Introduction to Emotion: The wild and wonderful weather of our internal world.

I cannot not sail.
— E.B.White

Emotions.  The wild and wonderful weather of our internal world. Emotions pose that classic “you can’t live with ‘em and can’t live without ‘em” dilemma. Research has proven that we feel before we think—emotions are not only part of being human, they are a necessity for decision making and learning. And for everyone I work with: leaders, parents, clients, kids—the biggest confusion is the difference between feelings and actions. Feelings are feelings—they are an internal experience. We don’t always choose our feelings. They just show up, like unexpected houseguests that we may or may not be happy to see.

What we can choose is our response, our reaction, our behavior. And this distinction between feelings and actions seems to cause the most confusion in the world of emotions. There is this assumption, especially with the emotions that we label as negative (like anger, for example), that to have that feeling means that you will behave badly. But feelings aren’t actions—though they can lead to actions. I can feel angry, but I don’t have to act angry. I can feel angry and share that I feel angry without being abusive. I can feel angry and channel that emotion and energy into productive action. There are all sorts of possibilities for me to experience anger and communicate that feeling that don’t include breaking anything or hurting someone else.

Emotional Intelligence is the ability to recognize your emotions and the emotions of others and manage your emotions in such a way to be effective for yourself and supportive of the others. The first two quadrants of the Emotional Intelligence Model described by Daniel Goleman are self-awareness and self-management.

Self-awareness is the ability to know what you are thinking and feeling in real time, as it is happening. It means you not only know what you are feeling, but you can also put a name to it. It is a way of knowing what your state of being is, and what the impact of that emotional state is, on you and anyone around you. This sounds simple and it is. But it is absolutely not easy. It's actually really hard to slow down and pay attention to your emotions--especially if they are emotions that are uncomfortable for you. 

Here’s the biggest facilitator of self-awareness: a non-judgmental attitude. You are merely being aware of how you feel. You don’t get to choose what you feel, so you may as well just take it in and observe it. The ability to be aware and notice your feelings and your current state allows you to get real-time data about what you need to be at your best.

Even though I teach Emotional Intelligence as part of my work as a leadership consultant, my biggest learning about observing emotions non-judgmentally I continue to learn while watching my brother-in-law sail. Yesterday was a perfect example. We headed out in the afternoon—it was grey and windy, and we had a great sail out, and then when we turned around the wind began to shift a lot.

And as the wind shifts and you watch my brother-in-law adjust to the wind, you realize that self-awareness of emotions is really a lot like being aware of the wind for sailing. If you don’t know where the wind is coming from, you can’t really sail effectively. And you may not like where the wind is coming from because it might mean more work: tacking, or even sitting still for a while, but judging it doesn’t really help you, and denying it and trying to sail with the wind you would wished you had really wouldn’t work.

Self-awareness is just noticing what is there, non-judgmentally, and being able to have some language, minimally inner language for it, and even more helpfully, some external language for it. Self-management is the adjusting to the wind. Self-management is taking your self-awareness and making some choice about what to do with your thoughts and emotions.  You notice how you are feeling and you do what you need to do to just sit with that emotion and let it be, or do what you need to shift your state to be most effective at what you have to do. Self-management encompasses all of the stress management strategies, like relaxation and mindfulness, as well as self-talk and other cognitive coping strategies. Self-management is not just about containing or channeling difficult emotions, it is also about tapping into to positive emotions to help you shift your state. For example, focusing on gratitude or optimism in a stressful situation.

Self-awareness and self-management work together—much the way my brother-in-law managed the sails. Yesterday there was one spot on our trip where the wind continually changed direction. He adjusted the lines and then watched. It held for a second and then it shifted again. And he adjusted the lines and then watched. But it wasn’t just the sails he was adjusting. At one point as we sat with a sail flapping he looked around with a great relaxed smile and said, “It’s just a temporary lull” –which was an attitude or emotional adjustment for us. A reminder that the current state is temporary, and this may be one of the best mantras for emotional management that there could be: it’s just a temporary lull. It’s just a temporary anger. It’s just a temporary sadness. The winds will change and you can and will adjust.

Emotions and feelings aren’t actions. They are energy, they are information, they tell you what’s going on for you. You have the ability to adjust to them, to use them, or soothe them or channel them. You have the ability to adjust your internal lines and go where you want or need to go. I’m not saying that when the more difficult emotions show up, you won’t have a bad day. I’m saying with practice managing your emotions, you will get better at adjusting to them: at knowing what you need to do to keep an even keel through your bigger weather moments.

Depending on how strong the emotions are—you may end up on a different journey than you planned. Or you may end up just sitting with it for a bit. Just remember: it’s temporary. It’s a temporary wind. It’s a temporary gale. It’s a temporary rain shower. It’s a temporary lull. And all of it can make for a great sail.

© 2015 Gretchen L Schmelzer, PhD

Note: The neuroscientist, Antonio Damasio makes the distinction between emotions as the physiological experience and feelings as the thought/meaning aspect of the experience. However the words are typically used interchangeably in English and are used interchangeably in this piece.

For more on the links between feeling and thinking and decisions:

For more on Emotional Intelligence

And for encouraging examples of messy afternoon sails:

Letters of E. B. White
By E. B. White