• Moving from reacting to responding as emotions are triggered. 

Taming Reactivity

Moving from reacting to responding as emotions are triggered.


Melancholic. Phlegmatic. Choleric. Sanguine.


Perhaps you're familiar with the four humors? This quartet of qualities has been around since practically forever. They ruled supreme from the time of Aristotle and Hippocrates to that of William Shakespeare - a period of over two thousand years. Those in the know believed that the interaction of these humors determined the differences in everything, including our ages, genders, behaviors, dispositions – and emotions.

While we may no longer subscribe to the determining influences of earth, water, fire, and air, many of us still believe that our emotional abilities are determined by our personal qualities. Our character. Our qi. From this perspective, our ability to manage our emotions can seem like a quality reserved for the gifted few. “Emotional equilibrium: either ya got it or ya don't.”

Cem Debe is a conscientious, gentle-mannered, and somewhat self-deprecating young lawyer; highly considerate of and sensitive to his impact on others. In our first session together, Cem wasn't sure about his ability to connect with others as he'd like. As an example, he described to me his experience with a young woman working in his office. “She seems really smart. A great sense of humor. And nice.” This was someone Cem clearly wanted to get to know, but hadn't. In fact, he's never spoken a word to her. “It's ridiculous,” he told me. “I just go into a panic. I start feeling all funny in the stomach. Like my stomach's churning.”

Cem is a competitive swimmer. He competes regularly and sets high standards for himself. When I asked Cem how he felt on the cusp of an important swimming meet. Cem paused, then smiled. “It's exactly the same. Stomach all in knots. It's right here,” he said, touching his lower abdomen.

“Is that panic?” I asked.

“No. I just really want the win. It happens when the stakes are high. That's when I know it's up to me to get myself together and find my inner calm.”

“Ever been on a roller coaster?” I asked.

“Yep.” Another smile. “Same thing. I'm just excited at what's going to happen next!”

In coming to me for coaching, Cem was hardly seeking help to regulate his balance of melancholic, phlegmatic, choleric, and sanguine humors. Yet, in a way, he might just as well have been. Something, he suspected, was out of whack with his character. With who – or what – he was. When it came to the “Emotional equilibrium: either ya got it or ya don't” equation, he was, so he thought, clearly deficient.

For Cem, this check-in on how he interpreted his feelings at times of heightened emotions was an important first step toward recognizing the role of his assumptions and expectations in defining for himself what was happening with him and what was at stake.

Cem is far from the only person I've worked with who found his emotions regularly interfering with his ability to maintain focus and follow through on his intentions. When I ask these people to describe how their emotional episodes proceed, I invariably hear some variation of the following:
      1. You say something that ticks me off;
      2. I get angry;
      3. I start speaking louder as my blood pressure rises and fists clench;
      4. You get angry at me, react in kind, and anything goes.

While this description reflects our common experience, a very different perspective comes in the work of neurobiologist Antonio Damasio. Antonio distinguishes between the unconscious physiological reactions registered in our bodies – which he identifies as our emotions - and our conscious experience of sensing those emotions – which he calls our feelings. Antonio's specific use of these two words – emotion and feeling - is critical. In common conversation, we tend to use the two words interchangeably. In contrast, Antonio uses them to distinguish between unconscious processes and conscious experiences; each word signifying a completely different realm of mental functions.

Here, in a very loose interpretation of Antonio's hypothesis, is how the same episode I just outlined would proceed:
      1. You say something that triggers automatic physiological reactions in my body, including speaking louder, increased blood pressure, and the tightening of my fists.
      2. As my body automatically reacts, my unconscious mind registers these changes to my existing body state as an emotion.
      3. Your body is triggered by observing my physical reactions and, in turn, begins to automatically react accordingly. As your body reacts, your unconscious mind, as did mine, registers these changes to your existing body state as an emotion.
      4. Within seconds, each of us - at our own pace - becomes consciously aware of the shifts in our body states. We begin to progressively notice what is happening physically, both within ourselves and the other. As this happens, our unconscious minds perform memory checks to identify the feelings we're experiencing and observing in relation to our past experience and learning, then label our respective body states accordingly as "angry".

The difference between the first - experiential - and second - scientifically observed - understandings of how an emotionally-charged episode proceeds couldn't be starker. In the first, we see ourselves as self-actualizing actors operating with a defined purpose in a clearly understood context. In the second, our roles become more like bit players in a drama occurring, at least in part, outside of our conscious awareness and control.

The takeaway here is to appreciate that, contrary to what many of us have been taught to believe, there is not a simple cause and effect relationship between situations we encounter and the feelings we experience. A situation in which one person expresses anger might be greeted by another with peals of laughter. Or disdain.

How we express our emotions comes at the end of a complex chain of sensations, physiological responses, memories, and interpretations. They are more an idiosyncratic rendition of our inner experience than an impartial reflection of our immediate environment. We may attribute specific emotions to particular feelings we have. Still, our interpretations of these feelings change dramatically according to the context in which they arise. A feeling interpreted as “panic” in one situation is re-written as “excitement” in another.

Seen in this light, emotions might be understood as explanations by which we rationalize what we experience at any given moment rather than something we "have".

Curious for more?

Taming Reactivity previews part of one session from INFLUENCE, part of the end self-sabotage series of virtual coaching programs. Check it out for details: 

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For more than 3 decades, Robert has coached creative women and men of all backgrounds and experiences - from award-winning videographers and marketers through to novice software developers and online entrepreneurs - in mastering the skills and structures to realize outstanding results in their relationships, careers, and businesses.

DISCOVER THE COACHING DIFFERENCE

 Testimonials from
​ Robert's Clients

For more than 3 decades, Robert has coached creative women and men of all backgrounds and experiences - from award-winning videographers and marketers through to novice software developers and online entrepreneurs - in mastering the skills and structures to realize outstanding results in their relationships, careers, and businesses.