By Fred Kofman
Philosopher and Vice President at Linkedin
This being human is a guesthouse.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.
Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.
Every emotion is useful if you know how to work with it.
There are five basic competencies for working with your emotions: self-awareness, self-acceptance, self-regulation, self-inquiry and self-expression. These competences correlate with the five competencies for working with other people’s emotions: awareness, acknowledgment, influence, inquiry and listening. (I will cover these in the post after next.)
Self-awareness is the capacity to apprehend what is happening within you. This capacity to experience your inner condition is a basic survival skill as an organism, but human beings enjoy a special level of consciousness. You not only experience your inner states, you can reflect on them and make them an object of your awareness. When you say, “I feel (myself) afraid,” there is a part of you that is afraid (the “myself” part), but not all of you. There is another part of you (the “I” part) that notices the “myself” part of you is afraid.
You can increase the intensity of your awareness at will. Like a theater set that is illuminated with more or less intensity, awareness occurs along a continuum. You can be more or less aware, more or less mindful. The less attention you pay, the less alert you’ll be, and the greater the probability of living a mechanical life governed by emotional impulses. The less aware you are, the less able you’ll be to develop the objective witnessing part of yourself that can perceive and respond impartially. Awareness is the raw material of freedom and responsibility; the basic tool for working with your emotions.
“Emotions need not be acted on when we see that to do so is counterproductive, but if they are treated with respect they can become invaluable pathways to important information (…) It’s a mark of wisdom and maturity to understand that we have the power to be a nonjudgmental witness to our emotions, thoughts and memories without being controlled by them or driven to act in self-destructive ways.” – Nathaniel Brander
Self-Acceptance is the capacity to accept your emotions without repressing them. This implies suspending your judgment. You acknowledge that any emotion is an automatic impulse that arises beyond your control. It is impossible for you to prevent an emotion. What is possible for you, and vitally important, is to abstain from acting impulsively.
It is helpful to remember that an emotion always has a valid foundation in the thoughts that underlie it. There’s no such thing as bad or unreasonable emotions. What is possible is that the thoughts at the root of an emotion are inaccurate, unfounded or destructive. Before you can analyze these thoughts, you need to first open the cocoon of the emotion with gentleness, never with reproach. Once the thoughts are revealed, you can engage them critically. To work with your emotions, you need to treat yourself with the same kindness, understanding and compassion with which you would treat your child. When judgment presides, understanding hides. If you criticize your emotions, you’ll never understand them. And without understanding them, you can’t manage them.
Self-regulation is the capacity to regulate your impulses, the discipline to maintain control in the face of instinctual pressures. To regulate means to give direction to your emotional energy. According to Daniel Goleman, the capacity to subordinate immediate gratification to long term objectives is the most important psychological skill: “There is perhaps no psychological skill more fundamental than resisting impulse. It is the root of all emotional self-control, since all emotions, by their very nature, lead to one or another impulse to act.”
In order to subordinate your actions to long-term interests, you have to take the driver’s seat. You have to use your will to choose consciously what you’ll do and what you won’t do. This allows you to control (without repressing) the counter-productive impulses and motivate yourself to pursue ends that are important to you. Self-awareness and self-acceptance are critical for self-regulation. In order to regulate your impulses, you need to simultaneously separate from them and “embrace” them. Once you have done this, you can explore how to respond to the situation (which includes your emotion) in ways that are congruent with your values.
Self-Inquiry is the capacity to understand the stories that give rise to your emotions. When you experience an emotion you can examine its underlying beliefs in order to separate the useful information from the neurosis. Here are some common emotions, the beliefs that underlie them and a hint about the call to action each one sends. In the next post and video, we will explore this competency in detail.
In the following video, you can see how all emotions are “useful” if you know to work with them.
Find more exercises related to mindfulness at work here.