Brains are marvellous. Yours is unique to you, but there are some common themes for everyone. For example, the different parts of the brain and what they do.
A book which provides great info on this and other similar subjects is: Your Brain at Work by David Rock.
Two of the many important parts of the brain are the reptile brain and the prefrontal cortex. Evolutionarily speaking, the former is an old part of the brain and it is where a lot of fundamental emotions are generated and felt. The latter is the thinking part of the brain, where you hear your internal thinking voice.
The key is that the ‘new’ thinking part of the brain cannot overrule the ‘old’ reptilian part of the brain. It is a physical impossibility for us to use thought to stop feeling emotions; they are just too deeply built in within us. This makes sense evolutionary speaking; fear and attraction are just too useful in terms of survival to be overruled!
However, you can use your thinking part of your brain to influence and manage your own emotional state and how you interact with the world regardless of the emotions you’re feeling.
This can be very useful when dealing with your own negativity or someone else’s.
Thoughts Influencing Feeling
There are a couple of tools that have been scientifically proven to be helpful in terms of managing your emotional state. As explained in Your Brain at Work, the first is simpler but less powerful, the second is harder to apply but very effective.
Put a Name to It
This is the simpler tool. All you have to do is actively notice your feelings; be aware of them and identify what that feeling is.
You don’t let the strong emotion sit in your unconscious, influencing your behaviour. You realise that it’s there and name it for what it is. It could be anger, frustration, nervousness, whatever…
You identify it, name it, and move on.
It’s been shown that identifying emotions, labelling them, and not dwelling on them helps to reduce the presence or power of the emotion being felt.
A practical example: at work, some doofus who you’ve built up a rivalry with says something slyly negative about you and your work in a meeting. This pisses you off. Rather than letting that angry ball of irritation fizz away in your stomach, you notice that you’re pissed off and you label it as anger. This reduces the feeling’s intensity and allows you to move on with your day.
It allows you to recognise what you’re feeling and stops it from dominating your world.
I’ve said this is harder to apply, but that doesn’t mean that it’s complicated. You put yourself in the other person’s shoes and see the world from their perspective.
Unfortunately, doing this well requires some real effort and force of will. You have to take away your own perspective’s influence including any assumptions that you have about the other person or what you believe they know or think.
It’s useful to remember that pretty much everybody thinks that their behaviour, words and actions are reasonable. From everyone’s own internal view point, their perspective makes sense. So for all people there’s a reason for their actions, even though from your own perspective their views or actions are incomprehensible.
Going through this process can be helpful for dealing with your own emotions by forcing you to reconsider the situation or event that caused your emotional state. It may or may not change your perspective, but by putting yourself through the process you can rub smooth the sharp corners of a powerful emotion. It also grants you the power to see new possibilities and routes forwards that would otherwise not have been visible to you.
In the example of the annoying colleague above, if you were to apply the reframing approach you may realise that their behaviour is a result of them being threatened by you. They’re reacting to that threat by being negative towards you. If you were to change your behaviour towards them, it will instigate a change in their behaviour towards you.
Your behaviour is always your choice regardless of your emotional state. Yes, it is more difficult to manage when you’re feeling a strong emotion, but fundamentally you’re not a animal driven by instinct.
You’re a human with a mind, the power of thought and a choice.
Use it to be the person you want to be.
A Quick Summary
- Thoughts can’t overrule emotions
- Naming an emotion reduces its power and influence
- Looking at an event or situation from other potential perspectives, without your own assumptions, allows you to change your understanding of others – providing an opportunity to alter your own emotional state