The ‘back story’ of our reactions

Published Categorized as emotional literacy, Understanding emotions

I have in the last year found a very quick way of explaining how we can gain greater emotional intelligence. Here goes:

Something happens – for example:

  • You meet someone for the first time
  • You trip over in front of strangers
  • You have an angry thought thought
  • You learn you’ve won millions on the lottery

And in response to whatever happened, you react. That sounds so simple right? What could possibly go wrong?

And yet at the point of that stimuli (or whatever happened) in theory your reaction could be one of an endless number of possibilities – including doing nothing. However, quite often our reactions:

  • are impulsive
  • can make situations worse
  • are on repeat – so that the same stimuli always triggers the same response so there is no flexibility
  • don’t often take time to stop and ponder what the best outcome might be
  • don’t always put maintaining relationships as a high priority – reactions to strong emotions can tend to be a little self-concerned
  • can be defensive or controlling – triggered by a perceived need to protect ourselves
  • rarely consider all relevant information about the situation in a rational and unbiased way

Sadly, few of us manage to react resourcefully every time something happens; we are only human after all. We shouldn’t be hard on ourselves for getting things ‘wrong’ but I do think it’s healthy to strive to get better at managing our reactions – rather than letting them roll on repeat.

So, in my quest to help people understand how to gain greater emotional intelligence, I have started to succinctly describe it as:  “the need to become curious about the back story of our reactions.”

This opens up the exploration of what’s going on for us in greater detail, so we start to gain a fuller story about our reactions. In doing this we not only become more self-aware, we increase the chance of being more flexible and resourceful in how we react to situations where uncomfortable emotions have been triggered so that we are less likely to make things worse.

So when I say to people, ‘be curious about the back-story of your reactions’, they tend to look stumped for a moment. So I give them tools to help with this curiosity.  

Questions like:

  • What am I feeling?
  • Where am I feeling it?
  • What kind of day have I had so far?
  • Am I tired, hungry, or physically uncomfortable in some other way and that’s impacted on how I reacted?
  • Would everyone react like I did?
  • What am I thinking that might be unhelpful? Have I made any unhelpful assumptions – especially about someone else’s intentions?
  • How do I feel about anyone else involved and has that contributed to how I reacted?
  • Has someone touched upon something I feel sensitive about and therefore I am being defensive?
  • Do I always react this way when someone does that? Am I on repeat – like I always feel shame when someone laughs at me because I always assume I am being mocked or do I always get angry about someone being late because I interpret that as them not respecting me?
  • Might anyone else involved just be having a bad day?
  • If someone has upset me – are there any circumstances by which I might behave the way they just did? – which of course takes the focus away from ourselves and puts what might be going on for someone else into the equation

There are many things we can be curious about – every time we react!

And once we start to be curious, we do develop greater flexibility and resourcefulness in how we respond. We can manage situations with greater awareness or more consciously – which also tends to also mean more carefully.

I’ll also add that curiosity is an expansive emotion that can feel rewarding in itself.

As a teacher in a Pupil Referral Unit – for ten years – I aimed to help children understand and better manage their emotions and reactions. Reactions which were often extremely powerful. Powerful enough to throw chairs across the room, for example – and regularly!

We might not throw chairs across the room (I am hoping this is a fair assumption for most of us) but our emotions, left unconscious can take over and control us and mean we react – at best – clumsily or by withdrawing, and at worse hurtfully. Many of us know that when we’re in the grips of a strong emotion, we don’t often make good choices and unless we’re careful, we’re probably going to make situations worse.

Becoming emotionally intelligent or more conscious about our reactions has more benefits than preventing us from throwing chairs – in reality or metaphorically. The ultimate starting point of developing greater emotionally intelligence is noticing our emotions arrive, as they arise. But noticing emotions as they arise can be hard – thus my suggestion that we start with our reactions – the noticeable ones at first. Once we enjoy what the curiosity teaches us – we’ll soon move on to more subtle reactions. And before long, you’ll be noticing the emotions before the reactions. At this point the key to opening up self-awareness and becoming emotionally extremely intelligent can well and truly accelerate.