘no’ because our fear system is a dominant one as well as a ‘better safe than sorry’ one.  Although we have protected ourselves from further fear or anxiety, staying within our comfort zone like this means we might miss out on an amazing opportunity to grow. We have also anticipated negative emotions; assumed we would suffer so much with negative emotions that we really would not cope.

Another example comes with conflict. Conflict can be a beneficially transformative thing if we don’t allow unconscious negative emotions to mean we handle it badly. (Examples of handling things badly often include self-protecting behaviours such as offensiveness, defensiveness and avoidance that can stop us from taking anyone else’s view into consideration.) When two or more people have needs that are in conflict with each other or when someone has overstepped a boundary, we can often shy away from the situation and ‘just put up with things’ and/or moan to others, rather than face up to discussing it. This is because we anticipate we won’t cope with the negative emotions conflict might stir up in us.

It’s not surprising emotions are powerful! They were designed to help us survive. In simple terms, they motivated us to get away from something or go towards something to get more of it. When this was to optimise survival, it made sense that they influenced us so significantly. But in modern life, there are few life-or-death situations and the negative emotions we experience might sometimes mean we automatically avoid things that could be beneficial – like things that make us grow or allow us to assertively have our needs met!

So how do we overcome the negative and powerful messages some emotions erroneously deliver? Much like I have said before, we learn to get better at enduring uncomfortable emotions; we learn to sit with them, acknowledge them, accept them, tolerate them and eventually ‘recover’ from them. They are just physical sensations triggered inside our body that can flavour our thinking and we can start to see them just as that, with practice. Noticing them can mean we have much more flexibility in how we respond to them as we learn to resist impulsive or automatic reactions.

There’s an added bonus to enduring emotions without acting on the urges they send us. If we do this in situations where we are challenging ourselves, we have the big plus of proving to our prehistoric brains that we did, and can, cope with the situation that triggered the emotion! This can do a handy bit of brain re-wiring.

The more we ‘endure’ uncomfortable emotions consciously, the better we get at enduring them. I have found myself saying as an uncomfortable emotion arises, ‘oh there you are fear of making a fool of yourself or oh there you are feeling a bit awkward in this social situation. You’re welcome. Come on in and I will sit with you!’ In doing just that, it loses its potency as you introspectively realise you can and will cope with the worst case scenario of making a fool of yourself. As with many things the anticipation is worse than the actuality.

So next time you find yourself backing off, saying ‘no’ really quickly or avoiding a situation because of a gut feeling, take a pause to be curious about the different reactions you could actually have and see if you can push yourself to a different response.

I have never read the book ‘Feel the Fear and do it Anyway’ by Susan Jeffers but I suspect she says something similar to this post!